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.

15 comments:

WED52 said...

Wow.

The only thing I can say is: "Well said".

You not just hit the nail on the head, you drove it into the center of the earth. There's really no other way to say what's wrong with today's Disney. The 20th century didn't deserve Walt. He left a great legacy of imagination and genuine wonder and what did his successors in the 80s do? They stripped it for all it was worth, and continue to do so.

The difference between today's Disney and Walt is that Walt really BELIEVED in what he was doing. He didn't do it saying "We're going to make a fortune!" He did it because it interested him. He was in it for the long haul.

Like you said, now it's all one big marketing machine, going from one forgettable fad to another. I can think of a time when Disney became the trend-setter, not just the follower. It seems there's no real risk-takers out in Burbank. Bob Iger exemplified this when he said that "Song of the South" would not be released, because it might offend "certain groups", at the Disney shareholder meeting.

EPCOT Center was really Disney's last, great attempt to do something different. The other theme parks that followed, despite the fact that some of them are great, were following trends. For example: Eisner built Disney/MGM Studios because Universal was building a park in the Orlando area. Once again, merely following a trend, not branching out. DCA was conceieved from cynicism. Not only was it supposed to be hip-and-trendy, making fun of what Disney Theme Parks are all about, the people that built it thought that people were stupid enough to pay full price for a soulless theme park; they certainly learned their lesson after that, even if they won't admit it.

Walt wanted to do something truly original with EPCOT. I do think that EPCOT Center carries on Walt's legacy and ideals of his initial project, even though it isn't a city. Walt wanted EPCOT to inspire people to make changes in their lives and make the world a better place. He wanted to share his optimism with everyone. He TRULY BELIEVED that there was a great, big, beautiful tomorrow shining at the end of every day.

That was the most important thing that Walt taught me - it's okay to be idealistic, to be optimistic. Why not? You're only going to give yourself ulcers if you're a cynic all the time. People that believe things could be better are the people that change the American marketplace, or the world, for that matter.

Being an idealist isn't a bad thing. It keeps you happy. It keeps you going. Seeing the world as not such a bad place also keeps you healthy.

So, people may say that I'm naive. So what? I enjoy the simple things in life. Simple, cornball jokes still make me laugh. I like just looking out of my window at God's green earth. I like when people tell me straight out. Simplicity is good. Life is simple, people complicate it. That's a philosophy that I live by, and I'm sure Walt felt the same way.

Here's to you, Epcot82. Bulls-Eye!

WED52 said...

You just wait. I bet the new "Seas with Nemo & Friends" is going to make fun of the old "boring" Living Seas in some way.

At least the "boring" Living Seas filled me with a sense of wonder and anticipation.

M.N. said...

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.

I have two words to say to this, which applies to so much more than just theme parks:

THANK. YOU.

That said, you've got to wonder how much the financial suits are stifling Lasseter (sp?). I remember this old story where Eisner was really gung-ho for a cool ride idea, and right after he left the room, the financial ends shot it down violently. So they're the ones probably pushing for the whole 'recognizable characters everywhere' attitude and cutting off the creative types' power at the knees.

Epcot82 said...

Historically, the difference is that Roy and Frank Wells would both complain that something cost too much money, made no financial sense, and would probably lead to failure -- then, sensing the enthusiasm and realizing the emotional "correctness" of the thing, they'd do it anyway, even though it made no sense.

Financial folks today simply run the numbers then say it can't be done.

Cliff Cot?? said...

You are on to something here. I have the “50 Years of Magic” CD which has a lot of Epcot music and a few tomorrow land tunes that herald it’s spirit (“it’s a great big beautiful tomorrow” and “now is the time”).

Some of this music is the very definition of cheesy (let’s listen to the land we all love, natures plan will shine above) but if you can’t have naked optimism in Disney World where can you have it! I’ll switch over to Magic Kingdom for a second here. This is why adults wear mouse ears and get a picture with Cinderella.

As for Epcot if there is a more optimistic place on this planet I’d like to here about it. Sure problems are alluded to but the vision of Walt that still permeates the park leads you to imagine a planet:

Without hunger that respects the environment (The Land)
With slight better quality cars from GM (ah crap, why did they get rid of World of Motion)
With underwater cities (Living Seas)
Where we spend more time unleashing our imaginations (Whatever they call the pavilion these days)
Where the barriers of communication continue to come down (Spaceship Earth)
With abundant and clean energy (U of E)
Where a closed dome can have it’s paint dulled by the Florida Sun (or alternatively where medical advances will amaze us in the Wonders of Life pavilion)

Finally with a world showcase where the differences of countries and culture become celebrations of Food, architecture, art, dress and so forth.

We can go back and forth on any given park decision as creativity and finance collide, but it has to point back to the dreamy optimism above which only Disney can pull off.

Digital Jedi said...

I'm posting this message, along with a link, on the forum where I share Admin duties. It's not a Disney site, or anything similar, but it has a good mix of young people and parents who I think can each find something of value from your words. Let me know if you'd like me to make any changes.

Posted Here

Chris said...

Brilliant blog, and as others have said, you've hit many ideas exactly right.

I have always hoped that what is a mass of cynicism may eventually become tired and people return to a better type of ideal, whether it's humor or theme parks.

It seems to me that things like this go in cycles. Look at music, at hairstyles, at clothing...it all goes in cycles. What may be considered outdated now may be in fashion 10 years from now.

The difference is, that we expect Disney to not follow today's trends, its supposed to be timeless, it's supposed to be its separate world without invasion of the real world. Apparently thats failed when there's a rapping bird in the tiki show and Balzaks getting thrown in the faces of guests like at the mall.

I really wish I was at the controls and was able to re-shape Epcot and the rest of the Disney parks. I'd get rid of all of the non-Disney elements, the networks, the radio stations, everything, and focus back on the fundamentals, movies, classic animation and theme parks.

apromiseimplied said...

wow, my thoughts exactly.

Anonymous said...

I agree with you all. However, I find myself enjoying some "simple joys" at EPCOT... even today. Attractions such as Living with the Land and Soaring, while not having a direct stoyline, do in fact attempt to create of sense of hopeful, less cynical future. Also, Spaceship Earth imparts a bit of that original glow that EPCOT once had (and may still have, one day). In other parks there are bits of this "glow" and "simple joy". For example, as old as it is, the PeopleMover is still enjoyed by many people, It's a small world is still enjoyed by many children and parents, alike. Even Animal Kingdom has merit and shows us that a bright future is possible as we care for our animal Earth neighbors. None of the rides/attractions I mentioned are thrill rides in today's standards, but they invoke a sense of thrill at what the future held and still holds for other generations. Am I too idealistic? Maybe so... but isn't that what Walt tried to instill in us all?

Anonymous said...

Notice, however, that except for Soarin' and Animal Kingdom, you mentioned some of the original attractions at all of the parks, attractions created during the Walt era or within 15 years of his death. That's significant.

Would that the "PeopleMover" were still actually the "PeopleMover," but since that name referred to a Tomorrowland that offered a cohesive vision and storyline that was one of the Walt-era (or shortly after) developments, of course it had to be abandoned.

Yes, I am cynical, but not in the sarcastic, ironic sense -- sadly in the "they've proven it once too often" sense.

Anonymous said...

Perfection!

Geoff said...

Your Points are dead on...hopefully someone out there is listening

Brian said...

"No one's trying anymore."

This is defeatist and sad, Epcot82; you say you are optimistic yet you paint a very gloomy picture of EPCOT & Disney's future as a whole.

How about less bitching, more fixing?

I have a few ideas -

1) Start a petition to get the wand taken down. I believe there's an online petition website for these sorts of things?
2) Join together to write an open letter to the executives at Disney. I'll volunteer to help secure a domain name - it wouldn't take more than a few pages on the site signed by a number of people to possibly get their attention.

"FixEpcotsProblems.com"?

We'd have to identify the _critical_ issues, identify the business impact of these issues, and make our case for their modifications. They have to be realistic for them to listen to us - "build 5 more world showcase pavilions" isn't going to get much notice, but "take down the wand and stupid tacky whirligigs between innoventions" would probably get some thought.

Epcot is not a right, nor is it democratic. It's not PBS or NPR. It's owned & run by a private company at their discretion. It thrives on revenue - and sometimes in order to keep the good stuff they have to pander to "the masses." I think it's important to keep this in mind when coming up with realistic solutions for these problems.

-Brian in Seattle

Brian said...

I have been thinking about this more and more - so I went and registered "fixepcot.com" - anyone want to help? :)

(in case of a CAD letter from Disney, I also registered "fixcot.com")

we could -
1) collectively draft a letter explaining our position on Epcot
2) link to this blog
3) link to the petition to take down the wand...

anyone else interested? e-mail me at bdp@bdpnetworks.com if you are interested.

EPCOT Center 4ever said...

It's now almost 40 years since Walt Disney's death on December 15, 1966, and as time inexorably marches on, there will be fewer and fewer people who will know that EPCOT (or Epcot) was an acronym for the final passion of Walt's life, his "genuine laboratory of urban development where people would live, work, and play, testing the newest technological advances available" (from Jeff Kurtti's 1996 Since The World Began).

After Walt Disney Productions decided to carry out Walt's last great dream by embodying the concepts and ideals of his model city into a theme park, the company publicly portrayed all of Walt Disney World as EPCOT, and specifically added EPCOT Center to display the technological innovation at work in WDW (again, from Kurtti).

So why did the Walt Disney Company clip the name to Epcot in late 1993? So it could stick a flower or a Christmas wreath in the "o" of the new cartooish Epcot logo to make it seem like a fun place?

I don't use the name EPCOT Center 4ever because I think the park should be in a suspended state circa 1987. Instead, I believe that to honor Walt's memory and vision, his city of tomorrow should be the exclusive concept allowed to bear the name EPCOT, upper or lower case. On the 25th anniversary of the opening of EPCOT Center next year, the company should return the inspirational theme park's name to EPCOT Center (or give it a new name, though it may be too late for that)in order to retain the distinction between Walt Disney's ("we may never see his like again") dream and the theme park that was built to entertain, inform and inspire and above all, to instill a new sense of belief and pride in man's ability to shape a world that offers hope to people everywhere.

I'm sure most people think that EPCOT Center or Epcot is just a matter of irrelevant semantics, but is there anyone who knew Walt Disney who can honestly say he wouldn't have cared if the name of his beloved city of the future was eventually used verbatim as the name of a theme park?