The future belongs to Mickey

20th November 1998 at 00:00
Reva Klein finds it impossible to resist the mixof entertainment with technology and informationat Florida's vision of tomorrow's world

Have been accosted by a giant rodent wearing a red polka-dot dress. I have walked 27ft under the ocean. I have been roared at by a dyspeptic diplodocus. I have had a massive mastiff sneeze damply into my face at close range. And I have seen - but not experienced, I hasten to add - a remote-controlled toilet featuring a blow-drier.

Yes, you have guessed it. I have taken the Mickey, or rather Mickey has taken me, through the wonderfully whacky, terribly tacky, utterly otherworldly world of Disney in Orlando, Florida.

Everybody said Iwould love Walt Disney World and yes, I have to admit that it is somewhere special. Nowhere is more so than the Epcot Science Centre, where today meets tomorrow, tomorrow looks back at yesterday and everything is a whole lot of fun. Dominating Epcot is a structure that looks like a giant white golfball. It is called Spaceship Earth, a ride through the history of human communications and is the epitome of everything that Disney does best.

A simple theme - communications - is illustrated with Audio Animatronics, the digital animation control system created by Disney "Imagineers" that is seen throughout Disney World. It works by pre-programming lifelike movements digitally as a computer programme, which is then selected by animators who work at a console selecting the different actions. It results in astoundinglyrealistic, state-of-the-art talking robots in a variety of settings.

Disney's Imagineers have worked closely with the computer industry's leading players - companies such as Silicon Graphics - to develop virtual reality presentations. And Disney World is one of the very few places where you can see virtual reality deserving the term. The implications for future educational applications are intriguing.

We hurtle through history in our comfortable, air-conditioned seats, marvelling at neanderthals grunting, Greeks and Romans proclaiming and revelling, Michelangelo painting the Sistine Chapel and Caxton and his printing press. And then, finally, we get to what we've all been waiting for: the mid-20th century and the inevitable celebration of popular culture - including, of course, Disney's own feature films.

The same mix of low-level information and high-level entertainment and off-the-map technology is what makes the Energy Adventure in the Universe of Energy pavilion the blast that it is. In technological terms, it is one of the most complex attractions at Epcot.

Once again, we are in moving carriages in a big, dark place. Ellen DeGeneres, of the now-axed sitcom Ellen, teams up with TV science presenter Bill Nye to lead us through a journey to the beginning of time featuring Audio Animatronic dinosaurs.

The plot is muddled and a bit daft.It starts out as a one-minute science lesson about the history of the universe delivered on three screens that are 157ft wide and 32ft high. From there, it becomes a vehicle for Ellen to wise-crack her way through primeval dioramas. It winds up with a show about the contemporary world's energy needs.

There are so many similarly fun, ostensibly educational attractions at Epcot. "Honey, I Shrunk the Audience" at Epcot's Imagination Theatre is a 3D adventure full of visual and sensory special effects hosted by a mad scientist.

For more hands-on experiences, the Innoventions Pavilion is a welcome respite, despite its technical veneer. In that great American tradition, this trade fair of big companies showing off their hi-tech wares has something for everyone.

Interactive exhibits allow you to give comands to obedient animated video puppies with IBM's ViaVoice speech technology; take a virtual test drive of General Motors' EV1 electric vehicle; and test out a real-time language translation in more than 140 languages through a single phone call courtesy of ATT.

Techies and technophobes, kids and adults, cynics and suckers will get a lot out of Disney World. For the pedagogically inclined, there is a veneer of education: lots of information in lots of different places and guises. And for everybody else, there are thrills, spills, humour, special effects -and plenty of mice.

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