Remembering Ellen’s Energy Adventure
The best nap at Walt Disney World never took place a hotel. It happened in a darkened theater with moving seats. There, a famous comedian and talk show host would crack wise about the laws of thermodynamics. As she spoke, the machinery under the seats would whir into motion, creating a soothing sensation that knocked out many a Disney park visitor over the years.
Yes, the deep slumber was great, but the attraction itself was also wonderful. Let’s take a look back at the history of Ellen’s Energy Adventure now that it has run out of juice forever.
The Universe of Energy Pavilion
When Walt Disney dreamt of his Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow, he envisioned a functional city. He wanted a capitalist utopia where every citizen would work, and children would learn about how to live in a better tomorrow. A proud and dedicated parent, Disney believed in education as a hallmark of any strong community.
After Disney died, Imagineers faced a herculean task in honoring Uncle Walt’s wishes for Epcot. One of the things they did right was Future World. The front of the park has educational attractions that are still entertaining. And since the inception of Epcot, one of anchor pavilions highlighted energy. That was by design. Park planners were building a themed gate out of swampland. Powering the facilities was a daily struggle. They cleverly turned this negative into a positive by displaying some of their gained knowledge for public consumption.
You may be amused to know that even at the turn of the 1980s, a public relations battle was ongoing between the fossil fuels corporations and green energy alternatives. Disney originally intended to make a pavilion celebrating solar energy, a forward-thinking premise for 1982.
Then, Exxon agreed to sponsor the pavilion. All that they asked in return was for a broader focus for the pavilion. And thus, the Universe of Energy Pavilion came into reality as a hodgepodge of scientific explorations of thermodynamics. On the one hand, they celebrated scientific advances in the field of self-sustaining energy. On the other hand, they did the bidding of the highest bidder even as it ran asymmetrical to the pavilion’s core concept.
While Exxon paid for a fair representation of fossil fuels, Imagineers constructed a 105,000-square foot facility comprised of 2,156 solar panels. Yes, one of their linchpin pavilions at Future World was a kind of passive/aggressive architecture.
Genesis of Energy Adventure
Many of the debated pavilions at Epcot’s Future Showcase never came to fruition. Out of the ones that did, most bore little resemblance to their original proposals (I’m looking at you, The Living Seas!). The Universe of Energy Pavilion was the huge exception.
The early plans for this pavilion looked a lot like the final outcome. It wasn’t as blue, and a walkthrough tour of energy advances was scrapped. Otherwise, you’re about to be stunned by how much the blueprints from the 1970s match what you see today.
Those plans called for a movie and an attraction. The thought was that guests would watch an informational presentation about energy. Then, they’d ride through a recreation of the time of the dinosaurs, learning how energy evolved from fossil fuel sediments. This was the first version of the attraction that you now know.
When Epcot opened, the Universe of Energy wasn’t one story told via film and a ride. Instead, it was a series of four films broken up by a ride segment. Guests entered a theater, watched an educational film, and then entered another theater where they watched – you guessed it – another educational film. Afterward, the ride portion took guests on a stroll through the prehistoric ages when dinosaurs hadn’t become fossils yet. Once this ride ended, guests watched a movie…and then another movie.
You can see the problem here. Remember back when you were in elementary school and your teacher was hung over, even though you didn’t know that at the time? You wound up watching educational films during the entire class, which meant you put your head down on your desk and slept a lot.
Well, the same was true at Universe of Energy. When kids went to Epcot, they didn’t want to watch a series of edutainment videos. That’s why you never hear even the most purist of Epcot fans say, “I really miss the old version of Universe of Energy!” It was no Figment.
By the time Disney approached its 15th anniversary, Universe of Energy was sparsely attempted and generally viewed as an escape from the sun more than anything else. Yes, history eventually repeated itself at this pavilion, but that wasn’t true at first. In the early days, guests considered the second version of the pavilion’s attraction a huuuuuge improvement. What changed and why?
For starters, Exxon wasn’t crazy about the original attraction. They knew it was favorable toward solar energy, and they also felt it was dated. Disney wasn’t happy with the offering, either. Some of the information was no longer accurate and desperately needed an update.
Both parties agreed that a change was long overdue. They agreed that the informational aspects of the ride were too dull. Some levity was needed. And that’s where Ellen DeGeneres comes into the story.
The star of the eponymous Ellen on ABC, she was one of the most popular comedians on television at the time. Amusingly, her celebrity status today absolutely dwarfs what she claimed then, but Disney execs still viewed her as the perfect host for an updated energy attraction. She had just the right tone, a dry wit and a goofy energy.
Disney storytellers started to reconstruct the original ideas from Universe of Energy into a new attraction. They kept the structure of four films and a ride, but they modified it to give the segments better flow. You know the key to this premise. Ellen DeGeneres plays a game of Jeopardy, and she’s the worst contestant ever.
Ellen’s rival, Jamie Lee Curtis, is a smug know-it-all who insults our favorite television host repeatedly. By the end of the first round of the game, host Alex Trebek holds Ellen in similarly low esteem. Ellen catches a break when Bill Nye “The Science Guy” shows up and reveals that he has convenient access to a time machine.
Ellen and Bill go on a trip through time, learning about the history of energy sources. By the time Ellen returns to the present, she’s a true expert in the field of thermodynamics and proceeds to give Jamie Lee Curtis her worst whupping since Halloween II.
The attraction’s second version is much sillier than the original, but that’s why it worked so effectively. It relayed information in a much more palatable form. Guests identified with Ellen at the start, knowing little about fossil fuels and other energy sources. Then, they rode through audio-animatronics of dinosaurs and listened to Bill Nye explain the science of energy.
By the end, people exited the ride feeling better informed on the topic. Best of all, they barely recognized that they’d just sat through a 45-minute teaching session in the field of thermodynamics. For a long time, Ellen’s Energy Adventure restored the appeal of the energy pavilion.
Alas, the internet era provides people with access to more information than ever before. As Elon Musk grabs attention with all his solar-powered cars, Millennials know enough about energy that they no longer need Ellen and her Science Guy friend.
After a decade of improved crowds, the Universe of Energy Pavilion faded in recent years. Ellen’s Energy Adventure debuted in 1996. By 2016, it was jokingly known as the best place to take a nap at Epcot for the reasons stated above. Anything more than a five-minute wait was unusual for the attraction.
This sort of wasted space is a huge problem for Disney. They need attractions to pull traffic off the streets. Otherwise, congestion becomes too much of an issue. Ellen’s Energy Adventure and the pavilion that hosted it take up a massive amount of real estate at Epcot. Disney viewed that area as wasted space, and that’s why a rumor seemed too reasonable to ignore.
Park planners leaked that a Guardians of the Galaxy attraction was in development. At D23, Disney confirmed this ride as a roller coaster hosted in the section where Universe of Energy currently resides. They effectively chose to kill one of the initial attractions at Epcot in favor of a new ride that people might want to visit for more than just a nap.
Sadly, there wasn’t anywhere near the outcry for Ellen’s Energy Adventure’s elimination as happened with The Great Movie Ride. Both attractions are a permanent part of Disney lore, but only one of them hadn’t fully outlived its usefulness.
On August 13th, Ellen’s Energy Adventure ended in ignominious fashion. The final ride ended in an evacuation. It gave up the ghost in the most fitting way possible. But on the plus side, guests had to expend energy in walking through the various sets to the emergency exits.
When the Guardians of the Galaxy roller coaster opens, it will instantly become one of the most trafficked rides at Epcot. Not many people will miss Ellen’s Energy Adventure, which is a shame. It was an attraction and pavilion that Walt Disney would have loved.
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