Orlando… a day at the park
A group visit in 2013

The Park: Epcot

Located at: Disney World

Overview: I always have a strange love-hate relationship with Epcot.

Well… hold on… hate is entirely the wrong word. It’s more of a love-like relationship, which at times borders on love-confusion.

Ask people to give an order to their favorite parks at Disney World, and Epcot will finish fourth.

Not all the time. This wouldn’t be some sort of blazing obvious trip to fourth out of four options. Plenty of people like Epcot well enough that it may even be their favorite. And some enjoy the incredible diversity and options of the park enough to place it ahead of the Hollywood Studios and Animal Kingdom.

But I feel very confident that if you approach 50… 100… 1,000 people that are planning to head to Disney World… and you catch them in their home and at least six months removed from the visit to Orlando… then yes, Epcot will rank fourth.

The Magic Kingdom will be first. Hollywood Studios and Animal Kingdom will be in the middle in some order. And Epcot will be fourth.

Please note this flies directly in the face of all statistics. Epcot regularly finishes second out of the four Disney parks for annual attendance… outpacing both Hollywood Studios and the Animal Kingdom by at least one million people each year.

And once you’ve been to the park, perceptions changes.

But there’s this fuddy-duddy-stuffy impression people have about Epcot when they aren’t at Epcot. It’s the World Showcase… it’s how easy it is to not immediately think of an outstanding thrill ride if you haven’t ridden Soarin’ or visited the park in several years… and maybe, just maybe, it’s even the flower and wine festivals. Animal Kingdom is the Tree of Life… Magic Kingdom is the Three Mountains… Hollywood Studios is Star Wars weekends… Epcot is… is… well, frankly, a lot of walking and movies in some of the countries.

When you’re at home, and trying to think of how many days to spend in the parks… and you have young children… and you’re talking Little Mermaid and New Fantasyland… and you’re considering Muppets and Toy Story… and there’s a safari ride with live animals, a roller coaster with the abominable snowman, and shows featuring Nemo and the Lion King… perhaps you see what I mean.

Epcot just seems like a distant fourth.

Then you get there and walk inside. You experience Soarin’ and Test Track. You have to think about dinner because there are so many terrific options. And IllumiNations is pure Disney magic. You experience the Maelstrom in Norway or The Seas with Nemo & Friends or Journey Into Imagination with Figment and…

Epcot has a list of very powerful surprises for visitors. There is much, much more here than people give it credit for having. And frankly, for a theme park, the choices on where to eat are second to none when it comes to variety and quality.

Rides we went on:

Gran Fiesta Tour
Living with the Land
Journey Into Imagination
Test Track
Spaceship Earth
The Seas with Nemo & Friends

Events we saw:


Places we ate… or food we enjoyed:

San Angel Inn Restaurante
Sunshine Seasons
Electric Umbrella

The best of the best: Hard not to mention Soarin’ here. This attraction is so different and well done that it eclipses just about any Disney attraction at any theme park around the world. I’m not saying it is the best… and I’m not saying it is my favorite… I’m saying every person that boards the glider in this attraction LOVES it. And it is brilliant.

The new Test Track was a lot of fun, but I encountered my usual Disney-Tech phenomenon during this Epcot visit, where offers to send pictures and videos and memories directly to my e-mail address was met with limited success. And the Test Track opportunities were some of the ones that did not make it to the promised destination.

The Seas with Nemo & Friends, from the ride to the exhibits, was outstanding.

And I always enjoy the Maelstrom.

You really need to know (and other observations): The ability of Disney retail… its guest merchandising… to take care of you.

Epcot hosts several festivals during the year. Food and Wine… Flower and Garden… and special events like the holiday Candlelight Processional. Our visit coincided with the 2013 International Flower and Garden Festival.

During these events, here in Epcot as well as for events in other places on the Disney World property, there is select merchandise that is specific to the event… and quite possibly only available in that park during the event. As you will see from my story, this only-here-and-only-now concept isn’t 100% true. But, Disney does have exclusives, and there are plenty of stories of heartache from people that hesitated and then never saw the item again.

In my office I have a stuffed Eeyore that was purchased at the Animal Kingdom. He is decked out in safari gear. I have never seen this item again, in any form, in any place other than the Animal Kingdom.

For us, Tinker Bell is involved in the dilemma.

They have a garden fairy of Tink. She is seated, holding a gazing ball on her lap. The problem was, simply, the size. By the time it was safely packaged in a box, the item would have been well over a cubic foot… and that’s definitely underestimating it, since it is over 11-inches high and with Tink sitting makes a fairly decent square package.

Eventually, having left Epcot, Terry and I decided that if we saw it again, we would pounce on it and make the purchase. We never did see it.

But we did get it.

I met a cast member in the World of Disney store in Downtown Disney. She gave me the business card of Disney Merchandising and told me to call once I got home. I did… and they came through.

In past columns I have expressed that quite often… if you see something you like at Disney and it has a specific association with a park or event… you have two choices: (1) Buy it then, or, (2) regret it.

For the most part, that is still true. Obviously Disney is a huge merchandising machine, and many items are available in not just multiple locations, but virtually everywhere. Still, there is an incredibly impressive assortment of items attached to very specific attractions, parks, and other outlets. Love the shower curtain in your Art of Animation resort room? Just a hunch, but I’m guessing that away from that resort’s gift shop, availability will be limited (if at all).

And still, Disney consistently amazes me with their organizational abilities, and the lengths they will go in order to satisfy a guest. Look… absolutely, no question… they are trying to make a sale. They want your money. But the trick of any business is balancing supply and demand while maintaining a positive image. You’re crazy if you think the folks at Disney aren’t aware of their reputation and “Disney magic” image, or that they won’t strive to keep that as intact as possible.

And the end result… ask the question. In Disney, it is very possible the retail branch will have an answer, even for the seemingly impossible.

Some unexpected fun we had (or special moments we experienced): Have to mention The Seas with Nemo & Friends.

Having visited Soarin’ and Test Track… having had something for dinner… waiting for IllumiNations… we were kind of looking over the map and trying to find something nearby to do that we really hadn’t done recently. We had been thinking about the Living Seas on this and previous trips, and finally made the call to do it.

Terry and I couldn’t recall visiting the Living Seas portion of Future World since Nemo had taken up his residency. And the idea that I call it the “Living Seas” should tip you off to how long it may have actually been since we last stopped by. We discussed it later, and figure it was likely during one of two trips in 1999.

Special praise (or complaints): Our visit this time was limited to the basics, and no complaints there. We got to the rides we wanted to see… we found some unexpected moments… and enjoyed our stay.

Since I do want to cover some ground here…

Dining -- I truly believe that the World Showcase offers the most diverse selection of food, and the best food, you will find in any theme park.

While every park has something to offer in this regard… depending on your tastes, wallet and patience… the reality is a huge portion is designed for quick service fare, chicken and burgers, and children that want fries with their order. Yes… yes… vegetarian options and apple slices are available. Lovely. Kids want chicken fingers, fries, and honey mustard to dip them in. Many adults are the same. It’s pretty basic.

Here in Epcot, you can pretty much find counter service, casual dining, and fine dining options available in every country. (There are more than 25 dining options listed on the park map for the World Showcase from the day of our visit… 11 countries… do the math. And that doesn’t include what is scattered around during festivals and special events.)

Retail -- Very similar concept to the one I expressed for dining, though let’s not get as carried away as far as overwhelming at a level better than any other.

One year, I think it was 1997 during our first visit to Epcot together, Terry and I decided to buy a small item in every country to display on a shelf back at home. I know we found something inexpensive and yet amazingly unique and appropriate as far as our intentions, while spending under $100 (and likely closer to $50) to get the set we assembled. And those items are still proudly displayed in my office today.

Putting a ribbon on the day: Epcot is different.

At times, you will see this park the most in need of an overhaul. Not changes… just some newer things for changing times. It has celebrated 30 years now, and a few corners show that age… since the technology that was amazing in 1982 has now effectively been placed in the history books of 2013.

Still, it is an impressive place. When opened, it was intended to be a unique theme park experience… and unique even by comparison to the “Disney theme park” that are Disneyland and the Magic Kingdom. I’ve heard it described by so many as a Disney World Fair, which to an extent works, and works quite nicely. But even that doesn’t convey what is available from Test Track, Soarin’, or Figment.

This is a combination of technology and the environment, thrills and relaxation, architecture and landscaping… with Disney flair.

If you have any comments or questions, please e-mail me at Bob@inmybackpack.com