Tuesday, August 08, 2006
Baby With the Bathwater
Epcot had to change. Its very nature demanded it.
Epcot’s entire creative concept was built around the idea that our world and its people changed rapidly, and that only by sharing ideas and cultures could we hope to understand and contribute to the future of our planet.
Change, by itself, at Epcot is welcome and worth celebrating. For a while, it seemed Imagineers might have had it right. The now-distant renovation of Spaceship Earth and Universe of Energy – no matter what you think of them – at least attempted to inject a more up-to-date storyline into the experiences. The now seemingly ancient (and meaningless, given that it’s closed) addition of Wonders of Life expanded Future World beyond the external and into our own selves.
Additions of Norway and Morocco to World Showcase, the relatively frequent updates of exhibits around World Showcase are lovely for those who take the time to explore them. The almost constant (by comparison to other attractions) changes to Illuminations have only made it stronger and more compelling and wonderful.
Why, then, do the most recent changes to Epcot – which, as I said, demands change for its very existence – seem so … wrong-headed? By emphasizing Disney characters and the “Disney brand” at all costs, Disney’s management style at Epcot seems to be one that values the proverbial bathwater itself and pays little heed to the baby its supposed to be protecting.
It’s not just the unspeakably disturbing rumor that Kim Possible will find a home in the Imagination pavilion, taking over the area that once excited children’s imaginations with artistic and educational interactive displays. (I worked at Disney long enough to know that rumors that work their way into the public are almost invariably true; the minute Disney denies them, they practically become gospel.)
Nor is it the lunkheaded takeover of The Living Seas by “Nemo and Friends.” (It will become, simply, “The Seas,” sending the unintended message that the world’s oceans are not alive and vibrant.) Clearly, Disney believes that a topic as incredible as the undersea world is nothing without its own characters tacked on – an idea that seems to be refuted by a recent trip I took to a local aquarium, where I waited in line for 20 minutes just to buy tickets and saw children who were captivated by simply looking in the tanks … without a cartoon character in sight.
It’s not even the move I lamented that brings Disney Princesses into the restaurant at Norway, once again sending the very clear message that the real world is just plain dull without Disney’s characters roaming around it to remove any chance that you might learn something by experiencing a new culture.
The concern that all of these moves raise in my mind is that by focusing more on how “Disney” (aka The Baby) can be added to Epcot, the very notion of what Epcot is (aka The Bathwater) is undone. No longer, Disney is saying, is it important to try to find exciting new ways to communicate to its guests – no longer, in fact, is it worth trying to design and execute a theme park unlike any other. As long as Corporate Synergy is being served, the notion of Epcot is expendable.
It’s a terribly short-sighted notion, one that leads to a lesser experience for guests and to a less creative, less challenging, less imaginative, less forward-thinking company overall.
Now, I know that some will argue that by providing “Disney entertainment,” Disney is just making the place more fun, and there’s nothing wrong with that.
Ah, but that assumes the original notion of EPCOT Center – the same sparks of creativity and ingenuity that led to such inventions as the PeopleMover, Audio-Animatronics, the Monorail, the feature-length animated film and the like (just take your pick of advances made by Disney over the years) – was not Disney entertainment in the first place.
“Disney entertainment” doesn’t just mean Mickey Mouse, “That’s So Raven,” Kim Possible and Bambi II.
Disney used to expand the very definition of entertainment. It never saw “Disney” as being a confining concept, but rather an invigorating one – one that drove new advances by simple virtue that the company’s guiding philosophy was creating things that would improve the world and that the entire family could enjoy together.
EPCOT Center genuinely offered that form of Disney entertainment. It expanded the definition of “theme park,” it tried something novel, it dared to be different.
By making today’s Epcot conform to the increasingly narrow definition of what “Disney entertainment” is – i.e., recycled characters packaged for the masses, with every attempt to be bland and inoffensive and as financially successful as possible – the changes to Epcot further showcase how un-creative, how un-inspiring today’s Disney is becoming.
If it makes money, the thinking around today’s Disney goes, that’s what matters. Who cares about creating something strikingly innovative when you can churn out the same old stuff and make money hand over fist.
When and if the public ever catches up with Disney (as it did in the 1970s and early 1980s), Disney’s management is going to realize it really mucked things up at that strange, crazy theme park down in Florida … you know, the one with the big Mickey hand sticking out of the golf ball. What a mess that’s going to be.
If only they had paid a little more attention to that charmingly unique, preternaturally intelligent little baby when they had the chance …