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History in Motion Part II: How the Original TEST TRACK Changed Epcot Forever

Which version of Test Track is better? Here’s where things get tricky… Test Track was a legend. Epcot’s first certifiable thrill, it helped (for better or worse) to redefine what Epcot could be. We offered earlier that the two version of Test Track are so dissimilar, we consider them two different rides, no more related to one another than a Lost Legend: The Twilight Zone Tower of Terror is to Guardians of the Galaxy – Mission: BREAKOUT!

But to get to the point: which is better? As you might imagine, the decision is a divisive one, and to this day, fans can’t seem to agree on which version of the ride is “better.” In this writer’s opinion, a head-to-head face-off is telling. And any face-off has to begin with this astounding (and sometimes surprising) side-by-side video of both versions of the ride. There are very, very few moments when they resemble one another in anything more than an allusion! (By the way, the video uses binaural sound so that, in headphones, the left ear is the "old" Test Track and the right ear is the "new.")

With that comparison in mind, here are five head-to-head tests of our own design...

HEAD-TO-HEAD #1: Setting and Story

There may be a litany of complaints worth leveling against the rapid loss of Legends at Epcot and the ensuing half-hearted thrill rides that resulted. One common thread is that many of Epcot’s newest generation of rides hit hard on one of our five tell-tale signs of a “bad” ride: they invariably take place in a corporate office or training center.

Image: Disney

Why does that matter? Put simply, it’s a tactic used whenever Imagineers doubt guests’ ability to leave reality behind. If designers don’t think they can trust you to suspend your disbelief and enter another world, they can ground the story in someplace familiar. By having an adventure start in (or worse, wholly take place in) an office, institute, or training center, guests can stay constantly tethered to reality. Exiting through the gift shop is practically assured since you're reminded again and again that the ride is happening in a theme park. In other words, it reassures: "Don't worry! You haven't left the park's pathways too far behind, and you'll be back soon!"

Even if EPCOT Center was always a park that told the truth, rides like Journey into Imagination, World of Motion, Spaceship Earth, The Living Seas, and Horizons could go to incredible places, unimaginable times, and meet unthinkable characters to do it.

Compare that to the coolly received Mission: SPACE, an outright Disaster File: Journey Into YOUR Imagination (below), the short-lived Lost Legend: BODY WARS, and yes, the original Test Track and you’ll see it again and again – constant reminders that what you’re doing is just a test or experiment inside of a theme park, not a legitimate journey.

Image: Disney

In other words, many of Epcot’s current rides seem to mistake the park’s “industry and innovation” focus as a moratorium on transporting guests to another place and time. In the original Test Track’s case, we were meant to believe that we were in a modern industrial factory testing grounds, standing in for crash test dummies. Look up – there are the light fixtures! Look to the left and right – the corrugated steel walls of an industrial showbuilding. The time is now. The place is here. Your role is obvious and contrived. No imagination necessary.

The “new” Test Track changed that, sending us to a world disconnected from our own (even if it’s a microcosm compared to the global span of World of Motion or Journey into Imagination) and, perhaps more than any modern ride Disney’s conceived, trusted its riders to open their minds, make actual choices, and “get” the concept without being hit over the head with it.

Advantage: The “new” Test Track

HEAD-TO-HEAD #2: Future-Readiness

Even separate from its grounded setting, the original Test Track was a product of ‘90s design, and maybe – just maybe! – by 2012, it was showing. The “construction zone” theming around the ride, traffic signs, and “warehouse” queue weren’t inspirational or futuristic, and if Epcot were determined to keep Future World innovative, Test Track would need to change. And what it changed into is, almost inarguably, more futuristic at least, and simply a better design for the 21st century at best.

Even if it might seem odd, the new Test Track was meant to be a flagship for Disney’s MyMagic+, the billion-plus dollar infrastructure rebirth that would update all of Disney’s decades-old systems between parks, hotels, restaurants, and stores in an all-at-once growth spurt. The new Test Track was supposed to be a living example of what that technology could bring – a mere prototype for the way attractions of tomorrow would become personalized to us. At least so far, the new Test Track is the most visible and recognizable personalized attraction credited to MyMagic+, but the test is promising.

Advantage: The “new” Test Track

HEAD-TO-HEAD #3: Fun Factor

Image: General Motors

Maybe it's unfair to make "fun" into a quantifiable measure, but we wholeheartedly hand this category to the "old" Test Track. While it wasn't packed with outright puns or slapstick humor, it had an element of goofiness and self-awareness that stuck. Even if we can logically see the fault in the ride's "grounded" setting and its distinctly unfuturistic vibe, we can also appreciate that there's something gleeful about passing through the hot and cold environmental chambers; weaving around cones toward our own reflection; zipping past cardboard trees on a clearly-contrived obstacle course; of becoming a crash test dummy.

From its musical, kinetic factory queue to a ride packed with cutout figures and traffic signs, the original Test Track wasn't very high-brow, and maybe that's an advantage. Instead, it was just... fun. And to this day, the moment when you realized that you'd lined up with a barrier crash test ought to be regarded as one of the more fun and clever moments on any of Disney's modern dark rides. 

The "new" Test Track, on the whole, takes itself much more seriously. That may be more fitting for the future of Epcot, but it's not nearly as "zany" as the original ride felt. Whether that's an improvement or not is up to riders to decide, but for our part, we've got to give credit where credit is due.

Advantage: The "old" Test Track

HEAD-TO-HEAD #4: Educational Aspect

Image: Disney

At Epcot’s core is education by means of inspiration. By exposing people to the prologues of the past and the possibilities of the future, it was meant to inspire futurism, Americana, and innovation. But an unfortunate reputation as “the educational park” seemed to cripple it, making it a pop culture parody; the Disney World park kids dreaded wasting a day at.

Test Track, by its nature, was meant to renew interest in a fledgling park that was quickly losing its way and its sponsors. And even if Test Track was vastly different from World of Motion, it retained an educational point – exploring the unseen world of how we know our vehicles are safe. So much more than an afterthought, this dissection of manufacturing and safety was the whole point, even if it was cast in a thrill ride shell. GM would’ve doubtlessly hoped that riders would leave Test Track with an appreciation for what their car can withstand and the process GM uses to test those extremes.

Admittedly, that made TEST TRACK the first Future World ride to drop the "big picture" of an industry's centuries of development and forward-looking predictions in favor of zooming into a microcosm. But for its practical applications, the original TEST TRACK balanced education and entertainment skillfully.

Image: Disney

The new Test Track has a vastly different point. It’s not at all about safety features or vehicle testing, despite using the latter as a (pardon the pun) vehicle to get its message across. The new Test Track is a living exhibition focused on STEAM – science, technology, engineering, art, and mathematics. By placing the engineering process into the hands of guests and allowing them to conceptually connect their choices with four staples of vehicle design – Capability, Efficiency, Responsiveness, and Power – the disconnected “tests” of the original Test Track have been regrouped and repurposed as messages worth remembering. In that regard, the new Test Track is more broadly applicable to career interests and a STEAM-focused future.

Advantage: TIE

HEAD-TO-HEAD #5: Aligned with Epcot’s Growth

Image: Disney

Upon its opening in 2012, fans were struck by just how much the new Test Track looked like it had sprung from the groundbreaking 1982 science fiction cult classic, TRON, and its 2010 sequel, TRON: Legacy. Glowing neon pathways, towering pulsing energy beams, digital mountains erupting into pixels, and simulated vehicles racing through laser-grids… The resemblance was uncanny. So identifiable was the style, fans wondered aloud if the new Test Track might’ve been intended to become a TRON Track.

But it all made sense just a few years later when a radical new departure of a Disney Park opened. We explored the full story in our In-Depth: Shanghai Disneyland walkthrough, but suffice it to say that this one-of-a-kind Magic-Kingdom style park did away with Tomorrowland’s classic Space Mountain and instead features a certified Modern Marvel: TRON Lightcycle Power Run, a launched roller coaster that might as well be a sequel to the Test Track Disney debuted in 2012. It’s obvious now that Test Track was indeed a test… to see if Disney could adequately recreate the world of TRON in a ride.

Image: Disney

And by the way, in 2017 Disney announced a long-anticipated foundational rebuild for Future World on par with (or maybe exceeding) the complete rebirth of a truly deserving Disaster File: Disney’s California Adventure. More than likely, Future World will be flooded with characters (Inside Out in Imagination, the already-confirmedGuardians of the Galaxy in Energy, etc.), and we wouldn’t at all be surprised to see the new Test Track officially adopt TRON when that floodwall bursts.

Advantage: The “new” Test Track

Results Displayed and Verified

To wrap it up, this writer has no qualms about awarding the “new” Test Track over its predecessor. The new version of the ride is transportive, innovative, poised for the future, and educational. While the old Test Track had its strengths in those areas, too, the “new” Test Track was clearly meant to improve upon each (and indeed, why would they change it unless something were broken?) and in our opinion, they succeeded.

Look, Test Track was a wonder – a game-changing ride for Epcot, Disney World, and Disney Parks. Without the original Test Track, we wouldn’t have the new Test Track, Radiator Springs Racers in Cars Land, or Imagineering’s magnum opus, Journey to the Center of the Earth at Tokyo DisneySea. Groundbreaking in every way, we’re absolutely positive that Test Track deserves Lost Legend status, standing among Epcot’s greatest.

Image: Josh Hallett, Flickr (license)

In this particular case, though, saying goodbye to this Legend isn’t about mourning, but celebrating. By our count, the “new” Test Track is an improvement. Even if it takes itself more seriously than the ride that came before, Test Track Presented by Chevrolet signals the direction Epcot should be going in and provides a great deal of hope for the future. 

If you were fascinated by this look back at the classic Test Track, we've got just the place for you... Make the jump over to our In-Depth Collections Library to rev up and set course for another of Epcot's storied Lost Legends.

Then, use the comments below to tell us… did you get a chance to experience both version of Epcot’s Test Track? Which do you prefer, and why? Do you think we’ve reached the end of the story for the transportation pavilion, or will the current ride eventually lose its futuristic grandeur and need an update of its own? Is the “new” Test Track poised to welcome TRON if (or when) a sweeping character infusion overtakes the park? Or does that undermine the entire purpose of exploring the very real career of vehicle engineering and design? 

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There are 3 comments.

That was an excellent article - my compliments! I only have the faintest memories of the original World of Motion, but that article dredged back memories I had long forgotten. I love reading about the history and background of these rides - EPCOT especially!
I think both versions of TT were/are pretty great. When you're discussing current/future technology, an occasional rehabilitation and update will be necessary (you can't talk about the future using a 20-year old history textbook, after all!) I think the current update is pretty secure, as they brought the ride towards a more "sci-fi" setting which ages much better. I hope they'll leave TRON out of Future World entirely, unless they can find some way to blend the fiction with a little bit of education (a la Nemo and Living Seas). TRON may be a good replacement for an Innovations wing, perhaps?

Candidly, I am shocked that anybody would find the new test track to be anywhere nearly as good as the original - let alone better
The new one is commercial and boring; the old one actually showed you more about the insides of an automaker and the track was, in my opinion 10 times better.

Have to agree. Last time I went to Disney (2014) I was baffled when I rode the test track. I felt like the old one was way more action-packed! The photos right as the acceleration hit were process.

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