Thursday, March 01, 2007

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.

21 comments:

John said...

Another nice post and I agree with the sentiment you expressed.

However when you say "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."

It's not that they're not capable of providing it. Tokyo Disneyland and Tokyo DisneySea shows that they are. It's that they don't want to. Or rather, it's that they want to provide a certain return to shareholders so the shareholders stay happy and they can keep their jobs and Disney doesn't get bought and sold for its pieces.

So when making your argument, you need to do more than say they should do it right. You need to show why doing it right would result in better long term results for the company than doing it half-assed like they are now.

It's an argument that worked well at Disneyland. Matt Ouimet came in fixed up the place, took out some of those annoying vending carts, added some paint, brought in some great entertainment, and what do you know, the place started selling out over and over again.

-John
http://www.thedisneyblog.com

E83 said...

E82, why do you take the time to write a fairly decent essay, then immediately make it old news with another post? The pacing here is poor at times.

I’d love to know how much of a financial success or failure EPCOT really was in each decade. My family had to see it in 1983. The openings of AK and MGM where not deemed reasons for a trip. No matter how much money they pump into those other parks Epcot continues to trash them in attendance.

I realize the Magic Kingdom is the ultimate cash cow, but I bet Epcot outperforms their other 2 gates. Year after year 10 million people show up to watch a 24 year old Canada movie. The truth is Epcot is far more of a multi day park than gates 3 and 4.

You need to remember when there was only the MK, people would do 1-3 days there as part of a Florida trip. The addition of Epcot made 7 day park hoppers, all those hotels, Downtown Disney and DVC and everything else there possible.

Anonymous said...

You said it...

"To be successful, EPCOT requires near-constant maintenance and care."

Same reason why Tomorrowland was turned into a space-age carnival.

Brian Place said...

Epcot does not outperform TMK. It's ranked #2 every year; last time I saw stats (about a year ago) it was 11 million visitors (per year) for TMK and 9 million for EPCOT. Let's all agree to quit guessing at numbers and actually get some hard data next time we post something that has statistics in it? :)

Epcot is twice as large with arguably higher maintenance costs; I'm sure executives have consistenly looked at these numbers and said "what do we need to do to grab more visitors?"

In any case, posts like _this_ are the reason I keep coming back here. I don't come to this blog to watch people nit-pick each other about who's more passionate about a classic Epcot that never really existed the way they remembered it did; I'm looking for inspiration and ideas. And this, my friends, is a fantastic, well-reasoned idea.

Geoffrey said...

I have to tend to agree with you that EPCOT as it was in the old times is not easy to maintain, but as the case was with EL RIO Del TIEMPo nobody seemed to get anything from the experience maybe with the infusion of the Three Cabeleros people will take something away from the ride experience.

But that is not the case with the inclusion of Finding Nemo to "The Living Seas" that ride in itself allowed people to take away something from the experience if it was only that the Ocean has pretty fishes in it, so be it, maybe the pretty fishes will compel them to want to destroy it less. But the Nemo thing could have been done less drammatically like just the addition of nemo narrating the ride or the "Turtle talk" being one of the few things Nemo about the ride..

But it is surprising that the age of marketers trying to set their brands apart finds Disney trying (almost watering down) their brand by placing it everywhere watering down the experience for everyone.

Good Post.

Epcot82 said...

E83, hopefully your mouse finger is strong enough to scroll down a few inches every time you visit EPCOT Central. ;-) I appreciate your thoughts and concerns, which are absolutely valid, but I'm not a tech wiz, so I kinda have to go with the format Blogger gives me.

Re: hard facts -- here's the latest I could gather. The information is from 2005, as Amuseument Business has unfortunately shut its doors. But in terms of attendance:

* Magic Kingdom -- 16.1 million, up 6.5 percent over 2004

* Disneyland -- 14.5 million, up 8.5 percent

* Epcot -- 9.9 million, up 5.5 percent

* Disney-MGM Studios -- 8.6 million, up 5 percent

* Disney's Animal Kingdom -- 8.2 million, up 5 percent

* Universal Studios Florida -- 6.1 million, down 8.5 percent

* Disney's California Adventure -- 5.8 million, up 3.6 percent

* Universal's Islands of Adventure -- 5.76 million, down 8.5 percent

* SeaWorld Orlando -- 5.6 million, up 0.2 percent

* Universal Studios Hollywood -- 4.7 million, down 6 percent

Here's what I glean from those figures: Magic Kingdom and EPCOT are considered the two "must-visits" by guests, with MK rising above EPCOT as the "can't-miss." (Therefore, it must stand to reason with Disney execs, if they like MK, they'll like EPCOT even more if it has those cute, funny cartoons!)

About 40 percent of people who visit Magic Kingdom don't make it to EPCOT, but that still leaves EPCOT as it has always been: The most successful theme park in the U.S. outside of Disney's two "Magic Kingdoms."

It's clear that people like Epcot. They're taking something away from it, because EPCOT has always held this position, even in its leanest years.

So, why is it always treated like the red-headed stepchild no one wants to deal with?

Epcot82 said...

By the way, it also means that all of the changes, the tinkering, the relentless Disney-ization of EPCOT haven't done a think to make it either more or less popular than it always has been.

Numerically, more people are visiting, but the same is true for WDW as a whole.

EPCOT Center, with its "boring" and "educational" attractions was relatively just as popular as the kid- and thrill-centric Epcot is today. "Re-inventing" it did nothing.

Why, then, not make it be truly special again?

Anonymous said...

Kind of related, you may want to check out the March 2007(current) issue of Nation Geographic. It has a story on how Orlando has changed since Walt came to town.

/bsdb said...

I'd like to see Epcot's attendance figures with IllumiNations placed on permanent hiatus. I'm guessing that a good third of the daily gate totals are owed to this show.

Without IllumiNations, I believe Epcot would fall behind Disney/MGM and DAK in the "most attended theme park" ranking.

Epcot82 said...

Possibly, but that hasn't really changed in 25 years, so it's doubtful -- as it's doubtful that Illuminations, which is a major attraction at EPCOT, would ever completely go away.

Though, you never know ... !

dean said...

I find it amazing that such a tremendous effort would have been put into creating a forward-looking project like EPCOT Center without providing the means to allow it to live up to it's goals. Certainly there were continued marketing efforts to bring people to the park, and entities such as Epcot Outreach that worked to make the grand concepts at EPCOT available to educational institutions. But the most important aspect of creatively providing fresh new content in the spirit of EPCOT's aspirations never seemed to materialize. I would love to hear an insider's viewpoint on how this failed to come about, and also what motivations compelled Disney to take the approach they did once they belatedly addressed what to do with a neglected property.

The dedicated efforts that Epcot82 describes to keep EPCOT fresh are not all that unrealistic when one considers the potential to make EPCOT much more than a theme park. As described previously in this blog, there can be an entire world of "EPCOT" branded endeavors that can include television programming, internet communities, travel, and educational opportunities. The efforts to provide content and research for these projects can be utilized economically with many outlets rather than duplicating work. Also, partnering with institutions and organizations that provide education and research is another means for keeping EPCOT fresh.

One way to bring this about is to develop an organization that actually works contrary to the current attempt to create a generic "Disney Parks" brand. The EPCOT Group of Disney would have the ability to reinforce it's identity and capitalize on it's uniqueness. It's management would be cross-disciplinary including aspects of WDI, Marketing, Consumer Products, Feature Films, etc.

Another option would be to develop a small creative team that has access to the different resources in the Disney organization to utilize as needed, but essentially remains outside the main corporate structure. These teams could be made of hand-picked people that are considered to be the best at what they do, to develop special projects that the company can utilize. Actually.....this sounds a lot like the original WED.

captain schnemo said...

Good point about possible educational tie-ins. At least one of the old Tomorrowland shows had a related textbook and the show itself was suitable for presenting in class.

Pizza Hut just got in trouble for it's literacy outreach program because at the same time as it encouraged kids to read, it encouraged them to eat junk food. Since getting the Disney name in front of children's eyes is its own reward for the Disney corporation, it would seem to be win-win.

An EPCOT series of books would probably be welcomed by struggling public school systems, and I'll bet teachers would enjoy the class reaction whent they're told they're going to work on a Disney project.

As a nice side effect, it might actually force Disney to think about the appropriateness of theming (and maybe realize things like Test Track are devoid of any sort of educational value), in the way that the old Disneyland shows forced Disney to think about what sort of entertainment applied to each of the original Disney lands.

Brian Place said...

Here's what I am betting the executives think when they see those numbers:

Epcot - twice the size; much smaller profit margins; 60% _fewer_ guests than TMK.

They don't think "wow, this is the third most popular theme park in America - we must be doing something _right._"

Epcot is a for-profit business, not a non-profit public institution. It's the reason Epcot is here in the first place - but that's also why 'bad things' happen to it when they focus solely on driving attendance figures up.

Jeff Pepper said...

epcot82 is 100% correct in this observation.

EPCOT was based almost entirely on a World's Fair model, most especially the '39 and '64 New York versions. And World's Fairs have a shelf life of 1-2 years tops. As you state, EPCOT needs to be in an almost constant state of redevelopment. Interesting enough, Innoventions (much despised by many) is the only part of the park that pretty much sticks to that principle.

I think that the Disney execs that were around in 82 likely felt that they would never be at a loss for corporations to throw money their way. EPCOT's vitality and well-being unfortunately has been too dependent on these sponsorships. Think about it--Horizons couldn't survive its lack of a sponsor; WOL sits stagnant facing imminent demise because of no sponsorship. But UOE keeps chugging along despite having grown obsolete and largely unpopular, simply because Exxon is willing to continue to foot the bill.

Really, if some science based corp had been willing to sponsor Living Seas, its doubtful we would have ever seen a Nemo overlay. With Nemo, they were at least able to make up the lost sponsorship revenue by putting in a $ generating gift shop.

EPCOT would never have been built without corporate $, and unfortunately, its current state is in many ways a sad byproduct of that financial dynmaic.

Brian Place said...

I've often wondered _why_ corporations don't seem more willing to throw some money at Epcot? When it opened, you had the HUGE names:
GE, AT&T, United Technologies, Sperry/Univac, Exxon, Kraft, GM, Kodak, Coca-Cola... as a kid these made HUGE impressions in my developing scientific mind. Then things kinda dwindled over the past two decades. Who's at the wheel when it comes to corporate sponsorships? Are they just not good at selling these contracts anymore?

Incidentally, on a COMPLETELY unrelated note, I was able to attend the talk by Joe Herrington at the Experience Music Project here in Seattle on 2/14 (I've been meaning to write something on this for a while... a seminar in LA and a trip to Disneyland and huge workload kinda distracted me.) I'm not sure if this is on other boards yet, but he did indeed confirm that Spaceship Earth (speaking of sponsorships - I'm glad Siemens is sponsoring it but they're not like the original AT&T...) is getting a makeover.

- It costs a HUGE amount of money to maintain the current ride system. (I think he said $10 million per year, but please don't quote me)
- He didn't specifically say it but it sounds like they will rip & replace the ride system itself along the same ride route
- The new vehicles will have onboard interactive screens that become a factor towards the back half of the show
- The front half of the show will remain largely unchanged
- The back half will have the interactive thing where you can communicate with other vehicles and "people around the world."

Please don't quote me on all of this--it has been a few weeks and I could kick myself for not bring at least a notebook or laptop with me to the talk.

Otherwise, the talk was GREAT! It was chock full of juicy info about park music & effects. He's a bit disappointed about the Spaceship Earth rehab because it won't have the "wow" factor he likes in a rehab - he likes it when people immediately notice a difference - the back-end will be different but most people won't notice anything for most of the ride.

I hope this isn't a rehash of information that has been posted elsewhere.

As much as I sometimes complain about the pointlessness of the discussions on this blog, I do indeed like Spaceship Earth a whole lot--it really embodies the original Epcot--and am honestly happy they're not going to seriously screw with it.

captain schnemo said...

jp: Interesting enough, Innoventions (much despised by many) is the only part of the park that pretty much sticks to that principle.

I think the problem with Innoventions is that it's not exactly cutting edge. Previously they would show you stuff either that you couldn't yet buy or was still so rare that it was likely you'd never seen it before, rather than last year's Circuit City showroom.

I distinctly remember an instance where they were showing off a cell phone and touting its amazingly small size (this was a while ago) and a friend pulled his phone out of his pocket which was maybe 75% of the demo's size.

brian, the Spaceship Earth plan you explained sounds nice. I hope that's what it's in for. (And I wish Horizons had gotten that treatment.) I'm pretty sure Michelangelo still painted the Sistine Chapel, so the beginning of the ride doesn't require a total rehab, but those squeaking vehicles are begging for it. Updating the ending is entirely appropriate.

Now all we have to worry about is the narration. If it's Buzz and Woody, I say we meet with pitchforks and torches.

Anonymous said...

DEAN wrote: Another option would be to develop a small creative team that has access to the different resources in the Disney organization to utilize as needed, but essentially remains outside the main corporate structure. These teams could be made of hand-picked people that are considered to be the best at what they do, to develop special projects that the company can utilize. Actually.....this sounds a lot like the original WED.

BRIAN PLACE wrote: Epcot is a for-profit business, not a non-profit public institution. It's the reason Epcot is here in the first place - but that's also why 'bad things' happen to it when they focus solely on driving attendance figures up.

JEFF PEPPER wrote: EPCOT would never have been built without corporate $, and unfortunately, its current state is in many ways a sad byproduct of that financial dynamic.

BRIAN PLACE also wrote: I've often wondered _why_ corporations don't seem more willing to throw some money at Epcot? When it opened, you had the HUGE names:
GE, AT&T, United Technologies, Sperry/Univac, Exxon, Kraft, GM, Kodak, Coca-Cola.... Who's at the wheel when it comes to corporate sponsorships? Are they just not good at selling these contracts anymore?

-------
Yeah -- but are they in the business of selling contracts?

Or the business of selling and delivering vision, excitement, fantasy, credibility, optimism?

God grant us that someday we will openly embrace, without guilt or naysaying, the creative and positive potential of commercialism and can-do vision combined. The R&D people from the HUGE names on one side, connected on the Disney side with confident know-how vision and an affinity for working with sponsors while keeping control with regard to content -- you'd end up with some fun, cool stuff.

Brian Place said...

anon: I believe their shareholders would say, "they are in the business of making money for their shareholders."

If there were ever to be a "better Epcot than Epcot," it'll most likely be run by a privately-held company. :)

Epcot82 said...

Brian, I do believe institutional investors (those who purchase tens of thousands of shares or more in a single block, i.e. mutual funds) would say that, and sadly they are the only investors that MBA-types like to listen to.

That may be changing as new SEC rules are taking effect that allow smaller shareholders to have a larger say.

Disney is one of the most widely held companies in the U.S., but they do not like to hear from nor do they have any interest in reaching out to the rank-and-file shareholder, particularly the one who has a framed share on the wall ... even though, of course, that person probably has more passion about Disney in their little finger than many of Disney's own managers do in their entire bodies.

It's a little disquieting how much Disney has turned its back on the average shareholder, whose belief that making money should balance with being creatively exciting should dovetail with the company's own mission -- but doesn't.

Epcot82 said...

BTW, Brian, I appreciated your comment on Joe Herrington (a name that, honestly, I'm not familiar with).

It is refreshing to hear that they want to keep Spaceship Earth relatively intact, and given how clunky the ride system is, that they want to improve the basic track. If you've been on it lately, you know that most of the effects in the back 1/4 of the ride aren't even working.

The idea of making the ride "interactive," though, is iffy in my book. Did Imagineering not learn its lesson on Superstar Limo/Monsters Inc. at DCA? Screens in rides are distracting, if nothing else -- the eye cannot focus on a bright screen in a darkened environment and on the experience around them at the same time. Now, that's just a broad statement, and it could be that there's a great idea in store for this -- I sure hope so.

Spaceship Earth really is the heart of EPCOT Center and even "Epcot." As a ride, as a theme, as an experience, it keeps alive the basic ideas of EPCOT Center even in the "lower-case world," and is such a quintessentially Disney experience, it is good to hear most of it won't be "messed with"! I just hope that using "interactive" screens is an honest advancement and improvement, not just a hollow effort to spruce it up to "appeal to younger guests," or some such goofy talk like that (no pun intended).

Anonymous said...

BRIAN PLACE observes:

anon: I believe their shareholders would say, "they are in the business of making money for their shareholders."


Shareholders who say that with regard to Disney's theme parks are like beauty pageant contestants who put "World Peace" at the top of their wish lists.

In terms of illumination, either answer no more effective than a mini keychain-Maglite at midnight in the Grand Canyon.

A company like WDI that makes money for its shareholders through heavily entertainment-creative theme park attractions is foolish to replace hands-on creatives with managers and MBA thinking in its leadership. The theme parks didn't make money for shareholders through the manipulation of marketing and assets, but through confident creative risk-taking -- the marketing and asset manipulation were outgrowths of that success.

All the marketing in the world won't make a bad project successful (remember "Dick Tracy"? "Hercules"? Disneyland's New Tomorrowland, and DCA?), while a good project will generate its own marketing if only through word-of-mouth. This is not to say marketing isn't vitally important -- however, for MBA types, theoretical marketing and management are much easier to grasp than 3-dimensional, physically concrete creative theme park challenges, hence MBAs/managers make the mistake of letting marketing set the terms of a project, rather than the project setting the terms for marketing. It is one of many problem traps that Disney has fallen into with regard to its theme parks.

And all in the name of the deceptively pragmatic-sounding sentiment, "in the business of making money for the shareholders."