The Universe of Energy closing date is almost upon us. Those clever vampires in Disney Merchandising are already selling t-shirts featuring the word “Extinct.” It gives me some ideas about how to monetize my own funeral.
This is not the first vintage Disney ride to close. It’s not even the best. In the late 90s, Disney closed several classics — including Horizons, World of Motion, Journey Into Imagination, Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride, and 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.
When those rides closed, I was still a young man. Saying goodbye to beloved childhood pastimes seemed like just another part of growing up.
Universe of Energy, on the other hand, has been around my entire adult life and most of my adolescence. I can barely remember a time before it existed.
Everyone mourns in different ways, but for the first time ever, I am aware of so many strange memories that have nothing to do with the ride itself. And yet everything to do with it.
So maybe that’s the key. The plastic dinosaurs, the preachy movies, and the corny Jeopardy jokes are about to exit Stage Right. But the things we value the most have already left the building. And if Acceptance is the last stage of grief, maybe we’re better off looking back at a lifetime of memories, rather than focusing on that moment when the EKG flatlines.
These aren’t your memories. They’re mine — shared sometimes with friends and family, and sometimes just with myself.
I’m going to talk about them now.
Where I First Heard About Universe of Energy
Once or twice a year, my school would send home an order form for the Scholastic Book Club. Now it’s all online or whatever, but back then, you’d mark the books you wanted, carefully attach paper money, and turn it into your teacher. Then, approximately around the time you graduated high school, the books would finally arrive.
In the spring of 1982, I was lying on the floor of my bedroom in Indiana reading one such book — a thin paperback about something called EPCOT Center, soon to open in Florida.
Every pavilion got a few pages of text and photos. I remember only two pictures. One was a picture of an Imagineer programming the Kitchen Krackpots band in a show called Kitchen Kabaret (apparently the capital letter C was banned from the show).
The other was from Universe of Energy.
So strong was this image of a technician calmly dipping his hand into a goopy lava stream that I made sure to look for this amazing effect when I finally got to experience Universe of Energy in person.
In typical kid fashion, I couldn’t find it.
Years would pass. The annual trip to Disney World would come and go. And still I could not locate a gelatinous molten river anywhere in that dang dinosaur scene. The best I could figure was that I was too short to see the amazing effect. I was certain that all the adults were getting a better view.
After many years, I finally concluded the obvious — that the lava effect was not nearly as impressive as I had imagined.
There is a lava flow to the left of the volcano, which you travel under when entering Theater 2. Today it seems to be accomplished mainly with special lighting and not some revolutionary glowing goo.
By the way, like many childhood treasures, I’m sure my mother threw that book away after I aged out of the reading level. I have tried searching for it over the years because of the powerful impact it had on me, but to no avail. I have no idea what it was called. It’s possible it was just a regular Disney publication that happened to feature EPCOT that month.
If you have any ideas, let me know.
My First Time at Universe of Energy
If you know the history of Parkeology’s WDW49 Challenge, then you’re aware that my family made yearly trips to Walt Disney World and that we would only go for one day.
It so happens that for whatever reason, 1983 was the one year we did not go to Disney World. So my first visit to EPCOT Center came during Spring Break 1984.
The trip was especially memorable because it was our first with our lifelong friends the Kirkpatricks — which meant there were seven children (outnumbering four exhausted and harried parents) trying to navigate a crowded theme park as a single unit. This trip inspired the first book I ever wrote: a 54-page hand-written masterpiece.
The stories from this trip are legendary, with all the ups and downs of a Clark Griswold vacation — including the fact that EPCOT’s iconic signature ride was closed for refurbishment (the moose out front shoulda told ya). I would not ride Spaceship Earth until 1985 — my one and only trip with the Vic Perrin narration.
I don’t really remember much about the actual EPCOT experience that day, other than how jaw-droppingly incredible it was. But there is one memory that sticks crystal clear in my brain.
I was walking with my sister and my two best friends through Future World at night, with the metallic purple of Spaceship Earth glittering in the background as we approached Universe of Energy’s neon blue reflection pool. The beauty of the scene was striking. It was truly a Future World — a space-age fantasy that could only come from the 1980s.
I turned to my friends — who were by now used to me roping them into impossible productions — and blurted out like a Junior Spielberg: “What a great place to film a movie!”
We never did shoot a movie at EPCOT Center though. Instead, we went back to Motel 6, and someone (who may or may not have been me) got sick and threw up all over the youngest member of our party while he was using the toilet.
That Time I Didn’t Ride Universe of Energy — And Made Sure No One Else Did Either
Flash forward a few years. We’re back in Florida and again we are only going to Disney World for one day. For one reason or another, we skipped Universe of Energy. Probably that was my decision. I couldn’t sacrifice 40 minutes on one attraction.
But just because we couldn’t afford a second park day doesn’t mean my parents didn’t give us
cheaper different opportunities for Disney magic. My dad had figured out that they didn’t check for valid park admission to ride the monorail, so one lazy afternoon found us riding the loop between Magic Kingdom and EPCOT Center, just for something free and easy to do.
We got off at the EPCOT terminal mainly just to peer through the gate like impoverished children at Willy Wonka’s factory before catching the monorail back to the TTC.
It was at this time that my brother started blubbering about wanting to see the dinosaurs.
My dad had already figured out that you could buy a 4-day Passport, and that by having one person go through the gate and passing the ticket back through the bars, you could get four people into the parks on a single Passport. That’s how we rolled.
Since there were six of us, we had two 4-day passports, of which six days had already been used. Not to worry, the tickets were good forever, so my dad would just hang on to the remaining two days until next year’s trip. But when my brother started up about the dinos, a vision of Super Dad began to form in his mind.
He said there were still two days left, so maybe he should just take Tristan in to ride Universe of Energy. The rest of us could wait. It would only take a few minutes (I think my dad was forgetting how long Universe of Energy actually is).
Let’s get one thing straight. All my siblings are crazy Disney fans, just as I am. I can certainly approve of the manipulation tactics my brother employed to almost miraculously engineer a bonus trip into EPCOT Center. But with only two free spots on that passport, I launched into a full-scale defense of the very concept of Fairness, such as has never been argued in this or any other lifetime.
Citing landmark Supreme Court rulings and time-honored Biblical principles, I was able to articulate to my parents that the mere notion of taking only one sibling to ride the dinosaur ride constituted a serious breach of ethics. And I reminded them that they would likely face punitive damages in the form of pouting, arguing, and all-out rebellion from the rest of us for the remainder of the trip, and in future vacations to come.
Logic and virtue prevailed. My brother did not ride the dinosaurs.
The First Time I Ever Rode a Disney Ride Alone
Early teens now. In a cruel twist of irony (for my brother), my family was skipping Disney altogether for this trip, but I — as a responsible young man — had saved up my money and purchased a parkhopper ticket for myself. Actually, I think I bought one of the used passport tickets from my dad with one day left on it.
The plan was for my parents to drop me off at EPCOT in the morning, where I would meet my good friend Aaron, who was visiting Disney World that same day with a church group or something.
I proudly waved goodbye to my family at the front gate and headed towards the appointed meeting spot in front of Spaceship Earth.
An hour went by. No Aaron. Another thirty minutes. Nothing.
This was before cell phones, so I had no way of knowing that Aaron’s camp counselor had changed their trip to Magic Kingdom that day. And I had no way of getting in touch with my parents either.
It was confusing and a little scary, but at some point I realized that I had no choice but to spend the entire day at Disney World on my own.
Body Wars had just opened, so that was my top priority. But the first stop I made was right next door at the Universe of Energy. And that’s how it became the first Disney ride I ever rode by myself.
Incidentally, after dropping me off, my family had proceeded to take advantage of the aforementioned free monorail trip and gone to check out the Magic Kingdom — where incredibly, some confused CM waved them all through the turnstiles, thinking they were part of a larger tour group or something.
Later in the afternoon, I park hopped to Magic Kingdom using my ticket, walked straight through the castle, and bumped right into them.
Yes, my family literally got comped into the park on the same day that my friend didn’t show, and we all found each other at Cinderella Castle. Absolutely 100-percent true story.
So don’t tell me there’s no such thing as miracles.
My Last Visit to the Original Show Was Also a Miracle
My wife and I honeymooned at Disney World in June 1996. This was right at the dawn of the internet age. I was an active member of the NP&R (New Parks & Rides) board on AOL — a place where I would soon strike up a friendship with a crazy guy named Ted that seemed to share the same sense of humor and park obsession.
Back then, there weren’t D23 conferences or up-to-the-minute news blogs. But even in 1996, I knew that the big controversy for my impending vacation was the transformation of Cinderella Castle into a giant Pepto Bismal birthday cake.
In other news, the Universe of Energy had closed a few months prior to make way for a future attraction called Ellen’s Energy Adventure. This was back when Disney was in the habit of closing beloved attractions unexpectedly. I never expected to see it again.
As fate would have it, the Ellen version was behind schedule. With millions of people pouring into Orlando to see a neon-pink travesty of medieval architecture, the folks in charge decided to re-open the Universe of Energy just for the summer crowds.
By this time, the building had already been closed to begin installation of the Ellen version — including an Ellen Animatronic that they had to conceal behind some rockwork.
The Emil Radok screens in the preshow — known as the “kinetic mosaic” — had already been ripped out, replaced by flat screens. The EPCOT Energy Information Center in Theater 2 had also been removed. But for one glorious summer, they ran the original show otherwise intact, using the same preshow movie, dinosaurs, and film presentations throughout.
Universe of Energy Actually Launched Parkeology
Parkeology has been going strong for almost eight years now. Universe of Energy has been a frequent subject. I’ve written about the joy of animatronic snails, ideas for the Bill Nye preshow, the thrill of dinosaur chicken nuggets, and the heart-rending anguish of one man’s love affair with a theme park song.
Earlier this year, we had one of our most popular articles ever when I stumbled onto secret proof about how Stupid Judy is actually the smartest person on the planet.
But way back in December of 2009, I wrote my very first Parkeology post. And it was all thanks to the Universe of Energy.
It was a simple little thing about a flipped photograph which was inexplicably posted in the Innoventions corridor as part of the Epcot timeline. The only reason I recognized the error was because Universe of Energy’s distinctive flattened pyramid shape is in the wrong location.
The Most Memorable Ride on Universe of Energy
Out of all the rides I’ve had on Universe of Energy, one stands out in vivid detail. And it would for you too, if you had a steaming pretzel jammed into your shorts.
It came as part of the first attempt at WDW47 back in 2013. Since then, hundreds of people have run the challenge and Universe of Energy has become the de facto “halftime” — a place to rest your legs in blessed air conditioning while recharging your phone. Maybe even take a short nap.
But on that very first attempt, nobody knew anything.
In a breathless race around Walt Disney World, a 40-minute slow-moving theater attraction is one of the biggest obstacles. You can’t avoid it and you can’t make it move any faster. All you can do is sit and watch Ellen’s antics — often while your vehicle remains parked for extended stretches in front of a movie screen.
We hit Universe of Energy as one of the last rides at Epcot, just before a non-stop sprint through the humid hell that is Animal Kingdom. As fate would have it, we had a few minutes while the preshow finished up, so Ted and I decided to grab pretzels from the nearby outdoor vendor.
During the challenge, time is at a premium. You can’t stop for meals, so you’re often relying on whatever you can carry in your pockets — granola bars, protein chews, and the like. The pretzel was a luxury.
The only problem is, pretzels are piping hot, it’s a million degrees outside, and the ride technically doesn’t allow food.
Into the shorts it goes (cargo shorts pockets — we’re not that weird).
We started in on those puppies right about the time Ellen was clearing the Universe for take-off. By the time we finished the Primeval tour, we were mostly sick of pretzels and wondering about the wisdom of eating dry, doughy junk food while already dehydrated and with Expedition Everest as the next ride on tap. In the meantime, we’re hastily whispering back and forth about how far behind schedule we might be, what the fastest way to the taxi stand is, do we have time for a bathroom break, and whether or not a single bottle of water was enough to get us through the next 8 hours.
It was a tense, sweaty, nauseating, slow-moving endurance test — a real Energy nightmare without a self-addressed stamped envelope under our pillow.
And man, was it fun.
See you in theme park heaven.