Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Splitting Up the Family

The Sullivans are on vacation at Walt Disney World from their home in Columbus, Ohio. They’re a nice family – Mom, Dad, 14-year-old Steve, 16-year-old Scott, 18-year-old Shauna and 7-year-old Sarah. Today, they’re at Epcot. After taking a good long look at the park map, Dad announces “OK, family, here’s the drill:

“Your mom and I are going over to World Showcase for a few hours. While we’re there, Steve and Scott are going to ride Test Track and Mission: Space and go play the video games in Innoventions. Shauna’s going to take Sarah over to see the cartoon characters at Imagination, The Land and The Living Seas. After that, we’ll all meet up and go back to the hotel for a while. Ready? Let’s go!”

And so the lovely Sullivans split up … undermining the concept that made Disney theme parks a must-see destination for so long. From the 1950s to the 1990s, the idea was that the entire family could enjoy the parks together, something Walt found he couldn’t do when he would take his daughters to local carnivals.

In many ways, EPCOT Center was the pinnacle of this concept. Families could not only enjoy the attractions together, they could discuss the ideas presented afterward and begin to appreciate the different views and opinions each family member held. They could have fun and learn about a variety of topics – but, most importantly, they could learn about each other. Whether it was a traditional “nuclear” family or a family of friends or schoolmates, EPCOT Center brought people together.

Now, it splits them apart. Smaller children are too short or too timid to try Mission: Space and Test Track. Teenagers have outgrown Simba, Figment and Nemo over on Epcot’s west side. Adults need some peace and quiet after the hyperactive environments of the thrill rides.

If the recent rumors that a thrill-style attraction may replace the Universe of Energy hold true, Epcot’s east side will be primarily for teens, the west side – where every attraction is home to an animated character – will be primarily for younger kids, and adults will have to be content with the more-or-less static attractions of World Showcase.

Only Spaceship Earth and The American Adventure will remain true to EPCOT Center’s original concept of entertaining, stimulating and (gently) educating.

Carving Epcot into these niches flies in the face of 50 years of Disney theme-park design. If the Future World “family split” was created by accident, it’s time for Imagineers to fix the mistake. If it was created by design, it’s time for a serious evaluation of whether the people who are designing theme parks for Disney really understand the concept of a Disney theme park.

Meanwhile, the MBAs and marketing analysts running Theme Park & Resorts would do well to stop focusing so much on market research and start walking the parks themselves. At this rate, they may start dividing The American Adventure into red seats and blue seats just to try and please everyone.

Niche marketing may be all right for fast-food restaurants and television networks; it doesn’t work with theme parks – particularly not those as unusual and precious as Epcot.

Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Energy boost

What is to become of the Universe of Energy?

A rumor circulating on says the pavilion – one of Epcot’s original opening attractions – may soon go the way of Horizons and the World of Motion, leaving Epcot’s east side as thrill-ride central.

How disheartening.

Rumors among Disney cast members have an impressive rate of veracity, and if this one is indeed true, it’s another sad day for those of us who love what Epcot used to be.

The dedication plaque at Epcot sets forth the park’s vision clearly:

“EPCOT is inspired by Walt Disney's creative vision. Here, human achievements are celebrated through imagination, wonders of enterprise and concepts of a future that promises new and exciting benefits for all.

May EPCOT Center entertain, inform and inspire and above all, may it instill a new sense of belief and pride in man's ability to shape a world that offers hope to people everywhere.”

Now, I love roller coasters – I really, honestly do. Even though it’s an ugly ride with no imagination or thought put into it, I think Mulholland Madness at Disney’s California Adventure is a heck of a lot of fun. Every so often, I get the urge to go to Magic Mountain in Southern California and have the bejabbers scared out of me on one of their steel contraptions of torture and fear.

Put a pretty ribbon on a roller coaster, though, and it’s still a roller coaster. No one would argue that Space Mountain is the height of storytelling-based attraction design. Put expensive wrapping paper on a centrifuge, and whether you call it Spin-Out or Gravitron or Mission: Space, it’s still a centrifuge. Put lipstick on a pig, it’s still a pig.

Have you ever heard anyone speak in happy, nostalgic tones about a Tilt-a-Whirl? The same kind of tone they use when talking about experiencing Spaceship Earth or the Universe of Energy or even It’s a Small World? You don’t hear people saying, “Oh, I remember the shine of those tin cars and the smell of the vomit as we whirled around.”

Not the way they say, “Remember the dinosaurs? Remember looking at the Earth like you were on the moon?”

Replacing the Universe of Energy with a thrill-based attraction, no matter how elaborate, is further admitting defeat, acknowledging that Imagineers no longer can be visionary or bold with their ideas, accepting that MBAs and marketing analysts run Disney and from hereon out always will.

A challenge to Imagineering: If you must replace the Universe of Energy – and I admit Ellen and Bill Nye the Science Guy have long overstayed their welcome – do it in a way that pays tribute to what Epcot should be, not what it has become. Remind yourselves of that plaque that greets every visitor to the park: entertain, inform and inspire.

In the early 21st century, there are few topics as urgent, as compelling, as meaningful as the future of energy. It’s a topic that encompasses nuclear energy, solar energy, hybrid engines and hydrogen power. Encourage Disney’s “corporate alliances” department to approach companies exploring alternative energy concepts rather than asking Big Oil to re-up their sponsorship.

Move confidently in the direction of the dreams of the Imagineers who designed Epcot. Apply the technology of today to the storytelling expertise they perfected and thrill our minds and hearts … not just our nervous systems.

Sunday, March 26, 2006

Lost: One EPCOT Center User's Guide

Lost: One EPCOT Center User's Guide.
Last seen: Around 1994, when EPCOT lost its capitalization.

If found, please contact:
Bob Iger
500 S. Buena Vista Street
Burbank, CA 91521


John Lasseter
Pixar Animation Studios
1200 Park Ave.
Emeryville, CA 94608



Imagine that you were given the ownership of one of the most powerful communication tools ever devised. With this tool, you could make millions of people listen to your message and hear it exactly the way you intended. You would have a platform for your vision of the future, and you would be speaking to people who were eager to hear what you had to say.

Now, imagine you lost the instructions.

You had the tool, you just didn’t know how to use it.

Put in this predicament, most of us would probably do everything we could to understand the tool that we had been given. We’d study it, examine it, talk to others who had successfully used it in the past to comprehend how we could effectively wield it and perhaps even make it better.

That’s exactly what happened in the mid-1990s when a new group of Disney executives came to Walt Disney World and turned their attention to EPCOT Center. They didn’t actually lose the “instruction book” – more precisely, they threw it away, eliminating jobs at Walt Disney Imagineering and thereby losing the key to understanding the EPCOT Center concept.

To be fair, they did try to deconstruct EPCOT Center. When I was a kid, I took a phone apart to see what made it ring; once I had taken it apart, I couldn’t put it back together. And that’s what Disney’s theme-park “experts” did. They so completely tore apart EPCOT Center trying to understand “what made it ring” that they left the place in shambles. In putting it back together, they tried to make it like it was before, just taking out the parts that “didn’t work.”

Those parts didn’t work because they were unique. They looked and acted nothing like the parts of other theme parks. They weren’t roller coasters and 3-D movies and gift shops. They were attempts to get people to think, to spur the imagination, to capture just a few minds out of the millions of visitors every year.

They were, in effect, components of the greatest communication tool ever devised. Greatest, you ask? Mightier than television or the Internet? Yes, I’d argue. Because unlike those communication tools, visitors to EPCOT Center were listening only to one message, one idea, one way of thinking. That might seem insidious to some, but it’s what made EPCOT Center so powerful. Messages were carefully crafted and regulated. Sponsor companies could impart their visions, saving conflicting views for the real world.

There was one common theme among all of the messages: optimism for the future. Sure, we found out as we aged that all of those companies were cynical and profit-driven. But at EPCOT Center, we heard that they had a vision, they had a plan to make our lives better, and we would all benefit from their work. We believed it.

Just as The Magic Kingdom told us that if we wished upon a star our dreams would come true, EPCOT Center promised that if we moved forward with a positive vision of the future, the world would be better. EPCOT Center was the “real-life” version of Disney’s pixie dust.

It was, in its prime, the most sophisticated and effective communication tool imaginable, spreading its messages to tens of millions of people a year, who heard and believed them.

It would be nice to get that instruction book back. Note to Disney’s new management: It’s out there. You just need to ask around a bit and be prepared to take lots of notes. It may not be intact … but it’s most definitely out there, resting with the millions of people who once believed in what EPCOT Center promised them.

Saturday, March 25, 2006

It's a (very) small world

The world has grown in unimaginable ways since 1982. We live in a very different world than we did 24 years ago.

Except at Epcot.

There, the world has barely grown at all – World Showcase, that is.

With only two countries (Norway and Morocco) added between 1982 and 2006, Epcot’s World Showcase is at once the most charming and the most stagnant place at Walt Disney World.

When Epcot opened, the plan was to include a number of pavilions that were never built: equatorial Africa, Israel and Spain were announced as “coming” additions to World Showcase. Two of the concepts – Israel and Spain – were abandoned, although during EPCOT Center’s early operations there were actually signs announcing the future development of these pavilions.

Development of the Africa pavilion continued, despite some quiet criticisms that it was reducing an entire continent of more than 50 countries to a caricature of mysterious jungles and safari animals. Ultimately, many of the concepts behind the African pavilion were incorporated into the more expansive and representative Africa section of Disney’s Animal Kingdom.

In ensuing years, Imagineers flirted with a Switzerland pavilion, a Venezuela pavilion and a USSR pavilion – whose completed plans came tantalizingly close to being realized, but were abandoned once communism fell in 1989.

Epcot’s history is likewise filled with never-realized World Showcase attractions within individual pavilions. “Meet the World,” a combination of film and Audio-Animatronic effects that played for years at Tokyo Disneyland was supposed to come to Epcot, but never did. A “Mt. Fuji” roller-coaster-style attraction was designed for the Japan pavilion but never built. The “Rhine River Cruise” originally announced for the Germany pavilion never came to fruition (though one can assume it got far down the path to reality given that the entrance to Germany’s Biergarten restaurant looks more than a little like a ride queue area).

While World Showcase has been all but ignored, Disney built the Disney-MGM Studios, Disney’s Animal Kingdom, Pleasure Island, Typhoon Lagoon, Blizzard Beach, the Caribbean Beach Resort, the Port Orleans and Dixie Landings Resorts, the Wilderness Lodge, the Yacht Club and the Beach Club, the Animal Kingdom Lodge, the Coronado Springs Resort, the All-Star Movies and All-Star Sports Resorts – and that’s just at Walt Disney World. While Imagineers built Disneyland Paris and its resorts, California Adventure, Hong Kong Disneyland and too many other places to name here, guess what happened to World Showcase?


As you can easily see from satellite images, World Showcase has room for at least five more additions.

The debates about what countries should be added could easily be endless. (My personal vote would be to develop pavilions for Egypt, Australia, Brazil, Russia and Malaysia – a good cross-section of cultures from different continents, avoiding the over-represented Europe.) Hopefully new management at Disney means that someone, somewhere, will think it might be a good idea to spend $100 million or so on a new pavilion for Epcot’s World Showcase.

It would be a good idea. It would prove that Disney is ready to move on from 1982, ready to put some thought and effort into its grand and amazing Epcot experiment. It would give Imagineers a chance to design something truly amazing, a new addition to Epcot that utilizes both “old” and “new” technologies.

Disney’s proven time and again it’s willing to invest money in just about anything except Epcot. If the company wants to change this impression, World Showcase would be a very good place to start.

Friday, March 24, 2006

Investing in the Future

As of today, Disney's family comedy The Shaggy Dog has grossed about $35 million in the U.S. When all's said and done, the movie will probably wind up making about $80 million worldwide. Add in DVD sales, and it's likely the Tim Allen remake will pull in about $120 million. Not bad, but once you factor in the costs to produce, market and distribute the movie, Disney will make a razor-thin margin.

I'm not a business major nor an economics guru, but it seems odd to me that Disney would make a business decision like producing The Shaggy Dog less than a year after it closed Epcot's Wonders of Life pavilion.

Disney shuttered this massive pavilion less than 20 years after opening it because there was no sponsor. Essentially, Disney wasn't willing to make the financial investment into its own theme park ... yet it's constantly willing to make movies that don't turn a profit and produce TV shows that are canceled after just a few weeks.

Where are Disney's priorities?

The Wonders of Life was originally sponsored by MetLife, and was designed with a motif that would best be branded "late-80s pastel." Just a few years after big hair and Miami Vice fell out of fashion, it's undeniable that the Wonders of Life was horribly outdated. Yet, it contained two undeniably solid attractions: Body Wars and Cranium Command. Each of these embodied the ideals that Epcot was supposed to espouse: They gently educated viewers while entertaining them. (I still imagine my hypothalamus having a sad, drowsy voice.)

Disney basically said, "We don't care about Epcot" when it closed Wonders of Life. Unwilling to spend its own money on its own theme park, Disney instead closed off a major part of Epcot instead of opening its corporate wallet to take control of its own property.

Twenty-five years after Epcot opened, it's undoubtedly harder than ever to find major corporate sponsors. Yet, is the answer simply to shut down those parts of Epcot (or any theme park) that don't have a major financial backer?

With the caveat again that most corporate economics are beyond my understanding, let's not forget that Disney doesn't need corporate sponsorships. The company has spent nearly $40 billion on acquisitions in the past ten years, most of which have proven financially questionable (Fox Family, DIC Entertainment, E!).

So, why is it -- particularly when it comes to Epcot out of all of Disney's theme parks -- the company is so unwilling to invest in attractions that generate higher numbers of visitors and display a commitment to the very businesses upon which it is founded?

Disney seems run by MBAs, and they're hardly the ones to understand or appreciate a park like Epcot. More likely, they are the very audience who thinks it's "boring" and "old-fashioned." So, take it out of their hands. Do the right thing with Epcot -- invest in its optimistic vision of the future.

Don't let Epcot drift further into becoming a sad, sorry shadow of its once-grand and unique presentation of a world of opportunity and excitement. "Sorry, closed for refurbishment" is not the sign of the times we'd all like to see.

Thursday, March 23, 2006

What could have been?

EPCOT Center, which is now Epcot, is a special place. Even with the shortcomings it has developed in the past 10 years, there's no doubt it's unique in the world. And yet ...

What could Epcot have been?

More importantly, what could it have meant to every single person on the planet had The Walt Disney Company not chickened out in the mid-1990s and stripped it of its ambitions to fuel thinking and ideas, and to present new technologies that could change our lives?

Remember that Walt Disney died in 1966, just two months after creating an extraordinary film (available on the Walt Disney Treasures Tomorrowland DVD) that detailed plans for Walt Disney World. EPCOT, he said -- referring to it as an acronym, not simply a theme park -- would tackle the challenges faced by then-modern urban planning. It would create an experimental city, then experiment with it. New modes of transportation, of communication, of urban design, would be utilized.

Most thrilling was the realization that the "rides" he had been installing at Disneyland turned out to be much more than that. The PeopleMover was a 5/8" scale replica of a working system that would be installed at EPCOT. The Monorail was going to be the primary mode of transporation. EPCOT would not only be an experimental living community, it would seek to develop and encourage the creation of new technologies to combat society's ills. Communication, climatization, education, socialization ... all of these things would be explored, dissected and improved at EPCOT.

Had Walt Disney lived just two more years, I am convinced our world today would be quite different. He would have not rested until EPCOT the city had broken ground. He would have encouraged WED Enterprises (now Imagineering) to focus not on rides but on proving concepts like a working version of the PeopleMover -- which ultimately did get put into service in Houston's airport -- and the Monorail. He would have forced the state governments in California and Florida, as well as President Johnson, to take his ideas seriously. He would have moved his company from being just an entertainment company into being a company that experimented with and explored a multitude of new ideas. Had he lived to see EPCOT actually completed, who knows?

The thing is, when EPCOT Center opened in 1982, it contained some amazing things. Fiber optics connected computers. Touch-screen computers were found in kiosks throughout the park. Live video-conferences helped guests make reservations. The Land and the Living Seas pavilions were genuine work environments for scientists thinking about future needs of our world.

If you're young enough, you consider touch-screen computers and fiber optics are mundane. But at the time, EPCOT Center was the first and only place you could find these innovations in every day use. They blew peoples' minds.

By the mid-1990s, they had been dismantled.

The Land and the Living Seas still had labs, but they seemed more for show than anything. The idea of pushing new technologies -- useful ones, not talking plush dolls -- out to guests to show them what their lives might be like in 20 years fell by the wayside.

EPCOT Center became just Epcot, the thrill-ride-based theme park. And we've all been the poorer for that lack of inspiration, of imagination, of excitement about an optimistic future of opportunity rather than a mundane future of virtual reality.

Wednesday, March 08, 2006

Being Unique

It's tough to be unique.

The computer nerd in high school will tell you that. So will the tuba player in the band and the editor of the newspaper. No doubt the goth girl with heavy pancake makeup would agree. What sets them apart, though, is ultimately what makes them successful. The world has many suntanned, blonde cheerleaders and handsome homecoming kings. There are few who are brave enough to stand apart and remain resolutely themselves.

What does that little diatribe have to do with Epcot?

Well, consider that there are many theme parks in the world. Some of them have rides with heavy theming and intricate stories, just as Disney does. Others focus on thrill rides and exciting a teen crowd. Still others are old-fashioned and offer simple midway rides that are pleasant diversions.

Many theme parks today try to emulate what's found in classic Magic Kingdom-style parks, and in so doing, the best of them truly do rival Disney parks.

But there's only one Epcot.

No one has been brave (or daft) enough to attempt to build a park that entertains and educates, that explores the world and our place in it, that as its mission seeks to inspire visitors.

Epcot is wholly unique. It is like no place else in the world. Problem is, even Disney doesn't understand what Epcot is. When it was EPCOT Center, the park seemed almost proud to be so nerdy: When everyone else was building taller, faster thrill rides, EPCOT Center was unveiling The Living Seas or Horizons. When others were catering to teenagers and locals, EPCOT Center was trying to draw in the whole family, trying to get them to learn and explore together.

It was a tough concept, and still is. It runs contrary to every accepted notion of what mass entertainment should be. But instead of continuing to embrace it, Disney ultimately became scared of it.

Today's Epcot still retains traces of what once made it unlike anything else anyone could experience anywhere -- but has increasingly become Disneyfied and thrillified. It works from the "lowest common denominator" concept, trying to please everyone. And, as so many high schoolers can tell you, the minute you do that, you lose your identity. You lose sight of your goals. You become like everyone else, and, frankly, others are better at being "that way" than you are.

Epcot's new crop of designers should really examine whether they want to embrace the truly wondrous and inspiring concepts behind the park and revel in the fact that it is wholly unique. If they're not willing to do that, in 10 years, Epcot will just be another mish-mash of thrill rides and restaurants. Expensive, highly themed and impressive, to be sure -- but, in the end, just like everyone else.

For something that started with such ambition, that's a very sad place to be at 25.

Spaceship Earth

There was a beautiful, ethereal majesty to Spaceship Earth as it existed from 1982 to 1999, before the millennium, before the hand and the wand.

Spaceship Earth achieved something virtually every architect aims to do but few ever accomplish: It made a bold and immediately compelling statement simply by existing. Anyone who saw it from afar, even without knowing anything about EPCOT Center, had an emotional response. The gleaming silver sphere promised something both impossibly grand and strangely familiar. It was an unmistakable landmark and also a symbol of everything for which EPCOT Center stood -- beckoning guests to comment on it and conveying a message of future hope and opportunity even if that message wasn't consciously understood.

By erecting the Mickey Mouse hand and wand, Spaceship Earth was defaced. It would have been understandable had the decorations been a temporary salute to the millennium, then been dismantled. But when the decision was made to make them both permanent -- and, worse, changing "2000" to a curlicue "Epcot" -- the meaning of Spaceship Earth was changed entirely.

Now, it stands as a giant billboard and not much more than that. It is a garish reminder that Disney cannot love itself enough, that the company must push Mickey Mouse into places that he is not comfortable. The giant, disembodied hand with the "Epcot" name spelled out is the most remarkably in-your-face insistence on blending corporate messages I've ever seen.

It's as if no one understood that Spaceship Earth itself was a symbol, one known to virtually anyone who had ever been to or even thought of visiting Walt Disney World. Much like the Empire State Building or Big Ben or the Eiffel Tower, Spaceship Earth was instantly recognizable and inspirational for its simplicity.

It's time to take down that wand and hand, to show that Disney's newly inspired crop of Imagineers understand that the unadorned Spaceship Earth is a structure of power and of imagination in a way that even Cinderella Castle couldn't be, because it is wholly unique, created not by taking inspiration from the real world, but by imagining something out of whole cloth.

If and when that hand and wand come down, it will be a sure sign that Disney might, 24 years after it opened, finally be trying to understand Epcot.