Thursday, January 24, 2008
Every Post Critical Or Trenchant?
In the two years since EPCOT Central opened its doors, finding critics of the site hasn't been difficult. The comments tend to be similar: There's too much whining, too much complaining, too much vitriol and not enough optimism here at EPCOT Central. The consensus of these folks (themselves critical, of course) is that now that Eisner and Pressler are gone, the criticism of The Walt Disney Company should stop, and that its financial success means its creativity has been restored.
I beg to differ.
Let me get this straight: EPCOT Central does not want EPCOT to become a museum. EPCOT absolutely must continue changing, growing and evolving.
Also this: There's nothing wrong with a little dissension. Frankly, among its managers, directors, vice presidents, senior vice presidents, executive vice presidents and senior executive vice presidents, Disney could use a bit more of it.
Criticism has its place. And there is no place about which it's easier to be critical than EPCOT. What started and grew as a grand experiment (that word is even in its name!) has become a place where creativity and imagination are on scant display. What began as an effort to change the theme-park paradigm has become a place that models itself after other, lesser, parks.
And that's why criticism is important.
The Seas With Nemo and Friends may be fine. Gran Fiesta over at Mexico may well be fully entertaining. Disney Princess dining at Akershus may be the height of wonderment for a 5-year-old girl.
But they're not EPCOT.
I've used this comparison before, but I'll trot it out again: As a student, even through my grad-school years, I received B's and C's where other students received A's and B's. It seemed patently unfair, but the teachers and professors always gave the same explanation. "This is very good work," they'd say. "And for another student, it would deserve an A. But I've seen that you can do better. So, comparing yourself only to you, you deserve a B." Or, worse, a C. Average. For me.
They were right. But still I persisted in coasting by, content with my B's and C's because I'd still get the occasional A, and as long as my GPA was above 3.3 or so, I was happy. It was enough.
Only now, years later, have I learned how I cheated myself.
EPCOT gets low marks from me (frankly, a few D-minuses are in there, though Disney's general quality still rescues these efforts from failing completely). That's because The Walt Disney Company generates too much revenue, is too flush with cash for capital investment, to warrant giving EPCOT stellar grades. Disney is capable of far too much to allow a mediocre product like EPCOT to continue struggling.
Granted, there are far more pressing issues for Disney theme-park management. The disasters of Disney's California Adventure, Hong Kong Disneyland and The Walt Disney Studios Paris rightfully need to be addressed, and fast.
The bigger concern is why EPCOT ever fell so far so fast and how its unhappy model can be prevented in the future.
But people didn't want "EPCOT Center" -- that's an excuse I hear often. They were bored by it. EPCOT was too different. Sorry, but history is too strewn with examples of popular art that wasn't accepted at the time, but grew into classics, landmarks and masterpieces for me to accept that excuse.
Disney is a company that needs to make money. It's a for-profit company. It needs to grow revenue and income. Those are also common explanations. To that, I counter that only by offering something truly revolutionary, truly out of the ordinary, can a company grow for the long term. Walt Disney knew that, that's why he was never content to continue doing what had made him successful. An artistically driven company like Disney has to take risks, and if that turns the stomach of its top managers, why did they get into this game in the first place.
Disney is filled these days with people who got into it for one key reason: to make money for themselves. That's not a bad motivator, I have no qualm with that. But they wanted to make money fast, to do it the easy way. With projects like ABC's flagging ratings, the theme-park design fiascoes and the death of traditional animation, they're learning the lesson the hard way. It's not about the quick buck, it's about the long haul. It's about doing what's right.
But we're left with the outcome of their decisions. We're left, at EPCOT, with a vision so diluted as to be hardly recognizable.
Even when things are going well, I'll be the last person to recommend taking the easy route. As a television anchor once told me, "We're not paid to do what we do when things are going well, we're paid to do what we do when things are going down the toilet."
Now's the time for Disney to stand up for EPCOT, to admit mistakes, to take a good hard look at whether singing ducks, funny fish and marginal cartoon characters belong in a park that was explicitly designed as the one place in Disney's kingdom that would not have those things. Now is the time to really consider EPCOT's vision -- and to decide whether current Disney management wants to follow through with it.
EPCOT is a commitment made by Disney artists, designers and executives long, long ago. Should today's managers be questioning what was handed to them, or cultivating it as best they can? If they don't like what they've got, there are plenty of other places they can go that won't saddle them with these difficult creative problems.
EPCOT is too good, too valuable to Disney (and the world), too grand a notion in my mind to not hold it to a higher standard. But higher standards, well, they suck. They mean you're not graded on the curve, you're graded according to what you've shown you are capable of achieving. And for what they're being paid, Disney's executives should be capable of achieving much, much more.
And criticism has its place. As grandiose as it sounds, criticism is the foundation upon which our country and everything about it was built. It is right to be critical, and it is equally right for any reader of this blog to disagree with my criticisms.
I'm just one voice -- but one voice who has seen, for many years, how Disney operates, has seen Disney move from being a genuinely exciting, inspiring place to an organization that is simply trying to churn a buck and will strip-mine every property it has in order to do that.
As a shareholder and as a fan, I don't want to see that happen.
EPCOT Center had a vision.
I believe it can have one again.