July 21, 2024

World Celebration & CommuniCore at EPCOT Review: Better Than a Dirt Pit & Walls, I Guess?

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CommuniCore Hall and Plaza are the new multi-purpose spaces for guests to relax, to anchor EPCOT Festivals, and everything in between. World Celebration is the new neighborhood in the former Future World that focuses on experiences




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CommuniCore Hall and Plaza are the new multi-purpose spaces for guests to relax, to anchor EPCOT Festivals, and everything in between. World Celebration is the new neighborhood in the former Future World that focuses on experiences that bring communities together.

Walt Disney World introduced the new venues with EPCOT’s VP saying, “If you can dream it, CommuniCore Hall can do it… the future of this gathering and event space is limited only by the boundaries of imagination. We’re all about the magic of possibilities here at EPCOT, and our imaginations are pretty spectacular.”

Disney added that CommuniCore Hall will “bring the center of the park to life seasonally as an ever-changing hall to highlight art, live music, food, and more.” This review will endeavor to determine whether CommuniCore Hall and Plaza, as well as the larger World Celebration Gardens around the venue, actually live up to those lofty words.

In the interest of full disclosure, we attended the media preview of CommuniCore Hall & Plaza before it opened to the general public and got to enjoy free food, special interior decor, and added entertainment. Given that, you might want to discard our opinions as paid shills, take this review with a grain of salt, etc. Just a fair warning for the sake of transparency that we might be biased.

With that out of the way, CommuniCore Hall and Plaza is sad. There are a lot of other words I could use to describe it–some of which are harsher but none of which are positive–but I keep coming back to sad.

It’s sad that Walt Disney World closed Innoventions and the central spine of former Future World in September 2019 and took so long for a replacement. It’s sad that the plans for an architecturally-ambitious three-level festival center were cancelled. It’s sad that the COVID closure derailed so much intended for the EPCOT overhaul, festival space included.

It’s sad that this is the end result after three rounds of designs. It’s sad that Disney stayed the course and didn’t pivot for a fourth time once pent-up demand arrived and the parks started overperforming. It’s sad that we’re stuck with this for the coming decades. It’s just sad.

If you’ve read any of my commentary leading up to the opening of CommuniCore Hall, you know my expectations were not exactly sky-high. (If you haven’t, good background is EPCOT’s Overhaul Needs Optimism & Ambition.) It’s not as if I had unrealistic expectations and was thinking that this rectangular building that took over 4 years to open was a clandestine coaster or Figment & Friends Jamboree. I knew it was going to be a festival space.

And yet, CommuniCore Hall somehow fell short of my very low expectations. How is that even possible?! It’s like this meme, Walt Disney World edition. My expectations had gotten so low and the project was delayed by so much that maybe I was starting to come full circle and hope that they’d surprise us and overdeliver a little? I don’t even know anymore.

I’ve made no secret of how much the unambitious plans for CommuniCore Hall bothered me (again, see the above post or RIP Giant EPCOT Dirt Pit, or pretty much any of our EPCOT construction updates from the last several years). In response to that criticism, many fans have defended Walt Disney World, accusing me of not understanding how the world works, ignoring how the pandemic “caused” this, etc.

I maintain that Walt Disney World should’ve powered full steam ahead on the EPCOT central spine redesign during the March through July 2020 closure. After all, the core of the park had to reopen, so why not finish the landscaping expeditiously to reduce or remove as many walls as possible? However, I also understand the hesitation to do so on the substantive projects.

That includes the three-level festival center! Believe me, I remember the dire outlook in mid-2020, with Wall Street analysts predicting that it would take at least 5 years for travel to recover and, even then, it might never come back to normal. That caused us some sleepless nights–I’ll never forget.

I also remember that CommuniCore Hall was not announced in mid-2020! That’s when the three-level festival center was shelved, but no replacement was revealed at that time. It was a holding pattern until almost two years later, when CommuniCore was announced in May 2022.

For reference, this site first discussed “revenge travel” in this post from August 2020. By May 2022, we had literally dozens of posts about pent-up demand at Walt Disney World. That ended up being a blockbuster year for the parks. Heck, Walt Disney World’s overperformance might’ve been how Bob Chapek kept his job for so long even as he bungled pretty much everything else.

Point being, the real revisionist history is pretending that, when CommuniCore Hall was announced, Walt Disney World “needed” to scale back plans “because of the pandemic.” That argument could’ve been made two years earlier, but not in 2022. The circumstances were very different and much more favorable. It was already clear that Disney’s Parks were a stable and reliable business worthy of further investment.

Still, it’s pretty common to forgive and forget construction delays once the end product is finally open. Once the attraction or whatever is open, it (arguably) stops mattering how long it took to build. Most guests are clueless as to that, anyway, and even fans are ready to move on for the most part and judge the thing on its own merits. This is a fair perspective–it’s not like we’re still bemoaning TRON Lightcycle Run’s timeline when discussing that solid addition to Magic Kingdom.

In that spirit, let’s do a thought experiment to see if it’s possible to view CommuniCore Hall & Plaza, and World Celebration as a whole, in  a more favorable light. If the former Future World and Innoventions closed in mid-2023 and this was built in record time, what would our opinion be?

Still negative! It’s not just that this EPCOT overhaul began in earnest on September 9, 2019 and ended up taking longer than the construction of the original EPCOT Center. If anything, the prolonged project worn down a lot of fans (us included!). I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard comments along the lines of, “I’m just ready for this to all be over and the walls to come down at this point.”

There are complaints about the lengthy timeline, to be sure, but sentiment like the above is every bit as common. It thus wouldn’t surprise me if CommuniCore and World Celebration are being graded against the Giant EPCOT Dirt Pit™️ and sea of construction walls–the interim things they replaced–rather than their permanent predecessors.

Anyway, the bigger problem is that things themselves are just not very good. CommuniCore Hall doesn’t look that much different than the Innoventions building it replaced. It rearranges some of the space and freshens up the aesthetic, but it does so in a way that’s wholly unambitious. There’s a reason that it’s getting dragged by fans for looking like a new hospital cafeteria or convention center flex space or airport terminal–because it does. We spent a lot of time at a hospital back in October and I’m no stranger to airports or conventions–those are all right on the money.

More than anything else, CommuniCore Hall reminds me of a new student union built at our alma mater about 10 years ago. The biggest difference is that our university went big with the idea of future-proofing its union because it was outgrowing the old one. That was a smart move–Disney should’ve copied our school’s homework. If they’re going for a real world bland and boring look, why not consult the venues that have honed the practical side of that.

This brings me to one of the key criticisms I have for CommuniCore Hall’s festival space–it’s surprisingly small and oddly shaped! You may not notice this if you visit today and only a scattering of people are in there, but it was bustling for the media event, and it was downright difficult to navigate.

One of my first thoughts upon entering was that it’s undersized for a festival center. I think they’re going to have difficulty using this space for that purpose. Unless they plan on doing a scaled-back festival slate as compared to 2019 in perpetuity.

That brings us to the other big issue I have with CommuniCore Hall. The idea was to replace Innoventions and the makeshift festival centers that had previously been utilized at the Odyssey and Wonders pavilion. From a practical perspective, that made some degree of sense–consolidate everything under one roof near the center of the park.

The problem with CommuniCore is that it doesn’t strike me as superior to the retrofits done with the Odyssey or Wonders. If anything, I prefer both of those existing venues. The Odyssey has more windows and nice views. The Wonders pavilion is much larger and has a bunch of quirky space that, in the past, was used for fun and random purposes. Walt Disney World got creative and put both to use brilliantly for events. CommuniCore isn’t creative on any level, and is at best a lateral move from both of those festival spaces.

Even though it’s been open for a few months, I never reviewed the World Celebration Gardens; I’d be remiss if I didn’t air my grievances about those since I’m already on a bit of a rant. I’ve got a lot of problems with this space, and now you’re gonna hear about it! These so-called gardens also stink!

I recall “The Discourse” on social media when this area first opened, and it was about a 50/50 split of praise and complaints. A lot of the World Celebration Gardens proponents talked up the park-like quality, and how they were a nice place to relax and decompress. An area to simply be–perhaps a palate cleanser or counter-programming to the chaos and crowds of the rest of the park. Fair enough, I thought, and nodded in silent agreement that Walt Disney World could really use more areas exactly like this.

And then I stepped foot in the World Celebration Gardens and immediately wondered whether those fans had ever visited a public park. Seriously. I would describe the style of this area as a cross between hostile architecture and suburban office park. Which is kind of an odd approach since neither the homeless nor Michael Scott are considerations at EPCOT.

I realize that a lot of Walt Disney World fans come from suburbs or other places that don’t have many outdoor public spaces. So perhaps this is unfamiliar from that perspective. But you know who does live around a lot of nice public parks? Every Imagineer based in Glendale, California. In a 25-mile radius of their offices, there are easily a dozen parks that are nicer than the World Celebration Gardens. And most of those aren’t gated behind admission fees of $100+ per day.

So many of the choices in World Celebration’s design, materials, seating, ornamentation, and plants are just perplexing. The space doesn’t feel inviting, a lot of the seating is awkward, way too many of the purely aesthetic flourishes are (purposefully) rusty, and there are shockingly few flowers for “gardens.” (Don’t get me wrong, I love having more plant life–but this is begging for more that isn’t just green.)

The various nooks and alcoves feel like they were designed independently of one another, and just kinda tossed together at the last minute. Disney is so, so good at the architecture of reassurance, but you’d never know it from spending time in these gardens.

To be sure, some of the seating spots are okay in isolation. Pleasant places to take your food and dine if Connections is busy and it’s an overcast day. The problem with these good elements of the World Celebration Gardens is that there’s little daylight between them and an office park.

That would be okay if the plain areas were punctuated by lush but superfluous spaces. Instead, the boring spots are arguably the highlight. Take a photo of these seating areas and somewhere outside an office in Irvine and the “they’re the same picture” meme of Pam from the Office is ironically appropriate.

For their part, the superfluous spaces are uninviting. They’re not unexpected and whimsical delights. More like little pockets of the park that make you say “huh?” and leave immediately. There is no urge to explore the World Celebration Gardens or linger. The best thing about this area is the views of Spaceship Earth, which is better enjoyed from the excellent front entrance area.

On a positive note, the lighting is good. The pavement and mood lighting around the oddly provocative planter is top-notch. I personally thought the old fiber optics had more charm, but in the grand scheme of things, this is fine. It was savvy of Disney to open this area back in winter when there’s like an extra 3 hours of evening, giving this space more time to shine.

It’s not winter anymore, and during the summer when sunset is after 8 p.m., the only time the vast majority of guests are seeing this is when walking towards the exit after Luminous. It’s hard for me to give too much credit for the lighting design when the practical reality is that most guests are spending time here during the day, not at night.

It’s the same story with CommuniCore Plaza, the new stage and concert venue. Excellent and energetic lighting at night, but a shadeless sea of concrete once you get past the very small covered area adjacent to the stage. It’s another perplexing instance of whoever designed this seemingly never stepping outside in Florida 10 months of the year.

Was nothing learned from Stitch’s Supersonic Celebration? Or is everyone who did learn something from that boondoggle simply gone? In any case, I wouldn’t be surprised if ¡Celebración Encanto! is the first and last daytime stage show at this venue, after which it becomes a space for hula-hooping and other activities.

I’d probably be more forgiving of the World Celebration Gardens if they had a water feature. Admittedly, the Fountain of Nations was one of my favorite things about Future World. For good reason–it added excellent kinetic energy to that area of the park, elevating it even when it was otherwise becoming tired.

Removing the Fountain of Nations without a comparable replacement was a mistake. There is now no (worthwhile) focal point of the World Celebration Gardens. The closest thing is now the flower logo planter, but that’s by default. Or perhaps it’s the Walt the Dreamer statue, which should be the icing on the cake rather than the cake itself. (It’s telling when not even nostalgia and fan service–reviving the CommuniCore name–can save this area.)

As a result, the World Celebration Gardens are not a nice place to relax and decompress, or an area to simply be. This area exists as a route from the front of the park to the back. It is utilitarian in nature, with the vast majority of guests not taking time to slow down or savor this space. At least, not for the vast majority of each day or the year.

With all of this said, I want to be clear that I have no delusions about the former Future World and am not viewing that through the rose-colored glasses of nostalgia. It had 1990s dead mall vibes and was overdue for a replacement.

The park’s central spine that runs between Spaceship Earth and World Showcase lagoon has been limping along without any cohesive vision for over two decades. It had been a duct tape approach with new paint schemes, sails, whirlygigs, and other aesthetic flourishes trying to fake a sense of life and kinetic energy.

The central spine was very discordant as a result. A good comparison is the Grand Canyon Concourse at the Contemporary, which is a visual hodgepodge of piecemeal changes over the last few decades. The thing is, the Grand Canyon Concourse wouldn’t be better if it got a generic and sterilized look from the design team at Marriott–it’d just be different. Same idea here. World Celebration Gardens can’t be accused of being dated (for now), but the area can’t really be praised for anything, either.

This sort of cuts to the heart of issues with the World Celebration Gardens and CommuniCore Hall–it’s the worst of all worlds. If it were done in short order, it would be more forgivable. If it were an inexpensive and interim solution, it’d be more forgivable. If it took a ton of time and money but were big and bold, that would also be forgivable.

Going with an ambitious concept that would stand the test of time, as was originally intended, would’ve been fantastic. Alternatively, modernizing the existing space to extend its life and vanquish the dead mall vibes would’ve been fine. I would’ve completely understood if they kicked the can down the road once COVID happened, waiting until the next decade and the fresh $17 billion of planned investment to create something truly worthy of EPCOT.

Skeptics might’ve scoffed, but there were (are) still two suitable festival centers and the more restrained placemaking approach worked incredibly well at both the front entrance plaza and on the other Innoventions building. While I don’t think Creations Shop or Connections Cafe are the pinnacle of themed design, they are worthy upgrades over their immediate predecessors.

Not only that, they seem purposefully designed with the idea that what was outside in World Celebration would be worth seeing. Instead, those floor to ceiling windows have nice views of Spaceship Earth…and that’s about it. (Thankfully, that’s enough!)

While we’re on the topic of other aspects of the EPCOT overhaul, it’s not like we’re negative about this transformation as a whole. Moana’s Journey of Water embodies the spirit of EPCOT Center and its edutainment roots. It’s wonderfully executed and a fantastic role-filling addition. Guardians of the Galaxy: Cosmic Rewind is a shockingly good fit for EPCOT and a fun blockbuster attraction that breathed new life into that corner of the park and has massive drawing power. Point being: we’re not old school purists resistant to any change. We were ready to see EPCOT evolve.

If anything, the problem with the EPCOT overhaul is that it didn’t go far enough. Tons of time, money, and guest goodwill or patience were wasted on completely inconsequential or abandoned projects. EPCOT still needs a lot more help to truly be transformed, but that wouldn’t be the case if resources were just properly allocated in the first place.

Ultimately, I’m glad the Giant EPCOT Dirt Pit™️ has been filled in and the sea of “progress walls” (remember that?) have come down. The World Celebration Gardens and CommuniCore Hall are, in fact, better than unfinished construction and visual blight. So at least there’s that. Like so many other fans, I was worn down by the inexcusable pace of this project and am relieved to just have things normal. And what’s there is fine, I guess. Things looking bland-but-fresh is better than nostalgic dead mall vibes.

But that’s just such a low bar and it’s downright depressing that a creative company known for exceeding expectations delivered this. It’s incredibly discouraging to go through 3 rounds of redesigns and 4+ years of enduring a maze of walls to end up with this. World Celebration and CommuniCore are going to be around for decades to come, and it looks wholly unambitious and uninspired.

Whatever, though. Looking like an Irvine office park and Terminal C at MCO should be good enough. Paying guests should be happy Disney is giving us anything at all, and we should stop complaining. It’s not like this is the park dedicated to the spirit of human innovation and imagination and is constantly framed as the realization of Walt Disney’s last big dream. Oh wait. I’m not mad, I’m just disappointed.

Also, I’m hopeful that this element of the EPCOT overhaul serves as a cautionary tale for the company, and they don’t believe their own hype for it. Here’s hoping that the $17 billion of investments over the coming decade have a bolder and more cohesive vision–along with the appetite to stay the course and execute on it.

Planning a Walt Disney World trip? Learn about hotels on our Walt Disney World Hotels Reviews page. For where to eat, read our Walt Disney World Restaurant Reviews. To save money on tickets or determine which type to buy, read our Tips for Saving Money on Walt Disney World Tickets post. Our What to Pack for Disney Trips post takes a unique look at clever items to take. For what to do and when to do it, our Walt Disney World Ride Guides will help. For comprehensive advice, the best place to start is our Walt Disney World Trip Planning Guide for everything you need to know!

YOUR THOUGHTS

What do you think of CommuniCore Hall or the World Celebration Gardens? Is this a good new-look for the central spine, or underwhelming as compared to the previous multi-level festival center? Looking forward to any of these projects coming to EPCOT? Disappointed about anything that has been delayed or cancelled? Any questions we can help you answer? Hearing your feedback–even when you disagree with us–is both interesting to us and helpful to other readers, so please share your thoughts below in the comments!




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