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.

Friday, March 23, 2007

This Is Getting Ridiculous

Here we go again.

First, it was the world-renowned, groundbreaking, must-visit Disney's Wide World of Sports that received publicity attention for its all-important 10th anniversary.

Then, Disneyland's Pirates of the Caribbean gets special in-park signage and a limited merchandise collection for its 40th anniversary.

Now, Disneyland Paris -- the most beautiful yet most financially troubled park Disney has ever conceived -- is getting a massive marketing blitz for its 15th annivesary. And we all know how important 15th anniversaries are, right? They must be very important -- much more so than silly 25th anniversaries.

Why do I think that? Because, as Matt points out in the comments section, even ... I kid you not ... the Disney Vacation Club gets commemorative merchandise for its 15th year!

Come on.

No doubt some of you reading this are DVC members, and you may already know my feeling about Disney's timeshare concept. (It's not enough that we pay hundreds or thousands of dollars to visit a Disney theme park; nowadays we're not considered "special" by Disney unless we cough up tens of thousands to buy in to the resorts.) But no matter whether you think DVC is great or the ultimate con, a timeshare concept is hardly unique ... is it really more worthy of new merchandise and special mention in press releases, while the genuinely revolutionary EPCOT Center gets nothing?

Is EPCOT's VP, Brad Rex, still saying that all Disney will be doing to mark the Silver Anniversary of the most groundbreaking theme park ever created is to have some private, backstage observances for cast members? So far, I've heard no official comment that indicates anything different at all.

So, at this point, it's clear: Disney really couldn't care less about EPCOT.

Why should they? That's an article I'm working on for the very near future.

In the meantime, read it and weep, folks ... Disney has announced yet another theme-park anniversary event, but it ain't for EPCOT. No, folks, 25 years of EPCOT just isn't good enough for our friends in Burbank and Lake Buena Vista. Sad.

(Oh, and if all this gets you as irate as I have become, you might want to consider sending a nicely worded and rational e-mail to Brad Rex letting him know you think EPCOT's anniversary deserves at least as much respect as, say, the Wide World of Sports complex or the timeshares.)

Monday, March 19, 2007

Anniversaries Everywhere ... Except EPCOT

Word comes in today from that Disney is continuing its tradition of celebrating milestone annivesaries at its theme parks.

Except, that is, at EPCOT.

This weekend, Disneyland's Pirates of the Caribbean received the anniversary treatment, with a commemorative banner at its entrance as well as limited, collector's merchandise at the Disney Gallery.

You'll get no argument from me that Pirates of the Caribbean was enormously influential in the development of the theme parks. Although it opened after Walt Disney died, it proved his belief that Audio-Animatronic figures could provide a scale of entertainment no one had ever seen in an attraction, and though succeeding rides (particularly those in the last 15 years) have failed to realize the promise of the technology, Pirates changed theme parks forever. It doesn't hurt, too, that Disney has the big-budget Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End coming out this year.

But does a single ride, no matter how important, merit something that's not even being given to an entire theme park? Based on Brad Rex's comments to, the only effort Disney is making to mark EPCOT Center's Silver Anniversary is to hold some "private observances behind the scenes for cast members."

Taken in conjunction with a press release touting the 10th anniversary of Disney's Wide World of Sports, this continues leading me to one of two sad conclusions about EPCOT:

1) Disney doesn't understand the important role it played in its own company and doesn't appreciate the impact it had on millions of people;

2) Disney just doesn't care.

Either conclusion isn't particularly pleasant, wouldn't you agree?

Friday, March 16, 2007

Back to the Future

I played a video game the other day called Thrillville. It’s a very cute game, geared more toward teen-agers than adults, though it’s based on an idea that took me right back to CommuniCore: building your own roller coaster.

That was one of the absolute highlights of my earliest visit to EPCOT Center – spending time at the computer station, touching the screen and listening to that crazy whistling beaver tell me whether the coaster track I chose was appropriate or not. The most outrageous aspect of your virtual coaster was the ability to have multiple loops; I can tell you this much, the things we “built” back in the early 1980s in Communicore pale in comparison to anything in the real world today!

I’d find it very hard to believe that the makers of Thrillville, or the Roller Coaster Tycoon games before it, didn’t visit EPCOT Center as kids and weren’t influenced by what they saw there. The theme park inspired many people in ways that its designers probably could never have imagined.

Today, the ideas that were on display in Communicore are remarkably commonplace. True, videophones aren’t in every home, but they are in every conference room in the office building in which I work. Talking robots are still for fun, but instead of being on display in theme parks they’re conversation starters in living rooms. “The Age of Information,” as it was called in the earliest Communicore incarnation, isn’t just upon us – we’re deep into it, and it has changed our lives in remarkable ways. Touch screens, scrolling computer graphics and instant polling were state-of-the-art technologies in 1982, now they’re so ubiquitous as to be unnoticeable.

Not many visitors to EPCOT Center in the early 1980s would have imagined their lives would be so influenced by the technologies that seemed novel at the time.

What was so appealing about EPCOT, Future World and Communicore was that it imparted a giddy sense of discovery in guests who tried out these technologies.

That’s one of the key elements that feels absent in today’s incarnation of EPCOT.

Every week, it seems, there are magazines and TV shows touting the technologies of tomorrow that are going to influence the way we live. There’s no dearth of material to pull from. I’m not a “techie,” but I realize that most of us are barely aware of the technology that makes our world work.

We live in a highly technical age, even though most people (like me) hardly realize it. Consider that, 25 years ago, the PC, the VCR and even the microwave were only just penetrating consumer consciousness. Now, they’re almost passé. Few could have imagined DVDs, plasma TV screens, the Internet and cell phones becoming so commonplace.

Last time I visited EPCOT, some cast members were riding around on ultra-cool (though not incredibly practical) Segway scooters ... but not even pausing to talk to guests who were pointing at them excitedly. Why wouldn’t they encourage that sense of discovery?

More importantly, couldn’t EPCOT be sold to potential sponsors by Disney as a fantastic way to showcase the technology they’re working on – not technologies that are six months away from being reality or are simply iterations of what we’ve already got, but truly “bleeding-edge” technologies that are going to impact our lives?

It’s a shame Disney doesn’t seem interested in exploiting this possibility at EPCOT – grrrrr, I mean Epcot. With some imagination, ingenuity and passion, Epcot could once again be a place to go to learn what our lives could be, not simply see new applications of Disney characters and video games.

EPCOT Center used to help us see how we were building our future. That future isn’t remotely finished. I’d love to learn more about it.

Monday, March 12, 2007

Is Bigger Better?

EPCOT Center was never your average theme park. From the moment it was conceived as a way to bring some of Walt Disney’s final vision to life, EPCOT Center was different than anything Disney had ever attempted.

Though, certainly, it never came close to the “city” concept Walt envisioned, it did attempt to bring many of that idea’s core components into the world: It put human ingenuity on display, showed us how some of the most important issues facing the world were being addressed, reminded us that we’re all in this together – and presented these difficult concepts in a fun, engaging way. No theme park was ever, or has ever been, like it.

One of the most clear differences between EPCOT Center and “regular” theme parks was its presentation of themed pavilions. Disneyland and The Magic Kingdom at Walt Disney World had conditioned guests to expect elaborate ride-through attractions from Disney theme parks, but when it came to EPCOT Center, those weren’t enough.

Subjects like human communications, energy, transportation, imagination and the future were far too large in scope for a single ride. Though Disney had effectively explored some of the territory that EPCOT Center would cover with Adventure Thru Inner Space at Disneyland (introducing the basic ideas of physical science to guests), it was a short attraction that barely scratched the surface of what was possible to convey in a three-dimensional, immersive environment.

EPCOT Center’s ambitions were grand, and the way it achieved them was even grander. Instead of simply “going on a ride,” guests of this theme park would explore massive pavilions dedicated to exploring multiple facets of a subject. “The ride” was just one part of these enormous structures, each housing a ride, interactive areas, exhibits and sometimes even shows and multiple attractions.

It wasn’t enough to spend 45 minutes in line for a five-minute ride – not at EPCOT Center. Of course, the ride could be an end unto itself, but for Imagineers who designed EPCOT, the goal was to make the journey and the destination one and the same: discovery.

Not every pavilion was intended to offer the same mix. At the Universe of Energy, for instance, the ride was so gigantic in scale and offered such an astonishing mix of media that it took up virtually the entire building. Wonders of Life, on the other hand, presented a ride, an Audio-Animatronics based show, a film, interactive exhibits and stage presentations and even offered a quick-service dining area, all intended to promote better understanding of issues regarding the human body and its health.

To various degrees, The Land, The Living Seas, World of Motion and Journey Into Imagination offered a mix of shows and rides. Spaceship Earth, the park’s iconic centerpiece, primarily offered a (long) ride-through attraction, but at its base was what was designed to be the park’s entryway: Earth Station. While on one hand simply an updated version of “Guest Relations,” it was also the place to learn about EPCOT’s attractions, make reservations and – importantly – try out new communication technology.

World Showcase was much the same: Even in country-themed pavilions that had no rides or experiential attractions, there was a mix of shopping, dining and cultural education that made a simple “walk-through” of the pavilion difficult except for the most un-discerning of guests.

I realize you know all of this. But in the past few years, something has slowly happened to many of the pavilions, something that undermines this basic concept that made EPCOT so unique.

The “pavilion” concept is giving way to something much less, even though it is presented as something more. Test Track, Mission: Space, The Seas With Nemo and Friends – each of these (relatively) recently renovated “pavilions” emphasizes a single attraction, something to wait in line to see before moving on.

Of course, it hasn’t always been possible to completely remove what made the original pavilion so rich. At the former Living Seas, for instance, the centerpiece salt-water tank still exists … but that’s not why guests visit: It’s for the animated turtle named Crush. Most of the elaborate, deeply educational displays have been replaced with smaller, less interactive areas.

Test Track, likewise, still maintains a version of what was once called the “TransCenter,” but even more than before, guests make a beeline out of it at the end of their Test Track experience. The goal is riding the ride, then getting on to the next thrill.

Mission: Space, sitting on the site of what was once one of Disney’s most sophisticated ride-throughs, Horizons, likewise offers an exhibit area at the end of the ride, but virtually no one bothers to stop in it, and if they do it’s to play a video game or send an e-postcard to friends.

The key difference is this: The ride is the goal, nothing more than that. There are some minor distractions offered up once the ride is finished, but they’re no more than amusing diversions. They are not areas to linger in, places to explore and learn.

Learning at EPCOT, it seems, is finished. Though millions of tourists every year (families included) flock to vacation experiences that promise to blend entertainment and education, Disney has all but given up on that concept at EPCOT.

No doubt, some say good riddance. They welcome $175-million rides that give three minutes of thrills, attempt no greater edification, and then are finished. They are touted as bigger and better than what came before.

Bigger, yes. I’ll grant you that.

Friday, March 09, 2007

Video Memories

Unfortunately, YouTube has not yet upgraded its system to be compatible with the new Blogger/Google login.

Until that happens, here are some terrific links to YouTube videos that serve as testaments to the spirit, enthusiasm, excitement and promise that EPCOT Center held for so many years. Enjoy!

A Musical Preview of EPCOT Center

The 21st Century Begins Oct. 1, 1982

EPCOT Center in Less Than Five Minutes (caution: this one will really stir up memories; it's focused solely on Future World)

Spaceship Earth circa 1986 (With Walter Cronkite!) -- Part 1

Spaceship Earth circa 1986 -- Part 2 ("Let us go forth and fulfill our destiny ... on Spaceship Earth!")

"El Rio del Tiempo" Ride Through

"Maelstrom" Ride Through

Thursday, March 08, 2007

An Update

Back in January, I detoured from my usual discussion of EPCOT Center to reflect on The Walt Disney Company's horrible decision to move the annual shareholder's meeting to New Orleans.

Many of you commented (both publicly and, even more so, personally by e-mail) that this move really should be taken at face value as Disney's efforts to bring attention and business to the New Orleans area, ravaged in 2005 by Hurricane Katrina.

The Associated Press reports today that this year's Walt Disney Company Annual Meeting of Shareholders was attended by ... 400 people.

Now, bear in mind that last year in Anaheim, Disney attracted (according to the AP) "several thousand" shareholders. Sure, it's true that Disney "webcast" this year's shareholder's meeting, but since there was no opportunity for interaction, the result wasn't much different than reading a transcript of the proceedings.

Could it be that the miniscule attendance in New Orleans is exactly what Disney wanted? What, then, are they running away from?

Could it be that they don't want to discuss the downsizing, outsourcing and selling-off of the theme parks? That they really don't care to get into a conversation about ABC's dramatically plummeting ratings? Could they be a little embarrassed by Bob Iger's $15-million payday?
Or is it, simply, that they are finally letting the "little guy" know that we really, frankly, don't matter? Sure, they want tens of thousands from each of us for a Disney Vacation Club "membership," and have put a sales kiosk everywhere (including EPCOT's Future World, above) but your resort toilet. But what about those who invest the same amount in shares of the company then expect an opportunity to voice an opinion about how the company is being run? Well, you're just plain out of luck.

Sorry to digress from the EPCOT discussion -- just thought it might be worth following up on my original post.

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

The Promise of EPCOT

At 11 a.m. on Oct. 24, 1982, EPCOT Center officially opened to the public.

Huh? What about Oct. 1, you say? Well, that was indeed opening day, but "The Grand Opening Dedication Ceremony," as Disney called it, came two weeks, two days later. Participants received a lovely souvenir booklet commemorating the ceremony.

It contained the words below. I find these fascinating to consider in light of many discussions I've had with readers about whether Disney "gets it" when it comes to EPCOT and its theme parks. Those debates will not be settled by remembering these words. However, the following inarguably reflects what Disney publicly said about why EPCOT was built, what it means and how it reflected on the entire Disney company.

At a time when Disney's public comments tend to be focused on things like on EBITDA, return on shareholder investment and analyst opinions, it doesn't hurt to remember how Disney used to approach their theme parks: with a sense of excitement, enthusiasm and a little bit of mystery:


Some twenty years ago, long before the opening of Walt Disney World, Walt Disney envisioned a place where the greatest feats of human imagination and invention could be communicated to the benefit of all people. He called his idea "EPCOT" -- the Experimental Protoype Community of Tomorrow -- for he wanted to present alternatives and possibilities for a better life ahead.

From the beginning, Walt Disney World has been planned, constructed and developed with Epcot concepts in mind. Futuristic designs and technologies have been put into action as a matter of policy -- monorail and linear induction power transportation systems, a solar-powered office building, state-of-the-art waste treatment processes, the first all-electronic, fiber-optics telephone system, and much more. Then, too, since 1971 Walt Disney World has been host to the world -- 130 million people from 100 nations have visited this community.

Now we have a way to bring real focus to the importance of creative and futuristic processes and the value of friendship among nations. EPCOT Center is a permanent World's Fair of imagination, discovery, education, and exploration built with the help of leading American and international industries and with the cooperation of a number of governments. The Grand Opening and Dedication of EPCOT Center is a milestone. Walt's greatest dream is now a reality.

Walt Disney Productions

Monday, March 05, 2007

And Another One Gone ...

It's one thing for Disney to shutter an attraction whose success has been dubious (well, Horizons notwithstanding!) ... but it's quite another when Disney suddenly announces that it's going to close down one of the most popular attractions in a theme park.

That's what has happened with L'Originale Alfredo di Roma Ristorante, which has been a mainstay of EPCOT Center (and Epcot) dining since 1982.

Seeking, it would seem, to continue erasing all traces of what made EPCOT Center such a special place, Disney management has announced that Alfredo -- where fettucine Alfredo originated ... well, at least in its Rome location -- will close on Aug. 31. When I read this report on, I was flabbergasted, and when I checked with friends at Disney, it was confirmed.

No one can explain why.

No one believes for a moment that the restaurant company was unhappy with the business it enjoyed at EPCOT. No one believes for a moment that guests felt they'd like to see another character dining location (after all, there are already two "Italian" character dining expereinces at Walt Disney World).

This one is a head scratcher, and a genuine cause for sorrow. If you'd like more information about it, including a telling cast-member "cheat sheet" from Disney that promises Alfredo's will be replaced with a "strategic partner" (groan), visit John's site,

L'Originale Alfredo di Roma Ristorante will be sorely missed at EPCOT. Its authentic Italian dining was one of the highlights of many a visit to the theme park; its immersive experience was one of the prime examples of what EPCOT Center did so well.

And this latest announcement, until someone can offer a plausible explanation, just smacks further of an insatiable greed Disney has to homogenize its parks, get more money (from both vendors and guests) and dishonor anything that has a history, legacy and creative success.

Arrivederci, Alfredo ... it was a most wonderful 24 years, 11 months. You will be sorely, tremendously missed!

Sunday, March 04, 2007

Reflections of EPCOT

I've received a lot of great mail, much of it eloquently written, passionate and incredibly observant, some of it slamming me and other readers for being too critical of what is, after all, "just a theme park."

Nonetheless, of all the letters I've received, none has had the impact of the one below. So, I'm going to do something I've never done in the year that I've been writing EPCOT Central: I'm going to turn over the site to a reader.

This 19-year-old reader wishes to remain anonymous, and of course I'll respect that request. I'm reprinting his letter exactly as I received it (no spelling corrections, etc.), with the exception of putting a few paragraphs in boldface; I thought these were particularly noteworthy observations.

The letter may not be the most perfectly written nor contain the most original observations. What struck me most is that it offers the observations of someone who wasn't around when EPCOT Center existed, and who falls within the target demographic (teenaged male) that Disney is trying to reach with the "revised," thrill-heavy incarnation of EPCOT.

I'll say no more. Enjoy.


"I have been to Epcot in 1996, 2004, 2006, and 2007. 1996 was my first experience and a great year for both old and new EPCOT....2004 was a bit of a "shock" but 2006 and 2007 have allowed me to discovered the wonder of Epcot or EPCOT Center in my own non touristy disney freakish way!

"To begin is by saying I simply have no idea why I like.....if not love EPCOT. I think its a blessing that humans can find joy in all sorts of things. Since I am an artist, while I enjoy sports, art, culture, and just plain learning is what I'm out for. I want to learn something new each day, discover something new, etc. The world is a gaint backyard and we all must make our baby steps from the back patio to the swing set!

"1996 was my first visit to Walt Disney World (WDW). I was 9 years old. My parents had been a few times before. I was also going with my 6 year old sister. Epcot (then called that officially in 1996) was the first park we went to because we stayed at the Boardwalk.

"It was amazing. Simply amazing! My entire family enjoyed it, though my Dad wanted more thrill rides. I feel so blessed now that I could saw both old and new rides. I never got to see Communicore or World of Motion, but wonders of life, journey into imagation, and horizons were still there!

"By the way speaking of Innoventions, while I have problems with the 1998 Innoventions: The Road to Tomorrow, let us not forget that the original 1994-1998 Innoventions was very much like an updated Commincore. In 1996 during WDW's 25th Anniversary, Innoventions still used the crisp, cool, and simple Communicore colors. The plaza though by then filled in and with red neon lighting, still retained a huge portion of the original Communicore look. Many of the exhibits followed in the spirit of Communicore, except for some home entertainment, etc, but even the floor to ceiling windows were used, etc.

"But looking at Epcot's a loss to me. Is Epcot truly the red haired step child of WDW? Perhaps it is. Why doesn't the Disney company care? Why don't they want to branch out like their founder, Walt Disney did with participation at the world's fair and his proposal for EPCOT/Progress City? WHY MUST THE DISNEY COMPANY CHUCK DOWN OUR THROATS NOTHING BY STEREOTYPICAL MAGIC AND PIXIE DUST?!

"EPCOT, EPCOT Theme Center, and finally what became EPCOT Center....dared to be different, bold and new. Sure parts of Future World were boring and not appealing to some audiences, but look....SOME audiences...not MOST...not ALL.

"There is no reason why some attractions couldn't have been refreshened, updated, or changed in the EPCOT spirit with new technology. Why is Future World becoming Today World/Character extravaganza....and why is World Showcase becoming carnivale del princesses and foreign birds?!

"I think the wand says it all......'we don't care anymore'....or 'we don't know what to do'
...damn I hope that wand comes down....not only would it symbolize beauty has returned to would be a step forward in the right direction!!! The large Innoventions signs have already been removed...replaced by smaller can only wonder if 'The Most Inspiring Place on Earth' will enter a new age of EPCOT influential progress and leave the mellenium celebration finally behind!"

Thursday, March 01, 2007

Salt on the Wound

Reader J.Gall sends this little news item, which appeared on, as well as other locations.

Remember, folks, EPCOT head Brad Rex made it clear that there are no plans to mark the milestone 25th anniversary of the landmark EPCOT Center (which it once touted with the immodest tagline above), but ...

Disney's Wide World of Sports Complex Celebrates 10 Years
LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. -- Disney's Wide World of Sports Complex is celebrating its 10th anniversary in March 2007.
Opened on March 28, 1997, the 220-acre complex hosts more than 180 sports events each year, including Tampa Bay Buccaneers training camp, the NBA Pre-Draft Camp, AAU National Championships and the Pop Warner Super Bowl. Many of the biggest stars in sports have competed or trained at the complex, such as PGA Tour golfer Tiger Woods, Indianapolis Colts quarterback Peyton Manning and Olympic soccer star Mia Hamm.
More than 30 sports are played at the complex, from football, baseball and basketball to paintball, martial arts and wheelchair rugby. The complex includes weight training equipment and facilities, locker rooms, athletic training facilities, classrooms, office space and media facilities, as well as serving as the headquarters for most sporting events at Walt Disney World Resort.

EPCOT: It's Not Easy

There's an increasingly common refrain being heard around EPCOT Central with regard to new attractions like The Seas With Nemo and Friends and the upcoming revamp of El Rio del Tiempo. It goes something like this: No one wants to see that boring, unsuccessful Epcot return because it was a failure and, hey, at least the Imagineers didn't screw these things up as badly as they could have.

I don't buy it.

EPCOT Center was totally unique and unprecedented. If its mix of education and entertainment wasn't as popular as Disney might have hoped right off the bat, over time the success of EPCOT Center became more apparent, even as Disney was allowing the "future" and its representations of the world around us to grow increasingly stale with neglect. So, they took the easy way out, bringing more than a bit of the Magic Kingdom into EPCOT Center, ultimately giving up on most of the original concept of the theme park ("theme" being an operative word; otherwise it's just a, um, er, "Disney park") and making it fit Disney rather than Disney fit it.

The thing is: EPCOT ain't easy.

It wasn't easy for the public to understand, it wasn't easy for marketers to sell, and clearly it wasn't easy for Imagineers to maintain it.

The best things in life aren't easy. Except giving up on them.

But that's what Disney seems to have done with EPCOT. Now that the "Disney Parks" marketing theme has taken hold, the only interpretation I can come up with is that Disney no longer feels each park's individual theme is important. To the current theme-park management regime, it doesn't matter if it's EPCOT, California Adventure, Disneyland, Magic Kingdom or whatnot -- a ride or attraction will be added if it simply fits the notion of a "Disney experience." And that experience is narrowly defined: Happy, fun, with lots of cute characters.

What's wrong with that, then?

Nothing, if you buy into the idea that Disney is selling a commodity at its parks, an experience that is better off for sameness, not for uniqueness.

Interestingly, the leader of one of America's biggest, most ubiquitous "brand-oriented" companies recently went on the warpath about exactly the same sort of mindset that is taking over at Disney. Starbucks Chairman Howard Schultz worried in a memo that recent management decisions "have lead to the watering down of the Starbucks experience, and, what some might call the commoditization of our brand." (Wall Street, not surprisingly, reacted negatively, once again proving that they don't really care how a business is run, just that it makes money at all costs.)

The same might be said about Disney and, in particular, its theme parks -- and, specifically, in my view, EPCOT. It's increasingly similar, distressingly so, to other Disney theme parks. What made it truly special and unusual -- its intensity of theme, its focus on "non-Disney" ideas -- has been replaced by a bland sameness. It's become about making kids happy and thrilling teens.

Whether that happened by design or accident is debatable, but the result is the same: It seems Disney doesn't want to try with EPCOT.

Getting people to understand what EPCOT is trying to accomplish, fighting against the perceptions (amusingly depicted in a famous Simpsons episode) that EPCOT is "boring" in its attempts to mix education and entertainment, are not easy things to do. They require much more thinking, much more seat-of-the-pants decision making without the benefit of guest surveys, than any single project in Disney's entire portfolio.

To be successful, EPCOT requires near-constant maintenance and care. It demands that its pavilions and attractions be updated on an incredibly frequent basis in order not to become stale and outdated.

It's the kind of effort I'm afraid Disney has proven too many times in the past decade or so that it is just not capable of providing.

But let's assume it could. Let's assume that Tom Staggs and his financial management group agreed to divert, say, $75 million a year (about the cost of one mid-range movie) specifically to EPCOT, specifically earmarked for the refurbishment of individual pavilions on a rotating basis. Every 16 months, say, Universe of Energy (with or without a sponsor) would be renovated to reflect current thinking on energy exploration and consumption. The Land would receive new narration almost constantly. Spaceship Earth would actually keep up with the pace of communication development, and showcase in its final act not what is, but what might be. Audio-Animatronic figures would be replaced regularly. World Showcase films would be in near-constant production.

This would require massive amounts of work, enormous labor costs and frequent reviews of attractions to ensure that they are living up to the vision that Disney (theoretically) has for EPCOT.

But the result ... wow. The result could be that guests are encouraged to visit EPCOT once every couple of years, to understand that the park will be constantly changing, to recognize that as they mature in their entertainment tastes, EPCOT will be there for them.

With the right attention and care, EPCOT could be one of the most extraordinary places to discover, enjoy and explore in the entire world. It could once again be marketed and sold to the public as Disney's grand experiement, something that, no matter where in the world you go, you'll never find duplicated.

It could be fantastic.

But it would take a lot of work and a lot of effort. It wouldn't be easy, not by a longshot.

I just don't think Disney has it in itself to do it.
I hope someone there proves me wrong.