Saturday, April 29, 2006

Epcot at 25


I'm back online after a couple of weeks away ... unfortunately, my trip didn't take me to Walt Disney World -- though I will be going soon.

Meanwhile, I've received several e-mail responses to my blog, which I appreciate tremendously.

In 2007, Epcot will be celebrating its 25th anniversary, and here's hoping against hope that the new regime at Disney and Imagineering will actually care about that fact. Based on recent managerial/organizational changes to the way Theme Parks & Resorts are operated and marketed at The Walt Disney Company, that's sadly doubtful. Nonetheless, as EPCOT Center taught us, we can always dare to dream of a brighter future.

Before proceeding, I should say that if anyone at Disney (or Pixar) actually does read this blog, my suggestions below are absolutely given wholly and completely as food for thought. I renounce any right to them as "creative ideas," and they are presented here without any claim of ownership. In other words, Legal Suits, let those who care deeply about Epcot have a say in things.

Here are my thoughts on how Epcot's 25th anniversary could be celebrated in a meaningful way that brings new life and excitement to the world's most unique theme park:

* Start by rechristening Epcot with its original name EPCOT Center. A simple Google or Yahoo! search shows that most people still refer to it by this name, and using the "EPCOT" name as an acronym instills a sense of curiosity in people about what it means any why that name was chosen. Explain that "Center" means it is the center of Disney's thinking about the future and the possibilities that humans collectively have to make their future better by working together (combining the Future World message of technological advancements with the World Showcase message of community).

* Remove the hand and wand. Its time is way, way past. Restore Spaceship Earth's majesty and grandeur.

* Create and install a new, Animatronics-based attraction within the Universe of Energy; make it the grandest ride-through attraction Disney has created to date. Explore humankind's reliance on energy and the preciousness of our earth.

* Remove the awful "Finding Nemo" overlay to The Living Seas and re-promote this attraction as an experiential one, encouraging guests to take part in the dive options by reducing the price and thereby offering something that no other theme park (even Discovery Cove) can replicate.

* Though it's not possible to actually design and build new pavilions for World Showcase in such a short amount of time, announce two new additions that will open in 2008 or 2009, more accurately representing the world today. (Suggestions: Brazil and Australia for their great tourism profile and their importance to the world's geo-political climate.)

* Design and install a new attraction within Spaceship Earth, one that reflects today's modern and rapidly changing modes of communications and that upgrades the Audio-Animatronics tableaux that have been integral to the ride's success since 1982.

* Update the Carousel of Progress and move it into the rarely used Odyssey restaurant building, offering a literal "bridge experience" between Future World's message of exploration and World Showcase's humanistic elements.

* Produce a new film for the France pavilion and upgrade Mexico's Rio del Tiempo attraction with better lighting, a new song and new filmic elements.

* Lastly, remove much of the extraneous design and decorative elements that have come to clutter Epcot -- such as the garish banners and bunting throughout Innoventions Plaza and the "freeway look" that Re-Imagineering has so astutely observed makes the sleek, beautiful lines of the Test Track/World of Motion building seem so ugly.

A lot to ask? Absolutely.

Then again, when a park has been neglected as long as Epcot has, there's a lot of ground to make up ... here's hoping that something will happen there soon!

Monday, April 10, 2006

Finding Mediocrity



Word comes down from Bob Iger that The Living Seas, opened 20 years ago, will be dumbed-down starting this fall.

Really, really dumbed down. I mean, to first-grade level.

What was once a way for families to learn about the wonders of the deep in a truly educational, fascinating way will become the latest Pixar-ization of the Disney theme parks.

In announcing the change, Walt Disney World President Al Weiss said, “We're always adding innovation, creativity and entertainment value to our resort.” Forgive me, please, but I don’t quite understand how plastering characters that Disney itself didn’t even create all over a truly awe-inspiring attraction adds “innovation” and “creativity.” Seems to me it’s doing exactly the opposite – removing all traces of innovation and creativity from The Living Seas and replacing them with mediocrity and commercialization.

Years ago, I had a lengthy talk with a Disney Imagineer who worked on the update of Spaceship Earth. We discussed how difficult it was to take difficult, complex subjects like communication, transportation and oceanography and make them understandable to a large number of people. The trick, and it was a big one, was to make the concepts something that a vacationing tourist could understand while touching on ideas and theories that would add depth for those who were truly interested.

It was an incredibly demanding and thought-intensive process. It took time and effort. The easy thing would be to make Mickey Mouse tell you that telephones are cool, I remember him saying – the tougher thing was convincing kids, adults, the educated and the not-so-educated that there were ideas within the realm of communication that could interest them.

The same applied to all of the Epcot pavilions. The challenge was to find a way to add just a hint of “Disney magic” while keeping things interesting and informative.

Yeah, I know – that approach labeled Epcot as “boring.” As Homer Simpson said of the fictitious “EFCOT Center”: “It’s even boring to fly over.” Drubbing Epcot is fun, complaining about its lack of “Disney-ness” is easy. Understanding it is hard. Trying to improve it while keeping its core values? Nearly impossible.

But that’s supposed to be what Imagineers do best: Create the impossible.

They are not supposed to celebrate mediocrity. They are not supposed to be devoid of creativity. They are supposed to wow us, not disappoint us.

Why did they opt for the most simple “character slap” possible when it came to re-inventing The Living Seas? What’s next? An Audio-Animatronic version of Simba roaming the Kilimanjaro Safari? Shere-Khan laughing it up over in DAK’s Asia?

Based on this development, I wouldn’t put it past them. A 15-story Mickey hand next to Spaceship Earth is a sad commentary; a giant hat that blocks the majestic Chinese Theater is a travesty; characters from The Lion King at The Land is a jammed-in “fit” at best. Now this.

I hate complaining about Epcot; I was hoping to humbly offer some “constructive criticism” with my next few posts. But this latest development is a sad, sad commentary.

The Pixar characters have their place in Disney theme parks –- the Magic Kingdom and Disney-MGM Studios are ideal homes. But why, oh why, must they suddenly be placed all over Epcot?

Is it not enough to try to instill a sense of wonder and excitement in guests by having them go under real water to see real creatures of the deep? Are we saying that nature herself isn’t good enough? That Dory and Nemo somehow improve on the boring mundanity of real fish, sharks, rays, urchins and the like?

That is both the saddest and the most hubristic of the unspoken messages here: Disney is telling its guests that the real world is boring, that only when its entertainments are involved is it worthwhile. Epcot was meant to celebrate our world, our place in it, our hopes and possibilities for the future -- not fill it further with mindless, blatant product plugs.

I pray this doesn’t mean my future world is filled with over-commercialized animated characters.

What is happening to The Living Seas is truly, truly shocking and painful.

If this is an indication of what's to come when Mr. Lasseter takes control of the theme parks, what are we to think?

Wednesday, April 05, 2006

Tuesday, April 04, 2006

Geek-cot?


I received a thoughtfully crafted response to one of my recent blogposts suggesting that it may be the concept, not the marketing, that’s causing Epcot to be “spruced up” to appeal to a larger audience.

It made me wonder (as Carrie Bradshaw might): Does Epcot really only appeal to our inner geek?

The thought is cause for a bit of alarm from my perspective, because while I do consider myself a bit of a doofus and goofball, I’ve never thought of myself as a geek – at least, not the kind who the reader implies is the primary audience for Epcot.

I can’t do math. Seriously. I mean, when someone asks me to add or subtract numbers that have more than one digit, I start using my fingers. (If it weren’t for Blogspot.com, I would never have been able to figure out how to create a blog.) In college, I failed chemistry. Twice. I nearly flunked out of biology, and my technical knowledge is limited to the friendly user interfaces of Apple (and, increasingly, Microsoft – yes, I said it).

I saw The Matrix once and didn’t understand it.

That said, I do love traveling, but as readers have pointed out to me in comments and by e-mail, the success or failure of World Showcase at Epcot isn’t what most concerns them (and me). It’s Future World and the entire Epcot concept.

And I don't think that concept is meant for geeks.

My correspondent wrote, "If it is the whole point and nature of Epcot Center to be a park for geeks, and there just are not enough of us geeks, then the business suits have to change it to something that is no longer really Epcot. The satisfaction of Epcot fans does not, in and of itself, necessarily turn a profit if there are not enough Epcot fans."

I think there are enough Epcot fans, the problem is Disney doesn't know how to reach them.

Science centers around the country are seeing record crowds with shows themed to Star Wars and Lord of the Rings. Touring exhibits of the remains of the Titanic and even exhibits based on the art and engineering of Disney's theme parks attract audiences so large that museums need to time their ticket entries and limit the amount of time people can spend inside.

If 1 million people visit a 50,000-square-foot science museum in Paris in less than a year to see C-3PO, it seems to me there are enough people interested in "educational" concepts to attract them to see Epcot while on vacation at Walt Disney World and keep them engaged in ways that don't require thrill rides equipped with barf bags. Granted, the Museum of Science in Boston, for instance, says its attendance has been falling for the past few years, but it also says that it's exploring ways to keep visitors coming andstay true to its mission. And they don't even have the power of the Disney name and the deep pockets of Disney's Theme Parks & Resorts division to help them along.

Science, exploration, discovery and curiosity aren't just for geeks. Walt Disney knew that -- it's one of the reasons that, until its screwed-up redesign in 1995, Tomorrowland was always one of the most crowded "lands" at Disneyland. People want to be thrilled by the idea that there are new things to learn, new horizons to explore, new possibilities to discover. That's not a "geek" concept; it's a basic human desire.

With due respect to my reader, the suits don't need to change Epcot -- Epcot needs to change the suits. The ideas central to the Epcot philosophy need to be presented in a way they understand; they need to see that, across the board, people are interested in these concepts if done well -- and, to this day, no other major theme park even tries to address them as Epcot is equipped to do (but has stopped doing).

It's conventional wisdom, proved over and over, that if people think something's good for them, they'll stay away. If they think it's junk, they'll show up -- and find it's not junk, but something that sparks their imagination. They'll come away thinking they got a better deal for their money than they thought possible; their expectations will be exceeded. And, perhaps, their minds will be expanded.

It's not "geeky" to think Epcot's philosophies are worth rediscovering. I think it's pretty cool.

Monday, April 03, 2006

By the numbers


The 2004 estimate of U.S. theme park attendance from Amuseument Business shows the following attendance figures for Disney theme parks and their overall rank in the top 10:

1) The Magic Kingdom, 15.2 million, up 8% from 2003
2) Disneyland, 13.4 million, up 5%
3) Epcot, 9.4 million, up 9%
4) Disney-MGM Studios, 8.3 million, up 5%
5) Disney's Animal Kingdom, 7.8 million, up 7%

It's interesting to see that Epcot, which has been suffering from a lack of creative attention (with the ultimate slap in the face being the recent closure of the entire Wonders of Life pavilion) actually had a bigger growth rate than any of the Walt Disney World parks, and is the second-most-attended theme park at the Resort.

Sunday, April 02, 2006

Having fun yet?


It can be assumed that Disney’s Burbank-based Marketeers were in charge of giving direction to the Imagineers who made such a mess of Epcot in the late 1990s. The suits at Team Disney just love spreadsheets, and the more abstract and “touchy-feely” a concept is, the more it needs to be broken down into some sort of numbers that they can review and understand.

Focus groups are great for doing that. In focus groups, a moderator spends hours talking to small groups of people about their feelings and emotions regarding a product or concept. For instance, at a focus group about Epcot, the moderator might ask, “What did you like about it? What didn’t you like about it?” and then the recent theme-park guest will spend 20 minutes giving an answer. Sounds great – except that marketing managers and financial analysts don’t understand long, detailed answers; they want numbers.

So, the guest talks about how much she liked World Showcase, but how she found it a little slower-paced and more relaxing and less frenetic, and the moderator will try to break down that answer into its component parts. Suddenly, the marketing manager will be told that, on a scale of 1 to 10, guests rate World Showcase a 3 for excitement and an 8 for “slow-paced.” (Note: I am making this up based on the focus groups I’ve seen in action; none of this is based on an actual Epcot focus group.) Spaceship Earth, the marketers and finance guys are told, rates a “2” for “thrills” and only a “5” for “repeatability.” In actuality, the guest may have said that she loved Spaceship Earth, but that it wasn’t as fun as, say, Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride over at the Magic Kingdom.
And there you have it: Epcot isn’t fun. Guests don’t have fun at Epcot the way they do at The Magic Kingdom or Disney-MGM Studios.

Well, duh.

They enjoy Epcot, they find it compelling, they like spending time there – but if you break “fun” down to mean whether they find it thrilling and exciting or warm and cuddly, then, no, they don’t find it fun.

The bottom line is that the bottom-line marketers equate “less fun” with “less successful.” They don’t spend time talking to the guests and experiencing the parks for themselves. (Keep in mind, a lot of the people who make the big decisions about the Florida parks live in Southern California.) They don’t see the big eyes of a child seeing the marine life inside The Living Seas or hear people saying, “I never knew that” after disembarking from Living With the Land.

They don’t get it. All they hear is that Epcot isn’t “fun.” And they want to do something about it. After all, people who come back from the non-stop thrills of Islands of Adventure say they had “fun.” At Epcot, they’re bored – at least, by comparison, they are. So, the reasoning goes, it’s time to turn Epcot into something else, to make it fun.

There’s only one problem with that: Millions of people loved Epcot just the way it was. Yes, it needed updating and improving, but it was very, very good.

The marketers, who didn’t understand the concept of Epcot themselves, became obsessed with the idea that everyone had to “have fun” at Epcot, and that “having fun” meant the same thing at Epcot as it did at The Magic Kingdom or Disney-MGM Studios. But it doesn’t, and it never did.

Epcot’s fun was different. It was based on the concepts of discovery and thought and communication and other things that don’t readily fit into the “top two boxes” in a satisfaction survey and aren’t easily explained in a focus group.

In their zeal to make sure everyone has “fun” at Epcot, the marketers and Imagineers have come too close to stripping Epcot of what made it fun in the first place: A sense of optimistic wonder and discovery.

Let’s hope that the new generation of managers at Disney will be less concerned about “fun” and more concerned about what makes Epcot so special.