Thank you for reading, thank you for letting me know. I think many people confused the ideas behind the movie with the politics of the movie. I also received quite a surprising amount of feedback, both in blog comments and via e-mail, that Epcot should be “fun,” and that being “serious” and being “fun” somehow are incompatible. That’s an assertion with which I strongly disagree. Going back and looking at some of the animated shorts and films that Walt Disney made in the 1950s and 1960s clearly indicate that he believed his form of entertainment could be used to provide fun and to illuminate and educate, and that sometimes the two were mutually exclusive. For a good example of what I mean, check out the Tomorrowland DVD in the Walt Disney Treasures collection. Films like “Our Friend the Atom,” “Man In Space” and even his final EPCOT sales film showed that Walt Disney not only was quite politically astute and active, but wasn’t afraid to challenge audiences to think and react to his movies.
Nevertheless, let me say that if you were somehow offended by my comments and musings, I’m sorry – I started this blog site as a way to spur thinking and discussion, however, so I certainly won’t back away from my comments.
But I digress.
Because it’s exactly that sort of mindset – of challenging, of presenting ideas, of trying to do something different – that used to set Disney’s theme parks apart.
Having worked at Disney during the mid-1990s and early 2000s, it seems to me it was around 1993 or 1994 that Disney’s theme park division really began to change – and that a great deal of the reason for the change was that its management suddenly began to view other theme parks as competition.
Of course they were competition, you’ll say. Of course Disney, being a large company, had to respond to the increased competition of Universal Studios, Sea World, Busch Gardens and Six Flags.
Not necessarily. See, the big change in mindset that took place was that Disney used to view itself as the competition to the other parks. Six Flags needed to respond to what Disney did, not the other way around. Universal (put aside the argument for a moment that Eisner was responding to the plan to build a park in Orlando when he greenlit the Disney-MGM Studios) needed to keep up with Disney. And so on and so forth.
But in the early 1990s, after Universal had established itself as a legitimate draw in Orlando and Six Flags had begun to market itself aggressively, particularly in Southern California, Disney panicked. Instead of continuing its tried-and-true formula of marching to its own drummer and leading the pack, Disney blinked.
It was a major change in philosophy. If you are in the lead in a race, you don’t look around and wait until the others catch up – in a foot race, if you turn your head, you could change your movements enough to lose your first-place position. Likewise, if you’re at the top of an industrial heap, you don’t react to the competition … they react to you. We saw it in 1985 with Coke vs. Pepsi, when Coke decided to mess with a good thing because they had lost some market share and suddenly worried about Pepsi. Guess what? Pepsi won, and Coke had a very hard time recovering – it took years.
Disney was the undisputed leader of theme parks for decades; it invented the market, it led the market, it owned the market. And then, suddenly, it lost a little bit. Teens started going to Six Flags, families started making a day for Universal.
What Disney could have done was infuse its theme parks with a heap of inspiration and cash. It could have studied what made it unique and expanded the definition of Disney.
Instead, it tried to simply out-Disney everyone else. Managers reasoned that the only thing that differentiated Disney was Mickey and the gang and the curlicue signature.
What happened? Disney began taking on attributes of its competition. Just as Coke tried to make itself sweeter to reach Pepsi drinkers, Disney added thrill rides to reach teens, added more Mickey to reach kids, added cheap midway rides because, as Paul Pressler allegedly said in a meeting once, “If it’s good enough for Six Flags, it’s good enough for us.”
That was the start of something sad. It may be true that, by the numbers, Disney is still the leader – but by public sentiment, the competition has gained quite a bit of ground.
Epcot is perhaps the park most affected by this shift in tone. Epcot used to be so unique, no one could even really define it. (The MBA marketing geniuses tried, in the late 1990s, to call it “Disney’s discovery park,” not realizing that “Epcot” had really become both the noun and definition.) Too unique, because it wasn’t like Universal, it wasn’t like Sea World, it wasn’t like Busch Gardens or Six Flags. So, instead of figuring out what it was, the idea came up to make it more like those places – to mold itself in the shape of the competition, rather than force the competition to emulate it. Test Track and Mission: Space and the appearance of Ellen and Bill Nye in the Universe of Energy have been some of the results. More and more, Epcot looks like any other theme park.
It looks like its competition, because the competition became the measuring stick.
It doesn’t have to be that way. All that’s needed is for management to say, “We will not be like anyone else.” That’s called a winning attitude. It’s called being a leader. It’s called being original and exciting.
Disney’s competition became its undoing, but if Disney will start using its internal imagination and inspiration as its only form of “competition,” Epcot can only become a better place that fulfills some of the promise it held for so long.