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Disney creates a millennial spirit

Epcot's Tapestry of Nations is a spiritual, artistic celebration, and the Millennium Village could teach the United Nations a few things.

By ROBERT JENKINS

© St. Petersburg Times, published October 5, 1999


LAKE BUENA VISTA -- Since Epcot opened 17 years and four days ago, it has been both faulted and praised by customers for its emphasis on educating rather than entertaining. The 15-month Millennium Celebration that began Friday gives both sides in the discussion more ammunition.

The park's mission of offering easily digestible tastes of foreign culture has been expanded with Millennium Village, a compact, if lightweight, blend of world expo and county fair. But guests are more likely to leave Epcot jabbering about the spectacular and even spiritual Tapestry of Nations parade, which is followed by an ooohh-inspiring fireworks finale.

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Dozens of giant puppets strut and swirl as the three identical segments of the Tapestry of Nations parade roll around Epcot's World Showcase Lagoon. [Times photos: Dirk Shadd]
Tapestry's two elements parade along the wide promenade circling the World Showcase Lagoon: Impressively imaginative puppets that soar 18 feet above their strutting, dancing handlers and hundreds of drumheads encased within massive, rolling clock faces.

"The puppets are the pieces of the world. The drums built inside the clocks are like a great wheel of time, moving forward," explains Gary Paben, the senior show director at Walt Disney World who created Tapestry of Nations.

"Drums seemed essential -- the driving force, giving a tribal feel," Paben said, to the parade's basic theme. "It celebrates diversity; at the end, everyone should be dancing hand in hand."

Paben told reporters on Friday, the day the Millennium Celebration opened, that during brainstorming for the entire celebration he decided, "The parade should have elements of fire, dance, sculpture, art, sounds and movement. . . . We put these general themes in a snowdome and shook it up."

The Tapestry parade is actually three identical units, performing simultaneously at different places around the large World Showcase Lagoon. Each segment's rolling clock/drums, played by 10 drummers, provide the beat underlying the custom musical score, recorded at the Beatles-blessed Abbey Road Studios.

While the drumbeats have some spectators swaying, everyone seems enthralled by the 40 towering puppets as they dance and dip, articulated bodies letting the puppeteers endow them with human motions and even personality.

That's just as Michael Curry intended. Curry, who designed parts of Broadway's acclaimed Beauty and the Beast, designed and built the puppets. "Some of them have been named -- Wriggle Girl, Pearl -- by their puppeteers," Curry said Friday. "I promote the idea that the puppeteers develop a friendship with their puppets."

Will Curry and his sister Eva watch as the Tapestry of Nations moves through Epcot. Their father, Michael Curry, designed and built the puppets.

There are eight puppet designs. Some of the figures gently flap colorful gossamer wings; others are fashioned from high-density foam covered in metallic leaf.

"Gary gave me one word for guidance in designing the puppets: spirituality," said Curry. "I wanted to give them an uplifting, transcendental, lighter-than-air feeling. I looked at the qualities of kites, clouds, airplanes."

Because "all cultures of the world are in one show," continued Curry, "I created a generic silhouette."

Paben added: "The puppets are pools of light and fire, moving rainbows."

Fireworks light up the sky during Illuminations 2000.

From the gentle, reassuring optimism of rainbows, spectators are later dazzled by what is Disney World's largest fireworks-and-fire show ever.

IllumiNations 2000: Reflections of Earth occurs on and above the lagoon. From 14 barges, at the direction of 67 computers, erupt 2,800 fireworks shells and hundreds of gallons of liquid propane fires. Most of the flames come from 37 nozzles on the fire barge, where the temperature reaches 1,400 degrees; that heat can be felt on the shoreline.

Each shell's launch, accomplished through an estimated 15,000 lines of computer code, matches a note of music in another custom-written score.

"The musical score is in three parts," said Don Dorsey, creator/director of IllumiNations 2000: "Cosmic chaos, or how the Earth was formed; what has happened since; what happens next. The pace of the music constantly accelerates," as do the explosions, flames and multicolored jets of water.

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Michael Curry says he sought to give an uplighting feeling to the puppets.
The star of this show is one of the biggest performers in all of Disney World: the Earth Globe, nicknamed Terra Floata. With its barge, the Globe weighs about 400,000 pounds, requiring an infrared guidance system to position it precisely on the lagoon.

The globe is 28 feet in diameter, rotates three times a minute and is covered with 180,000 LEDs -- light-emitting diodes. The diodes define the Earth's continents and in marvelous clarity show an ever-changing series of images: art such as the Mona Lisa, the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, The Scream; animals in the wild, and, of course, the diversity of humankind.

When the 13-minute-long Illuminations ends, spectators cheer and applaud. Also elated are the bosses of the nearly 700 people involved over the past three years in creating and engineering the pyrotechnics and the Tapestry parade. Disney has its own way to gauge the results, of course.

Illuminations 2000 creator/director Dorsey "knew exactly what he wanted, how big it was to be and how it was to move," noted Jerold Kaplan, a senior project engineer. "Normally as an engineer, you judge your project by how many parts you have to throw away; our scrap pile on this one is very small."

The view from the corporate side is a little more philosophical.

"The show connects on an emotional level more than any other show we've done," said George Kalogridis, vice president for Epcot. "This talks to the human spirit."

So do the vivacious young hosts in Millennium Village, a kaleidoscope of colors, accents and ingenuity. Here in 65,000 square feet of space, cheerfulness practically sweeps visitors from country to country -- past Sweden's odd egg-shaped display of the seasons (check out their Frosty the Snowman) to the eager-to-please Eritreans demonstrating their traditional welcoming coffee ceremony, to the marvelous artisans selling handiworks.

Like life imitating life, nationals of the 15 or so cultures represented butt up against each other's efforts but also pitch in to ease the way for their neighbors.

Ross, of Scotland, explains that his country's exhibit showcase various Scottish inventions, from the basic telephone to the nonbasic Dolly, the cloned sheep. Because the Scots also invented golf, the exhibit uses miniature-golf holes (no windmills or clown mouths opening) for visitors to putt at and then glance up to read the invention factoids.

Unfortunately for Ross, his rich brogue is all but drowned out by the noise coming across a narrow aisle from the Brazilian exhibit. There, Paulo and his exuberant colleagues, resembling an Up With People troupe wired on too many espresso grandes, are bouncing about and shouting as they cheer their guests playing an interactive video game of soccer -- "We call it futebol."

Next along the village's carpeted path, the college-age Saudi Arabians such as Ha'il, in traditional white caftan and red-and-white checked headdress, are emulating both the Scottish and the Brazilians: Several Saudis are graciously reserved, offering dates and coffee, while a colleague is leaping about and waving his arms, encouraging visitors to jump on a movable platform as part of a game.

Perhaps 10 yards away, at the other end of the Saudi pavilion, a cheerful young woman from Cardiff, Wales, is directing passers-by into a tiny movie theater showing Spirit of the Desert. She was not busy at the international quiz-game area just around the corner, she explains, so she came to help people whose nation she has never visited.

That serves as a pretty good realization of the Millennium Celebration's touchy-feely motto: "Celebrate the future hand in hand."

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