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A JimHillMedia exclusive: Your first look at "Project Gemini"

A JimHillMedia exclusive: Your first look at "Project Gemini"

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The dictionary defines "Gemini" as

A constellation in the Northern Hemsiphere.
The third sign of the Zodia.
A remarkable event; an omen.

Given all three of these meanings, I have to assume that the Imagineers had the third definition in mind when they opted to name their Future World redo "Project Gemini." For -- if WDI's plans for this extremely ambitious revamp of the front half of Epcot actually does come to pass -- they will have accomplished something truly remarkable. Which is to fundamentally change how WDW guests will experience this part of the Park.

How big a change are we actually talking about here? Well, let's start with the name of that the Imagineers initially came up with for this part of the Park: Future World. As of October 1, 2006, that name will be a thing of the past. From that point forward, the front half of Epcot will be known as Discoveryland.

Why "Discoveryland?" To be honest, this name change is mostly coming about because the Walt Disney Company is tired of flushing millions of dollars down the drain in its attempts to keep Future World futuristic. So -- since the Mouse has spent the last couple of years trying to position Epcot as "The Discovery Park at Walt Disney World" -- the Imagineers thought: "What the hey. Why don't we just make this message extremely clear to the public by renaming the front park of the Park 'Discoveryland'? Then we won't have to keep struggling to keep all of Future World's exhibits continually on the leading edge of science."

Of course, in order to sell the public on Future World's brand new name, it'll be necessary to give Epcot's Discoveryland a bold new look. WDI plans to do this by tearing out much of the neon and the expanses of concrete that make up the heart of this part of the Park and replacing them with trees. Hundreds and hundreds of trees.

The idea behind this part of the redo is to change Epcot's Discoveryland into a lush, green environment. Not the sterile, beige "Future as designed by Republicans" that EPCOT Center's original design team dreamed up for Future World. But something more along the lines of the "Montana of the future" that Disney CEO Michael Eisner tried to sell to the Imagineers as his vision of what Disneyland's New Tomorrowland should look like.

Though -- truth be told -- I think that this reinvention of Epcot's Future World section owes a lot more to the Imagineers' original plans for the Disneyland Resort's second gate, rather than Disneyland itself. How many of you out there remember WDI's plans for Westcot Center? Specifically the lush, green island that was supposed to have served as the base of Spacestation Earth?

Picture that sort of environment ... but now on a grand scale. Encompassing all of Epcot's Future World. Flowers, shrubs and trees everywhere. Curving pathways in and around all of the pavilions in this part of the Park. Not a straight line to be seen anywhere. With the "Fountain of Nations" still presenting elaborate water pageants every 15 minutes.The Epcot Discoveryland map

Wanna take a tour of this radically revamped part of Epcot? Okay. Let's start by having you take a quick look at that "Epcot Discoveryland" map that serves as the central illustration for this article -- you can click the image to the right to see it full sized -- then you can meet me at the main entrance of "The Discovery Park of Walt Disney World" circa October 1, 2006.

As we push our way through the turnstiles, you'll notice that things really don't look all that different. At first. After all, Spaceship Earth still towers over the main entrance plaza.

But -- as you get closer to that golf-ball-on-steroids -- you suddenly realize that you're no longer able to walk under the left side of Spaceship Earth. That area has now all been enclosed. It serves as the pre-show / queue area for the new attraction that's now housed inside the geodesic sphere. Not to mention providing some much needed retail space for the radically expanded Gateway Gifts.

So what's the name of the exciting new attraction that will zooming around inside Spaceship Earth once October 2006 rolls around? "Time Racers," Epcot's latest and greatest thrill ride, sponsored by Microsoft.

And what's "Time Racers" supposed to be like? More importantly, what's this attraction supposed to be about? Well, you can say "good-bye" to that herky-jerky omni-mover trip through the Ages of Man that AT&T used to sponsor. The next attraction to make its home inside "The Ball" will literally send Epcot visitors racing across time. Using time lapse photography as well as cutting edge technology, the Imagineers hope to give WDW guests the impression that they're fast-forwarding through all of human history. Rocketing forward from the time when we were all still living in caves right up today's modern age ... and beyond.

By eyeballing "Time Racers" site plan, you'll note that the attraction's ride vehicle is actually supposed to exit the show building and -- just like at GM Test Track -- take a quick spin outside before it comes to rest in the post-show area. Which will now be housed in the "Global Neighborhood" area of the old "Spaceship Earth" complex.

Now some of you may be asking "Why change Spaceship Earth?" The short answer is: Because this ride -- which many folks consider to be the thesis attraction for the entire theme park -- hasn't really changed since EPCOT Center first opened up back in October of 1982. Oh, sure. Spaceship Earth's narration (and narrator) has been changed several times. And the ride's finale got radically revamped back in the mid-1990s. But beyond that, this omni-mover based attraction has pretty much stayed the same for the past 20+ years.

Which is why a lot of guests who are making return trips to Epcot just opt to breeze on by Spaceship Earth as they enter the Park. After all, what's the point of getting on this Future World attraction again? It's still going to be the same slow moving ride past sleeping monks and smoking ruins.

But -- if Disney changes Spaceship Earth so that there's now an exciting new attraction hidden inside the geodesic sphere -- guests might once again feel compelled to go check out "The Ball." Particularly those hard-to-please teen and pre-teen visitors, those family members who have never really been big fans of this particular part of the Park.

Truth be told, this is the real reason that Disney is about to undertake such an ambitious and expensive (internal WDI documents suggest that the projected construction costs for "Project Gemini" could run as high as $500 million) revamp of Epcot's Future World section. Recent WDW guest surveys supposedly show that this specific part of "The Discovery Park at Walt Disney World" has almost zero appeal to returning visitors under the age of 18.

Translation: teens and pre-teens who have already been to Epcot -- particularly the Future World section of that Park -- often try to talk their parents out of going back to Epcot during their family's return visits to the Walt Disney World Resort. Among the many reasons that these under-18-year-olds cite is "There's nothing for kids to do there" and "Epcot's boring."

For well over a decade now, the Imagineers have known about Epcot's somewhat toxic reputation among teens and pre-teens. That's why WDI has been fighting with WDW management for years, trying to get the company to free up the funds necessary to build a series of low budget "Kidcot" attractions (I.E. interactive kid-friendly exhibits that usually feature an arts and crafts activity that's closely tied thematically to the World Showcase pavilion that's located nearby).

Unfortunately, WDW management has been resisting the Imagineers' suggestions for improving Epcot's kid appeal since the early 1990s. As a prime example of how stubborn Mouse House managers can be, let me tell you about that Viking Boat-themed pay area located right next to the rest rooms for the Norway pavilion in Epcot's World Showcase area. It took almost five years of screaming and threats before WDW management finally agreed to put up the extremely small amount of dough it took to build this Viking Boat play area. Now this low cost attraction typically gets high marks on almost every Epcot guest satisfaction survey. Some WDW guests (8 and under) have even gone so far as to say that the Viking Long Boat play area was their favorite part of Epcot.

Anyway ... with an eye toward increasing Epcot's appeal among returning WDW guests 18 years of age or younger, "Project Gemini" is really trying to pile on the thrills.

Take, for example, the inverted roller coaster that's supposed to be installed right outside the entrance to "The Land" pavilion. This off-the-shelf thrill ride would reportedly take Epcot guests on a fast, fun and informative trip through the canopy of a simulated rainforest.

Right next door to the "Rainforest Rollercoaster," the Imagineers would also like to build two giant Omni-max theaters so that they can finally bring DCA's only hit attraction -- "Soarin' Over California" -- to Florida. According to WDI sources that I've spoken with, the plan is that Epcot's version of "Soarin'" will feature the same exact ride mechanism and theater set-up as the popular Condor Flats attraction. The only difference is that Epcot's "Soarin'" ride film would take Discoveryland visitors soarin' over some of the Earth's more intriguing terrain.

For guests who prefer low-tech fun, WDI is also reportedly looking into creating a hedge maze for the south-western corner of Discoveryland (I.E. the piece of land between "The Land" and the "Imagination" pavilion) -- something that Epcot visitors can wander through and stumble upon various educational exhibits as they try to find the exit.

Over at what used to be Future World's somewhat tired looking "Living Seas" attraction, the Imagineers are hoping that the characters from "The Little Mermaid" will help liven up this particular corner of Discoveryland. Ariel, King Triton and Sebastian are slated to serve as the new hosts of the aptly named "Under the Sea" pavilion. The new pre-show (as well as the bulk of "The Living Seas"'s revamped exhibits) will now stress how we must all learn to live in harmony with the world's oceans. Not over-fish or pollute ... or we risk destroying this precious resource forever.

I'm told that Seabase Alpha will now be repositioned as the finale of the "Under the Sea" show. To show us all how idyllic the future could be if we really do learn to live in harmony with the ocean.

Meanwhile, over at GM "Test Track," the Imagineers are looking to bring an old Disneyland favorite -- the Jr. Autopia -- back to life. The idea behind this particular addition to Discoveryland is that this would be the gentle, kid-friendly ride that WDW guests who are too young and/or too short to safely enjoy "Test Track" could experience while Mom, Dad, and big brother / sister are getting tossed around like test dummies.

According to the "Project Gemini" documentation that I've seen, there are no current plans to change out "Ellen's Energy Adventure" at Future World's ... excuse me ... Discoveryland's "Energy" pavilion. And -- given that the Imagineers are assuming that the soon-to-be-opening "Mission: Space" attraction will be a huge hit with the public -- WDI also has no plans to change out this new Epcot thrill ride by October 2006.

Unfortunately, Epcot's "Wonders of Life" pavilion may not be quite so fortunate. As the Discoveryland site plan that's included with this article clearly illustrates, the Imagineers are reportedly giving some very serious thought to shutting down this entire pavilion (which used to be sponsored by Metropolitan Life) and using this space for "Future Expansion." Whatever THAT means.

So my advice is -- if you're really a big fan of "Cranium Command" and/or "Body Wars" -- now might be a good time to schedule your next WDW vacation. Wrack up a few last rides on both of these attractions. For Epcot's "Wonders of Life" pavilion looks like it will soon be joining "Horizons" and "World of Motion" as a member of the "EEE" Club (I.E. Epcot's Extinct Exhibits).

Speaking of getting your last crack at things ... those of you who are into snagging interesting Disney collectibles, now also might be a good time to start picking up any Epcot merchandise that you can find with the name "Future World" emblazoned on it. For that name officially goes away forever on October 1, 2006.

Speaking of shopping ... let's now talk about Innoventions East and West. That part of Epcot's Future World where you'll find most of the shops and restaurants in this part of the Park. This area has also been slated for a rather severe makeover. As I mentioned earlier, WDI's really trying to create a lush, green look for Discoveryland by planting hundreds of new trees in this section of Epcot.

However, in order to facilitate the growth of all these new trees, Disney's going to have to pull down the roofs that used to connect those old Communicore buildings. The end result is that Innoventions East and West will lose their classic parenthetical shape and become six separate smaller buildings.

To the East, you'll have the "Leading Edge" (a building that will feature exhibits of the latest and greatest in scientific breakthroughs), the "Robot Restaurant" (where guests can dine on burgers and fries while watching "Battle Bots"-like shows live every half hour or so) as well as the "Future Mart" (which -- just like this retail establishment did back when it was called "The Centorium" and "Mouse Gear" -- will sell a wide variety of Epcot- and Disney-related merchandise).

To the West, you'll find the "Home of the Future" (which -- provided that what I've been hearing coming out of WDI lately proves to be true -- could become the new home for most of the AA figures that used to be featured in the soon-to-be-closing "Carousel of Progress" show over at WDW's Magic Kingdom), the Internet Café (which -- just like the name implies -- would be the restaurant where Epcot visitors could dine as they checked their e-mail) as well as "Cool Stuff" (the place where WDW visitors could check out the latest in cool consumers products. Doing fun things like taking a Segway out for a test spin, etc.).

So -- as you can see -- this proposed revamp of Epcot's Future World area really is ambitious. It's not going to be just another Innoventions con job -- which tried to use tons of neon, fiber optics and free video games to try and convince WDW guests that there really was something worth seeing in this part of the Park.

And everyone from Imagineering veterans from Walt Disney World management right on down through those rank-and-file Epcot cast members who've been lucky enough to get in on some of the Discoveryland preview sessions agree that "Project Gemini" could be a real lifesaver for this theme park. That the Walt Disney Company would no longer have do things like stage WDW's 15 month long millennium celebration at that Park in order to artificially inflate Epcot's attendance figures.

(FYI: The Walt Disney Company is planning on doing much the same thing in 2005, when the corporation hold a year-long, 'round-the-world celebration of Disneyland's 50th anniversary. Epcot -- because it's the WDW theme park that most desperately needs an attendance boost -- is where the Florida portion of the celebration will be held. Over in Europe, Disney Studios Paris -- which hasn't even come close to meeting its attendance projections -- will be the host park for the Disneyland Paris Resort's version of this celebration. You get the idea, right?)

The only thing that's currently preventing "Project Gemini" from getting an official greenlight is -- of course, what a surprise -- money. While the suits seem to love the idea of turning Epcot's Future World into Discoveryland and what all the proposed changes / additions to this part of the Park could potentially do to WDW's attendance levels, they're also not all that eager to pour $350 - $500 million into Epcot.

I'm told that Paul Pressler -- the former head of Disney Parks and Resorts -- turned WDI's plans for "Project Gemini" down flat when he first saw them back in the Spring of 2002. Paul reportedly told the Imagineers that he liked a lot of the ideas that they'd come up with for improving Epcot, but that he wouldn't okay their plans unless they radically reduce the scope of their Future World redo. Come up with a more affordable alternative.

But then Paul Pressler left the Walt Disney Company in September of last year to pursue other opportunities with the Gap Corporation. And now Jay Rasulo is the new President of Disney Parks and Resorts. And -- when the Imagineers showed Jay the exact same set of "Project Gemini" plans that they'd originally showed Paul back in April of 2002 -- Rasulo reportedly responded with great enthusiasm. He supposedly saw this plan as the way to fix Epcot's Future World once and for all.

So does that mean that "Project Gemini" will now actually go forward? To be honest, I don't know. Based on the rumbling that I've been hearing, Epcot's Discoveryland plan really does have an awful lot of supporters inside the Walt Disney Company. But -- no matter how good a job that Jay Rasulo does with selling "Project Gemini" to the Mouse House's upper management -- this decision actually comes down to just one man: Disney CEO Michael Eisner.

Is Eisner really in a mood right how to embrace a plan that calls for a $350 - $500 million expenditure in order to save Epcot? Given that Disney's institutional investors have been leaning heavily on Uncle Mike to keep the corporation's profits high by keeping costs low, Eisner wouldn't be making a whole lot of new friends on Wall Street if he decided to put these plans in motion.

Indeed, with the U.S. economy currently in the toilet and the threat of war in the Middle East looming ever larger every day, the Walt Disney Company is reportedly considering all manner of cost savings measures right now. I've even heard talk that the Mouse is giving semi-serious thought to actually shutting down each of WDW's theme parks for one day each week. At least 'til the war with Iraq is over and/or tourist traffic patterns for the Orlando theme parks get back to normal.

So, given the current overly-cautious climate, I have to admit that I think that it's unlikely that Eisner -- even with Jay Rasulo doing his damnedest to sell Disney's CEO on this idea -- will actually allow the full-blown version of "Project Gemini" to go forward. A smaller, less ambitious version of the same plan? Sure. But not the complete bells-and-whistles version of the project that you got to read about today.

So why did I post that Discoveryland site plan and/or write this article today? I thought that JHM readers might enjoy finding out what WDI's plans for "Project Gemini" were really all about. Here's hoping that these remarkable plans for overhauling Epcot really are an omen of great things yet to come.

My special thanks to Mr. Bogart (the guy who originally threw the "Project Gemini" site plan my way) as well as Michelle and Nancy (the two women who labored to turn that original piece of art into something that JHM readers would enjoy but that would still prevent me from having to spend the rest of my life in Disney jail and/or prevent some poor Disney employee from accidentally losing their job thanks to today's disclosure of the "Project Gemini" site plan).

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  • It would be interesting to revisit some of these themes... especially the "giant golf ball of boredom". Oh if we only had Discoveryland. Are we now in Project Gemini phase one!? Something to think about.

  • To be honest, I'm glad this never happened. The whole thing sounds like a giant misguided turd. They wanted thrills enough to shoehorn in a "Rainforest Rollercoaster"...yet opted to keep the 45 minute naptime that is "Ellen's Energy Adventure"?

    That right there was a big red flag.

    With the state of EPCOT in November 2013, they simply need to focus on maintenance, revitalizing Journey Into Imagination and the Energy Pavilion, and then build one or two more rides and countries in World Showcase. Give Japan the Mount Fuji coaster and bullet train. Build the Switzerland pavilion with Matterhorn bobsleds. And for the love of Pete, finally build the Rhine River Tours at Germany.

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