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?