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Retro Orlando: Captain Eo proves the return of retro can be as good as you remember

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Column by Audrey Brown

Usually when I write about an extinct attraction, my column is filled with wishful thinking. If only I could go back, I muse on and on. It’s rare that a beloved attraction from the past actually gets the resurrection that the smattering of fans like me petition for. But sometimes, and usually when you least expect it, it actually happens.

Disney’s Main Street Electrical Parade is a perfect example. It returned in June 2010, strolling smoothly down Main Street USA to its distinctly ’80s soundtrack (God bless the Baroque Hoedown!) as though no time had passed at all.

The Captain Eo revival at Epcot has the exact same feel. For years I’ve hopped the monorail to Epcot for lunch at the World Showcase while cruising the other parks, to see a show or just one ride. But 2007 was the last time I spent an entire day at Epcot just for the fun of it. Until about a week ago.

On my way out of the Journey Into Imagination gift shop, after ogling several rows of retro-looking Figment T-shirts, I breezed out the automatic doors into the warm Florida air and was greeted with a surprise. A stairway directly to the waiting room for Captain Eo, and it was free and clear. Inviting me to step on up.

It shouldn’t have been a surprise. Captain Eo was brought back to Epcot on June 12 last year, making me about nine months late to this nostalgia party. It originally closed in 1994 after running in Future World for eight years, and was replaced by Honey I Shrunk the Audience. I remembered hearing about it coming back, but with my head busy with graduate studies, it wasn’t something that even registered. Until that very moment. I stopped walking without thinking and my friend Lindsay stopped to see why I stood frozen in my tracks.

“I forgot!” I said. “Forgot what?” Lindsay asked. “OhmygoshCaptainEo!” I said it all at once. Like it was one word. “What’s Captain Eo?” she wanted to know. She had a vague idea, but this was her first ever trip to Epcot. So I tried to explain as best I could. “Well, it’s this movie. It’s from the ’80s, it was like George Lucas and Michael Jackson got together to make this movie where Michael is a space pilot and…” I trailed off. Where could I even begin? I barely understood it myself as a kid in the ’80s. …

Waiting out in the rain under yellow ponchos and clear umbrellas, all I knew was we were going to see a movie. Leaning on my mother under our shared umbrella as she talked to my aunt and cousins, I was more concerned with getting inside than knowing what I was going to be watching. Like most kids after mid-day at a theme park, I was probably ready for a nap.

But I was nervous to take Lindsay inside. She was game for anything, letting me be her tour guide through the park. Not minding when I “oohed” and “aahed”, when I pointed out where things used to be, how they used to look. “Well, it’s probably going to seem really silly now. I’m sure it feels so outdated. Maybe it will be one of those things where it’s so bad, it’s good.” She made a face that let me know we could go or pass on by and it didn’t matter. So she followed me up the short staircase, into the waiting room where we each picked up a pair of yellow 3D glasses, and then we went to wait for the doors to open.

Then, a surprise. An announcer came on to tell us that we would be watching the original pre-show video just as it appeared in 1986. No rescoring it. No turning it into hi-def. Just the original video as it played during my childhood.

So often when theme park notalgics get our wish to see an old attraction return again, we feel a little twinge of regret. Because whatever we asked for has been changed and updated, made more modern. Or it just seems sad to see something from so long ago so very out of place.

But here was not only Captain Eo exactly as it appeared over 20 years ago, but also its pre-show video left completely intact. The behind-the-scenes peek at the making of Captain Eo instantly took me back in time. There were what we would now think of as silly graphics, there was synthesized music so ’80s that my hair almost permed itself while I was listening. The footage shows a young and svelte brunette George Lucas working with Francis Ford Coppola (director of Captain Eo) on all the details of the video. Heck, I would’ve waited in line for an hour just to see the pre-show.

Then the doors to the theater opened and the real show began. I thought that I would have to compose myself. All day long I had been reacting to things with what I thought was an appropriate zeal, finding myself applauding alone when Gary Sinise congratulated me on my astronaut training at Mission Space, everyone else turning to look at me with an expression on their faces that said, “What’s her deal?” So I was prepared to be way more excited than the rest of the audience at Captain Eo. I thought surely I would be one of the few true nerds in the audience happy to see Lucas and Coppola’s Muppet-like robots and mammals zipping around in a spaceship with Michael Jackson, working together to save a planet. I was ready to geek out and deal with the social consequences.

Then something surprising happened.

When I gasped at a 3D character coming at me, so did everyone else. When I jumped and screamed at the “puff of air under the seat” trick, so did everyone else. When the lights came up and I applauded, still feeling peppy from Michael Jackson’s allegory-heavy “We’ve Got to Change the World”, so did everyone else. The hostess stood at the podium, welcomed us back to 2011 and smiled as the entire audience, still audibly buzzing and chatting about the movie, happily exited the building.

It’s true that they don’t make things like they used to. It’s true that the ’80s produced rides and movies so over-the-top and stylistically silly that it’s hard to believe the things we thought were “cool”. Even the pre-show had hilarious leotards in the dance rehearsal scenes and makeup that looked like it came straight out of a discarded scene from Xanadu. But Captain Eo’s revival at Epcot is proof that not everything has to be updated. Sometimes what makes a ride or a show fun again is the ability to pull it out of the time capsule and look at it exactly as it was. Not because it’s as relevant or contemporary, but because we want to dust it off and remember the world the way it used to be.

Admittedly, Captain Eo is obviously a bittersweet experience. Jackson is now gone and his musical plea of “Change the world,” has gone somewhat unanswered like so many other fable fairy tales of manmade destruction from the same time period. (Fern Gully, the Terminator movies, etc.) I admit that one of the reasons I put Captain Eo out of my mind was because I was afraid of seeing it again with an audience full of people who were just there to capitalize on the fact that Jackson is now gone.

You know the type, they want to buy things, see things, do things just because the celebrity involved has now passed away. It’s icky. I didn’t want any part of that kind of “thing”. But the unexpected joy in seeing the movie, for me, was seeing Jackson as he was at his height. Like everyone else, I love the Thriller album and I think that era in his music was the absolute best. (Of course, I’m also partial to all his early ’90s music too.) But I’ve never been one of those super-fans. I’m kind of Jackson-neutral. But I remember what it was like when he was at his apex and it was weird to sit in that theater, see that movie and think to myself, “I was in this exact room doing this exact thing over 20 years ago.”

Maybe I put it out of my mind because I was afraid I wouldn’t like it. That’s another danger of being a retro enthusiast, of any kind. Sometimes when we actually get to take another look at a beloved memory, through film or a house we used to live in or a toy we used to own, we realize the memory of the nostalgia is greater than the actual reality. I admit, when I was paused at the bottom of that staircase, that was a big part of why I wasn’t sure I wanted to take that first step. What if I hated it? What if I watched it and thought, “I can’t believe I used to like this.” It’s happened to me before. Thanks to Netflix I recently watched an ’80s movie called “Date with an Angel”. A movie I had fun memories of, but yee gads was it aweful. I had to fast forward through most of it. I didn’t want that same disenchantment to happen with Captain Eo, an experience so impactfull that we still quote it back and forth in my family even though none of us has seen it since that one time in the ’80s.

Leaving the theater I wondered, are we too cool to care about the intended message of the movie anymore? Not entirely, the green movement has grabbed on in many ways, thankfully. But the production of a short film like Captain Eo with an Oscar-winning director, a sci-fi visionary and a global pop star all collaborating to send an overwhelmingly positive message, that just wouldn’t happen today. Audiences would turn their noses up. I’m not saying that’s good or bad. It’s just that we have become savvier viewers today. Today we want realism. If we’re going to have a space movie, we want to know where they keep the garbage and how they produce their oxygen. And we certainly don’t want any musical numbers interrupting our fight scenes. (well, I do. But you get my drift.)

But tastes and cynicism oscillate. Maybe in my lifetime I’ll see a swing back to the epic. The ridiculous and over-the-top. The unabashedly positive. Captain Eo may not have changed the world, but when I was a kid, it changed me. I grew up to be one of those “tree-huggers” that so many people love to hate. I rinse out cans to drop in the recycling now and I’d be lying to you if I said I didn’t think about Queen Angelica Houston’s garbage planet on a lazy day when I’m considering just tossing a can in the trash. (And OK, sometimes the Borg ship and “The Nothing” from The Neverending Story and the Hexxus from Fern Gully and Captain Planet and – you get the idea.)

When we’re kids, we know better – end of story. We don’t think about lobbysists of economic impact or anything like that. We just know, I don’t want to hurt any animals or the planet. Captain Eo tapped into that innocent feeling and added the then fresh Star Wars “used future” space imagery of George Lucas, some really cute puppets and the music of Michael Jackson. And it told you that you better do right by this world. Without shame.

You may have thought we would be too cool for that now as a society, and we pretend we are. But all I’m saying is that just a week ago, I was in a large auditorium of people who cheered wildly and sang along with Captain Eo. And if that doesn’t give you hope, even just a tiny bit, nothing will.

Michael Jackson's Captain EO returns to Epcot - Imagineer interviews and more

Audrey is a freelance writer and voice over artist. Her work has appeared in “Geek Monthly”, “Animation World”, “Haunted Attractions”, “Orlando Attractions Magazine” (print edition) and more. You can read more of Audrey’s writing at her blog, Born For Geekdom. She is currently pursuing her MA in creative writing in the midwest. She escapes to Orlando as often as humanly possible, where she has spent an inordinate amount of time vacationing and would take up residence in the Haunted Mansion if she only could.

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11 comments

Kieran May 4, 2011 - 11:47 am

How long will this be on and will honey I shrunk the audience come back on

Reply
swmrgrl May 4, 2011 - 1:43 pm

Your article perfectly described how I felt when I went back to see Capt Eo. My teenaged daughter thought that I was bit overexcited but we both loved it!

Reply
KevF1966 May 6, 2011 - 1:56 pm

I went to see Captain Eo years ago in Disneyland & was excited to be able to see it again this time being able to share it with my 2 children who both like Michael Jackson when we visited Walt Disney World in April. We especially liked the effects. Go see it!

Reply
Yensid1222 May 6, 2011 - 4:09 pm

Great article, however dates are a little off in the discussion of MSEP. The parade debuted back in 1972, so the Baroque Hoedown you know definately does not have an 80s feel to it. Also, the music currently playing is actually the updated Dreamlights version from TDL, and was orchestrated in the 2000s.

Reply
Audrey M. Brown May 8, 2011 - 7:13 am

Thanks for the corrections Yesnid! It may have debuted in the seventies, but it fit right along with that eighties vibe. Also, I saw it for the first time in the eighties, so that may have something to do with why it feels so right to me. 🙂 Perhaps I got my WDW and Disneyland dates mixed up. (I got them from wikipedia…I should know better. haha!)

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BK June 28, 2011 - 12:42 pm

Do they still show Captain EO in Orlando? I’ll be there in September and I would really really love to see it ….

Reply
Matt Roseboom June 30, 2011 - 2:21 pm

Yes, it’s still playing with no end date announced yet.

Reply
BK June 30, 2011 - 2:54 pm

Wow Matt that’s really good news! Thank you <3

Reply
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