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.