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Boston Weather: 45.0°F | Overcast

In Florida, the Electric Char Rivals Disney's Rides

Column by Jonathan Richmond
AdvIsory BoaRd

Sun continues to reign as my Northworst Airlines flight heads north through crispy-clear skies, reluctant to leave this summerlike fantasyland to return to the witch's-snarl-weather awaiting our arrival in Boston with wicked outstretched arms. Lunch has just been served: some fatty pieces of ham floating above rubber-textured macaroni laced with congealed cheap cheese and a few unnatural looking peas. As I don't eat pork anyway, I lamely nibble on the bread roll, which is quite thoroughly stale. The coffee, decanted from an open-topped and heat-dispersing plastic container, is almost cold. But the sun continues to shine in through the window.

I'd originally intended to stay in Florida only for the weekend, on a trip to visit friends in Miami inspired by a free ticket sent courtesy of Northworst management to compensate me for some previous less-than-delightful service. But the advantage of free tickets is that -- unlike excursion ones -- they can be changed on the slightest whim, so here I am leaving Tampa, with a whole six days gone by, sitting in a nerd-like crouch over my laptop to give those of you headed south for Spring Break some tips on what to do.

You can skip the whole Disney complex to start with, unless you're enamored of long sticky queues and monotonous rides which all seem the same after a short while. "Every Person Comes Out Tired," said the tram conductor as we headed for the EPCOT parking lot at closing time, and from the looks on peoples' faces they weren't just tired: they were bored. EPCOT is supposed to display a community of the future and pretends to have educational value. It' s in fact just another way for Disney to make money, and they certainly succeed at that. A pass to see all three parks (Disney World and MGM Studios are the others) will set you back a minimum of $125 for four days, unless you buy a ticket of dubious authenticity or legality from one of the many evil-eyed scalpers lurking nearby: these go for about $40 a day. Disney could solve the problem, of course, by being mildly less greedy and making an all-park one-day pass available for a reasonable price (Disney's official one-day passes are only good for one park). But remember: the only thing Mickey likes about you is your money.

The techno-wonderland EPCOT presents is quite sterile. "Journey Into Imagination" is entirely lacking in . . . imagination. At first the mechanical creatures -- used in rides in all three parks -- seem quite ingenious, but their lack of human scale and relentless computer-controlled repetition renders them sterile. Visitors are continuously told to use their "imagination" so that any dream can come true, but there is nothing subtle or intriguing about the displays of artifice relentlessly unfolding as the automatic transport system carries one through.

In "Horizons," a picture of the ideal city of tomorrow, earthdwellers clad in Star Trek-style polyester look out at a series of buildings of monstrous high-tech ugliness and a spaceport which is a shattering eyesore. It is a landscape as cold as my Northworst coffee, with no place for humor or anything else human. The image is in fact a metaphor for EPCOT as a whole: a computerized machine which works with precision, but without providing sustenance for the human spirit.

The whole complex revolves around the "ooh-ah" reflex, continually pounding in the message that technology is wonderful, but without inviting the visitor to ask any questions. A clever idea -- of putting the audience into a craft which miniaturizes itself for an exploration of the human body in an attraction called "Body Wars" in the "Wonders of Life" pavilion -- thus turns into a wasted opportunity. This could have been a great chance to show all sorts of body organs close up and provide explanations of what they do in a vivid and educational way. Instead it's another boring action-adventure, complete with a less-than spontaneous emergency and eventual rescue. A movie on reproduction is nothing short of embarrassing, getting all coy and squeamish -- rather than being direct and honest -- over the subject of sex. It instills exactly the wrong attitude towards the subject in any children watching. Exhibit after exhibit hauls the visitor through dark passageways to myriad artificial landscapes populated with mechanical dolls which move their lips, but have no animus. It all gets very tiresome.

Disney World, of course, is supposed to be purely for fun, rather than educational, but here, too, the fun wears thin. Some of the rides are very good -- I particularly liked the Tiki House with its singing parrots and flowers -- but a feeling of sameness can quickly set in. The 3 p.m. parade is supposed to be the highlight of the day, and the massive Mickeys and Goofys are a sight to be seen. Yet the same tape plays over and over again as the parade precedes, and the choreography has an atmosphere of the artificial which after a few minutes becomes quite chilling: everything works splendidly, everything is exactly in place, but there is absolutely no room for imagination or originality.

I didn't have much time for MGM Studios, but after the dullard "Great Movie Ride," I found relief at a wonderful exhibit on Disney animation. Here at last was a good dose of humor: Walter Cronkite teams up with a cartoon character to tell the audience how it's all done, with the tools of animation on show all around.

The Kennedy Space Center provides a far better -- and cheaper -- alternative to Disney. Most notable is the human element flowing through all of its exhibits and tours. It is refreshing to be constantly reminded that the things on view are "only machines; people bring them alive." Of course, the machinery on view is much more exciting than anything at EPCOT. A tour lasting over two hours costs only $7. A walk along an Apollo rocket laid on its side gives an impression of its incredible size. We were also taken for a view of the Shuttle Columbia, then on the launch pad. A second tour is available to provide a glimpse at the historic development of rocketry: perhaps most amusing was the display of prehistoric computing equipment. There is a full day's worth of activities in the central area itself -- where the tours start -- including a "Gallery of Spaceflight" packed with interesting objects and well-written explanations, a walk-through exhibit on satellites, and a choice of two IMAX films ($4 apiece; the other activities are free). The astronauts' memorial represents the human cost of space exploration; it revolves to always catch the sun.

Another nerd activity of potential interest to MIT people is the Edison Winter Home in Fort Myers, which includes a large exhibit hall full of paraphernalia ranging from electrical equipment to colorful phonographs. Edison's laboratory -- in which he conducted experiments on rubber -- is also open to view, as is the adjoining house which Henry Ford occupied.

But Florida's most unusual tourist attraction can be found in Miami. Presenting the execution experience in the style of a Disney ride, the American Police Hall of Fame and Museum provides a tasteless tour of the equipment of death. "Please feel free to sit in the gas chamber seat and have your photo taken. Enjoy yourselves," says a fruity voice as the visitor approaches this grisly display. Enjoy yourself?

There's a recording to warn people approaching the guillotine to not put their heads under the blade -- or tamper with the release ropes. But perhaps the electric chair is the most sickening exhibit of all. It's true that it is sturdily built, and much more comfortable than my Northworst seat, but that's its only redeeming feature. Visitors are not only invited to be strapped into the chair, but to have the electrical connections attached and to press a button. Pressing the button puts the prison warden on air to read your sentence of death and count down from five. There is then the sound of a loud electrical discharge. There is no warning in advance that this will happen, although it would be terrifying to children -- and many adults too. Next to the chair is a picture of Ted Bundy after execution -- with the electrical burns on his body in full view. There are nauseating commentaries about bodies turning "beet red" in the chair and discoursing on how the voltage is regulated to cut down on burning. This chamber of horrors gloats over those sentenced to death and is a disgrace to the police organizations which promote it. It's interesting to note that while right-wing politicians complain about provocative but inoffensive sexually explicit art such as we recently saw at the List Gallery at MIT, the very real and harmful obscenities in this police exhibit slip by without criticism.

The aircraft heads into the north and the cold, a reminder that Florida's number one attraction is the sun. When Mickey no longer seems like your best friend, just go and stretch out on a quiet stretch of beach. Enjoy!

Jonathan Richmond is a visiting scientist at the Center for Transportation Studies.