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 Café,” 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.