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?


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!