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.


  1. There's gonna be so much new crap to check out when I go this year AHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHhhhhhhhhhh

  2. Is there a permanent link to this blog from your regular one? I forgot the URL and had to scroll down to the blog that had it in it and I thought, 'Why isn't there a link on the side?'*

    *Entirely possible I just didn't see it