Universe of Energy goes extinct August 13, 2017 with the closure of Ellen’s Energy Adventure, to be replaced by a Guardians of the Galaxy thrill ride that’ll open by 2021. Even as it’s changed over the years, Universe of Energy has been one of Walt Disney World’s remaining lifelines to the original EPCOT Center.
Because of this, many fans are sad to see it go. Not sad in the outraged and starting pointless petitions sense (although I’m sure there’s one somewhere); more like the heartache felt when a strained relationship ends. It was inevitable and even needed to happen, but there are still some happy memories and discomfort about the future. In this case, the writing has been on the wall for a good decade, and most fans knew Universe of Energy’s closure would occur at some point.
I think the disappointment is less about the loss of the attraction itself and more about what replacing Universe of Energy with a thrill ride featuring super heroes represents. EPCOT Center has definitely suffered worse blows over the years in terms of attraction closures, but this is probably most indicative of a sea change in guiding ideology for the park. In this post, I thought I’d share some of my favorite memories and photos from Universe of Energy over the years, as well as a look forward…
One thing I won’t cover here is the historical context of Universe of Energy. How it was built, how the sponsorship came to be, why it was replaced, etc. These are all fascinating subjects, but EPCOT Center history is not my wheelhouse.
Instead of offering a detailed account of Universe of Energy’s history and how the various incarnations came to be–most of that would be parroted from Martin’s Ultimate Universe of Energy Tribute–you should just watch that, instead. It’s well worth the hour of your time:
We were watching that this morning and got less than 20 minutes in before really feeling like we should make a last-minute trip to Walt Disney World to pay our respects to Universe of Energy and Great Movie Ride one last time tomorrow. I’ve been keeping my eye on airfare for the last couple of weeks, but nothing has been feasible.
Today, we finally found a deal (getting really desperate, we checked San Diego), but it’s a redeye on Frontier. We debated throwing caution to the wind and booking it, but talked ourselves out of it. All of this is to say…Martin’s videos are powerful, emotive stuff. (Almost as powerful as the original quality of EPCOT Center!)
Absent being there, I thought I’d pay my respects by sharing some of what has made Universe of Energy special to me…
My favorite story about Universe of Energy was my first ride on it. I’d like to say this is my favorite “memory” of Universe of Energy, but I’m not sure whether I actually remember this (I think I do), or if I just remember hearing the story so many times as a kid.
My parents decided it would be an appropriate time to introduce me to the not-so-gentle giants that roamed the earth during the Cretaceous Period. Having already done a number of other ‘scary’ attractions, this was probably a safe decision on their part. Unfortunately, I was not ready.
I guess I did not have the ability to distinguish between Audio Animatronics and living creatures. I also had no sense of self-preservation, as instead of simply quietly hiding on the floor of the ride vehicle quietly, I hid on the floor of the ride vehicle, while crying and yelling. In my defense, Jurassic Park had not yet been released at this point, and I had not been trained in emergency dinosaur preparedness.
Aside from how scared I was, what I’m constantly reminded of is that through my tears, I referred to the dinosaurs as “dime-o-saurs.” This is probably not that humorous or endearing, but it’s brought up constantly by my mom. I haven’t yet told her Universe of Energy is closing, but I have 100% certainty that her reaction to the news will include the word “dime-o-saur.”
As I got older, I got really into dinosaurs. Throughout elementary school, I did school projects on dinosaurs, and voraciously consumed resources about dinosaurs, trying to learn everything I could. I had dinosaur toys, dinosaur shirts, and collected dinosaur trading cards. I tried to watch as many dinosaur movies as I could, and eat dinosaur-shaped foods.
By this point, Universe of Energy became a highlight of our annual Walt Disney World trips. While I don’t think there was a causal relationship between Universe of Energy and my love of dinosaurs (if anything, that early traumatizing experience should’ve hindered my love of dinosaurs), the attraction certainly fed into that love. EPCOT Center was the closest I could get to seeing real dinosaurs That is, at least until a real Jurassic Park opened, which I was 100% certain would happen when I was a kid.
When it comes to the non-dinosaur scenes of the original Universe of Energy, I remember nothing. I would’ve seen this version several times before Ellen’s Energy Adventure replaced it in 1996, but I don’t recall anything except dinosaurs. It’s funny how that was the aspect that appealed to me, and as such, that’s all I remember.
On the other hand, the dinosaur scenes are imprinted into my memory. Even today, I find the dinosaurs to be the highlight of the attraction.
I can close my eyes and picture the moving theater vehicles slowly approaching the family of Brontosaurus, the changing lighting as the scene transitions from night to day, the sounds of the prehistoric jungle, and even the scents of the swamp.
The rest of the dinosaur scenes are great, but the initial entry into the prehistoric world and the feeling of foreboding as you slowly approach to that family of Brontosaurus is the big highlight for me.
The way they grow in size as you approach, and then finally rise over the ride vehicles still gets me every time. It’s a perfect, immersive experience. I’ve always made a point of sitting on the far right side of the ride vehicles for this very reason.
The attraction’s appeal no doubt increased for me when Ellen DeGeneres and Bill Nye were added to it. My family watched Ellen around then (her sitcom, not the talk show), and I loved Bill Nye the Science Guy so much that I’d sing the entire theme song. Then again, I’d hazard a guess that almost every child of the 90s can still sing that theme song.
As fun as it might’ve been during the late 1990s and early 2000s, Ellen’s Energy Adventure aged poorly. The choice of characters definitely worked to Disney’s advantage, as both Ellen and Bill Nye are arguably as popular as ever, but the material that’s presented–along with what is omitted and how it’s presented.
Honestly, as hokey as the Ellen and Bill Nye portions of the show have become, I’ll even miss those. Only out of a sense of nostalgia for my memories of that version when I was growing up, plus Ellen and Bill Nye. Well, and for some of the quotable lines of dialogue (Stupid Judy, stupid energy).
When viewing the Ellen’s Energy Adventure incarnation of the attraction through the prism of both education and entertainment, it falls short. From an entertainment perspective, the attraction is bloated, poorly-paced, and lacks flow. It feels like two different attractions chopped together. From an educational perspective, it presents an incomplete picture of energy, at best. At worst, it’s Exxon propaganda.
Ultimately, I’d say either extreme is a bit off. Ellen’s Energy Adventure definitely is lacking in terms of a complete educational picture, but it does not rise to corporate propaganda. It definitely falls short of modern scientific consensus regarding a forward-thinking energy policy, but that’s a controversial issue today.
The whole notion that ‘energy is controversial’ is mind-boggling to me. Unfortunately, we live in an era of ‘idea egalitarianism.’ No matter how idiotic a particular idea, some believe it deserves equal consideration with logical (science-backed, as the case may be) ones. In this time of truthiness, it does not matter if a belief is categorically false. If I feel that it’s true…hey, good enough for me!
Along with this comes the belief that we should give equal airtime to positions that are not grounded in science or even reality, rather than just dismissing them out of hand. Doing so normalizes preposterous beliefs, and that’s how we end up with debate over topics that should be one-sided. Suffice to say, this is how you end up with what should be a straightforward pavilion about energy becoming controversial.
While Disney could certainly lean into this controversy by educating guests about the realities of energy production and consumption at Epcot, that’s both ambitious and dangerous. It’s ambitious because it’s unconventional for a theme park, and pretty easy to present in a way that’s not engaging to a majority of guests.
It’s dangerous because it’s controversial. Even if Epcot presented a middle-of-the-road take, highlighting fairly uncontroversial aspects of energy, it’d be derided by groups on either end of the spectrum, disappointed at what it glossed over.
By contrast, what’s the danger in creating an attraction based on Guardians of the Galaxy? Dealing with the Opossum Lobby that’s irate because raccoons are getting all the love? Upsetting fans who mourn the loss of EPCOT Center but will continue to visit–and purchase extinct attraction merchandise–regardless?
There is no real danger. Guardians of the Galaxy is a popular film beloved by audiences and the attraction is sure to be a hit regardless of its quality. So long as it features a good soundtrack and the beloved characters, guests will eat it up.
In the time since EPCOT Center opened, Disney has learned that attractions based on known, popular characters are much easier than edutainment. Not only do people care more about characters, but they are much more forgiving of mediocre character-based attractions. They conflate their opinion of the source material for the quality of the attraction. Character-based attractions are low-hanging fruit, and it’s easy to see why Disney made the decision it did with regard to Universe of Energy.
As much as I might dislike incorporating the Guardians of the Galaxy into EPCOT, I cannot see an updated Universe of Energy pavilion working today. I maintain my belief that EPCOT could thrive by embracing the park’s original mission statement, but tackling a topic like energy seems like a no-win proposition.
I suspect there will be bones thrown to fans and additions made to nominally maintain the theme of EPCOT, but there should be zero expectation that the park will take on “hard hitting” topics like energy, health, or even agriculture. Things like outer space and underwater, sure.
Only monsters dislike astronauts and manatees, so those topics are safe. Ditto imagination. Keeping innocuous subjects like those make the park still ostensibly about innovation and the future, even if this re-imagining takes it in another direction.
But I digress. I’ll really miss those dinosaurs, if not Universe of Energy and its mid-1990s qualities. While I take a bit of solace in knowing that I can still revisit some of these dinos each time I board the Disneyland Railroad, it’s not even close to the same experience.
The dinosaurs in Disneyland’s Primeval World are behind glass, and isolated from the train as you pass by. It’s a passive experience, like seeing fake dinosaurs in a fake zoo. In Universe of Energy, you were entering a prehistoric world, immersed on all sides by dense jungle in a changing environment, inhabited by dinosaurs. It was the closest I’ve ever gotten to visiting Jurassic Park, and I loved that experience, even if the whole was not nearly as good as that singular part.
Even as I lament the way EPCOT will undoubtedly change going forward, this is still bittersweet. While I do have my fears, optimistically, I’d like to think EPCOT will be do more than just pay face to its original aims of informing and inspiring. I’m not comfortable with Guardians of the Galaxy being added to Future World, but the reality is that it’s not replacing an attraction that was actually educational. Moreover, new offerings are coming to Future World that do have potential, and two new World Showcase pavilion are on the horizon, both of which are unlikely to feature characters. I’ll definitely miss entering the prehistoric world of dinosaurs on our next trip to Walt Disney World, but I’m willing to admit that Universe of Energy’s time has come and gone, and a replacement is long overdue. And, who knows, maybe these dinosaurs will come out of extinction somewhere else. If Jurassic Park taught me anything, it’s that such a thing is possible!
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Will you miss Universe of Energy, or are you ready to see it go? Are you excited for a Guardians of the Galaxy attraction in EPCOT, or would you prefer the park returned to its roots? Any other opinions or memories of Universe of Energy to share? Hearing your feedback about your experiences is both interesting to us and helpful to other readers, so please share your thoughts or questions below in the comments!