When Walt Disney died in 1966, a lot of projects of his went into limbo, at least, temporarily. His last great project, E.P.C.O.T., was almost abandoned outright for being too ambitious. Of course, you’re probably thinking of this:
However, Walt’s E.P.C.O.T. was more like this:
E.P.C.O.T. is an acronym for Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow. The man intended it to be, essentially, a futuristic utopia, à la Star Trek, where thanks to technology, a suitable community could support everyone who wanted to live, work, and play there. While we may never know how this might have turned out even if Walt had been able to actually build the place, it’s a safe bet it was a lofty goal, even for him. The company that bore his name at the time made only theme park rides and movies, and without Walt at the helm, it was laughable that they even try. So they didn’t.
The company spent twenty years after his death just repeating past projects or resurrecting old ones Walt visited. When E.P.C.O.T. was dug up, the decision was unanimous: no way in f$&@ing hell were they going to build an actual city of the future, but they did know how to build theme parks and rides. And so, in October of 1979, ground was broken to make way not for E.P.C.O.T. the city, but Epcot Center, the theme park. There was just one problem: Disney didn’t have the money.
Disney employed a strategy they’d used since the early days of Disneyland: corporate sponsorship. By allowing various companies to sport their logo and sometimes their message at a Disney ride, they would hand Disney a buttload of cash to build the rides and later, maintain them. This was the guiding strategy in building their first non-Magic Kingdom park, going on the theme that every ride had to at least have the appearance of being educational. Sad thing was this was a short-term gain, long-term loss.
For example, the Wonders of Life pavilion, which hosted attractions such as Cranium Command and Body Wars, was sponsored by MetLife from its opening in 1989 to 2001. But when MetLife pulled its sponsorship, the attraction fell into disrepair and negligence before it closed its doors in 2007. Kraft sponsored the Land pavilion until Nestle took over in 1993, but it was Kraft who dismissed the original plan to have an attraction where guests flew in track-mounted hot air balloons over various ecosystems in favor of the things like Kitchen Kabaret. And let’s not forget how Kodak, once the biggest name in photography, tried to pull out of their contract with the original Journey into Imagination attraction when sales were slumping in the late nineties, forcing Disney to drastically devalue the ride into one of the most hated on Disney property, just to keep the sponsorship.
The point is, sponsorship of rides is a fine strategy until the sponsor decides to opt out. From then, it’s just a matter of time before Disney decides to switch to an attraction that’s gonna be cheaper to maintain. One that gets the asterisk is the Universe of Energy!
Opening in 1982 with the rest of the park, the Universe of Energy pavilion was sponsored by Exxon and ExxonMobil until 2004, and was designed to showcase how we collect and use energy. Its highlight was a slow, dramatic coast through a bygone prehistoric era filled with animatronic dinosaurs after Exxon lectured guests on how fossil fuels are created. And I do mean “lectured”. Despite being a ride at Disney World, Exxon and Disney felt little obligation to entertain, so the ride was a plodding 45 minutes of a stentorian narrator telling you in the most monotone delivery, about how Exxon harvests fossils and how they’re used in everyday life. Riveting.
In 1996, with outdated statistics and no marketable celebrities, The ride was renovated to include Bill Nye the Science Guy and sitcom star Ellen DeGeneres to co-star in a new attraction, Ellen’s Energy Adventure. While better received among guests and critics, it still fell victim to being outdated and fairly dry, so in 2017, the attraction closed to make way for a new roller coaster featuring Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy.
But let’s backtrack a bit to the first incarnation of Universe of Energy, that 1982-1996 version that was so boring and dry even Ben Stein wouldn’t touch it. In 1985, Exxon and Disney collaborated and produced a comic book that was a free giveaway to kids. It was exactly the kind of thing you’d expect.
Mickey Mouse and his pal Goofy board the Universe of Energy attraction and are captivated by how fossil fuels are made. So much so that they fly to Alaska to learn about arctic and offshore oil drilling before just wandering an industrial area as Mickey exposits how electricity is used. Then they look at coal and hydroelectric power before going back into the ride and learning a bit more about the future of energy, with a slight nod to solar energy.
Oh, where to begin.
1. Mickey and Goofy don’t really exist here.
The two stars of this comic book are not the characters we know and love. Mickey’s entire purpose is to spout how Exxon does their thing and it’s Goofy’s job to listen and learn. Of course, it’s essentially a PSA, so their priority is not to make a funny story. But there’s a difference. In something like Cartoon All-Stars to the Rescue, even when characters like Simon chipmunk and Bugs Bunny know what marijuana is, they still act like the characters we’ve seen on countless cartoons. Mickey just prattles on blankly about how exciting oil is, even explaining every facet of how it’s all collected and used. Aside from the occasional “Very funny, Goofy!” or “Relax, Goofy!”, Mickey’s dialogue is purely promotional fluff.
Goofy is no better. He exists simply to be the sole source of comedy (I’ll get to that in a bit…) and to be the subject of Mickey’s lecture. He either makes jokes as though he isn’t listening or he’s thoroughly invested in Mickey’s lecture. It’s a weird balance. In reality, the attraction should have been the one teaching both of them, having Mickey and Goofy learn, rather than what we got.
Aside from being a PSA, this was more indicative of the time period, where the Disney characters were treated like the Constitution. Just mouthpieces to promote and endorse rather than characters to entertain in new and exciting ways.
2. The Alaskan pipeline.
After Mickey explains to Goofy how oil is harvested in Alaska, Goofy asks the question anyone would when they’re truly hypnotized by Big Oil: “But how do we transport all this oil?”. Mickey shows off the Alaskan Pipeline, and in three panels, the pair are positively captivated by it.
For those who don’t know, the Alaskan pipeline was built in the seventies and remains a highly controversial structure, as 800-mile-long pipelines carrying crude oil through one of most delicate, pristine landscapes are wont to be. But of course, Exxon won’t mention that part. Instead, Goofy is awestruck by the sheer length of it and that it’s “right on our own country, too!”
But my favorite part is Mickey explaining how the pipeline ends in the port of Valdez. Why? Because the Exxon Valdez was the name of the oil tanker that, in 1989, caused the largest oil spill in American history, until the Deepwater Horizon spill of 2010. And right in our own country, too!
3. Gas prices.
Welp, you can’t talk about oil without talking about gas and gas prices, can you?
When Goofy and Mickey recall the gas shortage of the seventies, Goofy remembers the lines he had to wait in with his car, whom he dubs “Bessie”. Mickey reminds Goofy about the basic economic principle of supply and demand, and Goofy starts to get dizzy thinking how high gas prices have gone and could go. How high, you ask? A whole $1.27.
Some of you may be too young to remember, but as high as our gas prices are now (around $2.40 where I live), it was much, much worse years ago. In 2009, gas prices surged to almost $5.50 a gallon in some areas. Of course, in 1985, few could have predicted such a thing. Now, I look back at this and chuckle, thinking quaint and naïve they are, thinking that could be as bad as gas prices could get.
4. The story makes no sense.
This one is arguably the most nit-picky, because, hey, it’s a PSA. It doesn’t have to worry about things like character development, three act structures, or sequential storytelling. As an educational promo item, its entire raison d’être is to inform its audience about what its promoting. But let’s go ahead and really analyze this.
The comic starts off with the two at Epcot and boarding the Universe of Energy ride, and already something’s seriously off when you realize there are no women or children depicted anywhere. Instead it’s all a bunch of men with very questionable fashion sense.
The first bizarre transition occurs when Mickey and Goofy are suddenly going from riding the attraction to walking among dinosaurs. The panels’ design seems to imply this happens in their imaginations, but this is dropped by the next page. Bear in mind, on the ride itself, riders did go through a massive tableau of the prehistoric creatures, but they remained in the vehicles. Not a huge violation of logic, I suppose, but I’m just getting started.
Not long after this, Mickey hands Goofy a parka and they hop into a tiny airplane and fly to Alaska. Yup, just like that, Mickey can charter a flight and haul Goofy to the land of the last frontier to teach him about how oil in Alaska is drilled and the aforementioned pipeline. Once they finish there, Mickey commandeers a helicopter and drags his friend to an offshore oil rig. Before long, all pretense of continuity is dropped unceremoniously and completely. For the rest of the comic, Mickey segues into discussions about electricity, natural gas, coal, hydroelectric, nuclear, and solar power. At this point, the pair bounce from a coal mine to Niagara Falls to residential districts just so the comic can keep pace with Mickey’s pitch.
At the end, Mickey and Goofy wind up back at Epcot and about to enter the ride all over again. I’m under the impression they’re about to enter the post-attraction interactive area, but it’s unclear (Mickey invites Goofy to “Exxon’s Energy Exchange”). I personally can’t help but feel extremely confused.
5. Goofy’s god-awful puns.
One star animator at the Disney studios back in the thirties was Art Babbitt, whose animation of the Big Bad Wolf in The Three Little Pigs was among his best work. But Art’s biggest contribution was the design and animation of Goofy. He delivered a lecture about how the character should be approached, such as how Goofy’s physical attributes compared to his mental aspects “interweave, reflect, and enhance one another”. Or how he talks to himself “because it is easier to know what he is thinking if he hears it first”. Or how his fanny should be used whenever possible “to emphasize a funny position”. Goofy, for all intents and purposes, was a character made for slapstick. As an older character, physical comedy was his thing, with his inherit goofiness complimenting his pratfalls.
In the comic, Goofy’s one and only physical gag is jumping into Mickey’s arms after being spooked by an apatosaurus standing right in front of him. How does Goofy provide comedy in the book? With puns. Lots of them.
Now, don’t get me wrong: I love bad puns. I thrive off dad jokes. But there’s a difference between a bad joke and a badly done joke. Among his worst ones:
A. Alaska having “oil-sicles”
B. Alaskans having to eat chili…”as in cold!”
C. With expensive gas as a scarce resource, that “scarce” him a lot.
D. Not going into the attraction being “fuel-ish”…which, granted, gets a wry smirk from me.
E. Electricity being the “current” thing.
F. A moon pool on an oil rig is for “lunar laps”.
G. Using solar energy is a “bright” idea.
H. We generate electricity by “charging” it.
Goofy is indeed known for his funny manner of speech, but this is just…I don’t know. I get they needed some cheesy comedy to make sure the kids would be giggling. And that’s the problem: Goofy’s bread and butter was always physical comedy. The kind of comedy that little kids react best to. And a comic book, while not as well-timed in its slapstick punchlines as an animated cartoon, still has a visual element to it. Instead, the comic thinks it best to just have Goofy riff on whatever Mickey’s espousing.
In other words: show, don’t tell, comic!
6. The ethical ramifications.
So what does it all mean? Why did I spend so much time needlessly harping on a comic that’s over thirty years old, based on a ride that hasn’t existed since 1995? Why am I wasting my breath…er, wasting my types…on a fluff promo piece from 1985 that probably no one has even so much has thought about since they left Disney World? Well, one reason is snarking on vintage relics of children’s entertainment is a tried and true staple on the internet (Ask any blogger or reviewer who’s done a piece on Cartoon All-Stars to the Rescue and/or Too Smart for Strangers.). But also, there are some very daunting bits here that spell out a larger, more troubling picture.
One of the first things I noticed was a single panel in which Goofy and Mickey are riding a camel in a desert, looking on some oil towers. Goofy excitedly proclaims, “Great! We can always buy oil from other countries, too!” While there isn’t anything implicitly wrong with this, it’s telling that they wanted kids to think of the Arabian peninsula when we think of foreign oil reserves. Especially since no other countries are so much as alluded to throughout the comic as being the source of valuable deposits. Now, with hindsight, bringing up “Middle East” and “oil” in the same sentence just conjures up images of war and destruction. Never mind Goofy says “buy” instead of “trade”, as if these countries were just selling oil like it was a sidewalk lemonade vendor.
More than half of this comic is dedicated to oil alone. Since this comic is sponsored by Exxon, that makes sense. On page 11, Mickey starts talking about other forms of energy, including coal, electricity, natural gas, hydroelectric, synthetic fuels, and solar power. Bear in mind, oil took up 10 and 1/2 pages, while the other six were essentially marked “miscellaneous”, and took up the remaining 5 and 1/2 pages. If you’re thinking, “Well, at least they’re addressing the solar power, that’s more than they’re willing to do today”, I’d say sure…but that one’s crammed into three panels on the last page.
Speaking of which, as a comic printed in 1985, it should come as no surprise that the topic of climate change doesn’t rear its ugly head. But Mickey does acknowledge that the fossil fuels we use today are finite resources and us running out of them are “a possibility”. There are some handy tips he offers, but arguably the worst one is to “not drive over 50 miles per hour”. First of all, I thought they were pitching this to kids, who can’t drive. Second, considering some speed limits in this country go as high as 75 miles per hour, try to drive 50 without getting run off the road. Otherwise, of course we won’t drive faster than 50 if the speed limit is under that. So really, it’s a pointless tip.
Mickey’s tips on saving energy are glanced over as a whole, anyway. It makes sense, considering Exxon wants you to use as much energy as you can so they can make more money. Even the daunting threat of running out of energy reserves is kind of brushed aside as though it were merely an inconvenience. You might think I’m exaggerating, but consider the focus of the comic. It displays all the awesome ways Exxon harvests and distributes oil and other fuels and how much power they give for our everyday use. It’s educational in showing just how useful oil is to us as a fuel source and that’s it.
We already have so many people on this planet who are somehow convinced that fossil fuels do not cause damage to our environment, let alone exacerbate global warming. This comic is a product of its time, when corporate America could do no wrong and the environmental initiative was only just starting to catch on in the public consciousness. Nowadays, the effects of fossil fuel depletion and pollution is evident, except to either those who wish to deregulate to boost profits and the blissfully ignorant. We’ve made some incredible strides in curbing the damage we’ve done, but we still have a long way to go. And the powers that be – who grew up in an era where comics like this were commonplace – don’t seem too concerned that their children and their children’s children are growing up on a planet that may not be around much longer.
So for all the cheeky snark I keep harping on, that is the saddest, grimmest, darkest, least optimistic aspect of all.
C’mon, guys. Let’s ride Guardians of the Galaxy. I’m depressed now.