A legacy to forget

Spaceship Earth has hit the road.

This Epcot icon -- in hot-air balloon form -- is currently on a nationwide tour, as the Mouse makes a last-ditch effort to lure tourists to Disney World's 15-month-long millennium event before the plug is pulled in December. Commercials warn that "time's running out to get in on this once-in-a-lifetime celebration."

Running out? The two centerpiece attractions -- the "Tapestry of Nations" parade and the "Illuminations 2000" fireworks display -- are both slated to play at Epcot virtually unchanged for years to come. But before one can ask whether all the effort was worth it, a headline has underscored the millennium marketing by pushing one of the celebration's real disappointments into the spotlight.

The someone or someones who hacked into a Disney computer system last week -- gaining access to names, faces and addresses of about 1,200 Epcot visitors -- did so without accessing those visitors' credit-card numbers, which were stored in another database, said a Disney World spokesman.

Even so, it was an ironic footnote behind the sale to those guests of photo tiles associated with Epcot's underwhelming "Leave a Legacy" promotion.

"Leave a Legacy" is an outgrowth of Disney World's successful "Walk Around the World" program. In 1994, the Mouse offered Magic Kingdom visitors the chance to buy a commemorative brick engraved with their name. These bricks would then be used to build a pathway around Seven Seas Lagoon.

Visitors loved this idea. Thousands slapped down $96-$150 to see their names immortalized in concrete. The hundreds of thousands of dollars this program generated did not go unnoticed.

This is where "Leave a Legacy" comes in. At considerable expense, the Imagineers refashioned Epcot's entrance plaza so that Spaceship Earth was framed by a series of stone monoliths. Disney then set up a sales booth off to the side of what is now called the "Epcot Sculpture Garden." For just $35 a person ($38 for two), Disney digitally takes your picture, then transfers the image onto a one-inch square metal tile glued to one of the slabs, where it remains as a reminder of your visit during the millennium promotion.

Disney expected "Leave a Legacy" to be a hit. But with only 1,200 tiles sold, it's obvious that most visitors greeted the idea with a shrug, then walked on by.

The Mouse has been polling guests to ask why. Many reportedly cite the poor value; indeed, $35 is a lot to spend on a one-inch square photo. But some also were turned off by the design of the "garden." According to one wag: "It looks like a graveyard for all the people who died of heat exhaustion while walking around World Showcase Lagoon."

Others wanted to take part but couldn't because of the restrictive dress code. No one wearing clothes or jewelry with a prominent non-Disney logo is allowed to be photographed. That's because Mickey doesn't want his slabs mucked up with pictures of tourists wearing Universal baseball caps or Sea World T-shirts.

The Mouse had hoped to sell out those tiles before Dec. 31, 2000. But it could be 3000 before all of the available space is used up.

It's not like Disney can just sweep the whole program under the rug. After all, there's no room under there. That's where the Mouse is hiding the results of its other millennium disappointment, Epcot's "Person of the Century" poll.

Not many people recall that poll, and the Mouse prefers it that way. But back in January 1990, Disney announced with great hoopla that the company would hold its first ever in-park interactive poll. Computer consoles were set up in the Communicore pavilions inviting visitors to vote for the most influential person of the 20th century. The plan was that -- on Jan. 1, 2000 -- the results would be revealed as part of a live "Disney World Celebrates the Millennium" TV extravaganza. The Mouse even announced preliminary results in the spring 1990 issue of Disney News magazine. Among the top vote getters: Henry Ford, Albert Einstein, Franklin D. Roosevelt and -- here's a surprise -- Walt Disney.

But then Epcot cast members noticed something. If you typed in anyone's name -- and I mean anyone's -- the computer registered that entry as a legitimate vote. So, as a gag, Epcot cast members began dropping by on their lunch breaks and typing in the name of a particular employee. At first, it was just a few people doing this. But the gag snowballed. Which is how this cast member ended up on the tote board as one of the top 10 candidates for "Person of the Century."

Management was furious. But there was no way they could delete the employee's name without corrupting the results of the whole poll. Plus, there seemed to be no way to stop Epcot employees from typing this guy's name in.

When Communicore closed in July 1994 to make way for Innoventions, Disney quietly pulled the plug on its poll and pretended the whole thing never happened.

Disney wishes that they could do the same thing with "Leave a Legacy." Maybe after the millennium celebration wraps up, the Mouse will sneak in after hours with a backhoe, rip out those marble monoliths, then stash them inside the cavernous Millennium Village building. (It's not like they're going to put a ride or show inside that massive barn any time soon. After Jan. 1, look for that structure to become a place to hold private parties or as a convention display space.)

Not exactly the sort of millennium legacy Mickey meant to leave behind.

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