Using their Imagination

There's a natural, ordered and logical rhythm to the universe.

The sun rises ... and the sun sets.

The tide goes in ... and the tide goes out.

The Walt Disney Co. has a hit motion picture ... and then the theme-park division tries to figure out a way to cash in on that movie's success.

Of course, that can take years. Case in point: Disney's animated smash Aladdin. Though this feature-length cartoon debuted in 1992, it wasn't until last fall that Mickey broke ground on an Aladdin-inspired ride. "The Magic Carpets of Agrabah," a "Dumbo"-style spinner ride, will offer Magic Kingdom visitors a mild diversion starting this summer.

In other cases, the Mouse is so certain that an upcoming release will be a box-office behemoth that Disney actually will order its Imagineers to cook up an attraction that might open long before the movie arrives. Witness Animal Kingdom's "It's Tough to Be a Bug" show, which opened in April 1998 -- seven months before Pixar's A Bug's Life hit theaters.

This brings us to next November's release, Monsters, Inc. This Walt Disney Studios presentation of a Pixar production is testing well in previews. So the Mouse is eager to have its parks (currently caught in a slump) piggyback onto the film's projected success.

But how? Since the computer-animated fantasy takes moviegoers into the secret world where the monsters who lurk under our beds and inside our closets live, the project offers unique challenges. Recycling concepts that worked with previous Pixar projects (a street pageant such as Disney/MGM's Toy Story parade; a 3D-movie like Animal Kingdom's "Bug" show) wouldn't work here. The creepy-cuddly Monsters, Inc. characters required special handling.

Things were going nowhere when the creative team assigned to the project heard that another set of Imagineers also had hit a creative dead end with their latest assignment. This second group had been handed the unenviable task of trying to figure out a way to undo the damage done with the redo of Epcot's "Journey into Imagination" attraction. The revamped version of this one-time Future World favorite was derided almost from the moment it reopened in October 1999. Virtually every aspect of the redo -- from the shortening of the ride track to the dropping of "The Dreamfinder," the attraction's host -- had been met with disdain by the public.

As the two teams commiserated -- presto! -- the idea for a new family-friendly attraction was hatched.

It appears things will play out like this: The renamed "Journey into Your Imagination" will close in late August or early September. And at the Oct. 1 event kicking off Disney World's "100 Years of Magic" festivities celebrating Walt's 100th birthday, Mickey will announce plans for Epcot's "'Monsters, Inc.'" Department of Laughter & Power" ride.

The concept behind the attraction (as well as the "Monsters, Inc." film) is that monsters come nightly into this world to collect the screams of small children. (Screams, as it turns out, are the chief energy source of Monstropolis, the monsters' home world.) During the course of the movie, these gruesome but well-meaning creatures learn that children's laughter is an even bigger energy source than screams.

This brings us to the theme for the latest "Imagination" revamp. Guests will line up to enter the Department of Laughter & Power, an energy-collection station. As folks roll along the ride track, they'll see all sorts of monsters doing kooky, crazy things -- all with the hope it will make kids laugh to provide enough power to keep the lights back at Monstropolis burning bright.

It sounds both cute and creepy -- which, if you think about it, is similar to the original "Journey into Imagination."

However, in order to make the new show fit into a nearly 20-year-old building, change is in order. Chief among these is that the ride track will be shortened yet again and the attraction's current seven scenes reduced to just five.

The upside: Figment will be back in a big way. The little pink dragon -- a star of the original "Imagination" who was reduced to two brief cameos in the redo -- apparently is a major figure in the "Monsters" makeover. What makes this possible is that -- with his horns, wings and purple-spotted tail -- Figment always looked somewhat monstrous. Which means he'll fit in just fine with the rest of the cast.

Expect this revamped Epcot attraction to open in spring 2002, just about the time Disney will be looking for an attendance bump to fill out the second half of the resort's 15-month-long "100 Years of Magic" celebration.

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