A decade later, Epcot’s Wonders of Life gone but not forgotten

The first day of 2007 also marked the day that Walt Disney World officially pulled the plug on Wonders of Life at Epcot. Now a decade later, the familiar golden pavilion — now known as the Festival Center — still stands and is used annually about a third of the year for events such as wine and cooking demonstrations (as well as for merchandise and additional storage) during the Epcot International Food & Wine Festival and the Flower & Garden Festival. But it’s the loss of two inventive attractions and several interactive elements within the original Wonders of Life that still reverberates in a theme park in search of a consistent theme in this day and age.

Wonders of Life was originally conceived in the late 1970s as part of the original concept for the “EPCOT Center” theme park and finally opened in October 1989 in the Future World East area near World of Motion (now Test Track), the popular but since-demolished Horizons attraction (now Mission: SPACE) and the Universe of Energy pavilion (which currently houses the Ellen’s Energy Adventure attraction). Because the area was centered on health and fitness it was sponsored by MetLife through 2001, at which point the pavilion’s relevance began to fade due to lack of upgrades and new additions. By 2004 it was only opened seasonally to accommodate larger crowds until it was finally shuttered completely a little more than two years later.

As detailed in Werner Weiss’ excellent Yesterland website, Wonders of Life contained the following:

  • Body Wars — a simulator like Star Tours, but with a higher queasiness factor
  • Cranium Command — a very clever show about the functions of the human brain
  • Sensory Funhouse — interactive kiosks about touch, sight, and sound
  • The Making of Me — a film that answered the age-old question, “Where do babies come from?” honestly, yet in a way that was suitable for all ages
  • Goofy About Health — a multi-screen presentation, promoting health using clips from old Goofy cartoons
  • AnaComical Players Theater — live improvisational comedy show
  • Other interactive exhibits
  • Pure & Simple — a healthy counter-service restaurant
  • Well and Goods Limited — the pavilion’s shop

In this video filmed less than a month before it was permanently closed, the pavilion and the decor looked seriously outdated and stuck in the 90s with its design and pastel-inspired color palette. But there was boundless creativity evident, especially with regards to the Body Wars and Cranium Command attractions, and an important sense of educational and scientific exploration once you get past the facade…

This video (in two parts) by MartinsVidsDotNet does a good job of showing each area within Wonders of Life as well as detailed looks at the attractions.

Clearly, the stars of the pavilion were the Body Wars and Cranium Command attractions, which to this day still tantalizingly exist in their original locations but have been gradually gutted over the last 10 years. Body Wars, which was very similar to the Star Tours attraction at Hollywood Studios but with an adventure recalling the 1966 movie “Fantastic Voyage” and the 1987 movie “Innerspace”, was at the time a futuristic ride that enjoyed the latest tech. There’s no C-3PO or R2-D2 here, the film shown instead was directed by the late Leonard Nimoy and starred Hollywood actors Elisabeth Shue and Tim Matheson with riders accompanying the scientists on a mission inside a subject’s body after becoming miniaturized.

According to Wikipedia, the empty simulator rooms still sit to this day blocked off by their former entrances and the queue area still exists but mostly for storage purposes while the simulators and most signage have since been dismantled. One fan was recently able to get new footage of the closed-off attraction while the pavilion was open for the Epcot International Food & Wine Festival. Upon spotting the doors to what used to be Body Wars wide open and easily accessible, he asked for permission to explore the area and was able to explore the old queue and docking areas.

Arguably the biggest loss of the unexplained closing of the pavilion is the highly-original Cranium Command attraction, which was such a well-regarded attraction at Epcot that it also inspired the Pixar film “Inside Out” as well as the recent Disney short “Inner Workings” that played before “Moana”.

The attraction itself was inspired by Disney’s 1943 propaganda short “Reason and Emotion”, and featured an audio-animatronic character called Buzzy leading a crew of various body functions inside a 12-year-old boy as he goes about a typical day. Guests would sit inside a small theater resembling the inside of his head, with two large monitors where his eyes were so guests could see his life played out from his point of view. Appearing on other video screens were the Left Brain (Charles Grodin), Right Brain (Jon Lovitz), Stomach (George Wendt), Bladder (Jeff Doucette), Adrenal Gland (Bobcat Goldthwait), and the heart’s Right and Left Ventricles (Dana Carvey and Kevin Nealon in very similar roles to their Hans and Franz characters from Saturday Night Live).

The animated short film that played in the queue area was also a fan favorite, so much so that then-Disney chairman Jeffrey Katzenberg tapped the two first-time directors of the short, Gary Trousdale and Kirk Wise, to helm “Beauty and the Beast” and later “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” and “Atlantis: The Lost Empire”. Incidentally, this pre-show film — produced in 1989 — was the very last project at Disney Feature Animation to be traditionally inked and painted on cels, according to Wikipedia. One of the young animators working on the project was future Pixar director Pete Docter, who would go on to direct “Inside Out”.

Much like Body Wars, this attraction has gradually been torn down and is obviously no longer operational in its current state. Though it is unclear how much of the interior of the theater still remains, it is claimed that the animatronics, lighting, seats, and staging area have so far been spared. Yesterland features a series of photos showing how the entrance to Cranium Command changed over the years to accommodate the wine and food seminars that now take place in front of the attraction, eventually to the point where it is unrecognizable.

Now, the exterior of the golden pavilion has faded with each passing day basking in the Florida sun, but die-hard Walt Disney World fans still have fond memories of visiting Wonders of Life. Though it still stands today with no immediate plans for demolition, it remains as a reminder of the Epcot of days passed even as it is nestled in an area that is long overdue for refurbishment. Ellen’s Energy Adventure has remained largely unchanged for years and the nearby Innoventions East also faces an uncertain future with nearly all of its exhibits gone, except for Colortopia which opened in late 2015.

A new Guardians of the Galaxy attraction in the area has been rumored since last year that would replace Universe of Energy. If that is indeed true, it could mean a decision will have to be made one way or another for the nearby Wonders of Life/Festival Center with the increased foot traffic for such a high-profile new ride. Could the original concept of Wonders of Life be revisited and re-born? For example, and depending on its current state, a fresh overlay of Cranium Command with “Inside Out” characters would be extremely popular with the younger crowd.

Is a re-opening a pipe dream or the fact that it still remains standing a hopeful sign of things to come?  We’d love to hear your ideas about what should be done with the pavilion.

Leave a Reply