After a decade of jealously watching Universal Orlando open one E-ticket attraction after another, Walt Disney World fans finally have some new reasons to celebrate. Disney CEO Bob Iger and Parks Chairman Josh D'Amaro recently announced $60 billion in investments worldwide (see page 7), which should include new Indiana Jones and Encanto attractions in Animal Kingdom and a major expansion behind Magic Kingdom's Big Thunder Mountain.
Later this month, the remaking of EPCOT will mark another major milestone when World Nature (the area formerly known as Future World West) finally clears away the final construction walls surrounding its long-anticipated addition, and guests are already lining up around the corner for the return of an old favorite. But as the theme park gods giveth, they also taketh away, and these hopeful beginnings sadly coincide with the demise of a bold experiment in interactive entertainment that was extinguished a long, long time before it deserved to go.
Last week, I was among the many WDW annual passholders invited to participate in previews of EPCOT's new Journey of Water, Inspired by Moana (yes, that's a comma, not a colon), which officially opens to the public Oct. 16. Normally I'd avoid reviewing an attraction when it still has weeks before its formal debut, but Journey of Water is already the most aesthetically pleasing and educational addition to EPCOT in ages. Proving the industry adage that no idea ever truly dies at Disney Imagineering, this walk-through fulfills proposals from the 20-year-old Eisner era "Project Gemini" plans — as originally leaked by one-time Orlando Weekly columnist Jim Hill — and replaces the dated corporate exhibits of Innoventions (originally Communicore) with a lushly landscaped oasis that puts the "park" back into theme park.
Meandering pathways lead guests through a series of interactive stations that subtly explain the all-important water cycle, making Journey of Water the most ambitious (and expensive) splash pad you've ever seen. In one corner, streams of water trigger musical chimes when touched, like liquid harp strings; in another, fountains leap as guests flail their arms and geysers gush up to meet outstretched palms. The grand finale is themed to an ocean cove, where groups of grownups can work together to trigger an enormous wave, while their little ones get soggy on the artificial shoreline. Perhaps most surprisingly, the intellectual property isn't shoved in your face; soothing instrumental versions of Lin-Manuel Miranda's tunes are woven into the soundscape, and hidden bas-relief sculptures of the movie's stars form a scavenger hunt of sorts, but if you want to meet Moana you'll have to go find her meet-and-greet outside the attraction.
Visitors can dive into Journey of Water as deeply as they like, or keep their feet dry (literally and metaphorically) while still enjoying themselves. Each portion of the attraction involving water also offers a dry alternate route for service animals or anyone else, and every interactive element is accessible to children and guests in wheelchairs, though some are tough if you can't bend down. You can remain unmoistened while admiring the masterfully sculpted rockwork and reading the informative plaques; or you can ignore the ecological infotainment and simply start splashing — you do you. My only advice is that you tour Journey of Water just at or after sunset, when it looks twice as beautiful and feels 10 times less humid.
Fortunately, once the initial demand dies down you shouldn't have to stand in line to enjoy this Journey, but another limited-time addition nearby does demand you queue, or at least cough up for Genie+ Lightning Lane access. The Soarin' simulator has temporarily reverted to its original "Soarin' Over California" incarnation, and wait times have significantly increased. I've never hated the CGI-heavy "Around the World" version as much as many do, but seeing — and smelling — the orange groves and Pacific coast reminded me again how much more satisfying the original's pacing and scale felt. And although this digital transfer (with artificial-looking HDR colors) doesn't look as good as the long-lost celluloid prints, the presentation looks sharper in Orlando than it did during Disney California Adventure's last Food & Wine Festival in Anaheim.
I'd love to end on a high note, but unfortunately I must address the untimely end of the Halcyon — better known as the Star Wars Galactic Starcruiser — which concluded its cruises to Batuu with the kind of hard landing not even Anakin Skywalker could walk away from, less than two years after its much-ballyhooed launch. Since the two-night adventure cost more than my annual vacation budget, I never got to experience it firsthand, but it had a profound impact on everyone I know who went. On Sept. 29, during the interactive hotel's final "shore leave" in Disney's Hollywood Studios' Galaxy's Edge, I encountered a group of Starcruiser alumni bidding participants farewell.
Tragically, in order to turn their $300 million investment into a tax write-off, Disney will be unable to repurpose most of Halcyon's most innovative features inside the park as promised, like roving droids and in-depth interactivity. Personally, my biggest hope is that the talented performers and creators, who are now paying with their jobs for mistakes made by accountants and marketers, all reached the escape pods and landed safely somewhere in the Epic Universe sector, where I'm certain they'll be welcomed with open arms.
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