Monday, April 28, 2008

Continued Apologies

EPCOT Central will be continue to be temporarily "on hiatus" for a while longer due to personal issues. Please accept my apologies and many thanks for your continued patience.

Monday, April 14, 2008

Just a little break

EPCOT Central will be back soon. Unforeseen personal and professional commitments have kept me from posting new entries, but Step No. 7 (for those of you waiting breathlessly) will be posted in relatively short order. Thanks for your patience!

Sunday, April 06, 2008

Ten Steps to a Better EPCOT: Step No. 6

Step No. 6: Engage Educators

Through anecdotal evidence and guesswork only, it's not hard to imagine that hundreds of schoolteachers and home-schooling parents step through the gates of EPCOT every day.

Yet Disney no longer does anything to engage them, to bring EPCOT into the classroom. That needs to change.

From opening until about 1994, when "EPCOT Center" changed to "Epcot," teachers could visit a location in Future World where they could view information about the park and its subjects, explore research material that could help them design EPCOT-themed lessons, and talk to a staff of knowledgeable experts and librarians. No, it wasn't exactly a kinetic, exciting attraction for the whole family to share -- but for moms and dads who were teachers, it was a "side trip" that could be accomplished while the rest of the family visited the exhibits at CommuniCore below.

It was also a much-needed, much-missed way to inspire educators to think of new ways to bring the themes of EPCOT home with them. (And if a kid here or there was intrigued to perhaps visit EPCOT themselves, so much the better!)

As a result of the No Child Left Behind Act, passed in January 2002, there are fewer and fewer hours in a week for teachers to explore topics that aren't in approved curricula. However, this is where Disney could come in. After it disbanded its once-successful Disney Educational Productions unit a few years back (formerly part of Disney Consumer Products), Disney seems to have essentially given up on the educational market. Not a surprise, since it's not exactly the biggest moneymaker imaginable; teaching kids never has been an initiative undertaken to get rich.

But given that it's tougher and tougher, in the wake of NCLB, to teach "off text," EPCOT could stand to make some terrific inroads. By hiring and maintaining one or two staff positions that focus solely on turning the concepts of EPCOT into "NCLB-approved" material, EPCOT could develop innovative, fun and imaginative lessons about transportation, communications, energy, nutrition, geography, math, science and language arts. With a relatively inexpensive marketing effort (with an annual budget in the range of, say, $100,000), Disney could make EPCOT the center of modest educational initiatives ... and, perhaps, drive a few hundred more guests through the turnstiles each year, in the form of teachers and students who want to find out more for themselves.

EPCOT could bring back the Teacher's Center/EPCOT Outreach idea, turning over just a couple of hundred square feet of space to this effort. It's a small price to pay for potentially big returns.

EPCOT was made to inspire. By reaching out to educators in a very modest way, EPCOT could inspire many more than just those who set foot in the park each year. It's an inexpensive way to give back to the community and, in a small way, to help improve American education.

Thursday, April 03, 2008

Ten Steps to a Better EPCOT: Step No. 5

Step No. 5: Capitalize

Walt Disney Company CFO Tom Staggs and his group can rest easy -- this kind of "capitalization" doesn't require heft conversion of the company's resources into cash to fund new projects at Epcot. While that kind of capitalization would be fantastic, it's not in the cards anytime soon, and besides, the idea behind these 10 steps is that they should be inexpensive.

This one certainly fits that bill.

Back in 1994, just 12 years after EPCOT opened, Disney decided to change the name of its most ambitious theme park. EPCOT Center became, first, Epcot '94. Then Epcot '95. Finally in 1996, slightly saner heads prevailed and the idea of changing the name every year, even if it was just an abbreviated year extension, was dropped.

EPCOT Center became just little ol' Epcot.

In fact, it's been Epcot longer than it ever was EPCOT Center.

The funny thing is, that EPCOT Center name stuck. Most guests always shortened the name "EPCOT Center" to just "Epcot" when speaking. But Google the words "EPCOT Center," and you'll come up with more than 1.5 million entries. Pick up a travel guide, and quite often you'll find the name "EPCOT Center" being used where "Epcot" is actually more appropriate.

Why hasn't the name change ever really taken hold?

My theory is this: Everyone loved being able to point out that EPCOT was an acronym. It meant something. Yes, we all know ... those groan-worthy old tram-driver puns aside, it stood for (all together, everyone!) "Experimental Prototype Community Of Tomorrow."

And that was grand.

EPCOT had meaning, even if the idea behind that meaning was pretty vague. As an acronym, "EPCOT" had a purpose. There was a point to this oddity of a theme park. Even if you didn't know the words, EPCOT had a definition.

It's important for a place to be definable. "L.A." is always "Ellay," but we know it means "Los Angeles." The City of Angels. Lost Angeles. Lost Angels. Whatever joke you want to make of the initials, they are meaningful.

"I (Heart) NYC" means something because we understand that "N.Y.C." stands for something important. We all know what it is.

Imagine if we were flying out to "La." Or we were going to spend a weekend in "Nyc." Or heading over the Atlantic to visit friends in "The Uk."

EPCOT was more than a jumble of letters, it was an identity.
Epcot is a jumble of letters. A nonsense word. There's no there there.

Has anyone ever asked you, "What do you stand for?" Well, then, pity poor Epcot. It literally stands for nothing. And that's a problem that's easily remedied.

Once it stands for something again, this amazing park will have a better chance of slowly regaining an identity, one with meaning behind it.

It makes little difference whether "Center" follows EPCOT. Now that the aforementioned Mr. Staggs has made a little project out of creating pocket change for Disney by selling off the hard-won land on which Walt Disney World sits, EPCOT is no longer in the center of anything, not literally. So, go ahead and ditch the "Center."

Perhaps no one at Disney never really cared to notice before, but EPCOT matters.

Wednesday, April 02, 2008

Ten Steps to a Better EPCOT: Step No. 4

Step No. 4: Improve the Service

Perhaps it's because I spend more time at EPCOT than any other park during trips to Walt Disney World. Perhaps it's because I've got a high expectation of what Disney service should be. Or perhaps, and quite possibly, it's because I hold EPCOT to a higher standard than any other theme park, whether on or off Disney property.

But lately ... well, I hate to say it, the service at EPCOT is kind of lousy.

Nevermind those obnoxious, pesky Ballzac folks; I've already covered that. But when I think about my last trip to EPCOT, the poor performance of most cast members really stands out. There were exceptions, there's no doubt about that, like Sinead, the lovely server at the Rose and Crown Pub. Or the two hosts at Spaceship Earth (I'm sorry, I didn't catch your names) who actually smiled and said hello before asking how many were in the party and seating us in our "time machines."

More, though, I think about Brenda and her pals over at Soarin', who were having far too good a time doing each others' hair and talking about the weekend -- and when I asked if they could possibly look in on the queue and be concerned about the "show" they were providing for guests, flat-out asked me: "Pardon me -- do you work here? Why do you care what we're doing?"

I think about the intensely bored look on the face of the ride operator at Maelstrom who seemed to be alone in the show building and didn't really care that the queue area was strewn with trash.

I think of the women staffing the coffee cart outside of the Canada pavilion, who didn't care what they left on the counters, in full view of guests, and who expressed confusion when one guest (not me) ordered an espresso. Even though it was there on the menu, they didn't know how to make it and didn't know how to ring it up.

I think about the German cast members all huddled around the check-in desk outside Biergarten, backs turned to the guests, giggling and laughing in German (which one person in our party understands fluently). Let's just say their conversation wouldn't have been advisable in any guest-oriented setting if it were being held in English.

I think about the cast members in the Mexico pavilion who were shutting down their retail locations a good hour before the park closed.

I think about the angry-looking server at the Fountain View ice cream restaurant who kept wiping her chocolate stained hands all over her costume and told people, "Go stand over there" after they ordered.

This was not a pleasant visit.

Disney service used to be without peer and virtually flawless. Now the great experiences are becoming increasingly rare.
In a park that is supposed to present an idealized vision of a future world and showcase the humanity of our different cultures, it seems to me a greater effort could be made to train and educate cast members about interacting with the public.

No doubt, Disney has had a harder time attracting and retaining entry-level cast members. Frankly, I'm always impressed by those who do shine, because it's hard not to remember that they are people who aren't getting paid very well. But for the growing numbers who seem like they couldn't care less about where they work, there's something important to remember:

Those guests you're serving, the ones you're ignoring, the ones you'd rather didn't bother you -- they've paid a lot of money to be here, and they've been told to expect a vision of the future and a journey to places they may never otherwise get to visit. There is a show going on here, a show with a message that is distinct and different from anything else in this Disney World. Perhaps it's not your fault that you're not excelling ... more likely, it's the fault of managers who are told to cut costs, to keep things moving and to care less about "show" than about profits.

So, then, for EPCOT managers, a plea: Show some concern for the guests and the show they're seeing at this amazing place. Even if the attractions sometimes underwhelm, your cast members can make the difference between a humdrum day and a fantastic experience. Spend some time teaching them about what makes EPCOT so rare, and you may just find they pass their knowledge, their pride and their excitement on to guests.

Tuesday, April 01, 2008

Ten Steps to a Better Epcot: Step No. 3

Step No. 3: Spice Up the Endings

You've just spent 30 minutes in line and five minutes on an entertaining ride experience. (Well, in the old days, that would have been 10 minutes in line and 20 minutes on a ride, but that's an observation for another time.) If you're like most Epcot guests, sadly you try to make it out of the building fast enough to jam in another ride before your character meal.

It doesn't need to be this way. In fact, it shouldn't. Not at Epcot.

There will always be those impatient park guests who reason, "I paid fifty bucks to get in this joint, so I'm gonna get my money's worth," and think "money's worth" means as much in-your-face entertainment as possible. But, then, Epcot has a chance to challenge those ideas, to get guests to stop and linger, and maybe learn a little something while being (maybe, just a little) entertained.

Back in the day (yes, EPCOT Central critics, I'll refer to the "old days" here again), EPCOT Center's centerpiece attractions were coupled with some fairly intriguing post-show entertainment. There were some attractions, like Universe of Energy and Horizons, that were so elaborate that their pavilions had little room for post-show entertainment. But there were others, most of them, in fact, that offered as much interactive intrigue after the ride as during.

Spaceship Earth and World of Motion were fantastic examples of this. Earth Station offered a practical view of how communications technology might (and, actually, did) revolutionize our lives. From dining reservations to previews of other EPCOT attractions, Earth Station allowed us to interact and experience future technology ourselves. TransCenter, on the other hand, allowed guests to explore prototype cars and even (can you believe it?!) examine the feasibility of a water-powered engine.

These were optional, of course; but for guests who wanted to take part, they added immeasurably to the EPCOT experience.

Now, I'm not going to criticize the Advanced Training Lab at Mission: Space, or the new Project Tomorrow at Spaceship Earth; they're both ways to engage guests, and they both try to enhance the experience. OK, I'll criticize them a little. I'm not sure how Project Tomorrow upholds any ideas we've been exposed to on the ride; and Advanced Training Lab is (in my experience) usually pretty devoid of guests and really more of a high-tech playground.

What a missed opportunity to educate increasingly unaware masses of the amazing accomplishments of the U.S. space program ... or of all global space initiatives!

That's just one example of where Disney has fallen down on EPCOT's goal -- yes, it's still the goal, printed out there on that plaque for all to see -- to "entertain, inform and inspire." They've got the entertainment part down. So here are some suggestions for those last two bits, possibilities for enhancing the post-show area in key attractions:
* Do something about the long, barren, boring hallways that greet visitors at the end of Mission: Space. Paint a mural -- a big one. Add video screens that show great moments from space history. Offer up words of wisdom from astronauts and space pioneers. Anything other than unbelievably boring, monotonous institutional-looking walls. Yes, it's true ... you've got to keep the guests moving out of the building. But look at what you've got over at the 33-year-old Space Mountain as your "post-show," then look at what the infinitely more complex and technologically advanced Mission: Space has to offer. Frankly, it's a major embarrassment.

* Upgrade the Test Track post show; focus on hydrogen cars and non-polluting vehicles -- but don't just show them. Make this more than a glorified showroom. Incorporate far better signage, provide a script and a small show for the cast member staffing the area. Actively invite audience participation by creating constantly updated, five-minute videos that play in a prominent area. Get guests involved and use this as an opportunity to demonstrate that GM wants to help improve our future, and we all play a role in that by deciding what, where, how and when to drive. Toyota and Honda have improved their business by at least pretending to be concerned about our environmental future -- send a similar message from GM to the millions who walk through here every year.

* Add new information and elements to the small post-show area in the Universe of Energy. Utilize that wall space; add moving video images that highlight some key ideas portrayed in Ellen's Energy Adventure, such as a map that shows where solar power is catching on, or where there are wind-farming sites. Add some "energy quizzes" using computer screens and interactive kiosks. Energy is in the headlines every single day; there's a fantastic opportunity to create a small, simple but effective set of displays here that is constantly changing.

* The Seas With Nemo and Friends gets low marks from me because any teenager or adult who has even a passing interest in the silent world below us has seen more impressive displays at aquariums throughout the U.S. But why not use a small part of the massive interactive exhibit areas to attract older audiences, to offer something non-Nemo-ized that makes us think, "A-ha!" Perhaps, dare I suggest it, this could be a great location to show a slightly modified version of the old (and amazing) introductory film to The Living Seas?

* The American Adventure is a wonderful pavilion in World Showcase, but barely even touches on any modern issues. Why not use the post-show exit area (and perhaps part of the entry area!) to explore such pivotal, emotional and perhaps slightly controversial issues as civil rights, inner-city development, and education? There is little in the American Adventure to suggest that America, the host country of Epcot, is a particularly deep or thoughtful country. EPCOT has a fantastic opportunity to show its non-American visitors that the U.S. is much deeper than stereotypes paint it.

* Whether or not the host country can fund it, why not offer a travel kiosk at the exit of each World Showcase attraction? I find it disconcerting that even while Disney tries to grow its own "Adventures By Disney" business, it's almost impossible to find out anything about actually visiting the country you've just "visited." This became particularly noticeable when Norway, which once had some of the most friendly cast members staffing its travel kiosk, closed down their "Visit Norway" location. If EPCOT really is aiming to inspire people, then the least that could be done is to offer a way to explore the feasibility of visiting these countries on your own. It would add another dimension to an EPCOT visit!

These are just a few ideas -- but the overall theme remains the same: The ride or show itself is just part of the experience. Visiting EPCOT can be exponentially richer and more rewarding for thoughtful guests while still being "surface" for those who care only about the next ride. It just takes a little care, a little effort and a relatively quite small amount of money.

I bet there are Imagineers out there who would jump at the chance to take on enhancement projects like these ... and the others that I hope EPCOT Central readers will share themselves!