Monday, August 19, 2013

Did You Sea This News?


With all the incredible advances in learning more about the alien world beneath our feet, every day it seems more and more of a shame that EPCOT only offers up cartoon fish and singing stingrays.

"Seas that would make this planet unlike any other within the realm of our knowledge. ... It is there, in those depths, in an endless night darker than the darkest night on land, that we are just now beginning to explore an amazing world."

This was in the news today:

http://news.yahoo.com/explore-underwater-volcano-live-hd-025051534.html

If only Disney were still as enamored of the world around (and below) us as they are with Wall Street.

I only just found this blog -- and was shocked to learn that even Disney's own website admits that The Living Seas was way cooler than we ever appreciated?


Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Why EPCOT Lost Its Way

At the D23 Expo last week, a frenzied festival of corporate control and spin, there was this discovery:


How did Disney allow this to escape?  Or this?


What on Spaceship Earth was someone at Disney thinking when they allowed things like this to be seen?


Of course, you'll probably recognize these as abandoned, never-built concepts for EPCOT Center, and as such they are extraordinary to look at.  The original concept for The Land may be the single most astonishing thing I've ever seen come out of Imagineering.  As a sixth-grader, I remember reading about it, but to see it in three dimensions as an adult is just staggering.  It is everything you could hope for in a Disney attraction ... and possibly more.

It was odd and disappointing to think that during the D23 Expo, literally scores of Disney executives walked by these models.

How is it possible that the visions and dreams of nearly four decades ago are so much more daring, exciting, vibrant and bold than the concepts put forth today?  It got me thinking about how EPCOT, a project unlike any Disney has ever again undertaken, could have lost its way.

This isn't a question of how EPCOT got derailed.  The answer to that one is easy: Money.  The visions have always been there; virtually every Imagineer you meet will tell you that Disneyland may have inspired them, but EPCOT really sold them on the idea that Disney was a visionary organization.

Money, and the constant need to gratify the gambling addicts on Wall Street, was the primary motivator behind the downsizing, though even in the late 1980s and early 1990s, Disney was promising lots of creative growth for EPCOT.

But what's most interesting to me, at least, is that EPCOT became mired in politics.  Yes, there were the always formidable internal politics of The Walt Disney Company, an organization that is primarily run to satisfy the outsized egos of a handful of key executives ... and EPCOT was never the kind of place those executives cared about.  EPCOT never really got a "seat at the table" when it came time to talk about Disney's brand, even though it stood apart so starkly from every other aspect of Disney.  It was the lanky, skinny, introspective middle child who everyone dismissed as the odd-duck outlier -- just over there in the corner, quietly doing its own thing, while its siblings picked on it mercilessly.

What really clinched EPCOT's fate, though, came not from inside The Walt Disney Company, but from outside.

EPCOT was conceived -- first as a city, then as a theme park -- by a slightly naive, though undeniably genius, group of people.  Walt Disney was a brilliant businessman, an extraordinary artistic visionary, perhaps the most influential entertainment executive (ugh, I hate that word, but that's what he was) who ever lived.

On top of that, he was incredibly optimistic and, by his own admission, could be naive.

He also had the temerity to die at the least-opportune time for the concept he was most enthusiastic about: EPCOT.  To hear Marty Sklar, former head of Imagineering, tell the story, the municipal version of EPCOT was possible to realize ... but only with Walt.  Once he died, no one had the vision, the daring or, quite simply, the personal connections and influence to see it through to completion.

When Walt Disney died, the world was on the brink of change.  John F. Kennedy had been assassinated, but Martin Luther King and Robert F. Kennedy were still to come.  The U.S. was involved with Vietnam, but the violent opposition to that war hadn't erupted.  Richard Nixon was on the political map, but he hadn't ascended to power.  There was a counter-culture of flower children, hippies, gays, women and blacks eager to find their voice, but they hadn't spoken forcefully yet.

On December 15, 1966, the world was a very different place than on October 1, 1982.  Nearly sixteen years after Walt's death, EPCOT Center opened and presented a vision of the future that seemed ... out of synch.  It wasn't outdated, exactly, because the technology marveled, and the concepts were fascinating.  But EPCOT still held to an ideal Walt believed in strongly: that the problems of the world were going to be solved by its corporations and the people who ran them.

Maybe he knew better, maybe he didn't, but Walt at least seemed to believe that companies like Dow Chemical were trying to make the world a better place; we hadn't heard about Napalm yet.  Agent Orange wasn't Monsanto's claim to fame -- they made chemicals to improve your every day life.  The public didn't perceive Exxon as a polluter and Kraft as a purveyor of junk food in the 1950s and 1960s, they saw these companies as protectors of the common good.

That changed in the 1970s.  By the time construction on EPCOT Center was in full swing, Americans were desperate for the war in Vietnam to end; they had lost faith not just in a president but in the entire American way of government; they were besieged by revelations that the companies and brands they trusted hadn't returned that trust in turn.

By the time the 21st Century began on October 1, 1982, the claims EPCOT was making were at best suspect.  The idea that a bright and shiny exploration of one possible future world was all "presented by" and "sponsored by" companies we didn't trust was a tough sell, both to the public and future sponsors.

Still, it persisted, and for a while even thrived.  Then, as contracts expired, corporate sponsors became more and more difficult to find.

In part, this was due to Disney's intractability over costs; the price of sponsorship of an EPCOT pavilion is, in a word, extraordinary.

In part, it was due to the rise of technology in marketing and communications: It was no longer necessary to try to reach a large, captive audience when you could reach them in so many new ways, with more individualized messages.

In part, it was due to Disney's lack of interest in EPCOT: It was just too difficult to define, and didn't really fit in to the company's new corporate mindset, except in the sense that it brought in a lot of money.

EPCOT has suffered, there's no doubt.  While there's still a lot to be impressed by at today's Epcot, the much-rumored addition of Phineas and Ferb to the Imagination pavilion, the rise of the thematically incongruous Soarin' to The Land pavilion, the replacement of Horizons with Mission: Space (a ride whose animation and technology is already on the cusp of being outdated) ... they all seem to pale in comparison to the bold visions seen in the models on display at the D23 Expo.

If Disney wanted to remind its most loyal audience that today's Imagineering can't hold a candle to the Imagineering of 30 years ago, they did an excellent job of that.

But it also begs the question of why Epcot had to decline the way it has done so dramatically.  The Walt Disney Company can spend $4 billion to buy Lucasfilm Ltd. and barely bat an eye.  Yet, when it comes to re-designing and updating an attraction like the Universe of Energy -- which was last upgraded in 1996, when the world was arguably more different compared with today than 1982 was compared with 1966 -- Disney claims it cannot improve Epcot without the involvement of sponsors.

Could it be that there's simply not an animated character that fits the vague "energy" theme like Nemo fits with "the seas"?  That there's no reason for spending cash if the result can't benefit Disney's merchandise sales?

Disney's claims that sponsors are needed to underwrite Epcot aren't just ludicrous, they're not in keeping with the way the park has developed.  We lost trust of corporations years and years ago, before EPCOT even opened, but a very large number of people have never lost trust in Disney.  Disney can tell its own stories now, in a way it couldn't afford to do 30 years ago.

EPCOT lost its way because its creators assumed the world would never change, that we would always trust companies to do the right thing.

Unfortunately, it seems, we can't even trust Disney to do the right thing with the suffering, increasingly dilapidated EPCOT.  Ah, if only it had achieved the lofty ambitions its Imagineers dreamed up so many decades ago!

Monday, August 12, 2013

The Best EPCOT?

Yes, I know ... it's been a while since I've posted, thanks to business travel and all sorts of other distractions.  But with the recent rumors floating fast and furious that Phineas and Ferb will join Nemo and the Three Caballeros in the endless dumbing down of a half-empty EPCOT, here's a video I stumbled across on YouTube that shows off EPCOT Center in 1992, arguably the very best it ever got.

Enjoy.


I'll have more to say about the head-scratching choices allegedly in play for the Imagination pavilion once Disney confirms (or denies) what they are actually doing there.

For now, ain't it a shame that Universe of Energy hasn't been updated in 17 years, The Wonders of Life is an empty shell, Horizons doesn't exist, World of Motion is a noisy hodgepodge, half of Imagination sits unused (and has a 26-year-old 3-D film as its "centerpiece"), and the Living Seas has been cartoonized?

Well, I think it's sad.  So I mostly try not to think at all about it.

Thursday, June 06, 2013

The High Cost of Disney Living


Thinking back to my last post about the cost of admission to a Disney theme park and the decision by Disney to spend more than $1 billion on a marketing system to track guests (rather than on, you know, attractions and improvements), I started wondering exactly how much the cost of Disney has increased relative to other items in our expensive world.

I discovered that the median American salary in 2012 was $50,413, and back in 1982 -- the year that's most important to readers of EPCOT Central -- it was $18,641, for an increase in 30 years of 175%.

The cost of a gallon of gas in 1982 was 91¢.  Last year, it was $3.63, for an increase of 299%.  Not looking pretty for Average Joe American, is it?

The car you put that gas in cost, on average, $7,983 in 1982.  In 2012, it had risen 279% to $30,303.  Ulp!

The average price of a new house was $79,900 in 1982, and by 2008 -- the height of the real-estate bubble -- it had ballooned 281% to $301,000, though by last year had declined considerably to $152,000, which would still be a 90% increase versus 1982.

If those prices were out of your league, you could have just gone to a movie: In 1982, the average movie ticket would set you back $2.92.  By 2012, the average ticket price had risen 175% to $8.02.

The cost of a Disney vacation?

Hm.  Well, this is where things get interesting.

In 1982, a "World Vacation" offered by the Magic Kingdom Club offered five nights' accommodations in the Contemporary Resort Tower, six days' admission and unlimited use of all Magic Kingdom attractions and all Walt Disney World recreational activities and facilities (golfing, swimming, water skiing, etc.)  EPCOT Center wasn't open when these prices were established, but according to the Summer 1982 issue of Disney News I have, the prices were valid through Dec. 31, 1982.

It also included breakfast lunch and dinner at any Walt Disney World restaurant or dinner show.  Yes, that's right -- any restaurant you wanted, any dinner show you preferred to see.  There weren't tiers of restaurants and classes of service, and you didn't have to save up meal coupons from one meal to use at another.  Just, simply, whatever you wanted wherever you wanted.  (Except room service and, interestingly, "fast-food locations" -- what?  Disney wanted to push its high rollers toward its better restaurants?)

The cost: $568 per person, or $1,136 for two people.

There's no equivalent option today, but for unrestricted breakfast, lunch and dinner each day (which does place limits on dinner shows), you'd have to upgrade to the pricey Magic Your Way Premium Package.  Factoring in five nights at the Contemporary Resort with a Tower room (Bay Lake view) and a six-day park-hopper ticket, the total price: $5,111.84.

That's an increase of 350%, rising far faster than the other categories.

A simple one-day ticket to the Magic Kingdom?  That has risen by 616% since 1982 -- from $13.25 (as the general public price) to $95 as of this week.

As Disney executives might say: Good thing we're all so rich.

Monday, June 03, 2013

Money, Money, Money


Let's talk about money for a minute.

Three decades ago, Disney built EPCOT Center for $1 billion, and the cost of a one-day pass to EPCOT Center or The Magic Kingdom was $15, a 13% increase over ticket prices just one year earlier.  The cost of admission for a family of four (adult tickets) to visit a Walt Disney World theme park was $60 a day.  With a 1982 median household income of $18,642, four adult admissions represented about 22% of weekly gross pay.

Thirty-one years later, Disney is spending $1 billion on Walt Disney World again, but this time, that billon dollars isn't buying an entire theme park, it's buying a technology-driven marketing tool to roll out at its Florida parks.  The cost of admission for a family of four (adult one-day tickets) to visit a Walt Disney World theme park is $380.  With a 2012 median household income of $50,054, four adult admissions represent about 39.5% of weekly gross pay.

The question that most grates at me is whether the ticket price increase announced just today is one that makes a lot of sense, especially in light of what it "buys" the average guest.

A walk around EPCOT is pretty revealing.  The seldom-used Future World stage area is falling apart.  The Wonders of Life pavilion is just an empty shell of a building.  The upstairs area of the Imagination pavilion is shuttered.  There hasn't been a new country pavilion added to World Showcase in twenty-five years (Norway opened on June 3, 1988 -- happy quarter century!).

EPCOT, the subject of this blog, has certainly seen many better days.  Disney has long argued that EPCOT is reliant on sponsorships, and without sponsors it can't significantly upgrade or add attractions.  But ... it has more than $1 billion to implement a guest-tracking program?

MyMagic+ is a program designed, Disney's own Jay Rasulo freely admits, to keep guests from going to other theme parks.  "We get a bigger share of their wallet," he told media and analysts on a recent conference call.  "Spend more money" is the primary goal of the program, he says.

MyMagic+ gives some people the heebie jeebies, and I'm not sure I'm not among them.  I haven't experienced it yet, but it's a valid question whether I'm comfortable going on vacation knowing every move I make is being tracked.  Some people have said they'll feel more comfortable knowing their kids are easier to find, and that may well be a solid argument.  But certainly there must be better ways to satisfy that concern than to unapologetically turn every single guest into a marketing data point?

Of course, there are ways to opt out of MyMagic+, and I'm just not the sort of person who cares a whole lot about whether Mickey Mouse knows my name when I meet him.  (Hey, if he really wants to know, he can ask, just the way everyone else does.)  Will shaving another 15 minutes off my attraction wait time really justify letting a company know everything they could possibly know about me, including where I am and where I'm going?

The bigger issue to me, though, is that Disney has become so blatantly marketing-driven.  Like the rest of The Walt Disney Company, today's Disney is not about creating entertainment, it's about managing what it's got.  And nothing points that out more than MyMagic+.

Instead of investing $1 billion to make its theme parks better than they've ever been, they've poured a billion dollars into getting more money out of guests.  You already know the weak spots of EPCOT, which could be fixed for a lot less than $1 billion -- but what about Tomorrowland at The Magic Kingdom?  What about the lack of focus and vision at Disney's Hollywood Studios?  (I imagine the visual rights to the Chinese Theater, allegedly the reason the Sorcerer's Hat was built in the first place, would be only a fraction of that $1 billion.)

Equally important: If Disney can spend $1 billion and still make billions and billions of dollars in profit, why does it need to pass the cost on to the consumer?  In essence, the extra money you pay to Disney for admission goes to funding a program designed to get you to spend even more money.

There's little doubt in my mind it will work.  Most guests will see MyMagic+ as a great opportunity to create an even better Disney experience, where "better" means devoid of spontaneity and carefully designed to keep you from venturing to Universal Studios or Sea World.  It's a heck of a lot better for Disney, that's for sure.

But when the average guest is spending more than one-third of his or her weekly income just to get in to the park, this new development is a perplexing one for a longtime EPCOT fan.  It's the kind of impressive technology that EPCOT used to showcase as part of our future ... implemented not for the common good, but for the increased profits of a single company.


Monday, May 27, 2013

Memories of EPCOT Center

Memorial Day may be past, but it still seems an appropriate time to remember some of the best aspects of a bygone EPCOT Center.  Although many have suggested that the goal is to "turn EPCOT into a museum," nothing could be further from the truth: EPCOT Central would love to see EPCOT take the best of what it was and build on that success, not tear it down.

So, keeping with the spirit of the holiday, here are some random memories of the best of EPCOT Center, all of them Future World-based:



* Communicore Plaza's ponds
Before the purple circus tent, in EPCOT's early years, what's now "Innoventions Plaza" was lined by small ponds, adding some lovely water elements and a sense of simple sophistication to the area; they're now seating areas and planters.  Their destruction was an early sign that Disney's modern management was unhappy with what they inherited with EPCOT, or, at least, didn't understand it.

* The Living Seas opening film
This short pre-show contained more wonder and self-professed astonishment at the 71 percent of the Earth we too-rarely consider.  It showcased the high-tech theme of EPCOT Center, as well, inviting guests to board hydrolators to Seabase Alpha.  One problem with the pre-show: To some minds, it was better than the actual show.  Nary a cartoon fish in sight, it was the embodiment of what EPCOT Center was all about.  It's probably the single thing I miss most about the "old" EPCOT, with the exception of ...



* Horizons
The most optimistic, eye-popping (and nose-popping!) attraction at EPCOT Center, it was the kind of slow dark ride that just doesn't fit in with today's fast-paced sensibilities.  There's a very good reason it remains the one thing EPCOT Center fans would love to see return ... because riding it, flaws and all, just made you feel so damned good afterward.



* The World of Motion's stark, clean lines
The ride itself?  I was always on the fence about it.  Even in the early 1980s, it felt a little too cutesy.  But the show building itself?  Come on -- there's no comparison, really, is there?



* The Lucite fountain and entry plaza
It was the perfect way to convey the message of what Future World was all about; even by the time Lucite was outmoded, it still said: "Here's the future the way we think it could be -- simple, timeless, clean, clear and able to reflect whatever we want to see."  The monument of tombstones that replaced it has just never had the same feel.


* The Imagination pavilion's ImageWorks
The second floor of the Imagination pavilion is basically just a storage area now.  What strikes me as odd about this is that Disney's always-struggling Interactive division could use it as a showcase for what they are doing.  There's so much opportunity to bring back something like ImageWorks, a place that, for many years, kids (and adults) could spend hours and not be bored.  If the ride itself was always a little hokey, ImageWorks really did help unlock your imagination.  It says a lot about the trajectory of Disney as a company, unfortunately, that a place Imagineers designed to stir the imagination and provoke creativity is now dark and empty.




Ah, EPCOT Center.  I remember it well.  I'm glad it can be a place that always changes; I just wish the changes weren't so debilitating.

Friday, May 24, 2013

Beating Disney at Its Own Game ... Again


Here's what a visitor to EPCOT Center would see today:

* A Universe of Energy attraction that hasn't been updated in 18 years, despite the remarkable advances in alternative energy and even fossil-fuel technology since then;

* The Seas With Nemo and Friends, which took the formerly thoughtful and dramatic Living Seas and turned it into a cartoon-fest (which, Disney often says, is what guests want);

* A Journey Into Imagination that looks like a ghost town in the upstairs area, now closed off to guests;

* Boarded up interactive information kiosks (above) that were the precursors to today's smartphones and used to show the visionary reach of EPCOT;

* A bunch of people waiting at the exit to Mission: Space because the ride is too intense for the entire family, and results in many visitors not being able to experience a key EPCOT attraction;


* A Wonders of Life pavilion that is shut down and serves only as a roof over the head of special events, completely shuttering one multi-attraction pavilion in the park;

* A Test Track that got "upgraded" with neon lights and some new show elements;

* Two World Showcase pavilions (Norway and France) that depict the culture of entire countries through 30-year-old film footage.

EPCOT Center, once the crowning achievement and proud showcase of all that Disney was capable of creating, is old and increasingly irrelevant, as Disney's expert "brand management" team defines what the public thinks "Disney" should be all about.

And, then, Universal comes along and opens the high-tech, jaw-dropping Wizarding World of Harry Potter, showcasing ride technology that, ironically, got its first public demonstration at (you guessed it) EPCOT.

To rub salt on Disney's creative wounds, which it licks with the billions of dollars in profits it rakes in, Sea World Orlando -- which for years had been stagnating, this week went directly after EPCOT's guest.


Its new Antarctica: Empire of the Penguin attraction is, by the accounts I've read, immersive and captivating, beautiful and imaginative, entertaining and educational.


It even provides two different ride tracks ("mild" and "wild") that allow the entire family to experience the attraction together, even if they're too young for big thrills.  (Take that, Mission: Space!  Disney's competition is learning from the Mouse's own mistakes.)

Perhaps sensing that Disney only cares about its "brand management" focus, and has let EPCOT fall by the wayside, Sea World has created the kind of large-scale, pavilion-style attraction -- combining a store and restaurant in a single location that has a ride as its centerpiece -- previously reserved for the groundbreaking EPCOT.

Disney, once again, is losing the very creative game it originated.  Increasingly, if you want to find EPCOT, you should visit any theme park other than EPCOT Center itself.

And if you want a Disney-style immersive, jaw-dropping, mind-blowing, creative, interesting, fun and unique theme-park experience, it seems Disney is no longer the first place you should look.

Wow.  It's a sad day when that last paragraph can be written ... a day many of us long-time Disney fans never thought could really arrive.  We thought it would be a cold day in some other place when Disney was routinely beaten by its competition; we didn't imagine that cold place would be Antarctica.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

All Manor of Envy


Sorry.  I know this is long overdue.  I started this post three weeks ago and then, well, life happened.

All is well, except for the little matter of being so envious of Hong Kong Disneyland.

The only Disney theme park in the world I haven't visited, and hadn't particularly wanted to visit has become the one I most want to see, thanks to Mystic Manor.

I've seen the ride-through videos, I've read the descriptions, and while I might be slightly less than mesmerized by the story (it seems awfully similar to Tokyo Disneyland's Tower of Terror), the sheer magnitude and creativity of it all leaves EPCOT Center -- once the most magnificent of all Disney theme parks -- looking really lackluster by comparison.

Think about, say, the increasingly awful Ellen's Energy Adventure, which was once a mind-bogglingly sophisticated ride.  Now, the cast members and guests alike stifle yawns.

Or the creaky, leaky Maelstrom, which -- while never the longest or most daring ride -- used to at least feel like it was a ride that tried.

While Disney makes its claims that EPCOT simply can't be run without more sponsorships, and that guests seem satisfied enough (you know, the old "it's good enough" argument), Disney goes and proves that all of its excuses about Stateside theme parks are actually a bunch of hot air by once again creating a dazzling ride for its parks in Asia.

On one level, it's kind of sad that China, which until recently was considered forbidden territory for U.S. businesses, gets all of the attention.  Wooing the Chinese matters more to Disney than impressing its consumers at home.

But that's not really the biggest objection.  China deserves great attractions for its Disney park(s).  The problem I have is: Why does EPCOT continue to feel outdated and outmoded while Disney lavishes time, money and creativity on its other parks?  It feels more and more like no one cares about EPCOT. Mystic Manor is a slap in the face to those who would like to see EPCOT be the shining beacon of all that Disney can achieve.

Mystic Manor has dazzling effects, many of which are projection based but don't feel that way.  It has a non-Disney storyline that introduces new characters who, by their very existence, are Disney ... but are not based on existing properties.  Yes, Disney can create new stories and new characters!

It's sophisticated and technologically marvelous, all the things EPCOT was supposed to be.

So, the next time you feel yourself being jerked around (double-meaning intended) by the clickety-clackety chain that pulls you up and through Spaceship Earth, remember what Hong Kong Disneyland guests are experiencing.

The next time you see Ellen's head just about dangling from her body in the Universe of Energy, remember what Disney has done in Hong Kong.

The next time you see footage shot in 1980 representing France, or wonder why Ben Franklin and Mark Twain don't move like they used to, consider what Disney has done at Mystic Manor.

The next time you walk by an empty (except for lovely trees) tract of land in EPCOT that is just too expensive for Disney to design something new, realize they've done exactly that in Hong Kong.

I don't begrudge the Chinese for getting a glorious new Disney attraction.  I do, however, begrudge Disney for lavishing so much money on such a great attraction, while letting the Soarin' film get scratchy and dusty.   For saying it can't afford something great, that elaborate dark-ride style rides are too expensive, while creating one in Hong Kong.

Disney can do all the things EPCOT needs to regain its former glory.

What's curious, and fills me with envy at Chinese tourists who get to experience something that looks so wonderul, is that Disney just won't do what needs to be done at EPCOT.

(Full disclosure: Since I couldn't afford my own trip to Hong Kong to see this magnificent piece of work myself, I "borrowed" a photo from the always-wonderful DisneyandMore blog to use with this post.)

Tuesday, April 30, 2013

How We Might Have Met the World


Just when I think I might love EPCOT Center a little too much, I run across something like this absolutely extraordinary site that contains the most informative, fascinating explorations of the Japan pavilion at EPCOT I've ever seen.

While I knew there was a massive, unused show building in the Japan, I was unaware of exactly why Meet the World never opened, aside from concerns Walt Disney Productions had about how American veterans would perceive the show's depiction (or lack thereof) of World War II.

This video is a brilliant example of just how much thought and care went into planning and creating EPCOT Center, and why it remains the world's most unique, and fascinating, theme parks.

So, follow this link and enjoy!

Monday, April 29, 2013

The 21st Century Begins for EPCOT Central

Thanks to the urging of several readers, EPCOT Central is now on Twitter, joining the masses of people who somehow have figured out ways to express themselves in 140 characters or less!



While it's no substitute for World Key (but then, what is?), EPCOT Central's Twitter handle is:

@EpcotCentral82

Thanks to those who suggested it!


Stunning, Incredible & Heartbreaking





This breaks my heart.

It is stunning technology.  There's no better place than EPCOT to apply such a remarkable display of ingenuity.  It is incredible to witness.

And it's so utterly wrong.

Guests will love it.  They'll think it delightful and adorable and fantastic, and they'll take lots and lots of videos and pictures to send to friends back home.

Executives will crow about the cross-marketing opportunity.  It shows the perfect marriage of Disney and its pricey Pixar acquisition.

But all it says to me is that given the opportunity to showcase such jaw-dropping technology and demonstrate how it could be used to improve the world ... Disney has used it as an opportunity to bring more cartoon entertainment into EPCOT.

This wonderful theme park used to herald the "Dawn of a New Disney Era."  Now it simply serves as a billboard for the Opening of a New Disney Movie.

So much promise, squandered!  If that makes me a curmudgeon, so be it.

Sigh.

Saturday, April 27, 2013

How Disney Blew Its Second-Biggest Brand


In the three and a half years since the last EPCOT Central post, a lot has happened.  More than a quarter of a million people have visited EPCOT Central, a number that's just staggering to me.  Each day, between 100 and 200 people still visit the blog, even though it hasn't been updated since December 2009.

I didn't go away, but I did mostly move on from my bitter disappointment over what's happened to EPCOT Center.

Or so I thought.  Until I began thinking about recent Disney history.

Since 2009, though, Disney has spent more than $8 billion to acquire Lucasfilm Ltd. and Marvel, which joined previously purchased Pixar and The Muppets (as well as smaller, more unusual acquisitions like Tapulous), meaning the company that was built on the creativity of its founder became a company that simply manages the creative content produced by other companies.  To do this, Disney has spent literally tens of billions of dollars, turning its back entirely on its own heritage.

For those who grew up anticipating whatever it was Disney would create next -- an animated feature, a weekly TV series, a theme park, a comic book, a cartoon, a live-action movie -- it's been a disconcerting 10 years.  We've said goodbye to what Disney was and watched Bob Iger's Disney 2.0 become a brand-management company, not too different from the kind of company that stole Walt Disney's own creations away in unscrupulous fashion and insisted Walt create what they wanted.

Disney's expensive spending spree is that it came at the expense of Disney growing its own brands, an activity that ultimately proved too expensive ($10 billion worth of expensive?) and uncertain.  For every Little Mermaid and Lion King, creations that stand the test of time, there was a Brother Bear and John Carter.

But ironically, Disney ignored a brand with massive potential, a brand that could be defined in virtually any way they wanted, and one they already owned lock, stock and barrel: EPCOT.

Other than the "Disney" name itself, EPCOT had enormous brand equity and could have been the second-biggest brand in Disney's stable, all without making a multi-billion-dollar acquisition.  It could have been developed and shaped into a brand that allowed Disney to grow far beyond its core business of entertainment, while also creating enormous entertainment-branding opportunities itself.

Now, to understand why this didn't happen and why Disney instead paid billions and billions of dollars to acquire brands it didn't already own, you have to understand that Disney's corporate teams in Burbank place an undeserved "also-ran" status on their theme parks in Florida.  The parks are great places for corporate retreats or cheap vacations for executives and their families, and of course they're cash cows.  But they're not hip, sexy or cool.  Team Disney Burbank employees chafe at being called "cast members," and they thrive on the wheeling-dealing mentality of L.A.  Backwoods Orlando is just that: second-rate.

So, it's not surprising they would not turn to Walt Disney World for ideas.  On top of that, they by and large have no awareness of or interest in Disney history and heritage.  To them, Walt Disney was a kindly, doddering old man, not a visionary businessman who made Steve Jobs look lazy.  He's a myth, a construct that left the legacy of an exploitable brand name.

They're completely unaware of the serious, impressive research Walt Disney and his core team did into the central ideas behind EPCOT Center.  They are likely entirely oblivious to the plans WED Enterprises once had for the Monorail and the People Mover.  They have no idea that when it opened in 1982, EPCOT Center was a proving ground for technology we take for granted today: touch-screen computers and fiber optics, two-way telephonic conferencing and interactive networking.

That's why it's not really a surprise that Disney didn't build on the $1 billion they spent on EPCOT in 1982 (likely approaching $10 billion in today's dollars) and recognize that they had a great, untapped brand in EPCOT that was just waiting to be exploited.

EPCOT Center opened just five years after the first Star Wars film, and was in large part a similar response to the socio-political culture: People were tired of being told how bad everything was, we wanted optimism and hope.  Now, Disney owns both of those brands, but is actively building only one of them.

EPCOT Center at its core is filled with the very ideals of Marvel super heroes: Technology can be used for good, we live in remarkable times, and humanity is worth saving.  Now, Disney owns both of those brands, but is actively building only one of them.

Discovery Channel (which Disney does not own) has become one of the most successful channels on cable TV, but its programming is not that far off from EPCOT's central concepts of education, exploration and discovery.

Apple has become wildly successful by creating technology that meets every day needs with style and flair.  Explore a little bit about EPCOT Center in the 1980s and early 1990s, and it's striking how similar its mission was to Apple's.

There might at one time have been a line of EPCOT-branded computers and household technology.

There might have been an EPCOT Channel on TV.

There might have been an EPCOT Pictures at Disney to produce exactly the kind of entertainment that Lucasfilm Ltd. and Marvel bring to the company.

There were a hundred ways Disney could have built on the EPCOT brand and all the promise it held, and with far less than $10 billion, Disney could have continued to refresh and renew EPCOT, to have made it, year after year, into the most remarkable showcase for technological and human achievement that anyone has ever seen.

As recently as 15 years ago, no one would have foreseen the ways in which technology became ingrained in our lives, how it infiltrated even the most mundane areas -- and how it led to social networking, which brought our world closer together, bridging cultures and ideas.

EPCOT envisioned all of that.  The pavilions, attractions and presentations of EPCOT Center when it opened are remarkable for the kind of prescience and foresight they contained.

Disney let EPCOT slip through its fingers as a brand.  For a company that prides itself on being the world's best brand marketers, it's rather astonishing to see how Disney failed to notice that right in its own backyard, it had what could have been one of the best-known, most potent brands that relates to virtually every aspect of our lives.

Disney still has the EPCOT brand.  Maybe one day, someone at the terracotta dwarf building will recognize that EPCOT isn't just a place to cram in more Disney and Pixar messaging ... that EPCOT is a brand unto itself that Disney has egregiously ignored, despite its remarkable potential.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Thursday, December 10, 2009

A Mom's Thoughts On EPCOT


For a while now, EPCOT Central has been meaning to share this letter from a reader. If Disney executives don't trust ardent Disney lovers who maintain blogs to give them some real perspective on EPCOT, perhaps they'll trust a new mom from the South, who offers some lovely and valuable perspective on how "real" guests respond to EPCOT.

Her name is Khrystie, and here's what she wrote:

I found your site after a family trip to EPCOT in June of 08. I hadn't been to the park since the late nineties, shortly after I graduated from high school. As a Central Florida native, I had grown up in the Disney parks and had an annual pass from about age 6 until I moved to South Florida for my undergrad degree. A self-proclaimed dorky kid, EPCOT was always my favorite park, by far. I loved learning, science and innovation.

I loved the longer rides, the information and music around the park. I loved that we could easily spend a whole day in Future World. My dad and I would recite the narratives to the films for Universe of Energy and The Living Seas. I still remember the big spiral ramp around the records display in the Communicore. The rainbow tunnel, the pin tables and the Makin' Memories pre-show at Imagination. I loved EPCOT dearly and had many, many fond memories.

I went to EPCOT that June with my three month old daughter, and selected that park specifically because I remember be able to ride almost every ride in the park as a child with my grandparents (including) my grandfather who was handicapped. I was fairly certain that my daughter would be able to ride everything as well. I left absolutely heartbroken and nostalgic for what felt like a great part of me that had been lost - a favorite pastime that I would never be able to share with my own children. Of the slower rides, Energy was set at such a decibel level that she was terrified. We went back in October, and at six months I thought the colors and songs in Imagination would captivate her, as we hadn't ridden it in June. The pitch-black and blast of air led to hysterics.

I went home and started searching for anything that showed a glimmer of what had been. This is how I found your site.

We were back at the park over the weekend. This time with my now 19-month old daughter and 10-week old son. As my daughter is a huge PIXAR fan, I at least thought she'd love The (now called) Seas. She got nothing from the ride. Her favorite part? The aquarium. The fish, the turtles, the sharks (all of which she knew by name). Her favorite part was the only part they haven't changed. Despite the fact that she watches Finding Nemo at least four times a week.

Although we were there a good part of the day, we only saw The Seas, a walk around the World Showcase, and a ride on Spaceship Earth. Apart from Listen to the Land, that's largely the extent of what is available for entire families with groups of varying age to do. I can't take my kids on Test Track, and I myself will not get on Mission Space.

I guess the point of this is simply (or not so simply, given the length of the letter) say "Thank You" for your site. There were smart kids out there, who even at six found time, heat and pressure, hydroponics and hydrolators profoundly interesting. I wish that my children would have been given the chance to experience it, and share the hope that one day they will.

In your site, I found a whole community of people who are willing to fight the dumbing down of society, rather than drifting along like sheep. Your opinion is shared - thank you so much for sharing it.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Captain Oh-No


Here's a shocker to those who say EPCOT Central wants to turn Disney's most ambitious theme park into a shrine to the 1980s:

Bringing "Captain EO" back to EPCOT would be a bad idea.

A really bad idea.

The idea has been making the rounds -- and allegedly has gotten as far as an executive screening at Disneyland -- because of last June's tragic death of pop star Michael Jackson. Twenty-three years ago, "Captain EO" was a sensation at Disneyland, and there are many who would love to see the 3-D musical adventure once again.

Sure, it would be fun. Once.

But quite apart from the nagging, persistent allegations of child abuse leveled at Jackson, there are two huge reasons "Captain EO" should remain vaulted, particularly at EPCOT:

1) The 3-D is simply not very good. It never was, really. The 17-minute movie was quite literally too dark to ever "read" quite right, despite its popularity. But the 3-D technology used to make the film has progressed enormously in the past two-and-a-half decades, and already there's a huge difference between the 3-D techniques used in movies like "A Christmas Carol" and "UP" and the relatively rudimentary processes used at Disney theme parks. Once you see a theatrical 3-D presentation like "Carol," it's hard to accept theme-park 3-D technology as anything other than a cut-rate version of the real-thing. Why bring back "Captain EO" if it's not going to be digitally enhanced and presented in one of the new 3-D technologies? It's just not impressive.

2) It's dated. No matter how much you adore Michael Jackson and his music, everything about "Captain EO" feels stuck in 1986, from the music itself to the character and production design, to the makeup, to the "analog" visual effects. "Captain EO" is a curio from the past, not a vision of the future of entertainment.

It would, no doubt, be great fun to see "Captain EO" in 3-D once again. But after the first blush of novelty, do we really want a divisive, controversial and, frankly, dead pop star to be the centerpiece attraction of a Disney theme park, especially one that ostensibly celebrates our technological future?

Nostalgia alone isn't enough to fuel long-term interest in "Captain EO," and hopefully once Disney realizes how much it will cost to refresh, revive and restore this 70mm, low-tech wonder, they'll come to their senses.

If they're really serious about reviving something memorable from the 1980s, there's this little thing called Horizons ...

Sunday, November 22, 2009

"Two miles deep in that darkness, an amazing world ..."



"Until now, scientifically inconceivable. Yet there."

It's a stark reminder, as The Living Seas at EPCOT Center used to remind us so dramatically, that beneath us is "a world where we have spent less time than on the surface of the moon."

But, gosh, cartoon fish are just so much more fun, aren't they?

Thursday, November 19, 2009

EPCOT: What Doesn't


How could Disney get something so spectacularly wrong, so consistently?

Put simply: Innoventions is awful. Making the problem even more fascinating: It shouldn't be.

As Disney demonstrated in its Theme Parks & Resorts pavilion at the D23 Expo earlier this year, it has world-class designers who can create exhibitions that showcase imagination and creativity and fantastic design sensibility. The D23 Expo Theme Parks & Resorts pavilion was a shining example of how to engage and fascinate large groups, how to move them through, and how to lay out exhibits in a way that made sense and was tremendously appealing.

And as family-oriented science centers across the country demonstrate every day, learning can be fun and engaging, and education can be packaged in a way that appeals to guests who are 5 and guests who are 50. Just because an exhibit is designed "for kids" does not mean it has to be boring for adults or childlike in its execution.

So, why does Innoventions get it so wrong?

The original incarnation of Innoventions, CommuniCore, was a whole lot better, combining better design, better exhibits and more forward-thinking technology (for its day) than Innoventions does. It took the themes of EPCOT Center and created "spin-off" exhibits that actually did offer more insight and exploration into those subjects. As an experience, it supplemented a visit to EPCOT Center -- and, not coincidentally, provided a lengthy, welcome respite from Florida heat (or rain, depending on the time of year).

From a design standpoint, CommuniCore was divided into four quadrants that helped make navigating it easier. Everything in CommuniCore was designed to reflect EPCOT's theme of a future world in which we all connected to each other and in which communications technologies would allow us to learn more about the world around us, and to participate in it more fully. A Utopian ideal? Absolutely, but then EPCOT didn't pretend to posit that we could (or wanted to) achieve anything less -- and was blissfully unaware or unconcerned with charges of totalitarianism or socialism. Politics wasn't the agenda ... offering a vision of an idealized future was.

Of course, CommuniCore had a decidedly commercial bent. Everything was "sponsored by" or "presented by" a sponsor company, often the same ones who sponsored Future World pavilions. It was also a place where guests could explore not-ready-for-prime-time technologies like PCs, personal videogames, fiber-optic-driven communication, video conferencing and instant polling.

Twelve years after opening, CommuniCore gave way to Innoventions -- which may have outlived its predecessor by three years (and counting), but is one of Disney's worst concepts ... poorly designed and executed, to boot.

Like a goofy PBS kids' science show no one wants to watch, Innoventions takes a hodgepodge of ideas -- ranging from personal financial saving to trash management -- and mixes them all together in a zany mish-mash of styles, designs and themes. Although there is allegedly a master plan and design, Innoventions feels thrown together, despite repeated attempts to redesign and rebuild it.

There's precious little learning or discovery going on. Yes, you can drop a hammer onto a TV screen, and allegedly learn how safe your TV is thanks to Underwriters Laborator. Sure, you can ride a Segway for about two minutes (if you can handle the lines). You can see a very dull "House of Innoventions" ... if you can figure out where to enter. But learning? Actual science? Real discovery and enlightenment?

Compare Innoventions to the truly extraordinary California Academy of the Sciences in San Francisco, which, granted, is about four times the size of Innoventions ... but also encompasses a planetarium, a tropical rain forest and a full aquarium.

On the other hand, COSI in Columbus, Ohio, was for many years about the same size as Innoventions* ... and is world-famous for its blend of science, entertainment and interactivity.

Around the country, and around the world, there are science centers that beat Innoventions hands down. The truly discouraging thing is that CommuniCore beat Innoventions hands down.

In its current incarnation, Innoventions may occupy the physical center of EPCOT's Future World ... but it is far from being its heart.


-------------

* Thanks to an anonymous EPCOT Central reader for pointing out that an earlier description of COSI's size was incorrect.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

EPCOT: What Works


Take equal parts Pirates of the Caribbean and Peter Pan's Flight, mix with EPCOT Center's original mission, stir gently, and bake at Walt Disney Imagineering for a few years ... and you've got what EPCOT Central considers to be a hidden gem of EPCOT: Maelstrom in the Norway pavilion.

When Restaurant Akershus was still operating in its original, princess-less incarnation, and the Norwegian government was still contributing to the operating costs, the Norway pavilion represented the very best of EPCOT. It had charm to spare, it was a convincingly authentic reproduction of its sponsor nation, it offered good shopping, had a terrific (and under-patronized) restaurant, presented cultural artifacts, provided tourism information that introduced guests to a relatively sparsely traveled country, and was anchored by an attraction that -- to top it all off -- even incorporated a travelogue-style film.

In short, it had everything you could hope for in a World Showcase pavilion.

Today, the Norway pavilion is missing some of those critical components. No longer partially funded by the Norwegian tourist board, there's no longer any hint of a tourism kiosk; you'd be hard-pressed to find any information about travel to Norway, actually. Restaurant Akershus, of course, is now a princess dining location that offers Disney princesses from Germany, France, the Middle East and other countries, but not from Norway. The little travelogue film is horrendously dated (though a few judicious cuts would actually make it more or less timeless).

But there's still Maelstrom. And despite its detractors, who claim it's too short and not thrilling enough, it's a ride that really works.

Yes, it's only about four minutes long -- but even there, that's longer than most Fantasyland dark rides at The Magic Kingdom. Maelstrom wasn't intended to be a destination, E-ticket-style attraction; it was designed to be a nice C- or D-ticket ride that complemented everything else the pavilion had to offer.

Heading into a fortress-style building, the initial queue area is without doubt charmless -- it's wholly functional, not particularly attractive, but it leads to a gorgeous, eye-catching, beautifully detailed mural depicting the history of Norway, from its earliest hunter-and-gatherer residents to the massive cruise lines and oil rigs of today. There might not be much to do in the Maelstrom queue, but it's never long and there's enough here to keep a guest occupied through repeated visits for the few minutes of waiting.

Maelstrom is dark and atmospheric. It promises the "spirit of Norway" and it delivers -- there's a bit of history mixed in with a bit of mythology. Guest who don't care a whit about the history or beauty of Norway will enjoy seeing vikings, polar bears and trolls. Those who have some interest in this ancient land can listen closely to the narration and dialogue (which could use some serious audio tweaking) and find enough to spur a desire to learn even more.

What Maelstrom does well -- terrifically well -- is take us away to another place, even for a few minutes. No, its "waterfall" isn't particularly thrilling, and it feels a little creaky 20-plus years after opening, but for those few minutes we're surrounded by Vikings, the Northern Lights, the crashing North Sea ... and we even get to speed backwards.

Today's EPCOT insists on big, big thrills. Maelstrom is a little thrill, a heart-lifter, a trip down memory lane to a time when the goal of Disney theme parks was to offer truly immersive experiences that could be shared by every member of the family.

When the brief ride is finished, it drops guests in a typical Norwegian seaside village -- one that will look remarkably, undeniably authentic to anyone who's walked the harbor streets of Bergen and seen the quaint, crooken buildings of its Bryggen area. Like the Mexico pavilion, it's eternally dusk here, and this little holding area is evocative and filled with detail.

It's always a shame to see 90 percent of guests head through the doors that open onto a theater and zip right out the other side. They miss a five-minute film experience (do they really not have five minutes?) that is rightfully maligned for a few shots that might even have looked dated in 1988, but otherwise captures the awesome majesty, simple charms and ancient legends of Norway. To EPCOT Central, the "Spirit of Norway" film is a must-see on every trip, a presentation that expands on the momentary charms of the ride that came before it to introduce us to a country that feels familiar -- but is actually astonishingly diverse and unexpected.

Of course, it doesn't help that most Norway cast members actually urge people not to see the film. "If you choose not to watch this presentation, you may exit the doors ahead of you," is more or less the announcement, and those who stay are in for a treat.

Together, Maelstrom and "The Spirit of Norway" still represent the World Showcase concept at its best, taking us out of the Florida heat and into a romantic, unexpected land. Despite the lamentable changes to the Norway pavilion, this pair is still classic EPCOT, through and through.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Not for Children Only ... and That's OK


"When I was 6, EPCOT was so boring to me. I'm glad they changed it."

"I may not care for Nemo, but my 5-year-old loves it."

"When my teenagers go to EPCOT, they're bored silly and want to leave."

"EPCOT needs more rides for kids."

These are some of the comments (some real, some paraphrased) that EPCOT Central readers have offered recently, and it's an interesting observation -- because it assumes that Walt Disney World as a whole and EPCOT specifically need to appeal to kids.

"I thought," Walt Disney said back in the 1950s, "there ought to be a place where parents and kids can have fun together." The result was Disneyland, a place with a carousel and a (now-defunct) tobacconist, a place with a treehouse and a (now-defunct) silent-film cinema.

Walt Disney, thankfully, didn't think, "There ought to be a much cleaner, better-run amusement park where my kids can have fun." He knew the joy of an amusement park ride so cleverly conceived that guests of every age enjoyed it.

Disney has long marketed Disneyland and The Magic Kingdom to kids. There's little arguing with the success of that -- though an effective debate could be made that Disneyland was just as popular when its marketing was aimed at both kids and adults.

But EPCOT Center, from its inception, has always been a different story. EPCOT was a decidedly, almost unashamedly, adult park, and that concept certainly made as much sense in 1982 as it does today: A day or two at the Magic Kingdom to entertain and bring joy to the little ones could be followed by a day or two at EPCOT, where the discoveries and pleasures were directed at older guests. After all, not everyone who visits Walt Disney World is an 8-year-old kid ... and many, many guests don't even bring kids -- a fact that Disney, over and over, seems to ignore.

But being "grown up," Disney-style, somehow quickly got equated with being "boring." Imagine a family of four visiting Paris or Rome or San Francisco or New York and saying, "Well, there wasn't much for the kids to do." Imagine spending a day at the Louvre or the National Gallery and saying, "I loved it, but we left early because my little boy was just so bored."

EPCOT isn't for children only, and that's not a bad thing. It's designed to spur the imagination and a sense of discovery. To some people, unfortunately, that means it's boring -- just as some people could walk among the pyramids of Egypt, perhaps, and find nothing to interest them. Not everyone needs to love EPCOT, and not everyone does. That's OK, because there are three other theme parks, two water parks and a whole host of activities at Walt Disney World to occupy a day that might be spent at EPCOT.

Disney, though, doesn't seem to see it that way. Like most entertainment companies, it's obsessed with numbers: If EPCOT's attendance falls, if its exit polling data isn't as high as every other park, if EPCOT is perceived as "less popular" than the other parks, then it must be a failure. We've seen that mindset in play at Disney's California Adventure -- which, it shouldn't be forgotten, got rave reviews from most mainstream media when it opened, and wasn't quite as much a creative failure as revisionist history holds it to be, but is now the subject of a billion-dollar makeover that emphasizes kid-oriented fun, not California-themed discovery.

In this new "kids at all costs" Disney era, it would indeed be interesting to see what might have become of the never-built Disney's America, which probably would have been considered a catastrophic creative disaster, rather than an interesting, offbeat foundation on which to build.

Which gets us back to EPCOT, a park that was built not to entertain the younger set, but to inspire all ages. EPCOT's deck has long been stacked against it -- it is virtually impossible to take a subject like "the history and development of energy technologies" and make it understandable, palatable for guests of every imaginable age, education level and language. But the Imagineers saw that as a challenge, not necessarily a problem, and tried their best to create something that would work for everyone. Some results were better than others. But they were always fascinating.

The same, unfortunately, can't be said for the once-is-enough Seas With Nemo and Friends, or the surface-only thrills of Mission: Space or Test Track. They're cute and fun rides, there's no doubt, but they are designed to appeal primarily to younger visitors, and to amuse, not inspire.

A revised, revisited, renewed EPCOT -- should such a thing ever become a priority for Disney -- can take its inspiration from the original concept of a park that would engage every age. No, it wouldn't be as universally well-received as a park dedicated to Disney characters, or a park about the movies (if it really is that anymore) or about animals. It would be almost a "niche" park.

EPCOT would appeal to a particular sensibility. Not everyone would love it ... but those who did would adore it. They'd visit it again and again, and like a museum or a science center or a grand city filled with opportunities for discovery, it wouldn't be just for children. And that would be OK. Because EPCOT would appeal to the curious child in all of us -- and open a child's mind to the opportunities of adulthood.

Sunday, November 01, 2009

EPCOT: What Doesn't


Longtime readers know that there's a difference of opinion among some EPCOT Central followers -- while some believe the views expressed here are constructive thoughts reflecting on how EPCOT could be even better than it is, others take the perspective that EPCOT Central complains too much and wishes EPCOT had never evolved. You can guess which camp I fall into. But with a nod to those on the other side, they'll have plenty to carp about with this one -- because it's EPCOT Central's view that the attraction that is most ineffective is also the one that recently got the biggest makeover:

The Seas With Nemo and Friends.

Even before experiencing the "new" Seas pavilion, this makeover seemed wrong-headed ... and now, having been through the attraction several times since its reincarnation, EPCOT Central believes it to be one of the absolute worst things that's ever happened to EPCOT.

The key lies in that word "attraction," because when they re-thought the Seas pavilion, EPCOT Imagineers took a multi-layered, though unfortunately never fully evolved, experience and turned it into ... a ride.

They went so far as to change the name of the pavilion from the evocative and far-reaching "The Living Seas" to "The Seas With Nemo and Friends," emphasizing that there's a ride, and there's a show with Crush, and the rest ... well, the rest doesn't much matter.


The wonders that fill the depths of three-fourths of our planet aren't of any concern anymore; the only thing that matters it that 6-year-old kids get to shout out, "There's Dory!" The world around us is meaningless compared with a Pixar character.

The biggest shame is that there's so much to explore. As the pre-show used to remind us, we've spent less time at the bottom of the sea than we have on the surface of the moon. Getting five miles down is infinitely more complex than going 238,000 miles up. There are mysteries we can barely fathom, and one word from that pre-show film evokes more memories of how much more stirring EPCOT Center was than Epcot: "chemosynthesis." Huh? What? What does that mean? How do living creatures do that? And were the oceans really formed by "the deluge"? (Most scientists agree: Yes. How extraordinary!)

After hearing an absolutely stunning narrator encourage us to open our minds to the possibility of life under the surface of the water, we had a chance to "descend" below the waves ourselves in a "hydrolator," then ride through the incredible sights of undersea life, before using our own sense of discovery to learn from real, live people about the animals, plants and creatures that share our world.

There can be absolutely no doubt: The seacab "ride" was a failure from the start. It didn't go much of anywhere, held no excitement other than seeing a man-made coral reef. And because there was no context to what we were seeing (no signs, no narration, telling us about the engineering, creative or technological achievement of what we were looking at), there was little to engage guests. And holding that disappointing sense of, "Is that all this is?" they were dumped into a massive museum-like display area that many guests had trouble navigating.

Obviously, there were problems with The Living Seas -- no matter how compelling, exciting and wonderful many (but not enough) guests thought it may have been.

But the cure proved to be worse than the disease.

Today's audiences ride silly, clam-shaped vehicles past a series of screens onto which cartoons are projected. There's as much science and connection to the wonders of the oceans as Space Mountain has to the history and science of actual space travel. (Space Mountain actually offers some pictures of real nebulae in the queue area.) Disney has literally stripped the pavilion of any attempt to inspire, educate or inform -- and now more than ever, guests simply breeze past the old "Seabase Alpha" and either leave altogether or head to Turtle Talk to see more digital animation that distracts from the reality of ocean life. Yes, there are still some displays in the old Seabase Alpha, but fewer than before, with fewer cast members to answer questions and less depth to the overall experience.

Basically, it's just a cartoon, one that would be more at home in the Magic Kingdom's Fantasyland than EPCOT.

Frankly, it's not a particularly well-done ride, either. Instead of Disney's classic Audio-Animatronic figures, guests see projections of cartoons. During a couple of portions, to add insult to injury, cartoons are projected onto the glass tank to make it appear the cute, computerized fish are "in" the water. Once again, the message is clear: Don't wonder about the amazing things in the world around you, just enjoy the cute Disney characters.

The change from The Living Seas to The Seas With Nemo and Friends has been disastrous.

And it speaks volumes about the frustrating, troubling message that Disney increasingly sends to youngsters: If some element of your life can't be commercialized and branded with the "Disney" name, it doesn't matter.

The Living Seas was a disappointment. The Seas With Nemo and Friends is a failure, pure and simple.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

EPCOT: What Works


EPCOT "works" splendidly.

Except, that is, when it doesn't.

So, from time to time, EPCOT Central will explore aspects of EPCOT that fulfill the vision of this grandest of all theme parks ... as well as those that, well, don't.

And why not start with some controversy?

Many readers abhor the revised descent/ending to Spaceship Earth, but EPCOT Central thinks it works. Here's why:

From its very start, EPCOT Center was focused on how you, the guest, would live and interact with your future world. In EPCOT's earliest incarnation, much of that exploration was done with gravity and seriousness -- a little too much. Indeed, World of Motion is fondly recalled not so much because it was actually good (it wasn't, really; though it was at least an elaborate example of the kind of Animatronic-filled ride-through that no one but Disney could do then ... or has ever been able to do). Rather, World of Motion was singled out because it at least attempted to be humorous.

There weren't many examples of that in EPCOT Center. Cute little Figment over in Journey Into Imagination was certainly fun. World of Motion was played (mostly) for laughs. And Cranium Command -- well, it was in a class by itself. But humor, for the most part, was overshadowed by education.

At the same time, Spaceship Earth, quite (OK, almost) literally the centerpiece attraction in EPCOT, was a terrific experience all the way to the top ... and then a drag on the way down. From the get-go, Imagineers sent a not-so-subtle message to riders of those backwards-swiveling "time machines": The show's over, nothing left to see.

In the mid-1990s, an attempt was made to make the descent more interesting. One idea, if it had actually played out (something that would be easy to do today but wasn't too easy in 1994), was to show today's world news from around the world. That was, at least, the idea behind the scenes of newscasters projected on a screen at the beginning of the descent. But it wasn't possible, in the pre-Internet, narrow-band days, to actually stream live news, so the concept was never realized.

Static figurines of kids and adults in an "interconnected" world never sparked the imagination, and were, frankly, boring. A lovely cityscape was built with a terrific fiber-optics depiction of "flowing information," but more often than not, it was dark and dull.

The descent never worked, was never engaging.

Now, it's a fun combination of technology and interactivity. It's understandable if your heart sinks a bit the first time you see a monitor in a Spaceship Earth time machine -- is this going to be another example of on-screen distraction that tries to hide the flaws of the ride itself? But after asking a few questions, the screen goes dark and doesn't bother riders until the descent begins.

At that point, the ride becomes a highly individualized, clever and cute diversion. Mashing your face together with a retro cartoon vision of the future, Spaceship Earth now follows its information-rich, education-focused "main show" with some fun, relaxing smiles. I've yet to encounter anyone -- even if they objected to the comedic tone -- who didn't crack a grin. And that's saying something.

It's particularly noteworthy in today's "Disney Parks" environment, because the grin comes without a single Disney character. It's the Disney touch that makes this work. It's a fine bit of Disney nonsense, in keeping with the manic tradition of later Donald Duck cartoons, Alice In Wonderland and Disney's stylized 1950s Cinemascope efforts.

The downside is a lost opportunity -- these peeks at the "future" could have been based on real science, rather than a goofy, retro vision of bubble-shaped saucer cars and robotic homes. That future is likely never to be a reality, and while it's cute to see this kitschy '50s notion of "The Future." There's no science here, only silliness. That's indeed too bad.

But it would be worse, really, to stare at dusty old statues prophesying a future in which we all connect by -- wow! -- live videoconferencing. That concept of "the future of communications" pre-dated Facebook and MySpace and YouTube, which have changed the lives of everyone on the planet, even people who don't use them.

Besides, this version (at least theoretically) is easily changeable, and it's undeniable fun to spend a few moments in the dark answering the on-screen questions about taste and preference. There's music, there's dramatic lighting, and there's a magician's flair for distraction -- you don't notice, and you don't care, that nothing is happening around you. Watching the resulting cartoon with your face is great fun. And, what's this? For once, Disney doesn't try to sell you a picture of yourself!

Spaceship Earth as a whole works wonderfully now, a lovely balance of seriousness and humor, of education and mirth. The theme is still problematic -- it's no longer technically about communication, and despite its claims it isn't really about innovation. Actually, it is about human communication and all it has meant to our planet, but since the final cartoon doesn't uphold that theme, Disney opted instead for a confusion thematic claim countered by a different thematic execution.

Nonetheless, the new Spaceship Earth descent works, and sets the tone wonderfully for EPCOT as a whole. It's about you and your role in shaping the future. It's a blend of fun and fact. It's a modern spin on a timeless tale of human endeavor.

Now, if the rest of Future World would just get with the program ...