I have fond memories of Captain Eo. As a kid, I was definitely not a part of the 80s rock and roll scene, but my mom did love to see Michael Jackson dance, so I was familiar with the phenomenon that was Michael Jackson in the 80s. I loved Captain Eo as a kid at Epcot. Epcot, back in the 80s, was not as much a kid-friendly park as it is today, and Captain Eo was one of those attractions I could go to over and over. I was a child with a passionate love of fantasy growing up in a family that frowned on science fiction and fantasy because of religious conviction. Captain Eo fed my passion for something I didn’t get much of, and I loved it.
So, when 24 years later, I got an email offering a passholder preview of Captain Eo…I begged my husband to go. Honestly, it didn’t take much begging. His memories of the show were as positive as mine, and the timing of the preview was something we could both make work, so off we went through the outer bands of a tropical storm, to see Captain Eo.
After an overly long, harrowing drive through torrential rain and Fourth of July weekend traffic, we arrived on property. We stopped off for dinner at Olivia’s Café at Old Key West, and then turned our tires to Epcot.
The Florida twilight was lying heavy over the Disney landscape as we headed across property, and although there were streaks of color breaking through the clouds, a light drizzle was still falling into the puddles left by the earlier downpour. By the time we left Olivia’s, I was feeling pretty good about the whole thing; we were on time, and I was betting the storms had driven most of the guests out of Epcot, which suited me fine. Sure enough, we rolled through the tollbooths at Epcot around 7:40 without a pause. There were no cast members in any of the booths, and the parking guides were long gone. We rolled right up into the first lot, and found a parking space in the second row of spaces. Climbing out of the car, we headed for the gates, passing droves of poncho-clad visitors with damp hair stuck to their cheeks heading out to the parking lot. We moved quickly through the gates and past the geodesic dome of Spaceship Earth. I was right; although there were still guests moving around, the park was definitely uncrowded, an event especially worthy of note on an EMH night. We had no problem making our way to the Journey into Imagination pavilion. The entire front area was deserted, and we followed the stand-up signs announcing the passholder preview to the left and into the entrance to Captain Eo.
Much to my delight, there was no line. The cast members welcomed us, and we grabbed our 3-D glasses and were ushered down a small ramp into the preshow area.
The pre-show area was a decent sized space with an angled floor. We were told to go as far to the front as we could and then move in toward the center. Banks of video screens were suspended from the ceiling, and when we arrived, they were showing a behind-the-scenes documentary tracing the creation of Captain Eo. They showed set construction, dancer auditions, rehearsal, direction by a very young Steven Spielberg, costuming, and dress rehearsal. The documentary was set to an upbeat 80’s soundtrack that kept the crowd excited, and the monitor on the far right had closed captioning turned on to ensure that anyone with hearing problems could follow the video.
I settled in. The registration email had specified that we had to check in half an hour before our designated show or we would not be allowed in. Sure enough, we had made it to the theater by 7:50, so I figured we’d be ready for our 8:20 reservation. To my surprise, however, a little less than 10 minutes after we arrived, the video ended, and we were directed to stand back from the doors, which would, evidently, be opening toward us. We were getting into the 8:00 showing!
We filed into the theater, fanning out to fill in the rows in the large space. Moving to the end, as directed, we were preparing to settle into our seats when we noticed that the row we had chosen was only perhaps half full, and the guests were congregating in the middle of the row to get better angles for the film. We followed the herd, settling in just to the left of center facing the huge, shimmering Captain Eo logo on the screen.
There was definitely a “vibe” in the theater. We were there to see Captain Eo, and so, it was very clear, was everyone else. There was a sense of excitement and enthusiasm. People were talking about their memories of the film years ago, and a few were singing rather off-key renditions of the songs from the show. At the podium to the front right of the screen, a cast member appeared, welcomed us to the preview, and reminded us that this was the original 70mm 3-D film from 1986 brought back for our enjoyment. The lights dimmed, and, with a healthy dose of hooting, clapping, and foot stamping, we settled in.
The film was a delight. Certainly, the special effects don’t hold up to modern digital photo-realistic standards, but they have the weight, texture, and sense of “reality” that I still contend miniatures bring. It was like seeing Star Wars on a 3-D screen, and the puppet-characters charmed the audience all over again. When Jackson rose onto the bridge, dressed in his padded-shouldered white leather finery, we cheered and clapped…and then as that delicate, high voice intoned “we’re goin’ in” with effeminate intensity, we shared a chuckle.
Overall, the film was a much fun as I remembered. Although the smoke and laser effects of the original show are not included, the designers did an excellent job of using light effects to emulate the laser flashes, and to follow the action on the screen. The flashes and colored lights worked seamlessly with the film, and the moving seats were amazing! Personally, I had expected the seat to move in the way I had experienced in other theaters – the lower portion of the seat would expand or bounce. Instead, everything moved, in a way far more reminiscent of a motion simulator than a moving theater seat. The floor beneath our feet and our seats moved, and the first time we felt the movement with the initial ship crash on screen, I felt the effect was pretty darn amazing.
The remainder of the film was fun and flashy with the childish joy and faith in the triumph of good that I remembered. I was amazed at the almost prescient design work. Considering that the film predated the Star Trek advent of the Borg, the design of Angelica Huston’s costume is prophetic, as are the hybrid creatures that Captain Eo frees from the columns of mechanical detritus along his path. The makeup, costuming, and attitude was definitely 80s, but seeing Jackson at his peak doing the kind of showmanship that earned him his reputation was wonderful. More than that, though, the film brought the idealistic faith in imagination and the triumph of good (not to mention transformative laser blasts) that has been missing from Journey into Imagination for so long.
The film ended, and the audience went crazy. I think if there had been an encore, we would have earned it. Filing out, I didn’t see a face without a wide smile, and conversations ranged from comments about how the film was better than remembered to laughter and enjoyment from those who had never seen the film except on YouTube.
As we swirled out onto the pavement, moving through the rising dusk in front of the leapfrog fountain, we brought with us laughter and hope. Maybe it was nostalgia, but there was more than that. There was a sense of fun, and smiles bright enough to cut through the rain.