If you were lucky enough to be a small kid roaming Disney World’s Epcot Center until just a few years ago, you would have seen a ride nestled next to the monorail tracks that beckoned with gleaming mirror walls.
An indoor ride, it was a welcome reprieve from the Florida sun. After buckling into your seat in what seemed like a theater auditorium, and the lights dimmed, a familiar figure would appear on the huge screen in front of you.
“You’re probably surprised to see me here, aren’t you?” pealed a twinkly Ellen DeGeneres.
The ride purported to tell the story of energy. It was awe-inspiring and warm-hearted in the Disney mold and also featured Jamie Lee Curtis, the late Jeopardy host Alex Trebek and science communicator Bill Nye.
What went unsaid was the fact that, for a theme park, it had an unlikely corporate sponsor: the US oil giant Exxon. And the message directed at the often young minds of riders was brazen and, in the light of the climate emergency now unfolding, quite remarkable: fossil fuels are glorious and the climate crisis is not such a big deal. Yet somehow, even though it only shuttered in 2017, the ride has largely been lost to cultural history.
But now, as Exxon and other oil firms face a wave of lawsuits seeking to hold them accountable for the climate crisis, grounded by charges that they sought to deceive the public about their role in it, the ride seems newly relevant as evidence of the kind of narrative big oil sought to promote.
Exxon supported it although the company had known for decades how ruinous the climate crisis would be, but kept its findings secret. 1982, the year the ride opened, was the same year that Exxon’s own scientists predicted that a spike in carbon dioxide emissions would result in the warming of the planet.
So buckle up for the story of Ellen’s Energy Adventure.
The ride begins with riders still watching a movie screen as DeGeneres, snuggling with her cat in front of an episode of Jeopardy!, takes a nap.
She dreams that she is a contestant on the show, alongside Curtis and Albert Einstein. All the questions are themed around energy. (For instance: fossil fuels for $100!)
DeGeneres finds that her knowledge of fossil fuels pales beside that of Curtis, who plays a smarmy scientist type. Nye happily materializes to take her on an educational journey back, way back about 220m years.
We soar past dazzling solar systems and nebulas, zeroing in on a familiar blue marble, and crash-land in a tropical forest. We hear the cries of strange animals.
DeGeneres, confused: Where’s the energy?
Nye, wearing a pith hat: Oh, it’s all around you! See these plants and animals are soaking up energy from the sun. When they die and get buried, time, pressure and heat will cook them into the fossil fuels we rely on today – like coal, natural gas and oil!
And now the ride becomes very different, as the cinema screen disappears and the seating sections begin to move, passing dioramas of roaring animatronic dinosaurs, and even an animatronic model of DeGeneres herself fighting a feisty reptile. It is Jurassic Park, but cheesier.
When the movie resumes, the ride’s sympathies have all the subtlety of a tyrannosaurus. Nye teaches DeGeneres about renewables, but warns they can’t provide all of humanity’s needs. Riders are then treated to lyrical aerial shots of a coal train and jaunty music. Nye tells DeGeneres not to worry about the world’s energy problems – there are thankfully two centuries’ worth of coal left for us to burn.
DeGeneres, guileless: What about global warming?
Nye, noncommittal: It’s a hot topic with lots of questions and it’s one of the big reasons scientists are working on ways to burn fuels like coal more efficiently than ever.
(Factcheck: the industry promises of “clean coal” have not been borne out.)
Cue shots of a gas power plant (Nye, incorrectly, states: “It’s clean-burning!”) and oil rigs. A worried DeGeneres asks Nye whether we’ll run out of oil. Nye reassures her that we’re always finding more.
For the ride’s finale, DeGeneres returns to Jeopardy!. She vanquishes that unctuous Jamie Lee Curtis and realizes the true, Disney-esque conclusion of the whole experience: The world’s greatest source of energy is in fact … (God help us) the human mind.
Though understated compared with the rollercoasters and 4D rides, Ellen’s Energy Adventure was a beloved part of the Disney machine. It built up a devoted fandom that spawned countless YouTube videos, tweets, wikis and blogposts.
“It was the very first Disney attraction I ever experienced,” says 27-year-old Landon, a Disney enthusiast whose family took him there when he was 13 (and who did not want to share his last name). “I enjoyed the cheesy humor and the prehistoric animatronics. As midwesterners, it felt pretty fresh.”
DeGeneres, Nye, Disney and Exxon all did not respond to requests for comment for this story, so everyone’s motivations will remain somewhat mysterious. But Exxon and other oil firms have engaged in a decades-long campaign to counter climate warnings, which would entail attempting to intimidate its critics, deploying DC lobbyists, releasing misleading statements while suppressing factual information and yes, also capturing the hearts and minds of impressionable youth at the happiest place on Earth.
The ride wasn’t the only collaboration Exxon had with Disney – they also published a comic book featuring Goofy and Mickey Mouse. And Exxon wasn’t the only energy company wooing kids. BP used to sponsor an exhibit at a New Orleans aquarium. The same BP that was behind the largest marine oil spill in history somewhere off the coast of New Orleans.
At Disney, “it’s easy to imagine that they wanted to indoctrinate children so that children don’t realize that ExxonMobil is destroying the future planet that they will inherit, which is incredibly machiavellian and evil,” says prominent climatologist Dr Michael Mann.
Fast forward and Ellen’s Energy Adventure with all its oil-shilling playfulness is long gone, and is in the process of being replaced by a newer, flashier Guardians of the Galaxy ride. (“What is pain” one fan account tweeted about its closure.) Fossil fuel interests have moved on to more sophisticated tactics to sway the public, no longer outright denying the impact of climate change but shifting to a strategy of deflection and delay. The cost of changing to another energy source is simply too prohibitive, they say, even though “the cost of inaction now far exceeds the cost of action”, explains Mann.
And it turns out that fossil fuel giants might have been right to be concerned about children. In this modern age, one of the great threats to our world’s fossil fuel dependency is the youth climate movement. (An Opec boss seemed to say as much.)
As we struggle to find a way forward, it’s illuminating to look backward at this bizarre ride that originated in the pre-internet age and will forever live at the intersection of climate disruption, corporate deception and millennial nostalgia.
In what feels like a prescient scene from the ride, a chirpy DeGeneres glances at the audience in the middle of her time-traveling dream sequence and quips: “Is this a nightmare, or what?”