Everything You Need to Know About Figment
Everyone who visits Epcot has a favorite dragon and no, it isn’t Pete’s. Since only a few months after the opening of the park in March of 1983, the Imagination Pavilion has inspired with its majestic design and central attraction. That ride has gone through several different names over the years, each one with the same general premise. Today, let’s take a look at the history of Journey into Imagination with Figment, one of the most divisive attractions at Walt Disney World.
Financing a Dream
How did Dreamfinder come into being? As you likely know, Disney had cash flow problems in the days leading up to the debut of Epcot. This theme has recurred throughout Disney’s history, including the most recent example, Shanghai Disneyland. In the early 1980s, Imagineers faced a budget crunch as they tried to honor Walt Disney’s vision for his Florida Project and the Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow.
Disney brokered deals with sponsors for several of their new attractions. Kodak had worked with the company going all the way back to the 1964 New York World’s Fair. They agreed to sponsor a full pavilion at Epcot. That agreement evolved into the Imagination! Pavilion. Kodak’s executives had a simple request for their sponsored building. They wanted something imaginative, something befitting Kodak’s reputation for the time. In exchange, Kodak would effectively pay for the construction of the pavilion via a multi-year agreement. Ultimately, Kodak sponsored the attraction from 1982 (before it was finished) through 2010, one of the longest sponsorship deals in Disney history.
Professor Marvel Becomes the Dreamfinder
With the money problem solved, park planners had to get down to the business of building something from nothing. Legendary Imagineer Tony Baxter was tasked with this project, and all parties agreed that he succeeded beyond all reasonable hopes. He invented a character known as Professor Marvel, which sounds like something from a comic book. Marvel was an inventor who had somehow domesticated a baby dragon.
Over time, the idea of Professor Marvel evolved into the Dreamfinder, a quirky character who was instantly beloved by all. This Dreamfinder changed in appearance, growing two of his primary features. He had a bushy red beard and a cherubic smile. He kept the pet dragon, though. And the creation of those two characters led to one of the best Epcot attractions ever made.
A Man and His Overpowered Vacuum
In the halcyon days of yore, Journey into Imagination was one of the shining examples of the greatness of Disney Imagineering. This new character named Dreamfinder drove his Dream Catcher vehicle across the universe, capturing dreams and ideas and converting them into tangible creations. Yes, in the 1980s, a wall-less blimp with a vacuum cleaner attached was all you needed to unearth patentable ideas.
While the characters that became the basis for the attraction were easy to create, the ride itself took much longer. In fact, this effort explains the delay of the opening. Journey into Imagination was originally scheduled to debut on October 1, 1982, along with the rest of what was then known as EPCOT Center. The attraction didn’t open until March of 1983 because, well, how do you show the genesis of an idea?
Every person faces this question at various points in life. Turning a blank page into something inspiring is one of life’s great accomplishments. Tony Baxter and his team had to represent that practice through a theme park ride. It was a decidedly difficult task, but the Imagineers gradually found their approach.
The Figment team spoke with creators across all walks of life. They asked each professional about process, learning how everyone’s creativity gets unlocked. Imagineers discovered that creativity comes down to gathering potential ideas, storing them for later use, and then eventually joining them together into something entirely new.
You Never Forget Your First Figment
The first version of Journey into Imagination reflected these steps. Mickey Travelers got onboard and allowed their ride carts to fly them into the clouds. There, they encountered the Dreamfinder, a nattily attired optimist driving a singularly unique vehicle known as the Dream Catcher. He explained its operation and then asked guests to join him on a quest to collect dreams. That’s…where the vacuum cleaner came into play. The Dream Catcher sucked ideas out of the air.
Along the way, the Dreamfinder made a point by using the contents of his vacuum bag to create a figment of the imagination. Yes, Figment the dragon is basically one giant dust bunny. Dreamfinder and his trusty steed (If you have a dragon, you’re going to ride it…ask Khaleesi) traveled through several of Realms of Imagination, each of which had its own room.
Guests could learn about the creative process in Arts, Literature, the Performing Arts, and Science. Each room was themed to demonstrate how a person might unlock an idea, with the ride ending on an upbeat message. Dreamcatcher suggested new ways to discover sparks of imagination. It was a convenient tie-in to the theme song from the attraction, One Little Spark by the Sherman Brothers. The entire combination of characters, story, imagery, and musical accompaniment was magical albeit a bit goofy.
Ridiculous though the story may have been, kids delighted in the antics of these two unforgettable characters. Many Disney historians consider Figment and Dreamfinder the first true Disney park-created characters that became popular in their own right. All other successful theming stories up until 1983 had involved pre-existing Disney characters from other mediums. Epcot’s lovable inventor and dragon were entirely original…and their popularity remains to this day.
The original version of the attraction was truly amazing and something that people still embrace today as proof that Epcot could live up to the lofty ambitions of Walt Disney. Alas, this is the rare instance where plussing a ride went badly for Imagineers. Disney updated a lot of their attractions in anticipation of the new millennium.
After 16 years in operation, Disney chose to make a change. Park planners embraced the turn of the millennium as an unprecedented opportunity to reinvigorate Epcot by reinventing several of its attractions. Suffice to say that mistakes were made.
In 1999, Journey into YOUR Imagination debuted to boos and hisses. A new character, Dr. Nigel Channing, replaced the Dreamfinder. And the child-friendly character that kids loved, Figment the dragon, was reduced to a cameo role in some scenes. People hated the change so much that Disney quickly admitted their mistake, something that basically never happens. By October of 2001, the second iteration of Journey into Imagination closed, never to return. Figment V 2.0, the one without much of Figment, is probably the least successful attraction ever at Epcot.
Third Time’s a Charm?
The version of the attraction that’s in operation today is Journey into Imagination with Figment. The name speaks volumes about the changes made to the attraction. Disney wanted to re-open the central attraction at the Imagination! Pavilion quickly. The replacement arrived about eight months after its predecessor. Given the timeframe, the changes weren’t dramatic, but they were telling.
Figment is one again the star of the attraction. The adorable purple dragon spends the body of the ride acting as the bane of Dr. Nigel Channing’s existence. That’s presumably because Channing took over for Dreamfinder, the wonderful inventor who created Figment. If somebody got your parent fired you’d give them grief, too.
The basic structure of Journey into Imagination remains the same. You ride around a series of set pieces, although they’re no longer Realms of Imagination. Instead, they’re observatory rooms at the institution where the good doctor works. The attraction is no longer about the creative process inasmuch as stimulating the five senses. Guests interact with experiments based on Sight, Sound, and Smell.
While the ride is charming enough for young children, fans of classic Epcot understand what’s been lost. They’ve frequently petitioned Disney to bring back the Dreamfinder and the story elements that made the original attraction such a classic.
Given the perennially short wait-times for the current version of Figment, Disney’s clearly at least internally debating some changes. They’ve provided questionnaires polling guests on new ways to interact with Figment at the park. Many analysts expected some sort of announcement at the recent D-23 exhibition, but nothing came of it.
Figment remains a key part of Epcot merchandising, though. That fact alone reflects that at some point, Disney may return to the popular tale of a Dreamfinder and the dragon named Figment that stems from his imagination.
At a later date, we will discuss the unusual ride mechanics of Journey into Imagination and its successors. The attraction’s design is unlike anything Disney ever made before or since then. Keep checking MickeyBlog for these fascinating tidbits about your favorite attractions!
David Mumpower is the author of the Disney Demystified series. For only $4.99 each, you can read book one about Disneyland or book two about Walt Disney World. The softcover books also make amazing stocking stuffers this holiday season!