Friday, December 28, 2007

Eight for Oh-Eight




As we head out of 2007 and into 2008, EPCOT Center’s 25th anniversary is only a memory ... but not the feelings it stirred. Although I wasn’t there, I’ve seen photos and obtained some of the merchandise. For one fine day, Disney was willing to acknowledge that the fast-paced, frenetic, identity-challenged theme park that has become Epcot had a past. And a great one, at that.

But it’s not time for looking back, it’s time for looking ahead. In that spirit, here are eight suggestions for EPCOT in the New Year, four for Future World, four for World Showcase:




WORLD SHOWCASE






8) De-clutter
There are few places in the world (both capitalized and not) that are quite as lovely as World Showcase on a warm evening just before Illuminations. If, that is, you’re facing the water. Look behind you, and you’re likely to see cast members acting like carnival barkers, hawking needless, and needlessly expensive, doo-dads like glo-sticks, light-up necklaces and your basic sideshow junk. This is exactly the sort of experience that is not supposed to happen at a Disney theme park. Clean up those walkways and let your guests bask in the spirit and atmosphere of World Showcase at night.

7) Cut it Short
Let’s be honest: Martin Short’s appearance in the revised O Canada film is pathetically unfunny and out of place. Even assuming 40 percent of the audience knows who the actor is, having Short “host” this experience is completely out of keeping with the concept of the pavilion’s feature attraction. It’s OK to admit mistakes. In fact, it’s a good thing. A couple of weeks in the cutting room would do wonders to this movie, updating the CircleVision/travelogue experience, while eliminating the superfluous appearances of a “Canadian celebrity.” Many people have said they “don’t mind” the new O Canada, but I’ve yet to hear from anyone who loves it. Canada deserves better than this, and has much spectacle to offer ... as anyone who saw the previous version can tell you.

6) Show us OUR world
No one likes looking at pictures of themselves 25 years ago; fewer still like seeing pictures of other people as they were “back then.” So why do Impressions de France and the wonderful (and sadly neglected) film in the Norway pavilion look so dated? I’d like to believe Norwegians have advanced beyond monochrome computer display terminals and big 1980s hair. Or that the Monaco Grand Prix has developed a little beyond what we see in Impressions. These are lovely movies, but they don’t showcase the world as we know it today. If you can spend millions to develop a Kim Possible interactive “adventure,” can’t you spend a little bit of money to properly present the home countries of tens of millions of people?

5) Put princesses in proper perspective
I know, I know, I know ... I don’t have kids, so I can’t possibly know what it is like to have a screaming six-year-old girl tell me over and over how bored she is. More than anything, that makes me wonder why a six-year-old who clearly isn’t ready to appreciate a place like EPCOT is doing there in the first place. OK, there, I’ve said it. But more than that, what about the rest of us? What about those millions of visitors a year who come without kids, who are actually excited by the prospect of visiting different pavilions in EPCOT and, particularly, dining on meals they couldn’t get at home? To put a fine point on it: Please bring back the former incarnation of Akershus. If you absolutely need to do a princess meal there, do it once a day, but there are many people who don’t really like what Akershus has become and who miss their old favorite restaurant. With its authentic Norwegian food (which really is quite a unique cuisine), Akershus offered something few people can ever find outside of Norway itself. It was a grand place. Now (even for some parents I know – admit it, you’re out there) it has become virtually insufferable. There are plenty of other princess opportunities; you can’t say that about Norwegian restaurants.



FUTURE WORLD




4) Get a Life
The Walt Disney Company has revenues on the order of $30 billion a year. It’s worth $65 billion. It’s impossible for me to believe, even with a basic understanding of the economics of the situation, that The Walt Disney Company cannot re-open and maintain the Wonders of Life pavilion at EPCOT without a sponsor. Around the world, people have never been as curious, concerned and intrigued about their bodies, and the science that is helping to improve and maintain them, than they are now. The Wonders of Life needed a massive overhaul, there’s no doubt about it. But closure wasn’t quite the overhaul anyone had in mind. Now, there’s a “Closed for Business” sign in a window at EPCOT, and it is unattractive, embarrassing and completely unnecessary. With the imagination and money Disney has at its disposal, something can surely be done here in 2008.

3) Innovent
Is that even a verb? If “Innoventions” is a noun, then I guess it is. But something needs to be done about Innoventions. Maybe it should be turned back into CommuniCore? Maybe it needs to be gutted? Maybe Disney needs to assign a staff of two or three people to focus only, and completely, on Innoventions, and the rest of the massive structures that form “Innoventions plaza”? From Day 1, these have been admittedly overlooked. But architecturally, they serve an important purpose, of separating the two sides of Future World, of not overwhelming visitors by giving them vistas of massive pavilions, of visually linking the two halves of EPCOT with a straight shot down to the American Adventure pavilion. They work as architecture ... it’s what’s inside of them that’s the problem. I’ve probably got more “new” technology in my home than is represented in much of Innoventions. It needs some help. Badly. (Oh, and please don’t just throw Pixar or Disney cartoon characters into it!)

2) De-clutter
Yeah, you need to do it here, too. First up, those Ballzac stations. Please, please get rid of them. Like those glow-y things over at World Showcase, no one needs them, they add nothing to the EPCOT experience and, in this particular case, they’re borderline dangerous. Ever had to duck to avoid a mis-thrown or un-caught Ballzac? Ugh. Second, and more to the point, make good on the rumor to tear down the purple circus-tent poles that prevent a good view of Spaceship Earth from anywhere in Innoventions Plaza. They’re unsightly, they don’t actually create much shade (or cool things down) and they ruin a marvelous landmark. Let’s hope those rumors are true!

1) Energize
The Universe of Energy pavilion is in desperate need of work. What we’re talking about, essentially, are a few really creative, exciting, vibrant films (and maybe the return of the Radok blocks, while you’re at it?). I don’t know a lot about theme-park production, but I know a bit about the entertainment industry, and I’d find it hard to believe that between Walt Disney Animation Studios, Pixar and Imagineering, you couldn’t create something incredible for the Universe of Energy. I like Ellen. Really. I watch her show whenever I can. But she never really fit into this pavilion, and now that she’s still paired with Bill Nye and a 15-year-old version of Jeopardy!, it all feels so terribly outdated. Perhaps no single topic is as valid, as necessary, as exciting and as potentially fascinating as the future of our world’s energy needs. There’s a minor miracle of an attraction waiting to happen here, one that could very well define a new style of Disney theme-park attraction – combining the ride vehicle, Audio-Animatronics, 3-D, computer-generated imagery, live performers, music, interactivity and education. It could be mind-blowing.


Hey, it could happen!

Whatever the case, here’s hoping that the positive steps that have been taken at EPCOT will continue into the future ... and that this becomes the year Disney understands that EPCOT is a brand unto itself, it has a meaning, it is a place that matters. It doesn’t need a lot of cartoon overlays and meaningless thrill rides. EPCOT is something special.

Happy New Year, EPCOT ... and EPCOT lovers!

Thursday, December 13, 2007

The Future, the Past and Constant Change



I'm back. I'll be honest about the fact that I've not been keeping up with the blog, and I'm sorry for those of you who come back here regularly looking for a new post. In part, it's because after the deconstruction of the wand and the passing of the 25th anniversary of EPCOT, there hasn't been a whole lot to talk about. But mostly, it's because, not living in Florida, I haven't been to EPCOT recently.

Yes, I've seen the pictures of those truly horrid, unnecessary and ugly "security" gates at EPCOT. (Honestly, while I realize WDW is an attractive target, in the past six years, has anything truly warranted this kind of person-to-person, put-borders-around-the-park security, or is this just our national paranoia and Disney's "risk management" group working hand in hand? Those gates just remind us that Disney wants to control our every move, and no longer in subtle, elegantly designed ways.

I'm as eager for you to experience the newly refurbished Spaceship Earth, and while I try to be optimistic, I can't help but already be disappointed by the Orlando Sentinel's report that the communication theme has been dropped for a generic "inspiration and innovation" concept. This means that, almost completely, the original design for EPCOT has been wiped away -- no longer do each of the pavilions represent a key aspect of human nature or our environment that we must learn and study to become responsible "passengers" on Spaceship Earth; now, all EPCOT is saying is we need to be inspired and have a lot of fun. That subtle distinction will be lost on nearly everyone who visits. But for those of us who grew up studying and admiring EPCOT Center, mesmerized by what it tried to do and how it worked, there's a massive disappointment that Imagineers and John Lasseter didn't try harder to make Spaceship Earth the first return to EPCOT's ideals, rather than the latest departure.

Many of you will once again send me notes and post comments that I'm simply a thick-skulled purist who doesn't want anything to change. That actually couldn't be further from the truth. Like many, I'm both fascinated by and skeptical of change. I want the world, my own life, and even theme parks to always be changing, growing and improving. But the latter word is the key. If change is simply made for its own sake, or to give up on a formidable challenge, then it's not laudable. It's just change. EPCOT is continuing, it appears, to just change.

So, who cares?

Well, click on the YouTube video at the top of this post. You may have seen it recently; I just discovered it, and it reminded me today of why yesterday's vision of the future was so compelling, so optimistic ... and so exciting.

This is the sort of opportunity that Walt Disney imagined "The Future" held for all of us. I was entranced by this video clip, which is absolutely genuine, produced by Philco and starring a young Wink Martindale. It shares the same clear-cut view of "The Future" that infused everything EPCOT did from 1982 to about 1997. Our lives were going to be better, we should rest assured that the world would be a fantastic place ... and it would just keep on getting more and more incredible, opening up to us new opportunities, new possibilties.

The most astounding part is how much this video got right. Likewise, EPCOT got a tremendous amount right, too, from fiber optics to touch screens; from globalization to our need to search for alternate energy sources to the potential of The Living Seas. It showed us that we needed to understand our bodies and minds, and even offered us glimpses of what new technology would do for us. Just like this educational film, EPCOT didn't proceed from a place of skepticism (as I acknowledge I do more and more as I age) or commercialism. Yes, of course, this film was produced by a corporation, I realize that. But it promised us wonderful things ... and it was right.

We believed we could do anything in the 1960s and 1970s. We believed there truly were possibilities, that technology, science and exploration would continue fueling our progress. And look what happened.

It makes me sad to contemplate where we'll be in 41 more years.

And it makes me sad to see EPCOT's grand vision and design fading away even further. I sure wish EPCOT Center could make a return. To quote That's Entertainment ...

Boy, do we need it now.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

On Your Birthday ...

Dear EPCOT Center,

You're almost 25.

You're ready to move comfortably into adulthood, even if some of your reckless teen-aged years still lingers rather awkwardly.

Maybe you don't remember, but you were so pleased with yourself when you were born, so excited about the future, that you made us proud -- and excited for you.

Let me be the first to say, we're still both.

Back then, you were the harbinger of the 21st century, and those of us who knew you when you were brand new couldn't help but believe in your proposition that when the 19s gave way to the 20s, we'd be living in a world of promise fulfilled, of untapped knowledge explored, of far-flung cultures brought together.

Of course you had to grow up. Despite the plot of Peter Pan, everyone does.

You're a bit unfocused now. That's not unusual at 25. You're not quite sure why you were made or what you're meant to be. That's got your parents pretty worried. Maybe they just need to relax a little bit. It's OK. They don't need to force you to be what they are. Whlietheir efforts to mold you to look just like them may be natural, they're also uncomfortable and counter-productive. They need to trust.

The funny thing is, do you remember all of those optimstic things you used to say about what you'd be when you grew up? Do you remember how you used to say the world was going to be an amazing place? That those of us who played with you when you were young were all going to lead lives of excitement and discovery?

I know, I know -- once you became a teen-ager, you turned your back on those sentiments. You wanted things that were flashy and fun. You wanted to impress everyone with how slick you were.

But, you know what? You were right.

You promised that the 21st century would "begin" back when you came into the world, and the odd thing is just how right you were. Out of the mouths of babes.

When you were born, you brought with you things like fiber-optic communications, touch-screen computers, remote-guided vehicles, deep-sea exploration, hydroponic farming, aerodynamic cars, alternate forms of energy, and a vision of a world in which communication was instantaneous and free. You envisioned that we would know more about each other than we ever had, that many borders would be opened between nations -- both literally and figuratively.

Now that we're actually here in the 21st century, it's rather astonishing to reflect on what a precocious, inquisitive and, well, correct little youngster you were.

You dazzled us with ideas that seemed far-fetched. I mean, back when you were just a wee thing, we used to call "Uncle Ernie" across the country and talk for exactly three minutes and it was still expensive. We'd even have to wait until after 9 p.m. so we could afford it, and while we talked we'd twirl the telephone cord in our fingers. Now, we can call Uncle Ernie all we want, any time of day, even if we're sitting by the ocean.

We're exploring, truly exploring, many of the things you claimed we would. Various trade and unification agreements have quite literally opened borders. No matter what time of day, where we are or what we need to know, we can find it -- never venturing further than our home computers (which are getting, every day, astuter and astuter).

I could go on, but you know and I know what I'm trying to say:

You had it right all along.

OK, so it's true that we dressed you in clothing that now seems a little outdated, and over the years you've wanted cooler duds. Frankly, you insisted, despite our protestations. Well, you've still got a lot of the same stuff, and the not-so-surprising thing is, it's coming back into vogue. Stick around long enough, everything comes back into fashion. Even in the 21st century.

As you turn 25, then, I just ask one thing of you -- and it's fair of you to ask me for the same: Be patient.

You'll grow and change. You have to; no that's not a directive, it's an inevitability.

Pretty soon, you'll realize that all of those friends you've been trying to impress have something in common. They're all trying to be just like each other.

Whether you like it or not, you were born to be different. Your very birthright is being astonishingly, wonderfully unique.

Frankly, that sucks. No 25 year old likes to hear that, because you're still very aware that it's much more comfortable to be like everyone else. Be patient. You're going to figure out it. We all do.

When you were young, you showed remarkable (awesome, to be blunt) intelligence and capability. You loved being different. Anymore, you don't so much. You will. So, we can wait for a while longer while you figure it out.

Make no mistake -- a lot of the things you've done to change yourself have been extraordinary and wonderful. You've seen things you didn't like, and you've fixed them, and that takes courage, confidence and vision. Now it's your chance to keep moving along that path.

You don't need celebrity friends to be well-liked.

You don't need the trendiest fashions to look good.

You don't need to rush around and be fast in order to accomplish your goals.

And even if you change your name, which you've tried to do a couple of times (a bit half-heartedly, I must observe), you'll still be you.

It's your uniqueness we celebrate today. It's your potential. And it's the vision you showed early on ... and which we know you'll show again. We look forward to seeing what you become.

And no matter what suggestions, what criticism, what comments we direct to you, know this: We love you as much today as we did back on Oct. 1, 1982.

Happy birthday.

Friday, September 21, 2007

Illuminations: Reflections of Success


A sultry Florida evening. Though it's summer, this far south the sun is down by 8:30 in the evening. There's just the slightest hint of a breeze in the air.

The day has been exhausting. After this many hours being bombarded by the sights and sounds of theme-park attractions, it all seems a bit overwhelming. Frankly, you're tired. The thought of standing around watching fireworks might not seem appealing.

But there's something unusually serene about the setting you're in. Yes, it's a theme park, but unlike The Magic Kingdom or Disney-MGM Studios, you realize that you're a bit more peaceful than you might normally imagine. The lighting is dim. Music is playing all around you, but it's not blasting; indeed, it's rather appealing -- "world" music that is just upbeat enough to keep you peppy but not cloying or grating in any way.

The promenade whose edge you're standing on is remarkably wide. There's space here. Space and trees and moist air and water in front of you; almost like a beach party, giant torches provide much of the lighting, their flames flickering in the breeze.

This is World Showcase at night, and it's a place unlike any other. What you're about to see, if you've never seen it before, is hard to describe. There are fireworks, there is music, there's even a bit of a water show, but that doesn't begin to do it justice.

It's Illuminations: Reflections of Earth, and it's one of those things that EPCOT Ce-- er, I mean, Epcot -- and Disney do inarguably, undeniably right.

It's beyond peer and beyond criticism. It's downright perfect. So perfect, in fact, that the rest of Epcot, and the rest of the Disney theme parks for that matter, could learn a lot from it.

Immediately upon its premiere on Oct. 1, 1999, when it was called Illuminations 2000: Reflections of Earth (was anything not given the "2000" appendage in the waning days of the 20th century?), Illuminations ascended to a lofty position as one of the all-time great Disney attractions. So lofty, in fact, I'd argue Disney has a problem -- any changes to this show will be greeted with despair by fans, any wholesale rethinking or replacement risks winding up with something that's nowhere near as good as this.

Key to the success of Illuminations, I think, is one central, undeniable fact: Its very "Disney-ness" comes from the fact that there's nothing "Disney" about it at all. Illuminations is so satisfying because it espouses core Disney values without a single Mickey, Pluto or Stitch in sight.

Illuminations is upbeat. It has a story, though just barely. No, it's not "the" story that true fans realize is there, the "Chaos," "Order," "Celebration" flow. Like many pieces of performed, interpretive art (think ballet), the story lies beneath the surface -- you pick it up emotionally, not intellectually. It's felt, not told.

The story of Illuminations is one of being glad to be in the world, of realizing how much there is to discover, of a dawning awareness that we are all inextricably tied to one another, that there's a permanence to life, even if our individual lives are painfully transitory. Illuminations tells us that our world is beautiful, and through exploring our world through travel, art or music, we illuminate our lives and ourselves.

Those are very Disney qualities. They're upbeat, optimistic and maybe, on the surface, a bit pedantic. They're shamefully unsophisticated, but undeniably true.

The happy faces I see when Illuminations ends, the applause that follows that last burst of fireworks, that spontaneous exclamations of "That was beautiful" are the sorts of responses so much of what Disney creates try for and rarely achieve, perhaps because they unintentionally impose a consumerist filter on the message.

Illuminations is decidedly non-consumerist. There are few Illuminations trinkets and doo-dads. Until the very last moments, after the main show is over, there's no mention of a corporate sponsor, no reminder that you are in a "Disney" environment.

Illuminations takes it for granted that you know full well where you are, and proceeds from the assumption that you want to be entertained, you want to be astonished, you want to be moved. It doesn't try for humor, because its designers knew that a smile genuinely earned is better than one that's forced or coaxed.

And I'll say it again -- it succeeds despite (or, more likely, because of) a complete and utter lack of anything overtly Disney, save for a few fleeting seconds of Walt Disney's image in one of its visual montages. Despite music that becomes bombastic, overwhelming images and the thunderous fireworks, Illluminations is paradoxically subtle.

It conveys all of the values, all of the spirit, all of the inspiration and emotion of EPCOT's core themes (an ideal future, a peaceful world, a collaborative people) by combining music, images and a visceral experience with flair, creativity and, dare I say it, artistry.

Other Disney nighttime shows exist now and have existed before. Other theme parks offer nighttime spectacles to compete with Illuminations.

But back in 1999, Disney created something exquisite -- an experience that got it absolutely, positively, pitch-perfect right.

Lucky for us, it still does. Every single night. At EPCOT Center.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Things We Lost in the Lower-Casing



I’m going to admit something that may seem heresy to some and will likely seem to most to be completely out of synch with everything I’ve ever written about EPCOT Center:

I never really liked the World of Motion.

I wasn’t a huge fan of Journey Into Imagination, either.

Now, look, I know that both of these attractions have huge fan bases, and that many lament their passing. Strangely, so do I. A lot. Ironic, since I wasn't terribly enamored of them in the first place.

True, I didn’t find them to be completely realized attractions that represented the best creative display Disney could offer. However ... they did something that Disney seems to have given up on doing, something that represents the spirit that "EPCOT Center" lost when it became "Epcot."

They offered elaborate, immersive experiences filled with detail and creative inspiration. (Note that I didn’t say “creative success,” because I’d rather something try to be great and fail than simply aim to be mediocre and succeed.)

World of Motion and the original Journey Into Imagination – the entire original Imagination pavilion, for that matter – sought to deliver experiences that, up until that time, were quintessentially Disney. These were the sort of meticulously designed, remarkably engineered attractions that represented the pinnacle of Disney's capabilities: They took the basic ideas behind the storytelling, which Disney had perfected in moviemaking, and re-imagined them in three dimensions. Like Disney cartoons, they might not have told complete, linear stories, but they did impart a definite sense of plot and purpose.

Their forebears, of course, were the landmark Haunted Mansion and Pirates of the Caribbean: attractions that were so groundbreaking, so revolutionary, that despite being 40 years old they still draw round-the-clock crowds and delighted response from guests. Like classic movies and books, they are quite literally timeless – not rooted to a particular place or time (except in the most oblique sense), not created to be fashionable or “relevant,” just incredible examples of a sort of artistic perfection.

The designers of EPCOT Center recognized that these attractions weren’t simply great experiences –- they were so wonderfully unlike anything that had ever been offered by a theme park before, they had quickly come to define the Disney difference; indeed, they became synonymous with "Disney" in the eyes of many theme-park guests. This is what it meant to be Disney.

It made perfect sense, then, that the foundation for EPCOT Center’s experiences would be rides and attractions that used the same medium: three-dimensional “living” sets and “actors” who told a compelling story as guests rode past and through the scenes.

Disney had no trademark on this concept – which, at its most rudimentary level, had been used in carnival funhouses for decades. Anyone could have created similar attractions, and for a while, some tried. When I lived in Texas in the early 1990s, Six Flags still offered an attraction called Spelunker’s Cave, populated with strange little characters. Knott’s Berry Farm’s Calico Mine Train and Log Ride followed similar models, all recognizing the brilliance of what Disney had created.

But Disney did it best, and after a while, other theme park operators realized that they couldn’t compete with perfection. Cheap thrill rides and basic midway offerings (usually dolled up with a haphazard “theme,” of course) became the norm.

Disney stood alone. EPCOT Center’s Universe of Energy became arguably the most elaborate ride-through attraction ever conceived. At least, that is, until Horizons came along, offering an experience so memorable and perfect in tone and execution that it maintains a loyal following even though every bit of it was demolished in 1999.

Spaceship Earth uses Audio-Animatronic figures, narration, music and smell (what a brilliant addition!) to impart an incredibly complex message that leaves a few scratching their heads and other so moved that they set a career path after riding.

Together with the (in my mind) less-successful World of Motion and Journey Into Imagination, these grand, intricate attractions formed the heart of Future World – itself, arguably, the heart of EPCOT Center.

And then came the lower-casing, brought about by upper-case MBAs.

These attractions were expensive to build and maintain. Focus groups and exit surveys showed that people wanted more thrills. And, so, a great deal of EPCOT Center’s heart was ripped out and, with it, an enormous amount of the creative edge and leadership that Disney had spent so many decades developing.

I may not have loved World of Motion, but I know this: I miss it. Because what replaced it, as technologically advanced as it is, feels, well, less. It doesn’t feel like something no other theme park could ever offer. Is it an enjoyable ride? You bet. Is it so uniquely, utterly, compellingly Disney that I could never imagine seeing anything like it anywhere else? Nope.

Remember the awesome spectacle (not the stentorian narration!) of the images in the original Universe of Energy movies? True, these weren’t Audio-Animatronics, but they still represented the best of what Disney could create. Now we’ve got a talk-show host, a retired actress, a forgotten kids’-show actor and a historically accurate representation of Alex Trebek and Jeopardy! as they existed 15 years ago. What was fresh for a moment is stale in a way that the elaborate ride-throughs never became.

Horizons allowed us to savor what we were seeing, to ride it over and over and find something new each time, to appreciate the craftsmanship and creativity that went into its design and creation – as well as simply to be entertained. Apart from getting people horribly sick, the ride that replaced it is, in the end, nothing more than a tricked-out centrifuge with a small video monitor in front of you. Have I come to enjoy Mission: Space? Actually, yes – but it doesn’t make me yearn any less for what it replaced.

That’s because its predecessor wasn’t simply a great ride – it was the very definition of Disney, the difference that set EPCOT Center apart from any theme park anywhere in the world. No one could even attempt such exquisite, fanciful, elaborate attractions. No one dared try. Disney was the master of this craft, and EPCOT Center was the perfect place for the evolution of these experiences.

When EPCOT Center became just Epcot, all that changed. I enjoy what’s there, I really do – but I long for a time when Disney tried harder and achieved more.

By the same token, I love staying in chain hotels – just last night, I was at a Marriott. It was comfortable, it was convenient, it offered me everything I could possibly need.

A few weeks earlier, I stayed at a Ritz-Carlton. It was luxurious and it offered more than I could possibly want.

The Disney that created EPCOT Center and its remarkable, multi-faceted attractions and pavilions was like the Ritz-Carlton. It gave me experiences I never knew I craved, it offered me opportunities to explore and be amazed that I never imagined I’d have.

Like those Marriott hotels, Epcot is fully serviceable. There’s little actually wrong with it, I'll admit that. Not technically.

But when you go to a hotel expecting the Ritz but you find a Marriott, well, you’re disappointed.

You remember that the uninspired-but-pleasant building you're in once offered so much more. You wander around, looking in nooks and crannies, wondering where all that fine detail and effort have gone and why they didn't want to maintain it in the first place.

The Marriott's fine. The Ritz was so much nicer.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

What's in a Name?


Epcot.

It looks so tiny, doesn't it?

Next to the evocative moniker of "The Magic Kingdom," the pared-down-but-still-wordy "Disney's Hollywood Studios" or the routine-yet-still-interesting "Disney's Animal Kingdom."

Well, thank goodness for tiny miracles, like the fact that they have resisted (thus far) the marketing-driven desire to change the name to "Disney's Epcot." That in itself is something for which we can be a little grateful.

Still ... it's just Epcot. Five letters that no longer even mean anything -- just a nonsense word that is neither descriptive nor explanatory. It's been stripped of any context whatsoever.

The good news, of course, is that even when the full name was EPCOT Center, most everyone simply called it "EPCOT." Then again, I know no one who uses the full "Disney's Animal Kingdom" name, or ever referred to the Studios as anything but "the Studios" or, more likely, "MGM." (Yes, Disney marketers -- we tend to drop the "Disney" moniker ... we know where we are already, and who's taken those four thousand bucks from our bank account!)

Back to little Epcot.

There are many of us who've argued for a return to the name EPCOT Center -- and, based on recent Internet buzz, that may be happening soon, thanks to Jim MacPhee.

For those Disney folks who shake their head and wonder what the big deal is ... it matters. A lot.

"Epcot" doesn't just fail to be evocative or meaningful, isn't just lacking in context or offering any clues about its theme at all (and, remember, these are supposed to be "theme" parks) -- it isn't just desultory. It's disparaging to every concept that resulted in the park's creation.

It doesn't take very much effort at all to watch the original film Walt Disney created about the Florida parks. I'd suggest Disney folks take the time to bother to watch it. Granted, nowhere does Walt refer to the project overall as "EPCOT" -- it's clearly "Disney World."

But when Walt Disney died, the decision was made to move ahead with EPCOT, which was to be the "Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow." There was no way, without his guidance, that the "city" concept could actually be created. But what resulted was no less ambitious, grand and revolutionary.

The name EPCOT Center was chosen because, the history goes, this was to be the literal and figurative center of the entire EPCOT project. With its various developments, its infrastructure, its hotels, its parks, its recreation, its operations all enormous in scale and impressive in scope, Disney realized that, though there would never be residents here, Walt Disney World itself really was "EPCOT" come to life. Not quite in the same way, but still ... it was a living, breathing community. The parks were part of it ... and EPCOT the theme park was at the center.

Thus, EPCOT Center.

That's the literal context as I've come to understand it. On a less literal level, those of us who grew up with the EPCOT Center name came to think of the "Center" extension as a wonderful addition -- it added a sense of place and purpose. It wasn't just "EPCOT" the theme park, it was "EPCOT Center" -- the center of all of the grand, glorious ideas of The Walt Disney Company and American (now global) industry. Calling it EPCOT Center added a rich conception of the place as a place. It was a destination.

"EPCOT Center" means so much more than "Epcot."

If indeed the executives at Disney are contemplating a return to the park's original name, it won't be as much an admission that simply "Epcot" (or, worse, "Epcot '94," "Epcot '95," etc.) didn't work as an acknowledgment of something that perhaps Disney is finally learning in small increments:

If it ain't broke, don't fix it.

In its execution and in its determination to always be changing, adding, refining and growing, EPCOT Center might not have quite been perfect, but its very dedication and explanation of itself granted it the right to be always improving and exploring itself.

EPCOT Center was glorious in a way lower-case Epcot has never quite managed.

I hope fervently for the return of that strangely antiseptic yet somehow exciting name. EPCOT Center. Funny how much one word matters, isn't it?
*******
A quick P.S.: Although Disney's Tom Staggs now seems hellbent on selling off the "extra" land around Walt Disney World (land that was so hard won 40 years ago), until recently EPCOT Center was also the literal center of the Walt Disney World Resort (a name that also seems to be falling out of fashion in favor of "Disney World"). On the south side of the Fountain of Nations is an original EPCOT Center symbol laid into the ground. Stand in the middle of this symbol and you were once in EPCOT Center at the center of the entire complex.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Almost Right and Getting Closer


I've been gone for a while. Months, which in Internet time might as well be eons.

Is anyone still with me?

Regardless, there have obviously been some major developments at Epcot lately, ones worth noting.

While it's still lower-case Epcot, there's almost a temptation to rename it again, at least temporarily, recalling terminology used decades ago -- for a while, at least, it's fitting to view Epcot as "Progressland."

Look, I'm not a marketing "whiz" at Disney. But, in one of those noteworthy changes, a key "genius" has departed: Michael Mendenhall is gone, and if you're one of those who follow the inner workings and machinations of the strange place called The Walt Disney Company, you know what a major leap forward this may be. True, no one has been named to replace him, but there's every indication that John Lasseter helped force this change to happen, and it's a fantastic thing. All good wishes to Mr. Mendenhall, but his "profits-over-everything" mentality and lack of any true creative vision has damaged Disney's theme parks immensely, most of all Epcot.

In Mendenhall's view, theme parks were simply another asset to be monetized and commoditized. (A view, unfortunately, shared by Jay Rasulo; it will be fascinating to see if he lasts a lot longer under Lasseter's leadership.) They lost their position as the public face of Disney, as the arbiter of Disney's creative vision and the showcase for all the wild imaginings and possibilities that could be dreamed up by Disney's artists and engineers.

If EPCOT Center never became what "Walt wanted," it became something close to what Walt might have loved. In its slow transition to "just Epcot," this extraordinary place of hope, vision and community became nothing more than another place to build mundane attractions, then populate them with the latest Disney cartoon creations. EPCOT Center lost more than some capitalization and a word, it lost its soul and became an MBA-bearing marketer's dream. Its size and scope meant more retail space for the latest all-alike Disney products, its complex attractions became nothing more than acreage on which new, cheaper rides and shows could be built, further improving OI and revenue.

Epcot, more than any other park, became a mish-mash of Disney billboards and marketing messages -- never more garishly depicted than the quest for a "better" icon, in the form of a Disney-ized, bedazzled Spaceship Earth.

Now, that era is over.

There's no better symbol of that than the simple, unadorned, majestic, specatcularly silver sphere that once again is the simple beacon that lets visitors know they've arrived at a most unusual and specatcular place.

There's still visual clutter beneath it, still eye pollution that prevents it from standing quite as tall, quite as proudly, quite as gracefully as it could and should, but I am not about to bemoan progress -- well, not too loudly. This one-two punch of the "simple" Spaceship and the "loss" of Mendenhall couldn't be better hallmarks for a new age of growth, exploration and discovery ... both for Epcot itself and for Disney guests.

There's still a huge amount of work to be done. But this is true progress.

For now, I won't address the painfully unfunny new Canada movie, the ghost town of the Wonders of Life, the duck-filled Rio del Tiempo, the kid-filled Akershus.

I'll just say thank you.

I don't know who I'm saying it to, exactly. If it's John Lasseter, then you've shown that you get it -- clearly and pointedly. If it's an operating executive who thought the wand was just too expensive to maintain, then you've paid a backhanded compliment to the namesake of your company. If it's someone else, then, simply ... thank you.

What a change. What a difference. What a beautiful sight.

There's a long road ahead, and while the "Center" may still be missing, EPCOT just got a little of that capitalization back ... at least in principle.

This relatively simple act has made a lot of passionate people very happy ... and no doubt made a lot of guests say, "Now that is cool."

Yes, folks ... EPCOT is cool.

Welcome back, E-P-C-O-T. We missed you.

*****

P.S. For those of you who have communicated with me directly in the past, please note that my e-mail address is slightly different. You'll find it in my profile or by looking up my information; please change your e-mail address books accordingly if you'd like to keep in touch. I do read every single e-mail, I can't always respond as quickly as I'd like, unfortunately!

Friday, June 08, 2007

Knowing When to Say When


It's been well over a year since I started this blog, and if you're a long-time reader, you've probably noticed I have had less and less to write about lately -- as well as less and less time to do it.

EPCOT Center will always, always, be near and dear to my heart. You who are reading this and I share a passion that is found in far too few Disney executives these days, a passion for seeing Disney fulfill the promise of this immensely promising place.

The pessimistic side of me reckons that Disney has made it abundantly clear they have no interest in doing anything but turning EPCOT (not to mention Disney-MGM Studios, Animal Kingdom and even California Adventure) into just another "Disney Park" -- a brand so wrong-headed and ill-conceived that anyone except a Disney marketer could see it is the corporate equivalent of a supermarket's generic label: plain and dull. Disney is stripping away the individuality each park used to have. Ironically, we live in an age of "branding," yet Disney is removing the personality from its own carefully wrought brands. Its theme parks are little more than an increasingly cynical way to wrest money from your and my wallets, and visiting the over-crowded, over-priced parks gets me depressed lately rather than raising my spirits.

So, that pessimistic side says, "Why bother anymore?" Yes, it's time to concede defeat. All the bloggers in the world won't change Disney's calculated decisions, nor its bloated "creative development" process, nor its overly politicized corporate environment that emphasizes pleasing Wall Street over pleasing guests. In a company like Disney has become, a concept like EPCOT doesn't stand a chance.

The optimistic side of me ... ?

Well, what little remains, when it comes to Disney, hopes that the recent rumors, running rampant online and in Burbank and Lake Buena Vista, are true: The ugly wand over Spaceship Earth is finally coming down, a decision made not by Disney marketers but, interestingly, by Siemens.

Perhaps this marks a moment of change in Disney's attitude toward EPCOT? Unlikely, and I'll believe it when I see it, but certainly possible.

I hope that's the case. I'll be watching and waiting to see. The defunct Wonders of Life pavilion; the dumbed-down Seas pavilion ("But it's always busy!" comes the retort -- as if popularity were always indicative of creative success); the "Gran Fiesta" travesty of choosing Disney frivolity over an entire culture; the often-empty queues of Mission: Space; the neglected Audio-Animatronic figures in World Showcase; the carnival-barker atmosphere that increasingly pervades EPCOT ("Buy a Glo-Stick necklace now!") ... none of it gives me much hope.

I don't know when I'll visit Walt Disney World again. Probably not very soon. It depresses me.

The good news is, the science center up the street from my house offers extraordinary interactive displays and exhibits (not to mention IMAX films) that stretch my imagination; inexpensive flights to foreign lands make it easier than ever to see the real world myself; and thanks to DVD and the Internet, the glories of EPCOT past are rarely far away.

I will always love what EPCOT Center tried to be, as well as the idealized philosophies of Walt Disney and the company he created -- the one that stopped existing in 1995, when Disney execs decided the company needed to become a multi-media conglomerate. If I can carry a tiny bit of those ideals with me in my own life, I think I might be able to make some positive changes. You know, it just takes "One Little Spark" of inspiration. Disney and EPCOT Center once provided that spark -- many times over.

But for now, I know when it's time to say when ... and that time is now.

I'm closing down shop on EPCOT Central.

The posts will still be here for anyone to read for months to come; I have no intention of taking them down. I hope you'll share the thoughts on this blog, which come from around the world, with your friends and colleagues who care about EPCOT. Even though I won't be adding new ones, maybe the posts that are here could still make a difference.

As readers, you have made a difference in my life. I've seen that literally tens of thousands of people worldwide share my passion for EPCOT Center, for the ideas and thoughts that once filled the park, for the inspiration it provided in our own lives. That inspiration will never die, no matter what the Florida theme park becomes.

May the inspiration of EPCOT Center continue to drive you, to inform your lives, to light your way.

Thank you for reading. And now ...

Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls ... EPCOT Central is closed. We hope you've enjoyed your stay.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

A Long Time Ago ...


You’ve probably heard that this week is the 30th anniversary of Star Wars, and I happen to be an enormous Star Wars fan.

There’s a Star Wars convention taking place in Los Angeles this week, which is expected to attract 20,000 people or so. Compare that with the last Disneyana convention I attended in 1999, which was a huge success with about 1,500 people, almost exclusively adults. I’m not necessarily drawing a comparison between Disney and Star Wars, but I have observed that Lucasfilm spends a lot of time paying attention to what its fans say and do, particularly on the Internet. Disney, not so much.

Anyway, the Star Wars convention, called Celebration IV, got me thinking about the enormous affinity and passion that Star Wars have for those movies, and it was quite serendipitous for me to run across this news article about the memories of Star Wars fans. I encourage you to take a look at it.

Go ahead.

Really.

I’ll wait.

Finished?

What I noticed were two things: 1) The newspaper wrote this article on its own, soliciting memories from readers; and 2) I don’t remember seeing a public outpouring of emotion like this for Disney. Ever.

Now, to bring it all back to EPCOT Center.

Reading these memories of seeing Star Wars for the first time, I’m reminded of my own first visit to EPCOT Center. It is a memory I recall vividly, one that I had anticipated for years, one that crawled into my teen-aged mind and stayed there for more than two decades, not ever really going away.

EPCOT Center shaped my young mind. It made me curious about my world. It inspired me to pursue the career I have chosen. EPCOT Center really did do all that.

EPCOT Center made me expand my notion of what Disney could be – and, more importantly, what I could be.

My guess is many of you felt the same way. That’s why I find it interesting to compare how Disney has managed its image and its brand and how Lucas has done the same.

With EPCOT, Disney has failed to live up to the words it still has printed in bronze outside the park, words that claim to define what EPCOT is and will be. Inside the park, a guest who hadn’t visited in, say, 20 years would hardly recognize the place. Most of what defined EPCOT conceptually – massive pavilions and rides, explorations of human achievement and possibility, a dearth of Disney characters – have gone, replaced by … well, you know, by lower-case Epcot, one that is just begging to have the word “Disney’s” attached to the front of its name, lest we forget where we are.

Those of us who have challenged Disney for the changes have been met mostly with stone-cold silence, sometimes with defensive derision, frequently with accusations that we don’t really care about EPCOT – if we did, we’d accept anything Disney wanted to do with it.

Now, look at Star Wars. Here’s a “brand” that people still think of fondly and that is still very much alive and vibrant in their minds. Star Wars gains new fans every year, it seems – just ask any 9-year-old boy on your block. Importantly, it keeps the old ones, too, offering them throwbacks to their childhood, encouraging them to maintain their connection with the movies they grew up watching.

There have been significant changes, of course – not all considered good. George Lucas tinkered with his movies in ways that truly angered fans. He has been accused of trying to make too much money off of what he created, and some of those complaints may be valid. Then again, I hold to the notion (which some have accused me of not having) that change is good, if it is beneficial. I don’t happen to feel as passionately as many friends that Han Solo should always shoot first, that he should never meet Jabba the Hutt in the first movie, that there are too many creatures. I recently saw the movie again on the big screen, and those changes certainly stood out to me, but didn’t detract from my overall enjoyment of and love for the movie.

They were cosmetic changes, made by the original creative minds behind the movie, offered as enhancements not substitutions.

EPCOT has changed, but in doing so it has lost its basic identity. That’s why, even though I’m angered by Disney’s decision not to honor its 25th anniversary, I can’t say I completely disagree with the decision, as we’d be paying homage to something that doesn’t really even exist anymore. Little more than its surface structure remains, while the vast majority of its content has been tampered with – not just enhanced and refined.

As people celebrate Star Wars this week, they’re celebrating something that has remained (mostly) constant and true over the years, and very importantly, they have every reason to feel they’re respected and appreciated for their admiration and support, not ridiculed and talked down to. Star Wars has expanded to include many different kinds of fans.

It’s an interesting comparison, since both projects in many ways grew out of the same sort of discontent for our society in the 1960s and 1970s. George Lucas decided to make a movie that would take us all away from the world’s problems, Disney built a place that tried to make sense of them, but both acknowledged that we needed to face our demons and live up to them. They were both hopeful creations, ones that sought to inspire and excite, to stir imaginations.

One has grown distinguished, the other has become scattered. One has changed its soul, the other has remained true. One seems to care about those who care for it, the other doesn’t.

I remember a time when Disney genuinely cared what its guests thought, when it wanted to create experiences like EPCOT Center that defied every notion of what “Disney” meant and sought to create an exciting sense of place and purpose. I remember that time, but with increasing haziness. In many ways, it seems like a long time ago …

Sunday, May 20, 2007

EPCOT's Energy Crisis


Last week, President Bush held a press conference in which he said Americans “expect action” on energy issues. With the cost of gas rising by leaps and bounds, fuel efficiency in cars and trucks under fire, and increasingly hard-to-ignore evidence that global warming is caused by greenhouse gases that can be controlled by changing energy-consumption habits, energy is a top-of-mind issue for many people around the world.

As I listened to Bush, two things came to mind: 1) No matter your party politics, it’s undeniable that we’re on the cusp of a major energy crisis; and 2) These are exactly the type of issues that EPCOT Center tried to bring to the forefront for guests.

Imagine, if you will, had The Walt Disney Company, not Exxon, been in control of what was presented and described in the Universe of Energy for the past 25 years. Imagine if it had been solely the Imagineers, without dictates from a corporate sponsor, who determined how and what to tell guests.

EPCOT was never a place, nor should it be, to incite or provoke arguments. However, as Bush spoke about the need for alternative energy and a decreased reliance on oil, I kept thinking about where I first learned about the exploration of alternative forms of energy. Yes, at EPCOT when I was about 15 years old. I had never given much thought to solar energy or wind power, for instance, but I remember being fascinated by the idea that someone was thinking about them. I recall the huge controversy around nuclear energy (always amusingly, maybe a little disturbingly) dismissed by the Universe of Energy, but I also recall thinking that perhaps it was an option for us in the future.

Of course, the Universe of Energy remained distressingly unchanged for a number of years before Ellen DeGeneres finally came along to give it a much needed dose of life. And then … nothing. It’s now been almost 11 years since Universe of Energy received a major rethinking, and there couldn’t be a more pertinent time.
I know little about it, but it seems clear that the subject of energy has never been more important or more fascinating. Disney has an opportunity, now that ExxonMobil is no longer a sponsor, to determine what content is presented and how. This is a fantastic chance for Disney’s best writers, designers, researchers, filmmakers and artists to tackle a complex, intensely intriguing topic and help shape the way millions of people a year think about it.

Imagine, for a moment, that Disney had not been bound to present an image of the energy situation as filtered through the corporate mindset of Big Oil. Perhaps a decade ago, tens of millions of people a year could have started to learn about hybrid cars or hydrogen-fuel technology. Perhaps 15 years ago, millions of minds could have started getting their heads around what happens when energy-created pollution goes out of control – and how we could, in turn, do our individual part to control it. Perhaps Disney, as it used to do in so many memorable and entertaining educational films, could have used its storytelling prowess to show us that the way we perceive energy use is limited only by our imaginations.

Teaching an audience does not have to be boring. Educating a park guest who would rather just see some more cartoon antics does not have to be a chore (for either the park or the guest!). And, most importantly, getting people to think about the future of the world in which they live doesn’t have to be dull – it can be inspiring and memorable.

That was the promise that EPCOT Center once held. It’s the promise that could again guide EPCOT in the future.

To see how potent a tool EPCOT can be in shaping hearts and minds, Disney need look no further than where even the president acknowledges we’ve made missteps in energy creation and consumption … then imagine a world in which it had taken the guiding principles of EPCOT Center to heart and built upon them, rather than tearing them down.

Thursday, May 03, 2007

A Fresh Start


Many apologies for the long time that has passed since my last significant post; work and personal issues have just been a little overwhelming lately (in a good way). But I couldn’t let more time go by without thanking you for all of the e-mails and comments, and also for the information that several readers have passed on to me.

Brad Rex, who has been the head of EPCOT for a number of years, apparently is stepping down to take a job at a hotel chain. We wish him success. Leading EPCOT into the future is Jim MacPhee, who by all accounts has shown he’s, to quote three individual readers who sent me the news, “a good guy.”

Let’s hope so. EPCOT could use a good guy, ideally one who will no longer try to make EPCOT into something it’s not, who will recognize that there are some really impressive attributes to the theme park. In the spirit of moving ahead with a fresh start, I wanted to offer some random thoughts and suggestions to Jim as he prepares for his new role, ideas that he might want to think about when contemplating what is to become of Disney’s most unique theme park.

Let’s start with what I consider to be the most pressing:

* Don’t succumb to the relentless Pixar-ization of EPCOT. Just because Ratatouille takes place in the culinary world of Paris, for instance, does not mean Bistro de Paris should suddenly become “Ratatouille CafĂ©,” or that the little rat should host a new version of Impressions de France. The beauty of EPCOT is how it is so obviously, clearly, unequivocally Disney … without being Disney-ized. Or, at least, it used to be.

* Explore your playground. EPCOT has an abundance of possibility, sitting there waiting to be discovered. But you won’t do it from the confines of an office. Get out and about in the park, recognize that some of your peers and predecessors throughout the Disney organization have failed or succeeded based on the simple action of walking the park with regularity (or, sadly, not doing that). EPCOT is a place filled with opportunities to discover new things – both for guests and for executives. You’ll never see them if you don’t know every nook and cranny of this massive park.

* Be proud of EPCOT’s different-ness. Conversely, don’t be ashamed of it. EPCOT is unlike any other theme park anywhere in the world. For many years, what gave EPCOT its truly unique personality was that it didn’t rely on characters and cartoons for its appeal. But lately, no one seems willing to give EPCOT its due, and the endless “integration” (though almost always with a slapped-on feel) of cartoon characters has taken over. Insist that EPCOT be excellent of its own accord and revel in the fact that it is most assuredly not The Magic Kingdom or the Disney-MGM Studios. It requires thought and a little effort – both on behalf of guests and the executives and Imagineers who develop it. Don’t let that scare you off; it’s a great challenge!

* Become an EPCOT evangelist. From Burbank to Orlando, from Bob Iger on down, a great many Disney executives simply don’t “get” EPCOT. It defies easy categorization. That’s where you come in. You’ve got to work hard to make “them” see and understand why EPCOT is so unique and therefore so valuable to Disney. This is your chance to proselytize to them, to educate them, to bring them around to the idea that EPCOT can influence Disney – not just vice-versa.

* Study the past. Steep yourself in the remarkable history of the park, understand why it was created; spend time looking over the extraordinary collection of EPCOT literature, concept designs and materials that are in the Walt Disney Archives and at Imagineering. You will be amazed at how EPCOT’s latest changes haven’t even come close to the daring and excitement that infused the park 20 years ago. Odd how we’ve regressed in many ways, isn’t it? EPCOT’s past can inform its future.

* Respond to criticism. That’s not a sly reference to this website, but to the many “fan-critics” of EPCOT. There’s a reason we don’t like what EPCOT has become: Because it should be much more! The readers of this blog have made excellent observations; I hope you will use their insight and feedback in positive ways. Please know we only want to see what’s best for EPCOT. It’s not true that we don’t want EPCOT to change – that’s exactly what we want. But we don’t want it to conform. Like watchful parents over a teenager who is learning how to be independent, we’re seeing EPCOT try to be like everyone else when it needs to spread its wings and grow and become its own unique entity that can flourish and thrive within the broader world of Disney.

* Make the little improvements, not just the big ones. It’s all well and good to create some big new attraction or to renovate a pavilion; though we may not always agree with the changes, we do at least try to appreciate them. But all that money spent is meaningless if the little things don’t keep up. What about those horribly beaten-up signs throughout the park? What about the fact that the post-show area of Universe of Energy is pretty empty? Or that the planters out in front of the “old” Wonders of Life pavilion make it look like a theme-park version of Chernobyl? (Thanks to Kevin Yee of Miceage for writing about many of these small problems, at EPCOT and elsewhere, that increasingly make Disney look cheap and embarrassing.)

* Appreciate the classics. While far too many people at Disney don’t consider them as such, EPCOT has some truly classic attractions. Just as you wouldn’t (I hope, I hope, I hope) mess with Pirates of the Caribbean or The Haunted Mansion too badly, EPCOT’s classics should be regarded as exactly that. Take what happened to Journey Into (Your) Imagination as a warning; view the Nemo-ized version of the Seas dubiously. Just because they respond to the trendy notion of making EPCOT more kid-friendly does not mean that they will stand the test of time.

* Listen to your instinct and to your EPCOT experts within Disney – not just to the guests. A guest will gladly tell you that the Teletubbies should be at EPCOT or that the Madagascar cast should be at Animal Kingdom. A guest will tell you that EPCOT needs more kiddie or thrill rides or more Disney characters. In full vacation mode, a guest will give you just about any observation you want … except, maybe, a thoughtful or well-reasoned one. And why should s/he? This is vacation time, not time for serious contemplation. That’s what you’re paid for! Take that responsibility seriously and really put some thought into what EPCOT should be, not just how it can be shaped to make the marketing and finance folks happy.

* Believe that good enough isn’t good enough. Being “good enough” may work for your competition, but both at EPCOT and at Walt Disney World, that’s not even the bare minimum you need to get by. You need to thrill and excite and move your guests, and that means you’ve got to put thought and effort into every single thing in your parks, from the attractions themselves down to the planters and trash cans. The best thing you could possibly be is highly critical. Do more than please the least-demanding guest – please the most-discerning ones; when you try for that, you’re bound to please everyone, not just some folks.

* Think about that wand. Why do so many of us care so much about that stupid thing? Because it represents everything that’s been wrong about the past 10 years of thinking at EPCOT: It’s tacky, over-the-top and unnecessary. A great many people (not just the “crazy” fans) think Spaceship Earth is one of the most iconic and evocative pieces of architecture ever created – not just at a Disney theme park, but anywhere. Personally, I believe it rivals the astonishing simplicity of the Egyptian pyramids or the sleek elegance of the Eiffel Tower. It is a masterpiece. And it has been topped off with an eyesore. If a guest doesn’t know s/he’s at EPCOT, if the fact that s/he’s in the heart of Walt Disney World isn’t patently obvious, there’s a problem with the guest … not the extraordinary visual symbol at the heart of what was once one of the most wonderful places on earth.

I believe EPCOT can be that again. I hope you do, too.

Thursday, April 19, 2007

A Quick Note of Thanks

Thanks to the dozens and dozens of you who have written comments and sent e-mails to me directly in the past week. Some professional and personal issues have prevented me from responding to each one -- but I intend to get around to those great personal e-mails very soon! I just wanted to say thank you for the feedback and for being patient ... more new blogposts are coming very shortly. And now ... let us go forth and fulfill our destiny ...

Thursday, April 12, 2007

Opportunity Missed

Back to being critical, I'm sorry to say.

Siemens and Disney have announced that Spaceship Earth will be getting a major overhaul soon. That should be good news. Why do I feel it’s not?

With this renovation of Spaceship Earth, it appears Imagineering is putting the final nail in the coffin of EPCOT’s once-grand theme – exploring our world and our place in it by examining overarching subjects.

No one reading this needs a history lesson, but to put it in context, EPCOT Center was designed to take guests on journeys through subjects that are critical to our understanding of our world: energy, health, transportation, imagination, the land and the seas. When the much-missed Horizons was added, it served to bring all of these concepts together – we could see how all of these coalesced into a whole, and what they might mean to our future.

Central to all of it was the idea that communication – both in concept and application – was vital to our lives. Spaceship Earth was the literal and figurative centerpiece of EPCOT Center. It reminded us that as much as man strives to better himself and his world, nothing can be accomplished without effective communication systems.

EPCOT Center took the idea of a “theme park” to new heights. The theme was the whole reason for the park. Even if World Showcase seemed like a separate concept, it wasn’t – after we learned about the ideas of the world we live in, we had a chance to meet the people with whom we share our planet and our hopes.

Over the years, EPCOT’s theme has eroded, and the description of the “new” Spaceship Earth degrades it further. At this point, EPCOT Center is truly gone; Epcot is all that’s left. Here’s the description:

On a trip through time inside the Spaceship Earth attraction, guests discover how each generation of mankind has invented the future for the next generation, and how the spirit of innovation has moved people from the caves to the cosmos.

So much for communication. So much for helping us understand how everything at EPCOT fits together. So much for the dream (no matter how wild) that the brilliant theme of EPCOT Center might ever make a comeback.

“Innovation” is the new theme, and it feels wholly generic, as if there is no passion left anywhere for EPCOT, as if Disney and Siemens are simply struggling to find something interesting to put in the attraction – an attraction that, even as it is now, is something of a classic. (Remember what Dear Abby used to say, “If it ain’t broke ...”)

They seem to have seized on the idea of “time machines” (which is, funnily enough, what the vehicles have always been called) and the oh-so-trendy idea of allowing riders a level of interactivity.

There’s not a lot to go on from the reports, very little that’s concrete, other than the loss of the “communication” concept and, by extension, the effective end of the ideas, concepts and vision that originally brought EPCOT Center to life.

This was an opportunity for Imagineers to look deeply at EPCOT and say, “How can we revive some of what made it so special, some of that theme that was such an intrinsic part of the park’s creation?” They did have that opportunity, and it appears they didn’t take it, that they opted instead for something that can be easily marketed (“travel into the past – and into your future!” – wait, didn’t they shut down a ride like that, called Horizons?) and easily sold as an “adventure.”

I guess I can’t fault anyone for taking the easy way out, because, hey, it’s the easy way. But they had an opportunity here. And they missed it.


(P.S. Guess what? Disney appears to say the wand's not coming down, either.)

Friday, April 06, 2007

EPCOT Attendance

This will be quick, as I'm still out of town, but I logged on to bring you some news about EPCOT's attendance in 2006. TEA (formerly the Themed Entertainment Association) and Economics Research Association have released their annual survey of global theme-park attendance.

For a park that is criticized as "boring" and "too adult," EPCOT holds up remarkably well. Here's the list of the top 10 parks around the world last year:

1. Magic Kingdom at Walt Disney World -- 16.64 million guests

2. Disneyland -- 14.73 million

3. Tokyo Disneyland -- 12.9 million

4. Tokyo DisneySea -- 12.1 million

5. Disneyland Paris -- 10.6 million*

6. EPCOT at Walt Disney World -- 10.46 million

7. Disney-MGM Studios at Walt Disney World -- 9.1 million

8. Disney's Animal Kingdom -- 8.91 million

9. Universal Studios Japan -- 8.5 million

10. Everland in South Korea -- 7.5 million


You can glean from this list what you will. There is no doubt most will look at this and say, "Well, there you go -- all of the Pixar-ization, cartoonifying and Princess-izing has worked for EPCOT."

Don't forget, though, that all Walt Disney World parks saw an increase in visitors, and the happy world of The Magic Kingdom actually saw the smallest increase (9%) while EPCOT saw the biggest (11%).

EPCOT needs no help to attract visitors. It will never, ever be the sole reason a family of five from Milwaukee visits Walt Disney World ... but it clearly is the second choice of many. Is that because it has more thrill rides and more cartoon characters? Perhaps?

Then again, has it always been successful, and might it be more so if it stayed true to its vision and kept a close eye on remaining the park of discovery, exploration and (yes) education that it was intended to be? I don't know. It's definitely worth thinking about.

Because of those 10,460,000 people, I can pretty much assure you, they didn't all just wait in line for The Seas With Nemo and Friends, Soarin' and Mission: Space, then bolt out of there. They like EPCOT. They've made it the third most-attended Disney theme park in the U.S. They obviously respond to its unique nature and the fact that it is different than the other parks.

It's nice to know EPCOT still works. And I hold to my belief it could work as well -- or better -- if the vision of EPCOT Center were brought back to it.

Tuesday, April 03, 2007

A Little Break


Starting today, I'll be away from home (and EPCOT Central) for about a week. But don't stop reading! Keep those e-mails and comments coming, and I'll do my best to respond while on the road. Thanks for all of your support! (By the way, the picture I've chosen as my "away image" signifies absolutely nothing other than I think it's a cool image. Can you identify it?)

Monday, April 02, 2007

EPCOT Made Simple


EPCOT Center’s first 15 years were marked by a design aesthetic I always found both ennobling and surprisingly playful. Yes, I know some of you don’t agree, but even if you found the design more in keeping with Mussolini’s style of over-the-top grandiosity (albeit in a distinctly modernist mode), there was one aspect of EPCOT that no one I know could criticize:

The logos.

Oh, yes … the logos!

Now this was a brilliant concept: Reduce the grand scope and ambition of expansive attractions down to their absolute core essence, and then go one step further – create an overall design program that brings these disparate elements together.

There was the "radioactive" Universe of Energy; the virtually literal Living Seas; the straightforward (and oddly exciting) Horizons; the iconic Spaceship Earth ... and more, of course, including the main EPCOT Center logo that literally tied five of the circles (representing the original five attractions) together with a globe that represented both Spaceship Earth and World Showcase.

You could take the logos simply at face value -- as representing individual attractions -- or find even greater meaning in their careful design.

What Disney’s Imagineers created in EPCOT’s original graphics program was slickly beautiful and astonishingly ahead of its time. (No doubt AT&T's graphic artists at least thought about the original Spaceship Earth logo when designing that company's "spinning globe" symbol.)

Any great logo or symbol seeks to make a simple, easily understood graphic representation out of a difficult, abstract concept. It’s tough enough to do that for a single concept (like a corporation) … but to do it eight times for a single park, to create a strong, unified vision that not only identified individual components but also served as a way to tie them together … that was brilliance, pure and simple.

Compare the sleek, instantly indentifiable logos of EPCOT Center – created 25 years ago – at the top of this post to the busy, hard-to-read logo for the new Monsters Inc. Laugh Floor attraction at the Magic Kingdom. Now, bear in mind that in these deceptively simple circular logos, Imagineers weren’t just communicating the concept of a single ride or show, but of an entire, multi-faceted pavilion.

The logos could be understood and appreciated whether or not you spoke English, whether or not you were even old enough to read – they immediately told you where you were and, when used on park signage, where you wanted to go.

They made EPCOT Center simple, but they didn’t dumb it down. Many guests, myself chief among them, could envision a day when logos like this would define our lives, when we would spend our day orienting ourselves not through words and images, but graphically. The logos were in some ways the very definition of a “world showcase,” one we could all understand at a glance and easily navigate, even if we had different ways to communicate or interpret the experience inside.

The EPCOT logos were, in many ways, the apotheosis of the promise of EPCOT itself: A complex and exciting, vibrant, ever-changing world rendered simple and clear on the surface, at once homogeneous and plain, yet rich and varied. I loved those logos.

I guess it’s not a surprise, then, that they were among the first things to go when Epcot got “Disney-ized.” They truly set the place apart.

Like EPCOT itself, they exist now mostly in memory – perhaps waiting, like EPCOT, for the day when someone can appreciate their meaning and reconcile the Disney that created them with the Disney that destroyed them.

Sunday, April 01, 2007

EPCOT's Brand of Magic


For all the discussion of what's wrong with EPCOT*, for all the criticism (justifiable, I believe) of what it's become, there's also a side of EPCOT that all the tinkering, all the cartooning, all the Pixarization, all the teen-flavored additions can't destroy.

Every visitor to EPCOT Central probably has his or her own favorite "definition" of EPCOT. For me, the spirit that Disney hasn't yet destroyed is felt most when walking along the World Showcase promenade right after a summer sunset.

In the summer months, that happens somewhere around 8:30 p.m. The heat of the day is finished, perhaps there's been a nice dinnertime break, and now, well, you know what's going to happen shortly. That's right -- Illuminations: Reflections of Earth is starting soon. Crowds are gathering along the lagoon, some people have been there for hours.

True, in its zeal to separate every last dollar from families with small children, Disney began a few years ago allowing carnival-barker-type hawkers of needless and cheesy doo-dads (light necklaces, LED whirligigs) to set up shop right in the middle of the promenade, and their presence does detract.

But it doesn't destroy.

Because with just the barest trace of light in the sky, with a deep-purple Spaceship Earth "hovering" in the background, with dramatic lighting illuminating every World Showcase pavilion, and with Illuminations pre-show music playing gently throughout the speakers, this is truly a magic place.

It's not the sort of cheap, over-commercialized "magic" that Disney tries to sell today, it's the magic that Disney used to make so effortlessly ... the magic that comes from designing and creating a place that is unique in the world, one that exudes both charm and comfort, that welcomes you and doesn't try to "sell" you. About a decade ago, it was described as "the architecture of reassurance," but it's more than reassurance, though that is most inarguably a factor. It's an assurance and an insistence that this little slice of land in the middle of Central Florida is exactly right.

As you look to one side and see, for instance, the serenity of Japanese architecture or the statleliness of German design, you look to the other and see, across a calm, reflective body of water, a colorful reminder that our future is as optimistic as our past. Just as the Japanese, the French, the Norwegians, the Moroccans developed a style that is distincly their own, Disney (and, by extension, "we") have envisioned a future that stylistically may be worlds away but esoterically is as timeless and confident as anything else in the world.

World Showcase at this time of night is a relatively calm place, too large and, owing to its curved designed, not linear -- which means that we can, at once, make out every other bit of this section of EPCOT from no matter where we are standing, but we can't see down a "main street" in front of us. That presents us with an illusion that we're not surrounded by mobs of people all straining either to find an exit or wait for the fireworks; rather, it propels us forward at a gentle pace -- we can see what's up ahead, but we can't see the road in front of us. It's an unusually tranquil design conceit for a theme park; it doesn't create a sense of urgency in us to do anything but keep walking forward at our own pace ... or to find a spot to sit and take it all in.

That's what's best about this twilight-hued EPCOT: It lets us move at our leisure, allows us to absorb it all with our eyes and ears.

If it's possible to have a "quiet theme park," a nighttime EPCOT is it. It's a beautiful place.



* Sorry, but try as I might, I just can't bring myself to use the lower-case "Epcot." It just isn't right. "Epcot" isn't a word; EPCOT the acronym, whether followed by Center or not, still fits.

Thursday, March 29, 2007

Apologies to Orson Welles


While watching The Third Man on DVD tonight, I got to thinking:

Walt Disney for forty years had near-financial ruin, naysayers, critics, turbulence, but produced Disneyland, Mary Poppins, Pirates of the Caribbean and the Golden Age of Animation. And current Disney management has had prosperity and 25 years of financial growth and opportunity. And what did they produce? The Seas With Nemo and Friends, California Adventure, Monsters Inc. Laugh Floor and lower-case Epcot.

Big Anniversary News! (No, Not EPCOT's)


A reader sends this link to a story in the Orlando Sentinel, touting a major new arena (apparently on WDW property ... though I can't tell for sure from this article), announced as part of the 10th anniversary of the Wide World of Sports complex.

Yes, there are festivities, ceremonies, events and news announcements being made about this unbelievably important anniversary of the Wide World of Sports -- a section of WDW that, despite having been there 15 times or so in the last 10 years, I have never visited. Have you?

So far, though, I've heard several anonymous assurances from readers that there will be something done to celebrate EPCOT's Silver Anniversary (most likely just some merchandise). Despite that, no actual word from Disney that they really will recognize the incredible contributions of EPCOT Center. And why should they? I mean, really, when you can celebrate the 10th anniversary of a sports complex instead ... ?

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Why Should Disney Care About EPCOT?


Twenty-five years ago, the company then known as Walt Disney Productions opened the gates of its newest theme park, the reality-based, unusual and civic-minded EPCOT Center. It was an ambitious place, greeted both by critical praise and derision, and its opening was accompanied by a marketing and PR campaign perhaps unequalled in Disney's history.

Nothing Disney had attempted prepared the public for what they experienced at EPCOT Center. If it was a "traditional" theme park, where were the rides? EPCOT offered large-scale, immersive experiences, not simple diversions. Where was Mickey Mouse? EPCOT stressed not "Disney-style" entertainment, but expansive "surveys" of themes that were key to understanding our world and its future. Where, for all of that, was "Disney"? EPCOT emphasized learning and discovery, not "magic" and "fun."

By the time it opened, nearly 16 years had passed since Walt Disney died. But the vast majority of early guests remembered Walt the man, not just Walt the brand; they still understood his fascination with science and futurism. For a great majority of them, "Disney" didn't just mean the Mickey Mouse Club, cute cartoons and fairy tales -- "Disney" also taught them at school through popular educational films whose subjects ranged from math to health, from chemistry to anthropology.

Combining education and entertainment was nothing odd to these guests, and EPCOT was simply a grand extension of the concepts and ideas that they had seen presented in Tomorrowland at Disneyland and The Magic Kingdom, combined with a "real-life" It's a Small World.

During the next 10 years, EPCOT Center experienced a pattern that has become well-known to theme-park observers: After a massive burst of public interest, things settled down. Compared with the inaugural 18 months, succeeding years saw a steep decline in attendance. Disney responded by adding attractions and pavilions to EPCOT, ones that had been part of an overall expansion plan in place from the beginning. These new attractions, like the Norway pavilion, the Wonders of Life, Horizons and The Living Seas, opened at regular intervals and fit in beautifully with the overall conception of EPCOT Center as a "permanent World's Fair." For a while, it seemed, EPCOT would grow, expand and change in ways that seemed almost organic.

Then, about 12 years after EPCOT opened (and about five years after its last major addition), something happened. Disney was pursuing other theme-park opportunities both in the U.S. and abroad. Corporate interest (from Disney and from sponsors) began to wane. EPCOT was no longer the "new" theme-park darling -- it had competition, and much like a less-popular but over-achieving student, it had a hard time garnering the attention it needed.

Despite the extraordinary early promise of EPCOT, Disney turned its attention elsewhere. For most theme parks, that would hardly mean much; if executed well, they can retain their high quality over time. EPCOT, however, was different. Inherent to its basic concept was a need for constant change and enhancement. EPCOT required huge amounts of work to keep its attractions current and relevant, and Disney's lack of interest began to have serious effects.

That leaves us where we are today, looking at an EPCOT Center that has become "Epcot," and that is a marketing albatross around Disney's neck. On one hand, it pulls in more-than-respectable numbers year after year; it's the Energizer bunny of theme parks -- it keeps going and going, almost despite itself. On the other, guests aren't always kind to Epcot in exit polls. It has long struggled against a misperception (seemingly encouraged by Disney) that it is "boring" and "educational."

Marketing folks at Disney, who generally are some of the best in the world, seem to have little concept of how to present EPCOT to the public. Is it a "fun" park? Is it a "thrill" park? Is it a place to see Disney characters, or a place to escape from them? Is it for adults? Is it for children? Is it a place families can go together? Watch any Disney vacation video and you'll see what I mean: The Magic Kingdom, Disney-MGM Studios and Animal Kingdom have very clear identities; EPCOT just sort of flounders. What is it, exactly?

Disney doesn't seem really to care. As long as EPCOT makes its numbers, management will continue to ignore it. They'll pump it full of Disney characters, aiming to make it something recognizably Disney.

But that's precisely why Disney should care about doing something more with EPCOT.

Twenty-five years ago, EPCOT proved something extraordinary: It proved that the attributes that defined "Disney" in the public's mind could exist apart from the Disney name. That was a huge leap. Guests understood inherently that EPCOT upheld the Disney ideals even though the Disney name was virtually nowhere to be found at the park. EPCOT proved that Disney could effectively and successfully create non-Disney branded entertainment.

Remember, EPCOT opened about a year before Touchstone Pictures debuted, so it was a doubly important revelation that "EPCOT Center" could become a brand name recognized as part of Disney even while it stood separately.

EPCOT proved that Disney knew what it was doing. It "segmented" the brand long before terms like "brand segmentation" were used very often.

Here's the most astonishing thing to me: EPCOT could still do the same for Disney. At a time when Disney looks to invest its money elsewhere to acquire "non-Disney" brands (think ABC, ESPN, Jetix, Miramax), it has its own internally developed non-Disney brand that, at its core, represents the very ideals and concepts inherent in the broader Disney name.

While reading the excellent Walt Disney: The Triumph of the American Imagination by Neal Gabler, I came across this bit of wisdom from Roy O. Disney. To put it in context, Gabler is trying to explain why the Disney Studios made through the Depression relatively unscathed while other entertainment companies almost went bankrupt.

"We have been doing our own gambling. This past three years will be a very good lesson to the people at large," Gabler quotes Roy O. Disney as saying. Gabler interprets this statement as "meaning apparently that others would have to learn to invest in themselves as well."

Seventy years later, does the lesson still apply? Finance and MBA types will tell you that it is impossible: The world has changed too much in 70 years for such simple concepts to be applicable. I don't believe it. Disney spends literally billions of dollars investing in brands that are supposed to "expand" its core audience ... and yet it has turned its back on the one non-Disney brand it already has and that already has a definition in the eye of much of the public.

EPCOT's central philosophies are very much those of Disney as a whole. EPCOT is sitting in Disney's own backyard (literally), waiting to be re-discovered. Why should Disney care about EPCOT? Because by investing in itself, by exploring all EPCOT could be -- which is, very different than any other theme park, providing a point of distinction that truly sets it apart from the other offerings in Central Florida -- Disney might realize that the future of its theme-park business was actually created 25 years ago.