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Close to the Future

Disney's Innoventions, a hands-on look at emerging technology, opens in the former carousel theater.


When Disneyland opened its revamped Tomorrowland, given a lustrous Jules Verne styling in time for the start of last summer's tourist season, one of the oldest attractions in the area remained tented and closed, as it had for a decade.

With little fanfare in recent weeks, the carousel theater has reemerged as Innoventions, modeled on the attraction in Florida's Epcot Center. Its clever name seems appropriate in Anaheim, a nod to the original attraction, the G.E. Carousel of Progress. Even so, the attraction seems a hybrid, an amusement grafted onto a world's fair exposition.

In the old G.E. theater, visitors slowly spun around five successive stages, where robotic figures explained the benefits of progress, including a science-fiction vision with personal hover craft.

Instead of being crafted by futurists, Innoventions was conceived by Disney's chairman, Michael Eisner, as an exposition of near-future technology provided by sponsoring corporations. Rather than a theater in the round, Innoventions' hands-on interior displays resemble what might be seen at a trade show or science center. Yet the exhibits generally lack the functional explanations and discovery quotient that make tech museums so popular. Neither does the exhibit have the Disney showmanship one would expect to soften the shill factor.

Innoventions remains an unusual building. Its lower level, formerly theater seating, is now a moving sidewalk gliding around a stationary central exhibit space. Visitors enter the sidewalk from one of five staging areas and are guided inside by a robotic emcee, Tom Morrow, who resembles Timekeeper, host of a ride in Disney's Florida park.

With golden spiked hair, the life-size character is one of Innoventions' unexpected highlights. Here, the creativity of Disney's famed Imagineers crackles with originality. As Tom--voiced by Nathan Lane--finishes his introduction and the spotlight darkens around him, visitors are beckoned to turn and listen to a live host's spiel about one of several subjects, such as the home.

When the crowd isn't looking, Tom is his most amusing. After the remarks end, he becomes a parody of an actor killing time between takes. In the dark he stretches his hydraulic limbs, inspects his fingernails, shrugs his shoulders.

Tomorrowland was re-conceived with a retro-futuristic spin to avoid becoming outdated again by technology's advance. It became a portrayal of what past visionaries imagined for the future. Hence, a Flash Gordon motif on one ride and Leonardo da Vinci's Astrolabe on another. "Tomorrow has this nasty way of becoming today," explained John McClintock, a park spokesman.

That retro-futuristic goal is muddled within Innoventions. Alongside Tom on the first level are themed rooms embedded with computer monitors playing game software, video arcades minus the quarters. One section has Internet access. One could get the same experience--albeit sans atmosphere--at Circuit City without shelling out $38 and waiting 30 minutes to get in.

Al Lutz, host of an unofficial online Disneyland guide, said Innovation's content reflects Disney's corporate partners. He said surveys show that visitors who expect state-of-the-art technology are disappointed. "The people who can afford to go to Disneyland are those who can afford to buy a computer," he said. "People go to that building expecting a show, not to endure a commercial."

The second-level exhibit space is reached from a central staircase that spirals around a "tree of life," a fanciful creation with transparent limbs and circuit-board foliage. Here, visitors can wander at their own pace among a dozen exhibits.

Children seemed most enthralled by the life-size pregnant mannequins. By roving the belly with an ultrasound scope, a visitor can see an image of a fetus on a monitor.

"There are no toys like that; it's pretty incredible," said Linda Gossett, whose daughter, Anna, 8, was intrigued during a recent visit. "She's interested in anything medical," said Gossett, an X-ray technician from Perris.

Adults were lured by the General Motors exhibit, previously displayed at auto shows. Visitors spin on seats, passively watching a short virtual reality car-driving movie, their eyes shrouded in a helmet-like viewer. With waits up to 30 minutes, some were let down by the result. "It wasn't as good as I thought it would be," said Ann Villani of Long Beach.

Interactivity and relevancy are the tools science centers use to show science's value, said Bruce Burdick, a partner of San Francisco-based Burdick Group, which designs museum and retail exhibits. "If there is relevancy, then there is payoff." By comparison, Innoventions' game-playing exhibits set a lower goal and de-emphasize interactivity to keep crowds moving. "It doesn't mean good things can't be done. Disney is dealing with masses."

Innoventions also reflects the rising interest in more modestly priced centers, such as the Los Angeles' California Science Center and La Jolla's Birch Aquarium.

"Disney is looking for a fun experience that may be educational," said Jeffrey N. Rudolph, executive director of the new Science Center. "A science center is to engage you mentally, to do things, not just observe."

Innovation's most obvious flaw is being as loud as an arcade parlor. The company strives to protect the guest "experience," even making its gardeners and painters toil after closing, so why can't acoustical engineers deaden Innovation's din?


Disneyland, Ball Road at Santa Ana Freeway, Anaheim. Call for hours. (213) 626-8605 or (714) 781-4565. Admission: adults, $38; 60 and older, $36; children 3-11, $28.

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