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?

18 comments:

Biff Jr. said...

To put it simply, I want to cry...

captain schnemo said...

I think you make a valid point. It's the vision thing.

Disney just doesn't seem to take itself seriously any more. Walt had a sense of a higher purpose, and you can't get that from a committee of people trying to play it safe.

Sometimes that results in the failure that most of us would expect to come of that kind of thinking (the animation division has played it so "safe" that it is no longer relevant), but I think it's easy for Disney to get away with in the theme park world, where there isn't so much competition. No one else is really gunning for Disney's family-based theme park target market.

People typically think of parks in terms of "rides" and don't always notice specific aspects of atmosphere. Another point is that there is great inertia in the Disney theme parks. You'd have to go on an active campaign to degrade the parks to make them unappealing to most people (who either have never experienced anything like them or have nostaligiac memories).

Even most of the people who are decrying the changes to Epcot still visit WDW on a regular basis and fork over the same amount of money as previously.

If even the hardcore fans aren't concerned about the problem in a way that matters to Disney and until the quality falls to such a point that even the average consumer doesn't enjoy their experience at WDW, it's going to keep going gangbusters.

Something else you mentioned in this entry...Disney used to really pride itself on simple things like infrastructure. The monorail, the Utilidors, even the AVAC garbage system.

The parks were always sparkling clean, you could never find a burnt out light bulb, everything was freshly painted, and a piece of litter would never stay on the sidewalk for more than few minutes without being picked up. (I wonder if people even get the joke in HISTA about being picked up the Disney maintenance crew these days.)

Now, by no means are the parks filthy, but that superlative level of quality is no longer present. What is there is very good, but it's not the pride of the world any more. It's not the sort of thing they show off to international visitors as the pinnacle of human achievement.

If you want to go to MGM or the Animal Kingdom, take the bus.

It's tough to complain about something that's very good without seeming like a bunch of ungrateful whiners, but when you know it has the potential to be so much better and you've actually seen it that way with your own eyes...well, that's something to start a blog about, I guess.

Kevin said...

There are some parts of Disney who still meet those old standards. Go visit Tokyo Disneyland and you will find a beautiful park, wonderfully clean and beaming, and the friendliest staff on the planet. Go next door to DisneySea and you'll find the kind of creativity that used to drive Epcot.

WDI still has the creativity to pull off amazing designs however the corporate suits won't let them. It's too expensive to do it right. It took the OLC in Tokyo teaming up with Disney with a large infusion of cash to make it happen, but oh did it happen.

I don't think Disney lacks creativity, they're just being pushed by the marketing dept and the financial people to put out inferior products. America's Disney is run by pencil pushers and marketing guys, not by the creative types. But if you'll hop across the pond you can still find a park that is driven by creativity and not by profit margins.

What I would give for a day when that mentality takes hold in the American division again. The people are still there to be creative if only they'd be set free to do it.

Anonymous said...

The reality is that Bob Iger has been given a short amont of time to turn disney around and show financial growth. Once financial growth is achieved I believe more the creative elements of Disney will enter a second golden age. True it would be better to address the creative issue as priority number one. But in 16 months corporate shareholder pressure would put Disney on the block. And that would spell an end to this company

WED52 said...

Be it cars or theme parks, the Japanese are dominating areas where Americans used to dominate. How ironic is it that foreigners are doing something better than the Americans who invented it?

The reason why the Japanese succeed is because they take risks and do the best job they can do. They are ruthless businessmen, but they don't sacrifice anything for quality. They know that if you create something that's better than your competition, the money will follow.

The Americans prefer to make artificial profit, brought on the backs of laid-off animators and Imagineers, with little or no creativity. There's no risk anymore.

Example: DCA in 2001. DCA was built on the cheap and the public shunned it. Now they're supposedly going to spend all this money to "fix" the problems, when they should have done it right the first time. They had excuses: recession, decline in tourism, etc.

But, compare DCA to the other Disney Park built in 2001 - Tokyo DisneySea. DisneySea cost billions, and it shows; the detail is astounding. When the park was built and opened, Japan's eceonomy was in the toilet. But people still lined up in droves to get into DisneySea.

What does this prove? No matter what the economy's like, people will always pay for quality entertainment. People need an escape from their strifes, and entertainment, especially theme parks, has always been an excellent, temporary safe haven.

Anonymous said...

The time will come -- soon, I think -- when some American businessman stands up in front of the media, announces a nutty project, and says, "We're doing this because it's right for the company, and that's what makes it right for shareholders. I realize there are many who feel we are spending frivolously, or that we should be more fiscally responsible. Those courses will not get American industry to the next level of competition and innovation. They may ask me to resign, they may force me out of my job, but until those things happen, I have made a decision that this financially risky proposition is one this company is taking, and ultimately I believe it will prove right for investors and for Wall Street analysts, who are great at telling me what not to do, but not so good at giving me recommendations."

Until that day comes, however, the concept that an American company is beholden ONLY to its shareholders -- or even to its shareholders FIRST -- is one that seems positively boneheaded to me. Making money is the goal of any company, of course, but the only way to make money is to innovate, grow, change and expand. "Managing" a company is simply that -- holding course and staying steady. "Growing" a company takes bold leadership and vision, and I don't think it's just lacking at Disney, I think it's lacking in American industry.

Thierry said...

« 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. »

We are in 2006. Would Walt be proud of that future he once envisioned? He probably knew this was what he feared when this dream came to his mind. And as this world is an experience, the visitor get touched by a character development like in every good story (and you stated it, EPCOT is park with pavilions and new ways of telling stories rather than thrilling attractions).

The mix of that old 1982 park with the story problem we get here today is a way to attract the visitor attention to then show what the world could have been as he travels through older pavilions, and probably realize why this new pixarized and thrilling world bothers. You wouldn't be defending the nostalgic destruction of the old hype that created EPCOT otherwise. If we can dream it, then we can do it.

Disney now sits down on his fortune and let us with his problem he first feared to take the wand.. that magic wand you hate, and get all together to chorus the magic.. to be creative and not cheapened. If Disney shows a sign of that in background, then his story has never been so strong in his efficiency with character development, and so goes the visitor.

captain schnemo said...

The Japanese Disney parks are both proof that the old concepts still work and a depressing example of how Disney is now outsourcing its magic. Even in the movie division, if they want something great, they have to pay Pixar or Miyazaki to get it.

onjejank said...

Just received a Disney Insider email from the Mouse. And in the trivia section, something alarming that may very well confirm my fears that EPCOT's vision has been given up on by Disney:

DID YOU KNOW?
EPCOT originally stood for Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow. It was a "community of the future" that was designed to stimulate American corporations to come up with new ideas for urban living.

Wow - so, what does it stand for now?

kcnole said...

"Wow - so, what does it stand for now?"

Officially it hasn't stood for anything in a long time. It long ago lost the anacronym. It lost its heart around the same time. I don't mind so much if they go away from that theme a bit as long as they can embrace a new theme that is equally as forward thinking.

Epcot82 said...

It's amazing that Disney has officially "given up" on EPCOT, at least for now -- but also that they trumpet it like it's simply some long-ago trivia. There's no reason, even with the garish "revisions," that EPCOT couldn't still stand for Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow, simply couching it as something like, "Walt Disney's vision of the future was one in which everyone played an active part in their world, and was aware of their surroundings, their global neighbors and the key issues facing our planet. At EPCOT, you enter a thrilling theme park where you can experience, learn about and discover amazing new insight into our global community."

Why can't a basic "guiding statement" like that be created that still allows EPCOT to be as "Disney-ized" as it likes (oh, please, God, no!) but also puts a CONCEPT around the park that helps guests say, "Oh, I understand why this is different than the other parks." And maybe, just maybe, they'll also realize that "different" does not mean bad.

SilentSpectre said...

"Until that day comes, however, the concept that an American company is beholden ONLY to its shareholders -- or even to its shareholders FIRST -- is one that seems positively boneheaded to me."

Shareholders come first because the shareholders are the owners of the corporation. The shareholders have invested money into this company and expect to see a return on this money (through dividends and/or increased stock price).

However, many American companies are simply doing just that: holding the course. Innovation is the only way to sustain growth.

dean said...

A very interesting comparison between Epcot and Disney, though the recent projects throughout all the parks can be revealing of the company behind them. Consider: new Tomorrowlands that are brown and lifeless, that look towards the past instead of forward; revamps of older attractions that make a sarcastic mockery of the former; complete new parks that are built on the cheap and are soulless. All these tell us something of what Disney has become.

kcnole said...

One of my alltime favorite quotes by Walt. I expect to use it as the theme of an upcoming blog on my blogsite before long. I wish Disney would still have some people who worked like this:

"You reach a point where you don't work for money."

Ole de Cronche said...

I still love EPCOT and typically spend at least half of my Disney vacation time there, but I have to agree that the vision is lacking. I remember as a kid going there back in '84 and being amazed by the technology. Today, I look around and wonder why they are not trying harder to get better sponsorships from the technology sector. The core of EPCOT's main strip needs a major technology update to draw people's interest; there's so much potential already there to build upon.

Rich-
http://happiestblogonearth.blogspot.com/

dean said...

My hope is that Epcot finds a new focus that places an emphasis on human achievement over technology. Technology could still be presented as an important tool we can use, but other important themes could be explored as well...including our endeavors in the arts, exploration, and the cultural richness of World Showcase. As I have said before, these themes have always existed at Epcot, but it seems to be the new technology that was emphasized to draw people to the park.

Technology today is a different phenomenon than it was back in 1982 when the microprocessor was just beginning to affect our day-to-day lives. We are still making incredible advancements, but for the most part the concepts are now pretty familiar. Trying simply to present the latest technology is not going to have the same impact since it's becoming mainstream.

I think that Future World should continue its futuristic theme, but mostly as a means to convey that the ideas it represents are forward-reaching and inspiring - not merely that it is showcasing technology. It's true that new technologies can be inspiring, but I feel that the dialogue has to move beyond that.

captain schnemo said...

If the tech is "mainstream", then it isn't cutting edge. I dunno what's on the horizon (so to speak), but that's what futurists and dreamers are for.

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