Guide to Journey of Water at EPCOT
Journey of Water is the newest attraction at EPCOT, a project that took roughly four years to arrange and install.
Let’s start with this—Imagineering is a design organization that teaches itself new skills, decade after decade. The first Disney Park, Disneyland, when it opened in 1955, was largely modeled after Hollywood backlot design. There were no recorded background loops to provide music. There was no theatrical lighting. There were no fireworks. The ground was either asphalt, cement, or bare dirt. But over time, the Disney organization absorbed new skills. In the 1960s, Imagineers studied restaurant design and operations—and the food offerings in the park improved. In the 1970s and 1980s, Imagineering hired a wave of people with a background in live theater, such as Joe Rohde, and Disney incorporated the tools, skills, and effects of theatrical productions into the parks. In the 1990s, Disney explored how hardscape—mostly artistically crafted cement—could be better integrated into new lands. And in the 2000s, Disney utilized the tools of video game design to create parks whose environments were more immersive.
Journey of Water incorporates many of these tools into a walk-through exhibit—from rockwork to landscape, from hardscape design to sculpted characters, and from theatrical lighting to area-specific music. It also uses some new tools.
But let’s start with the basics: Journey of Water is a walk-through attraction that uses water-play stations to teach guests about the natural cycle of water—from rain to streams to rivers then lakes and finally the ocean. In this, the feel of the exhibit relates strongly to early Future World displays, such as exhibits about oceanic life at the old Living Seas Pavilion or interactive displays of technological play in the old Image Works. That is, the creative DNA of Journey of Water is tied back to the DNA of the early EPCOT Center.
And this brings me up to those elements that feel new here. Though the attraction is decorated with characters from Moana and the soundtrack is adapted from the same film, the framework for this experience comes from interactive natural history museums or children’s museums. This is the type of exhibit which would be at home in the Exploratorium in San Francisco. By that I mean, it uses an extended, multi-stage experience to explore scientific principles of the natural world. This type of multi-stage outdoor walkthrough experience centered on scientific principles is a new way to approach the exploration of a topic at EPCOT.
The walk-through experience is in the new World Nature “neighborhood,” which was once part of Future World. This “neighborhood” also includes The Land Pavilion and The Seas Pavilion. Between these three pavilions, the park now presents an ongoing dialogue focused on the forces of nature and also how humans interact with them. The attraction is a self-guided tour. Once you enter the attraction area, you can move as fast or as slow as you want from station to station. You can also double back to revisit an earlier station. But if you really want to experience each area and explore the attractions materials, I’d say a half hour is a good amount of time to explore, play, and learn before moving on to something else.
As you move into the exhibit, you’ll explore an environment that feels similar to the tropical environment of the Polynesian Resort, with lush trees, expressive rockwork, and signs whose letterings and images mimic those in Moana. The first station demonstrates the beginning of the water cycle, which is rain. Each station has its own water play area, and here, guests are invited to run their hands between rivulets of water, that fall like strings on a harpsicord. You can pass your hand through 15 water strings to create an ascending melodic line, or you can pluck individual water strings to produce an individual note. Just so you know, the water strings are paired with near-invisible light beams: breaking the light beam, not the water string, actually produces the note. Still, it’s an engaging effect.
A little further down the path is a station called Stream. In this area is a motion-based exhibit where the fountains respond to the movement of your hands, incorporating a tracking technology similar to that used in Web Slingers out on the West Coast. Raise your hands and the water follows. In this area, too, you can see some of the other design themes. The environment includes water pools, tropical plants, and rockwork. But integrated into the rockwork are characters and other visual elements from Moana. At the back of the Stream area, arranged into the rock wall, is an image of Maui—specifically the tattoo version of Maui that, in the film, lives on Maui’s actual body. In this way, the exhibit pulls in sculpt elements similar to those developed for the Tree of Life in Animal Kingdom.
Characters from Moana are carefully integrated into the rockwork throughout the exhibit, typically one or two designs for the early areas and then a half-dozen or so in the last exhibit, where children can spend time discovering them.
Along the path, from entrance to exit, are many interactive displays and play areas that depict how water moves through the natural world. In the Wetlands, there is both a display of wetlands as well as a splash area. In the Springs area, there is both a springs, as well as interactive geysers whose line of water will rise up to meet your hand. I should point out that kids, even during early previews, have figured out that it’s great fun to bat the rising line of water with their hands to send spray onto their parents. In every area of the attraction there are at least two paths—if not more—that allow guests wishing to stay dry to remain dry.
To this end, designers have also included one more smart addition to the exhibit—a single, family-style bathroom, which will no doubt be used by parents to dry off their kids. And for those parents who plan ahead, will be used to change their kids into bathing suits before letting them run through various splash and waterplay areas. The average daily temperature in Orlando from June through August is in the low 90s. On some days it tops out over 100. In addition to offering an educational and play experience, this exhibit also performs another function—it allows kids to cool down in the middle of a hot afternoon.
The centerpiece icon of the area is a sixteen-foot statue of Te Fiti, the nature goddess in Moana who gives life to the islands and the sea. Here, she looks over a pool arranged with leapfrog fountains. These are modern adaptations of those leapfrog fountains that first appeared at EPCOT Center when it opened in 1982. Much to Disney’s surprise, those original leapfrog fountains—a technology that premiered at EPCOT—were one of the hits of opening year. Now a more recent version of that technology is integrated into this exhibit.
The final interactive station is themed to the ocean, which has many exhibit areas. At the largest, ten people need to stand shoulder to shoulder and—when the cast member indicates—raise their hands in unison. In response, motion tracking equipment will signal fountains to create an oceanic wave, about a dozen feet high, to rise up over the rocks. In terms of a visual sense of awe, this is the most impressive station in the attraction.
This is also the area that has the largest number of characters sculpted into the rockwork, including the Kakamora, the tribe of pirate coconuts featured in the film, some of whom now spit water at guests.
I’ve been through the exhibit both during the day and at night. If you have kids, the best time to visit is during the heat of the afternoon. But if you’d like to explore the visual aesthetic of the displays, the best time is at dusk, as Disney controls the environment with theatrical lights which transform the area into a colorful wonderland. The steam and fog, central to some exhibit areas, are also more noticeable once the sun goes down. If I had to take a guess, I’d bet that guests use Journey of Water more as a water play area during the day and more as an interactive exhibit focused on nature in the evening. But again, I could be wrong.
The entire exhibit is well arranged, with interesting designs on the hardscape. For example, the footprints of Hei Hei, left in the cement, lead to a rockwork presentation of that confused chicken. The sightlines are also well considered. Spaceship Earth, at many locations, rises in the background like a manmade moon hovering on the horizon. And the music loops tie the experience together with Polynesian melodies adapted from the film.
I don’t think that many people will book a special trip to Disney World just to experience Journey of Water—but if you’re in EPCOT, this is a lovely way to spend a half hour, an attraction that adds a new category of experience to the park.
Journey of Water will officially open to all guests on October 16, 2023.