(A version of this article was published for Pirates & Princesses on August 19, 2022.)
“Energy – you make the world go ’round.”
This simple statement of fact also serves as a warning of the fragility of Earth’s natural resources. Does that sound a bit ominous and unsettling? The concept of energy discussion is not one that fuels a social party, but Disney Imagineers were determined to include this core concept in EPCOT’s progressive plans.
Heavy on education, and maybe a little light on entertainment, Universe of Energy was nonetheless one of EPCOT’s pillar opening day pavilions and attractions. It remained so for about 35 years, until the onset of EPCOT’s first “otherworldly” pavilion.
For this edition of Dearly Departed Disney, let’s take a trip through time – as far back as the Big Bang – to revisit the classic EPCOT Center attraction, Universe of Energy.
Innovation Meets Imagination
The idea of a pavilion completely dedicated to the topic of energy took root early on in the development of EPCOT Center’s progressive concept design. EPCOT’s energy pavilion was originally planned to focus squarely on solar power. But aside from the ideas of progress and community, a huge part of EPCOT’s early definition came in the form of sponsorship money.
Oil giant Exxon was interested in sponsoring the energy attraction. You can probably guess where this is going. An oil giant doesn’t want to spend millions of dollars undercutting its crop by solely promoting alternative forms of energy. So Disney Imagineers worked with their potential sponsor, and agreed to a pavilion and attraction dedicated to all forms of energy – including fossil fuels (Exxon’s bread & butter). Exxon formally signed on as a sponsor in 1982, and development on Universe of Energy began in earnest.
While welcoming fossil fuels and other non-renewable energy sources into the story, Imagineers did stick with the solar theme in one major aspect of the pavilion’s design. The roof was outfitted with over 2,000 solar panels containing 80,000 photovoltaic solar cells which partially powered the attraction’s ride vehicles. It may seem like a drop in the bucket compared to the energy demands of running EPCOT as a whole, but Disney was ahead of the curve for the early 1980s, and used this large podium to demonstrate the abilities of creativity and innovation in industry.
Construction of the Universe of Energy Pavilion began in 1980, and the pavilion opened with the rest of EPCOT on October 1, 1982, with Exxon proudly sponsoring.
World’s Fair Inspiration
Our recent drive through World of Motion looked at the influence of the 1964-65 New York World’s Fair on the development of that attraction. The Fair also had a huge impact on the development of the Universe of Energy pavilion in two key ways.
With a portion of the energy attraction now focusing on fossil fuels, Disney Imagineers dipped back into the dinosaur diorama scenes from the Ford Magic Skyway. The humorous scenes designed by Marc Davis for the Skyway were among the crowd favorites at the Fair. EPCOT’s Imagineers took the primeval period, removed the excess humor, and used the scene to help guests appreciate the time it takes for fossil fuels to develop for use as energy.
In designing the attraction’s ride system, Disney Imagineers sought to move large volumes of people through multiple static stages of the attraction experience. The concept of large, mobile, audience-style seating had been successfully used in the Carousel of Progress (created for General Electric and later moved to Disneyland). For the energy attraction, Imagineers took the Carousel’s idea of a moveable audience a step further, creating a block of seats that began in “audience mode” but would then split apart to give small groups of guests their own more intimate experience while moving through a Dinosaur Diorama.
Big Screen Science
Visitors to the attraction experienced an impressive eight-minute preshow, featuring a film shown on a giant compilation screen measuring 14 feet tall and 90 feet wide. The screen consisted of 100 rotating projection triangles that could move in sync, creating a “kinetic mosaic” to show the power of energy in waterfalls, windmills, fire, and engines. During the preshow, the Bob Moline song “Energy (You Make the World Go ‘Round)” played to the audience. After the preshow, visitors were invited to enter a large theater.
Once assembled in the theater, guests would sit in large battery-powered “traveling theater cars” which would take guests through the attraction. First up was a second film – the four-minute Energy Creation Story – shown on a screen that was 32 feet tall and 155 feet wide. An animated film illustrated the formation of fossil fuels during the primeval time of dinosaurs. Which leads us to…
The Primeval Diorama
After Energy Creation Story, the theater seating separated into six dark ride vehicles. In this dark ride portion of the attraction, guests were transported back to the time of dinosaurs to see first hand where fossil fuel energy originated. Guests came face-to-face with a sneezing Brontosaurus, a splashing Ornithomimus, and a battle between an Allosaurus and a Stegosaurus, among others.
Back on Screen
After spending over seven minutes in the dino days, the ride vehicles (and their guests) reassembled in a second theater (the EPCOT Energy Information Center) to view a third, twelve-minute IMAX-style wrap-around film looking at current and future energy resources around the world.
Alas, after a whopping 30-plus minutes, the audience traveled one final time – back to the show’s starting point. Here, guests viewed a final two-minute computer-animated film using colorful, laser-like imagery to show the various ways mankind has benefited from harnessing energy. The final film was accompanied by the upbeat song “Universe of Energy”, written by Joel Hirschhorn and Al Kasha.
Universe of Energy had no post show area. Instead, the pavilion remotely hosted Energy Exchange, located in another now-extinct attraction – CommuniCore East. For many years, guests could score themselves a free Universe of Energy comic book (sponsored by Exxon), featuring Mickey and Goofy.
Universe of Energy was a big draw when EPCOT first opened, but by the mid-1990s the pavilion’s popularity had faded. Many of the concepts introduced in the attraction were no longer so new or revolutionary, and many guests were underwhelmed and unamused by the serious tone of the attraction. The playful tone of “edutainment” that was present in World of Motion and Horizons was sorely missing from this attraction. In short – the attraction wasn’t fun, especially to an increasingly progressive and impatient audience.
Imagineers went back to the drawing board to address these issues, with a promise to liven up the show. Universe of Energy closed – supposedly for good – in January 1996. However, with World of Motion undergoing its transformation to Test Track, and Horizons closed for structural issues – both during the peak summer season – Universe of Energy was revived for a final two-month curtain call. The attraction, which had been partially reimagined into its next iteration, operated (with a few modifications) from mid-June through the end of August, closing for good on September 2,1996.
Looking to catalyze a pavilion low on entertainment energy, Imagineers sought amusement from several hot commodities. Comedian Ellen Degeneres was on fire with her hit ABC sitcom Ellen. The TV game show Jeopardy! (and host Alex Trebek) were evening mainstays in millions of American living rooms. And actors Jamie Lee Curtis, Bill Nye (the Science Guy) and Michael Richards (a Disney/Seinfeld connection) were all big names in film and TV. Imagineers reimagined the humorless Universe of Energy into a show following Ellen and her wacky dream sequence.
The new show – initially named Ellen’s Energy Crisis – opened on September 15, 1995 (less than two weeks after the final performance of its predecessor). For reasons never publicly confirmed by Disney, the show quickly changed its name to Ellen’s Energy Adventure.
The attraction used the same series of film and dark ride sequencing, but instead of the serious tone of the educational films, the preshow introduced guests to Ellen, who is enjoying a little quiet time at home on her couch watching Jeopardy! Ellen falls asleep and dreams that she is a contestant on her favorite game show. Facing a first round of questions all focused on the concepts of energy, Ellen quickly falls behind to co-contestant and former high school classmate Judy (Jamie Lee Curtis) who she not-so-lovingly refers to as “Stupid Judy.” In a deep hole at the end of “Single Jeopardy” Ellen welcomes the help of Bill Nye, who offers to teach her the ins-and-outs of energy options.
After settling into the “traveling theater cars” guests enjoy Bill’s unorthodox educational style, which takes Ellen back in time – millions of years – to witness a film recreation of the Big Bang, the creation of Earth, and the origin of fossil fuels. Once Bill finishes his education, guests detach and leave the theater to travel with Ellen to the time of dinosaurs.
The Dinosaur Diorama remained largely unchanged from the previous version, with a couple notable differences. The dinosaurs in this new version were much brighter than their predecessors, and guests could spy an audio-animatronic Ellen standing near a tidal pool fighting off an Elasmosaurus with a tree branch. It was a classic “fish out of water” scenario.
After the brief visit to the dinosaurs, guests again reassemble in the next theater, where they learn even more scientific information from Bill Nye. Following this cramming session, Ellen goes on a spree of correct responses in “Double Jeopardy” and ties Stupid Judy for the lead. In “Final Jeopardy”, Ellen prevails over her high school rival, and celebrates with confetti and balloons. Ahh, to dream of such wondrous success.
Ellen’s Energy Adventure amused guests for just about 21 years, outlasting its predecessor by over seven years, despite the fact that Exxon (later ExxonMobil) ceased to sponsor the attraction in 2004. But new plans of galactic proportions were afoot, and Ellen won her last game of Jeopardy! in September 2017. In a somewhat ironic end to the Universe of Energy, the ride system malfunctioned on the last day of operation. Guests aboard the attraction were gleefully allowed to step out of the ride vehicles, explore the Dinosaur Diorama up close, and take plenty of photos to remember the occasion.
Invasion of the Guardians
During the August 2017 D23 Expo, Disney announced plans for the first Marvel-themed attraction at Walt Disney World – an indoor roller coaster based on the Guardians of the Galaxy franchise. Construction on the attraction began in late August 2017, just days after Ellen took her final bow.
Portions of the Universe of Energy pavilion’s facade were removed and demolished, but the majority of the building stayed in place for what would become the queue building for the biggest party in EPCOT. The “Wonders of Xandar” pavilion became the first otherworldly (i.e. fictional) pavilion at EPCOT. Backstage from the pavilion, Disney built a monstrous show building to house the world’s longest indoor roller coaster. For the short sum of a cool $500 million, Guardians of the Galaxy: Cosmic Rewind opened in EPCOT to rave reviews on May 27, 2022. The coaster follows the rockin’ adventures of the lovable gang including Star Lord, Gamora, Drax, Rocket, and Groot.
Nods To the Past
Disney always pays homage to the titans of the past. Riders on the Cosmic Rewind coaster can hear an electric guitar cover of the original Universe of Energy attraction’s theme song, before the coaster’s backwards launch.
In the queue line to Cosmic Rewind, there are several references to Universe of Energy written in Xandarian language on the columns. When translated, the words read Ellen (Degeneres), Alex (Trebek), E=MC, and Dino.
As with much of the current and extinct EPCOT music, guests can often hear an instrumental version of the Universe of Energy attraction song at the entrance to the park, in the vicinity of Spaceship Earth.
An EPCOT Classic
The Universe of Energy may not have been the most exciting, thrilling attraction to operate in a Disney Park. But much like its contemporaries Horizons and World of Motion, this pavilion and attraction helped form the core of what gave EPCOT its heart. Knowledge of the past, guidance for the future, and a demonstration of what creativity and innovation can accomplish when smart people work together toward a common goal. For now, EPCOT’s energy resources may have run out. But much like Disneyland, EPCOT will never be finished, as long as there’s imagination left in the world.
Thanks for traveling with us. Please follow along here for additional articles in this series. We’ll continue to explore many other former attractions and experiences from Walt Disney World, including Magic Kingdom, EPCOT, Hollywood Studios, and Animal Kingdom. We may even visit Disneyland and other Disney Parks.
Sources referenced in writing this article include:
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