Monday, October 23, 2006

As Goes Epcot, So Goes Disney

There have been some great conversations going on here at EPCOT Central -- sometimes contentious ones, but ones that have a point and have valid arguments on both sides. As I consider the discussion that has been going on about the relative merits of The Living Seas vs. The Seas With Nemo and Friends I have been thinking a lot about the state of creativity at Disney.

It's probably true that there will never be anyone as creatively driven and as fiscally reckless as Walt Disney again, at least in the entertainment industry. If ol' Unca Walt were around today, he'd be driven out of town by the very people who run his company today, laughed at for such ludicrous notions as investing bazillions in a single project and ignoring the desires of his own shareholders.

EPCOT Center was one of the last projects for which he proposed an outline, and everyone can agree -- even the most ardent EPCOT fans -- that the theme park doesn't come close to what Walt himself envisioned.

Nonetheless, EPCOT throughout the 1970s and 1980s was a place where Disney felt it could experiment with new technologies, new theme-park concepts and new ways of telling stories. It was a tremendously fertile ground for toying around with ideas and blending concepts that were tried-and-true (the Omnimover, Audio-Animatronics) with ones that were bold and ambitious (a serious-minded park, pavilions instead of single attractions).

I recently had a discussion with a friend who works at Disney, and I argued that while financially Disney is a good, sound investment, creatively the company has reached a nadir that I believe descends even lower than its hard times of the late 1970s. Then, at least, Disney was attempting to explore the very definition of its name while staying true to the spirit of its founder. Projects as varied as "Space Mountain," The Black Hole, Tokyo Disneyland, The Black Cauldron, "America Sings," Tex and The Disney Channel were not simply attempts to make money (ironically, most didn't), but honest attempts to expand Disney's presence, build a foundation of new franchises and businesses, and in doing so enlarge the public's concept of what constituted Disney entertainment.

EPCOT Center was chief among these. Misguided as many claim the attempt to shoehorn the EPCOT "city" concepts into a theme park, it was a sincere and honest effort to push Disney into a bold new era of theme parks that didn't rely on Mickey Mouse, that showcased the here and now rather than the fantastic, and, in today's MBA terms, that created a new "brand" that could stand on its own alongside "Disneyland" and "Walt Disney World."

If you've been reading this blog for a while, you know how I feel about the vast majority of developments at EPCOT Center in the past decade or so. They have cheapened EPCOT, made this once-grand theme park lose its unique identity, and coddled the public into believing that the only "true" Disney is one that brings you Mickey and the Princesses and anything Pixar.

That, of course, is also what the company has become -- managers of an entertainment brand that does not grow and change and develop, but stays more and more the same, trading off of its decades of goodwill seemingly limitlessly and to the point of exhaustion. It has swallowed up new brands, like ABC and ESPN, only to decide that pushing them into the theme parks, too, is a good way to "network" the company. ("Network," by the way, is the new word for "synergize.")

There is almost no imagination, no true creativity -- and certainly no bold daring -- on display. So, I would argue, is the case at Epcot.

Which makes me wonder (much like Sarah Jessica Parker in Sex in the City), could it be that today's Epcot is a perfect mirror for the creative problems of The Walt Disney Company?

Just as Epcot suffers from a lack of focus, so does The Walt Disney Company.

Just as Epcot has increasingly surrendered its identity for the sake of shoehorning in more and more "classic" Disney characters whenever possible into all possible realms (whether they make sense or not), so does The Walt Disney Company.

Just as Epcot has trouble clarifying its goals and its mission, so does The Walt Disney Company.

Just as Epcot seems to regard guests as a way to make money, not as a consitituency to entertain with new concepts, so does The Walt Disney Company.

Just as Epcot has demonstrated a lack of truly innovative, creative concepts, so has The Walt Disney Company.

Could it be possible that the trajectory of EPCOT Center -- which began with all great hopes, all possible funding, all extraordinary ambition -- is that of Disney as a whole? Amazing creativity, incredible innovention ... giving way to relying on characters, price increases and job cuts in order to turn a profit, even if, in the long run, it loses what made it so special in the first place?

Even if, heaven forbid, it renders itself obsolete and irrelevant in the process?

Thursday, October 19, 2006

A Living Seas Imagining

I earlier posted this as "comment" to the previous post about The Seas With Nemo and Friends. Then I thought, "Hey, why am I posting this as a comment? It's my blog! I can make it a real post!"

Your comments made me think about whether there could have been a way to both appeal to the Nemo set but still uphold the integrity of the EPCOT Center ideals. Of course, it's just an imagining (and one written in 15 minutes!), but still ... it might open up some other ideas, or at least a discussion! I'd love to know your thoughts:


Guests enter the pavilion through a queue area that reminds us how little we know about the seas.

We see images of (perhaps fossils or even small AA figures) some of the most bizarre creatures imaginable -- and learn that they actually live just a few miles away from us ... down.

As we journey through the queue area, we move from happy, light imagery (representing the top surface of the ocean, which we think we know so well) into darker, more ominous motifs. It never gets too scary, just inky and murky enough to make us remember that the bottom of the sea is only a short distance away but might as well be on another world.

A series of signs informs us we are about to enter the training room for Seabase Alpha, where we have been invited as the first civilian visitors.

The doors open and we are taken into a seating area that will give us important information we should know before entering Seabase Alpha. We are told that centuries of exploration have left us knowing little more about the seas than we did years ago, how mysterious they are, how much we can learn from them, how they may hold the answers to problems of disease, pollution and famine that plague the top of the earth. We are told that we are about to embark on a grand adventure that many have dreamed of but few have taken -- a voyage to a working seabase that in many ways is an even more remarkable feat than a space station.

The doors open and we board the vessel that will take us down into the ocean's depths. We ride past scenes that show us descending further and further. Odd, luminscent creatures poke out at us; shipwrecks fill our view. We receive data and information about this trip, then ride past scenes that show us how this amazing feat was engineered. We're told it's not so deep that it is impractical to science, but deep enough that we can discover and develop new marine technologies. We see it coming to life, and finally we step off our vessel and into ...

Seabase Alpha.

The inside of the Seabase is part "industrial-functional," part futuristic. We learn that it has several different layers, each of which represents the different layers of the oceans. For instance, as we disembark, we see familiar marine mammals, and watch and interact with scientists who are studying them. We learn about how man interacts with this top layer of the ocean, and how we are impacting it. "Turtle Talk With Crush" is in this top area for the kids to learn more about the oceans.

One level down, we see the main aquarium tank and learn about sealife that never comes to the surface. Nemo himself presents information about fragile coral reefs for kids in a short video that leads into an underwater replica of a real coral reef (complete with the fish that live in and near it). Adult guests, meanwhile, are able to watch and interact with the divers.

On the lower level are the "Mysteries of the Deep." Here, a new, widescreen 3-D presentation about some of the most unknown creatures on earth shows us things that few people have ever seen. It has no host, but rather is presented as an almost eerie "journey to the depths," providing an oceanographic perspective that few other aquariums or sea parks even address.

Beyond its doors is a spectacular new three-dimensional, Imagineered diorama that shows some of these creatures and also offers a "customizable" self-guided audio tour (one for adults, one created specifically for kids, narrated by Dory) that talks about some of the amazing scientific and medical uses that these creatures may provide in the future.

We exit Seabase Alpha as we used to enter-- through the "hydrolators" that take us back up to the surface. Upon our exit, we walk through two enormous tanks that show off beautiful undersea displays and remind us of the amazing things we just saw and learned.

The pavilion provides enough education for adults and entertainment for children. It capitalizes on the success of Finding Nemo but does not fully rely on Nemo for its appeal. It incorporates a reconfigured ride and also allows guests to see and experience the attraction at their own pace.

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Sea? This is FUN!

I'm happy to know that so many reports are coming back with positive things to say about the newly retooled pavilion with the unwieldy name The Seas With Nemo and Friends. Full disclosure: I have not experienced it myself, and probably won't get the chance to do so for quite some time.

That said ... I'm not sure I want to. Having visited the half-finished pavilion several weeks ago, none of the reviews I've read online lead me to change my mind about this Epcot pavilion: It's Pixar-ized pabulum that dumbs down what was for many years one of the most challenging -- and most rewarding -- of the Epcot attractions.

The Seas, etc., etc. would, from what I gather, be a lovely addition to The Magic Kingdom. It's fun, it's colorful, it's firmly rooted in fantasy. It's got loveable characters that are nicely integrated into a well-conceived ride.

But here's the thing -- what I'm realizing is my basic problem with turning EPCOT Center into Epcot and now into, it seems, Discot (Pixcot?):

The Magic Kingdom is a place where adults can feel like kids, where kids (by virtue of being able to share most of the attractions with their families) can feel a little bit like adults, where fantasy is the common touchstone for everyone who visits. (I'll put aside the relentless commercialization and even the non-Tomorrow Tomorrowland.) It's a place where animated characters and fairy tales can come to life, alongside recreations of our heritage and our idealized notion of how we came to be (at least, if we're Americans).

In short, it's a place that you grow up in.

EPCOT Center was something quite different, and here's the conclusion I've reached: It was a place you would grow into. You could be too young for EPCOT Center, without a doubt. If you were 8, the place would be boring, and Disney knew that -- so they tossed the kids a bone in the form of a purple dragon and some silly-looking characters in World of Motion.

Other than that, EPCOT Center was resolutley and steadfastly determined to present itself as different than The Magic Kingdom. As you "grew up," you would find more and more to EPCOT Center to stimulate you. A child has little interest in shopping for interesting home decorations, visiting displays that teach about the history of a country, or discovering how food is harvested. But for most of us, those things become increasingly fun, increasingly relevant, increasingly interesting, the older we get. They remind us how much we don't know about our world, and how much there is to explore and learn. EPCOT Center was made for those who found The Magic Kingdom a little silly.

No one is allowed to do that today.

We're not allowed to think our own thoughts, conceive of our own lives, without Disney's help when we go to Walt Disney World. To me, The Seas, Yaddah, Yaddah is yet another example of that.

Let me state again: I believe (and want to believe) that it's a good, fun ride. I don't doubt that the Imagineers have done a terrific job at making it look great.

But The Living Seas celebrated our world, not a digitized, Pixar-ized vision of happy, talking fish. It reminded us that there are mysteries here on our very own planet that we have only begun to explore, and then invited us to explore those mysteries at our leisure. It held a view that the oceans were vast, exciting, vibrant and alive with creatures that seem infinitely alien but share our own planet.

I just don't believe, as well done as it may be, that a turtle who loves saying "Duuuuuuuuude" is quite the same as discovering for ourselves how little we know our own world.

When Enthusiasm Was Enthusiastic

Particularly by today's standards, this is not a great piece.

The music (even for 1982) is pretty mundane, the images are tough to decipher. Looking at it 25 years later, it's almost quaint how outmoded and old-fashioned this technology looks.

But here's what really strikes me about this video, which showcases the technology that was used to run EPCOT Center: It believes in what it's telling us. It's enthusiastic. It wants to excite us, to get us eager to learn more.

It may not be great, but it's fun, and it fits in perfectly with the EPCOT Center message that technology can be used to bring great things to life.

It's about EPCOT, not about Disney. It's not about selling, it's about energizing. It's not about "branding," it's simply meant to showcase EPCOT center. It's so simple and "out-of-date," it's almost astonishing to see how effective (and infectious) it is.

(And, I noted with a sly little smile, the monorails have not a single marketing banner or sticker on them anywhere! Back then, they didn't even feel the need to use crazy character voices to "synergize." It was just about that great voice telling you that you're "now approaching EPCOT Center." For millions of people for many, many years, that alone was thrilling enough.)

Monday, October 16, 2006

Seeing Into the Future

Here's another classic bit of video found on YouTube -- a feature on EPCOT Center produced for the Today Show. Apart from seeing Jane Pauley looking her early '80s best, it's a great example of just how clear Disney's "messaging" on EPCOT Center was -- and how bungled it has become.

My favorite bit? That EPCOT is a place parents will drag the kids, not vice-versa. Today, we seem to think there's something wrong with that concept!

It certainly is amazing how barren the opening-day version of EPCOT Center looked. Today's mature gardens are so much more beautiful ... if only there weren't so many random carts, kiosks and unnecessary buildings blocking their full view.

At any rate ... enjoy!

Sunday, October 15, 2006

Why EPCOT Center Was So Special

What made us fall in love with EPCOT Center? What is the ineffable "something" that has all but been erased by Disney's current management in the past decade or so?

This terrific 1982 video gives us some fantastic early images of EPCOT Center and presents some terrific insight into the making of Spaceship Earth. Ironically (or not), one of the people who speaks about the importance and significance of EPCOT Center and Spaceship Earth is Marty Sklar -- the same person who oversaw the deconstruction of the brilliant EPCOT Center as he tried to navigate and manipulate the politics of Eisner-era Disney.

Are you a Disney employee or executive? Do you know someone who is? Please make sure to view this video and send the link to those who you think might like to see why today's "Epcot" is so far removed and so much less effective than the original EPCOT Center.

(Notice, too, how much more animated and effective those AA figures looked a quarter century ago!)

Spaceship Earth, the video reminds us, "embodies the spirit of EPCOT Center." Today's Disney executives would do well to keep that in their heads!

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

A Grand and Miraculous Spaceship

Every day, thousands of people walk right by it, but how many actually consider the mural at the entrance to Spaceship Earth? Not enough!

It’s a gorgeous painting, showcasing many of the images that await on the journey through the geosphere. It also tells a beautiful story on its own, about man’s constant quest to share information and communicate with others.

Dramatic and bold, easy to digest in a glance -- but at the same time wonderfully detailed and worth studying closely, the mural also serves as a beautiful reminder of what EPCOT Center aspired to be: intelligent, adventurous, compelling and most decidedly “un-Disney.”

Seeing the mural always brings a little joy to me, because it’s one of those traces of EPCOT Center that hasn’t been wiped away and Mickey-ized. Grand and miraculous (well, maybe that’s a bit of a stretch) itself, the Spaceship Earth mural reminds us that exploring our world, our universe, isn’t boring – it’s an enormous adventure through time and space that can spark the imagination and lead to fantastic discoveries.

Let’s hope the mural never goes away!

Thursday, October 05, 2006

A Happy Accident

December 15, 1966. On the "CBS Evening News With Walter Cronkite," commentator Eric Sevareid made these eloquent observations about Walt Disney just hours after the world learned that Walt had died:

"He was a happy accident, one of the happiest this century has experienced. And judging by the way it’s behaving, in spite of all Disney tried to tell it about laughter, love, children, puppies, and sunrises, the century hardly deserved him."

The discussion that's been taking place in the comments section of "What's It All About, EPCOT," has both fascinated and unnerved me. Have we truly grown so cynical that Sevareid's words are more accurate and prophetic today than 40 years ago?

By all accounts, it would appear so. "Humor" today is defined by irony and sarcasm -- particulary if the object of scorn is someone in a social class or political party other than your own. The idea of simply telling a joke is outmoded; today, wry observance is what we think is funny, because it allows us to be superior to others.

Belief in anything considered childlike or simple is ridiculed. A fairy tale, as we witnessed with Shrek and Shrek 2, isn't enough; the story has to mock the idea of believing in a fairy tale and show how anachronistic and backward that idea is.

We deconstruct ideas, entertainment, people (especially celebrities and politicians) and belief systems so that we may mock them. And when we do strip them down to nothing, we find that mockery on its own does not sustain us; as a nation and, increasingly, as a species, we are unsatisfied and unhappy to learn that anyone else might by satisfied and happy using the same tools we have. (Therefore, for instance, we shout out "That's so fake" on a ride because we are fearful others might actually be enjoying the illusion.)

We find ourselves angry that our lives -- individually and collectively -- are not as happy as we imagined and believed they would be, so we make fun of the lives, likes and moral systems of others so we can feel better about ourselves. And, of course, we don't.

Cynicism has reached epidemic proportions. More distressingly (as the human condition has rarely been one of happiness or contentment), we have destroyed what few outlets we had to combat that cynicism. (I will not address issues of religion here; feel free to determine on your own whether cynicism has invaded that aspect of your life.)

In past decades and centuries, humans often turned to artistic outlets both to express their frustration, grief and sorrow and, more importantly, to celebrate and gain happiness from expressions of positive feelings -- of joy, of discovery, of friendship, of beauty, of scale and scope, of awareness and idealization.

It can be no accident that Walt Disney's unique brand of entertainment achieved its highest level of popularity -- turned the man himself into a celebrity of such a caliber he often marveled at it -- during two calamitous times in U.S. history: World War II and the start of the Cold War. When, as Sevareid said, the nation (and world) was grappling with how to accept the reality of "intercontinental missiles, poisoned air, defoliated forests, and scraps from the moon," Disney reminded his audiences that there was another side to life, one filled with that "laughter, love, children, puppies and sunrises."

In the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s, people saw these things as a relief. They believed what Uncle Walt told them: that there was nothing at all wrong with finding solace in simple joys. He said we would use these potentially horrifying threats only for good, that man, at his core, believed in himself and in fulfilling his own potential. He said that life, for lack of a better term, was good.

After Walt Disney died, of course, the world experienced chaos -- but this is no history lesson, and, more importantly, the chaos of that day was little different than the chaos of today ... or the chaos we have ever faced.

What's different? I don't know -- well, I have theories, but they are not worth going into here. They boil down, however, to this: No one has offered anything as pure, as simple, as honest as Walt Disney did. No one has expressed such an individual voice.

For years, The Walt Disney Company recognized that it had an incredibly unique place in entertainment as the only organization built on such a strong foundation. Although "What would Walt do?" became an overused question no one could answer, it was important that the question was asked. There was a genuine commitment -- even when the company began trying to branch out into different kinds of entertainment in 1983 -- to quality and to the integrity of its guiding philosophies. If they couldn't re-create the "magic," they at least tried.

No one's trying anymore.

EPCOT Center, for whatever faults it may have had, possessed enormous strength of conviction. It imparted a message of hope and idealism, and wasn't ashamed to say that idealism, gosh darn it, wasn't a bad thing. We could all strive to be better. Did some laugh? Of course. Did many millions come away believing the message? You'd better believe it. Like Sevareid said of Walt himself, EPCOT Center was "a happy accident," borne from a desire to see at least a semblance of Walt's last, greatest dream brought to life. Bastardized as it may have been, it could be said convincingly that at least some of what Walt wanted was there. At least some of Walt's amazing vision for our future was in it.

There's very litle of Walt left in today's Disney. It is not goverened by any philosophy or conviction but by the desire, simply and relentlessly, to make money. It is not above cashing in on the diminishing goodwill created by Walt Disney, goodwill that survived for nearly four decades -- even if it bankrupts itself of that goodwill in relatively short order.

If today's Disney and its employees and managers come across as cynical, it is because the concepts and "creativity" they present are not backed by ideas, emotion and thought, but by manufactured marketing strategies that increasingly make very little pretense that the Disney mission is to part us from our money and make a small number of people very wealthy.

How can we help but respond to that with a cynical eye?

When many of us initially regarded John Lasseter, we did so happily because we imagined he would approach his role with the zeal, gusto and heart that no one has since Walt himself. As we hear of him approving Pixar-based rides and (apparently) endorsing the idea of turning Tom Sawyer's Island into a Depp-influenced pirate's cove, hearts sink because one person who could turn the tide of cynicism is failing to even acknolwedge that the cynicism is there.

A kid who says those pirates on their Caribbean journey look fake is doing it because he has never received approval from the outside -- from parents, teachers, friends or, worse, himself -- to believe, to imagine, to pretend. In Bedknobs and Broomsticks, a movie Walt Disney helped develop before he died, a wistful song refers to "The Age of Not Believing." It seems we've entered that age, and we're worse off for it.

Walt Disney gave approval to believe, not just to children, but to the world. It was a gift of light. The light, at long last, is fading. Whether it can be brightened again remains to be seen.

I don't blame society for being cynical. I blame the simple lack of anyone who has risen up to say, "There is more than this."

On that cold December night 40 years ago, Sevareid left his audience with these 10 words:

"People are saying we will never see his like again."

He may, indeed, have been right.

And if you've made it this far, thanks for getting through such a long diatribe.

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

What's It All About, EPCOT?

I've been trying all day to figure out how to get YouTube to link to the blog, but to no avail. The YouTube "blog-linker" thing just hangs and hangs. Nevertheless, I had to pass on this terrific video that Captain Schnemo sent me. It's a terrific reminder of what EPCOT Center was, why we used to get so excited about it, and what's missing from today's Epcot -- a sense of excitement, wonder and genuine excitement about the future and our world.

It's really great stuff. Hope you agree.

(By the way, if you have a moment, click on the photo to see the full-size version of this image. I was very impressed with the picture that my new digital camera generated ... it was taken from across World Showcase Lagoon with no tripod!)

Monday, October 02, 2006

Belief and Pride

There it is for all to see.

Walk toward EPCOT Center -- well, Epcot (unless you believe one line in the plaque itself) -- and the basic philosophy is spelled out plainly.

"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."

Interestingly, the plaque only furthers the debate over whether the marketing-driven name "Epcot" is preferred over the traditional "EPCOT Center," as it reads both ways.

I question how many Disney marketing executives have bothered to read the plaque (or even know it exists). I question how Princess dresses in Norway, Ellen acting goofy in her Energy Adventure, test-track cars that often don't operate, or cartoon fish usurping real ones "instill a sense of belief and pride in man's ability to shape a world that offers hope to people everywhere."

In my line of work (which is not too far removed at all from what Disney does), when we lose sight of our goal, when things just don't seem to be working properly, or we begin to question our effectiveness, we pause for a brief moment and go back to our original goals. Do those original goals still apply? If they do, are we sure that what we're doing will lead us to meeting those goals?

The goals of EPCOT Center are carved in bronze for all to see at the front of the park. Except for some half-hearted tinkering with the name of the park, the goals have been the same since 1982. Those are some pretty long-lived, hardy goals. They haven't changed at all.

So, my questions are: 1) Does EPCOT Center, as it exists today, match those goals? And 2) Does anyone at Disney even realize those goals still exist?

Happy Birthday, EPCOT Center

I'm a day late, so while the wishes are belated, the sentiment is no less strong: Here's to a happy 24th birthday for EPCOT Center and a year ahead that is filled with only good things!