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.