Long before FastPass lines, Soarin’, or TestTrack were in place, lines used to pour out of the Journey Into Imagination pavilion. The pavilion housed 3 distinct attractions that were incredibly popular through the 80s and mid-90s. Over the course of the 90s, the pavilion has taken on a radical shift and its once robust popularity has wained. Sadly, what lead to this unfortunate downturn highlights one of the biggest issues of Epcot’s model. Join me as we rush to the first pavilion on my childhood visits, Imagination!
Anything That Sparks The Imagination!
Walt Disney’s original idea for EPCOT was born out of his work on the World’s Fair. After his passing, the remaining project ended up finding itself back to those roots. Much of the park was to be built around sponsored attractions. When film giant Kodak had come on board later in the planning stages, the result was the Journey Into Imagination pavilion.
The ride portion of the pavilion was not ready when the park first opened its gates in October 1982, yet the Magic Eye Theater and the upstairs ImageWorks opened for visitors on opening day. For 5 months, these would be the only part of the pavilion open.
The Magic Eye Theater opened with the 3D film Magic Journeys, a film that would move after only 4 years in the park and spend the next 6 years inside the Magic Kingdom. Accompanied by a Sherman Brothers song of the same name, it explored the imagination from the perspective of a child. The films that succeeded Magic Journeys would inject much more story and star power into the pavilion.
Those films, however, would always play second fiddle to the little star that debuted in March 1983. When the Journey Into Imagination ride opened and the Dreamfinder brought his little friend, Figment, to life, countless visitors piled through the doors under the glass pyramids. Visitors fell in love with the sense of whimsical adventure that the duo offered.
I, personally, to this day vividly remember circling around a steampunk blimp as the Dreamfinder brought the laughing little Figment to life. With more than 20 years since I had last ridden that ride, the chorus of “One Little Spark” had never left my memory. This in spite of not visiting Walt Disney World for about 16 years.
The pavilion’s lead designer, Tony Baxter, had already contributed an unforgettable attraction to the Disney Parks with Big Thunder Mountain Railroad. So, he was no stranger to creating a memorable experience. With the pavilion, Baxter and his team were able to go one further and create memorable characters. And he did just that. In his foreword for the hardcover edition of the Disney Kingdoms Figment series, Baxter himself says “(t)oday, if you search the Internet for ‘Figment,’ virtually every image that pops up is this little purple guy.”
While the characters were becoming guest favorites, your experience didn’t end when their journey did. Dreamfinder, like his modern counterpart, urged you to explore the ImageWorks, the playground of the future. Though this area had technically opened before the ride it came together with Dreamfinder and Figment’s story. Upstairs, inside the glass pyramids, awaited a variety of activities and exhibits to wow everybody.
By the time I would have left this pavilion, I would have taken my journey, played music with my feet, seen the world change color around me and watched a perpetual balloon race. The ImageWorks presented such a variety of activities to appeal to families, so while the kids might enjoy painting with electric paintbrushes the adults may enjoy the more surrealistic visuals through the rainbow corridor.
In 1986, a huge cinematic experience came to the Magic Eye Theater. Captain EO was co-written by George Lucas, directed by Francis Ford Coppola, and starred Michael Jackson. On top of that, it brought together 3D film and in-theater effects on top of a high production value musical sci-fi experience. When I would visit, the line for this would rival the line for Journey Into Imagination.
The film itself was reminiscent of Lucas’s Star Wars films mixed with the bigger Michael Jackson music videos, such as Thriller. It would captivate audiences until it left the Magic Eye Theater in 1994 when it made way for a tie-in to a popular Disney movie series. This would have an unforgettable effect on the pavilion as a whole.
The Imagination Institute
In 1994, Honey, I Shrunk The Audience came to the Magic Eye Theater. Outside of Space Mountain in Magic Kingdom, I don’t think I had ever seen a longer line. And, at the time, that made sense. Honey, I Shrunk the Kids and its sequel, Honey, I Blew Up the Kid, had come out to relative success and breathed a bit of new life into the sci-fi comedy that had been a staple of Disney in the 60s and 70s.
The storyline brought us into the Imagination Institute where they were honoring Professor Wayne Szalinski with the Inventor of the Year award. The theming of the Magic Eye Theater was redone to bring the idea of the fictional institute to life. The pre-show was essentially an add for pavilion sponsor Kodak but the show inside was an experience of modern Disney Imagineering.
New effects had been added to the theater to make the audience feel inside the film. While it worked with the familiar and comedic tone that connected you to the world of brilliant yet bumbling Wayne Szalinski, it set a tone for the pavilion’s future. Inside, people were spooked by effects mimicking mice running about your feet and disgusted by a dog’s sneeze. It would also introduce the chairman of the Imagination Institute, Dr. Nigel Channing.
This more modern and over the top comedic experience was a departure from the sense of wonder that so far been the staple of the pavilion. But it had proved popular for the time and left an impression. As Kodak’s sponsorship deal was set to expire, there was a push for an experience that could more directly relate to their products. In the 80s, Kodak was content with being connected to experience and memories but it seemed like the 90s meant they needed to be seen as more of a technologically based company. And so the Imagination Institute expanded to fit the sponsorship’s request.
Dreamfinder and Figment made their last journey in 1998 and by the next year Dr. Nigel Channing had taken over residency in the renamed Journey Into YOUR Imagination. The ride track was shortened and the whole experience was rethemed from a surrealistic journey into different elements of imagination and began to focus on experimenting on the audience to spark their imaginations. Gone was Dreamfinder and Figment was only barely present.
From by early early teenage years to finally returning to Walt Disney World last year, I had only made one trip to any of the parks. This was part of a high school class trip to Epcot during my junior year. I had known that Journey Into Imagination had been changed but I had yet to see it. As I did so many times growing up, I made my way to this pavilion. The new queue fascinated me with its nerdy sci-fi aspect. The overhead monitors showing Dr. Nigel Channing and Figment disappointed me. It was like a slapstick act.
The ride itself was forgettable. I legitimately remembered more about the queue line than I did the inside of the ride. Mind you, it was a single visit. But it didn’t capture me like Dreamfinder and Figment did for so many years.
It would prove short-lived. Figment had become such a beloved figure that the voice of upset guests, including then-Disney CEO Michael Eisner, was heard andthe ride would be shut down to add more Figment than just the beginning and end of the ride.
It wasn’t just the ride that was missing that little spark, though. The original ImageWorks was shut down and moved into some of the newly opened space on the first floor. However, most of the games and attractions were replaced by Kodak advertisements and kiddie games that were easy to bypass for most visitors.
After just 2 years, Journey Into YOUR Imagination was closed in 2002. The third and current era of the pavilion would take over when the latest iteration of the ride, Journey Into Imagination With Figment, opened in 2003.
But A Lovable Fellow
In my experience, you can tell when people first visited Epcot based on their opinion of Figment. When Dreamfinder created him, he was just filled with delight and curiosity. The version created by the Imagination Institute seems much more a troublemaker. In the short-lived second version of the ride, Figment mostly caused annoyance during the queue’s pre-show. Currently, he seems to inject his pranks into every stop in the Institute.
Recently, I spoke about the wonderful movie references hidden throughout this version of the ride. But for most of us older Epcot goers, the ride is more abrasive. Since Dreamfinder left, guests have been subjected to a variety of sensory experiences that include loud noises and wild lights. Since the Institute’s version of Figment has returned, you can add terrible smells to that list.
Sadly, there are two versions of Figment in this ride. The first version is a CGI animated version that we’ve been seeing since 1999 and the second is animatronics from the original ride stitched into the current experience. The problem? They don’t look alike.
The CGI version, other than the new personality, had a rounded snout while the animatronic version’s comes down to a point. The original version of Figment wore a yellow sweater and this is still a part of the old animatronics, breaking continuity with the previous animations except for the one in the Sight Lab. Here, Figment wears the yellow sweater with “FIGMENT” written on it in an uneven font. The name on the sweater wasn’t new, as it was commonly used for Figment’s plush toys, but the font did not match the toys and was hard to read.
At the end of this current ride, you’ll have had to listen to a loud train in the dark, blasted with “skunk” scent, and then surprised by a sudden blast at the end. All because of Figment’s pranks. Leaving a lot of us asking why Dreamfinder didn’t seem to have these issues with the little guy.
At the end, Dr. Nigel Channing still invites you into the ImageWorks, no longer sponsored by Kodak, which is the same lackluster bunch of activities. Most days, I rarely see anyone but small children trying to do anything there. I occasionally stop and look up to what was the old ImageWorks and wonder when the new DVC lounge is going to open.
The Magic Eye Theater has also stagnated. After 16 years, Honey, I Shrunk The Audience closed and gave way to a return of Captain EO, minus some of the effects. This lasted 5 years before giving way to a Disney/Pixar Film Festival that offered up a 4D experience to previously released short films.
I find it hard to be objective about this pavilion in its current state because I knew it in such a better one. Many visitors today can get on it and enjoy it just fine. But seeing families with small children turn to The Seas with Nemo & Friends first rather than this pavilion tells me what I need to know. This pavilion, once so popular, has lost its little spark.
Never Far Away When You Use Imagination!
In 2014, the Dreamfinder returned thanks to the Disney Kingdoms: Figment comic line, which I reviewed at the beginning of this Week of Imagination! That series proved so popular it warranted a sequel. It also updated Dreamfinder and Figment’s origin stories for a new generation. This has created some hope that some version of the original Journey Into Imagination may be returning in the near future.
If it is, though, it may have to wait behind some of the bigger projects being worked on throughout Walt Disney World. Three new lands are being actively built out right now in other parks and a World Showcase pavilion is about to open a whole new theme. Also, as briefly mentioned above, the old upstairs ImageWorks is becoming a Disney Vacation Club lounge which has yet to open. These projects are sure to impede any updates to this attraction.
But the groundwork has been laid for a revamping of this pavilion and that’s exciting. Perhaps we will get to see a return of our old friends and that catchy Sherman Brothers song in its original form. Or maybe when all the other projects finish up, something new and original will find its way into the pavilion. With Joy and Sadness already in the park, an Inside Out attraction may fit nicely inside the Magic Eye Theater.
EPCOT Center came alive when it connected with you and inspired you. Tony Baxter and his team captured that with the original version of this ride but the teams working on it since then have lost that. Baxter, now a Disney Legend and even having his own window on Main Street USA in Disneyland for his work, has moved to consulting and mentoring instead of actively working on projects. Maybe one of his proteges can bring that little spark back. It would only be fitting.