Monday, April 23, 2012

Farewell to Test Track...For Now

One of the biggest attractions at Epcot closed on Sunday the 15th, and will remain closed for several months to undertake a full re-imagining.

The Test Track as we know it is no more.

I figured I would mark the occasion by sharing my thoughts on the version that closed on Sunday, my thoughts on what I hear about the new version scheduled to open in September.
Test track opened in March of 1999, right between the two trips I took to WDW during college, and I expressly recall not riding it on the family trip down in December of 2000. Oh man… that trip.

One of the things I’ll talk about some time is how that trip convinced me to try to avoid peak times. I remember the line for Test Track, the slick new ride at Epcot was a solid 2 hour wait. If you think that seems crazy long, well… Imagine all of the people who currently spread themselves out over Soarin, Mission Space, Spaceship Earth, and Epcot… Now take away two of those. Then place yourself squarely into the middle of the Christmas season. We’re talking utter madness.

Anyway, because of all that insanity, I didn’t get to ride Test Track until the trip I took in January of 2005.

The gap between trips from December 2000 to January 2005 is referred to as “The Dark Times”

One of the first things I found on my initial visit to Test Track is that it had one of my all time favorite queue lines. Part of the concept of the ride is that General Motors is using the Test Track to run road, weather, and performance tests on their new vehicles.

GM has been the ride’s sponsor since the beginning… in fact, I learned while writing this post that GM doesn’t just sponsor the ride, but sponsors that tract of land at the park. Like.. no matter what ride is there.)

The queue line is an extension of that idea, where GM shows various pieces of auto equipment, like the seats and doors, taking increasing levels of abuse. I have to say, and perhaps it’s my inner pyromaniac or something, but there’s nothing quite like watching a giant sack of sand plummet ten feet into a test seat, or see a giant blow torch flame up against a windshield, or watch a huge sledge hammer on a pendulum slam into the passenger side door of a car.
I readily admit I’m a bit of a destruction fan.

A big feature of Test Track is the staggered queue. Now…Disney is the master of the staggered queue. They break up the wait you have for a ride or whatever by filtering visitors from the larger corral type areas into little rooms, or bays or the like. Usually in these bays is a sort of introductory video or display of some kind that essentially sets up the experience you’re about to have, from a narrative perspective.
That’s really the most important distinction between Disney and many other theme parks… most of those other places just have you wind around until you board a ride. There’s no theme. There’s no context. Disney, on the other hand, creates a story for you.

I think my favorite iterations of this concept are in Haunted Mansion (with the stretching room) and Soarin (the Patrick the Flight Attendant). Staggering the line this way serves a couple of purposes. It breaks up the wait for the customer, and makes the time go by more quickly. Maybe more importantly, it helps the ride operators control the flow of traffic and estimate wait times.

So Test Track’s “Time Killer” is this video starring John Michael Higgins (for whatever reason I always think it’s Wallace Langham, but then I remember he’s the star of another of the video “Dinosaur” in the Animal Kingdom) where he explains that we’re going to have the chance to experience a test drive where GM puts our car through its paces using different weather conditions and terrains. It actually sounds kind of cool as is, but Disney puts their little wrinkle of humor and mischief into it, and he decides that we’ll get some extra fun tests. And of course, they’re probably dangerous and ill-advised in some way.
I think it’d be fun to have just people from Christopher Guest films, and people who played tertiary characters on 1990s sitcoms. There should be a whole cadre of people in these intro videos. Like… the guy who played the main barista on Friends. Wayne Knight. The curley-haired guy from The Ellen show. Eugene Levy. You get the picture. Also.. I saw A Few Good Men recently… Christopher Guest plays an expert witness and it’s so crazy watching him play a normal person.

And indeed, after going through a general obstacle course, and testing out different functions, your car gets sent into the “Corrosive Rain” room or whatever, and it’s cute and kinda funny, and there are indeed a couple of decent thrills. At one point you almost get hit by an oncoming semi-truck. At another, your car accelerates toward a barrier, which falls away at the very last second. Fun times.

The real attraction of the ride is the speed test where the car speeds around an outdoor track at 65 miles per hour, which isn’t all that fast, but it does feel fast in the context of the ride.
The barrier thing also helps ramp up the heartbeat. Especially if it’s your first time riding.

Overall, it was a fun diversion, but I wouldn’t have ever counted it among my favorite rides at Epcot. Of the main attractions in Future World, it’s one I’d have considered skippable if the line wasn’t short, but if the choices were to rush to Test Track or rush to Soarin… there wasn’t really a choice.
I have to say that I think my feelings (that Test Track isn’t in the league of the better attractions) are fairly rare, because the ride was always crowded. Not only that, but it’s fairly out of character for Disney to institute a full overhaul on a ride that was only 12 years old. In some cases, that kind of change is necessitated by the elements becoming too dated (say… many of the elements of Tomorrowland), but Test Track wasn’t dated. Cars are, essentially, the same as they were. Sure there are hybrids and some other new kinds of options, but for the most part, not much has changed in the automotive world.

Part of me wonders if this was a financial decision. Disney hasn’t made a secret that the economy has made large additions difficult. It’s really amazing, actually, that the Fantasyland addition is progressing so quickly. I would imagine that overhauling a pre-existing ride is less expensive than building a whole new one.
I’m pretty excited about the Avatar plans too. I’m not even a fan of the movie particularly, but I think it’s the kind of jolt Animal Kingdom needs.

Anywhooo… here’s what I’ve heard the new version will entail;

First… Instead of being sponsored by the whole of GM, it’ll be specifically Chevrolet, and all of the products in the final showroom will be Chevy products. This is a minor change.
Second… it seems that the plan is to a pre-show where riders will be able to "design" a new car for testing in the Chevrolet Design Center (I assume this will be all computerized, sort of like the thing on the new Spaceship Earth). When they’re done, they will board the existing six-passenger ride vehicles, to be known as "SimCars", to see how their design fares on the Center's driving course.
This sounds cool, but I do sometimes get concerned that Disney will rely too much on computer hocus pocus, and lose their focus on theme and story. If you think about the big additions lately, you’re looking at (among others) Spaceship Earth re-do, Toy Story Mania, and Mission Space. All of which are heavily reliant on computer simulation. Maybe that’s just the way things are going.

It all sounds very fancy, and definitely goes along with Disney’s Epcot vision where interactivity is the new goal.
I’m not sure that any of it appeals to me all that much, though. I think it will depend greatly on how educational Disney tries to get with all of it, versus how fun the ride is. I’m willing to be educated on aerodynamics and tire performance and all that as long as the ride itself is fun.

I can picture giving your car metal tires or something that would cause all kinds of skidding and grinding and whatnot, and that would be pretty entertaining. You see… I’m totally the person that tries to be silly when given interactive choices. So is the Tofu Muchacha, actually. When we ride Spaceship Earth, it’s not unusual for us to listen to the whole ride in German or Japanese, because we think it’s fun. It’s pretty common for us to make crazy faces into the camera that takes our picture. It’s certainly common for us to randomly select the “Lifestyle” options at the end and just let the silliness flow.
C’mon… tell me that giving your car brick tires wouldn’t be kinda fun. You can’t do it.

I hope that the new Test Track allows riders to mix in the silly along with the educational. I’m sure there are going to be kids who want to design the perfect race car, with perfect suspension and handling, and they should be able to try to do just that, but if I want a car with curved axels… that should be allowed too.
I always thought of myself as the kind of person who would go into one of those roller coaster simulators and try to break the track. (you know… if I wasn’t terrified at the very thought of it.)

The Test Track has never been one of my favorite attractions at Epcot, but it has always been an enjoyable experience. I am excited about the prospect of a more interactive ride where the guest is the tour guide. I think maybe it’s just what the attraction needs. I think at the start, the Imagineers were looking to build a thrill ride, and it just doesn’t hold up that way. There are too many other more thrilling rides out there. Maybe audiences are jaded, but that’s just a fact.

What Disney is planning changes the entire dynamic and encourages the inner nerd to come out and have a field day. I am all for it.

Monday, April 9, 2012

The Tomorrowland Transit Authority PeopleMover

 Muchacho’s Attraction Reviews is a recurring series for Beefy Disney where I discuss and break down the individual attractions at Walt Disney World. Usually an unfocused, rambling collection of impressions and memories.

Originally it was just called “The PeopleMover”. Then the name was changed to The Tomorrowland Transit Authority in 1994 during the “New Tomorrowland” expansion. . The current name, made official in 2010, combines both to make it “The Tomorrowland Transit Authority PeopleMover”.

This is one of only a couple examples where Disney bowed finally to the pressure of the people, who basically just ignored the new name, and kept calling it The PeopleMover.

I’m one of those “people”, though in my case it wasn’t because of some protest. PeopleMover is just what my Step-Mom called it every time we ever visited, and since it’s her favorite ride in the whole place, I guess it just stuck with me.

The thing about The PeopleMover…

I guess the first thing to mention is that it’s not exciting. I’ll probably mention this more than once, actually. There are no restraints. No inclines or declines. No loops. It tops out at maybe fifteen miles per hour. It just simply propels itself along a track, and sort of tunnels through some of the other Tomorrowland attractions. So, you know… if you’re looking for a thrill, Space Mountain is that way…

I should say, though, that the lack of thrill is at the center of the charm of The PeopleMover. Walt Disney World isn’t a place that shoots for the one-time thrill. Disney strives toward creating an ambient, immersive experience.

The concept behind Disney World is that there are themed “lands”, and The PeopleMover is housed dead-smack in the middle of Tomorrowland. Tomorrowland is a “vision of the future”, and The PeopleMover is Tomorrowland’s vision of future transportation. It’s all very pleasant and light and breezy, in fact. Passengers don’t really wait in any sort of queue line, because like a couple of other attractions at Disney World (Peter Pan’s Flight, Spaceship Earth), PeopleMover is perpetually moving, and it’s sort of up to the riders to catch up to the cars. Fortunately, it’s not going very quickly.

So anyway, passengers line up only to the extent that you have to wait to board. There’s no 30 minute queue line, or broad theming or whatever. The theming of The PeopleMover’s line is essentially comprised of all of Tomorrowland itself. And that’s sort of the point, right? It’s like… in Tomorrowland’s reality, you’re basically lining up for the bus or subway. It’s not really even there for entertainment. When you’re in Tomorrowland, you’re a citizen of Tomorrowland… I kind of love that aspect of The PeopleMover. Maybe that’s why, more than anything, I wanted to discuss the PeopleMover first, among of all attractions for this ongoing series.

The PeopleMover is a symbol of the blurred reality that Walt Disney World loves most. On the one hand, it’s treated as a real mode of transportation in that place, where there aren’t glossy waiting lines, and there’s a sterility to the cars and the track and all of that. On the other hand, all of that sterility is intentional, and has just that slight twist of awareness that allows you to step into the reality of Tomorrowland, and also observe it as an outsider. It’s a ride full of puns, and views, and of course… as opposed to a real subway train… you de-board at the same place as you boarded, and you’ve gone everywhere and nowhere at once.

But I digress…
You line up and enter the ride via a graded moving sidewalk leading up to the loading platform. You board a train car with your party… Don’t worry… no need to sit with strangers. The demand is low enough that you aren’t going to be squeezed in.

Then you… you know… sit.
You’ll notice that the breeze is pretty nice. You’ll notice that the ride offers some pretty cool views of Cinderella’s Castle, and Spaceship Earth, and the Tomorrowland Speedway, and you know… the gift shop (if that’s your thing).

It’s arguably got the highest “Ride time to Wait time” ratio of anything at Disney World. I’ve rarely waited for more than 2 minutes, and the ride is a solid 10. My Step-Mom and I would ride it two or three times consecutively while we waited for my Dad and Sister to ride Space Mountain. Nobody minded that we didn’t even get off the ride. We just told them we’d like to ride around again, and they just shrugged and let us keep going.
I’ve ridden PeopleMover as a way to avoid the rain. I’ve ridden it to remind myself of the lay of the land. I’ve ridden to kill time. I’ve ridden for nostalgia.

All of those are totally valid reasons to ride The PeopleMover, but I’ll tell you… My favorite reason to ride is the excellent opportunity to take photos. There’s hardly a better shot to be had of The Astro Orbiter. You can get some great photos of much of Tomorrowland, and of Cinderella’s Castle, and of Space Mountain.

There’s something uniquely interactive about The PeopleMover. There are rarely rides where you’re encouraged to take pictures, and also where the photo opportunities are so varied. The only one I can think of at the moment is Kilimanjaro Safari, and you know… as much as I hate when people call Animal Kingdom “a zoo”, I have a hard time avoiding the reality of that particular ride being pretty darned zoo-like. The PeopleMover provides an experience and environment that is unique only to itself.

It’s not a traditionally exciting ride, by any means, but I still highly recommend The PeopleMover for simply being, by way of it being so unique, quintessential Disney. To me, if you want to see why Disney is magical, go ride The PeopleMover. It’s a simple ride. Maybe even boring, on its face, but the charm that Disney manages to squeeze out of such a concept is one of the truly great representations of the Disney Experience.