One overworked 'Imagination'

It's set the record for the greatest number of complaints a new attraction has ever received at a Disney theme park. It's the subject of hundreds of angry letters from parents, who accuse the Walt Disney Company of betraying their children's trust. It's the cause of furious in-fighting between management and Walt Disney Imagineering.

It's Disney's decision to redo Epcot's gentle "Journey into Imagination" ride.

The Future World attraction had operated virtually unchanged since Epcot opened in October 1982. After so long, it presumably made sense to give Figment and the Dreamfinder the old heave-ho.

Which -- now that the Mouse looks back -- was probably a really dumb idea. As hokey as "Imagination" might have seemed to today's Imagineers, it still was much beloved by visitors. More to the point, it was one of Epcot's few kid-friendly attractions.

WDI shut down "Imagination" in January 1999 for a 10-month rehab. WDW management and the ride's sponsor, Kodak, wanted a complete redo.

Some eight months after the significantly revamped version debuted, Disney has had to face facts: The public HATES it. A recent guest satisfaction survey shows that it's now the least favorite of all Epcot attractions. And that includes the lame-ass Mexican boat ride.

The result is a flurry of finger-pointing. How did the revamp of a ride that celebrated whimsy and nonsense cause such rage? Insiders point to Disney's decision to do it on the cheap. "Journey into Imagination" was renowned for its colorful sets, as well as its numerous audio animatronic figures. The new "Journey into Your Imagination" is one-third shorter in length, with only seven show scenes and limited special effects.

Those insiders also fault WDI for adding two sequences that terrify little kids. Parents were appalled that Disney thought it necessary to slip some scares into the new version.

Eisner has since ordered a fix. Given that WDI believes one reason the new show is so bad is that Disney didn't cough up the cash needed to do it right the first time, Imagineers are not very enthusiastic about trying to find a quick, cheap correction.

As bad as the new "Imagination" is, it's not nearly as awful as some shows WDI thought about installing in the same building. Among the worst was an awkward attempt to tie the attraction into Disney's 1997 release "Flubber." In this proposed version, guests would have traveled in Flubber-powered cars and had their imaginations souped up thanks to exposure to Flubber gas. Another idea would have inserted guests into the imagination of a celebrity. But visitors weren't going to get a shot at "Being John Malkovich"; instead, they could have ended up inside the head of basketball great Michael Jordan, moving the "be like Mike" thing to a whole new level.

Disney and Kodak passed on these ideas, not just because they were awful, but because they would have cost real money.

Instead, with the minimal budget they received, WDI rigged a story line that tied the ride in with its popular next-door neighbor, the "Honey, I Shrunk the Audience 3D Adventure." But Figment wasn't eliminated entirely. At the insistence of WDW's merchandising department (which reportedly sells $500,000 worth of Figment plush toys each year), the little purple dragon from the previous version made several cameo appearances in the revamped attraction.

Unfortunately, Figment wasn't the only thing guests wanted to see kept in place. Those surveyed kept saying the same thing: "Bring back the old ride."

That won't happen. All the original "Imagination" sets were destroyed. And there's no way Eisner would ever see his way clear to spending the tens of millions of dollars necessary to change this Epcot attraction back to the way it was.

So WDI is still fumbling, searching for ways to win back their guests. They'll soon make changes to the attraction's "Colors" room, which they hope to fill with polarized windows that look out on fluffy, white clouds. There's also talk that they may cram the building full of hidden Figments (similar to the hidden Mickeys WDI loves to stash elsewhere).

One thing that is not going to change is the "Imageworks" gift shop. Now three times larger than the original retail area, this shop reportedly has seen a 200 percent increase in sales since it radically increased its floor space.

Some suggest that management paid more attention to that than to the changes in the ride itself. But the very thought that the Walt Disney Company put profits before people ... well, that's hard to imagine, isn't it?

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