That is, poor Epcot.
Back in 1994, 12 years after it opened, Disney lower-cased the place, and even though it's been known as "Epcot" longer than it was ever known as "EPCOT Center" (14 years vs. 12 years), the lower-casing has failed to have any effect -- except, perhaps, of eliminating any trace of the unifying vision or theme that used to set it apart.
To many, no doubt to most Disney execs who read this, it is ridiculous to continue carping about a change that took place 14 years ago. It's a little like those Star Wars fans who say that it's all been downhill since The Empire Strikes Back. They don't get that Empire is the exception, and that the Star Wars movies they dislike really are the ones that best represent George Lucas's vision. So, they rant and rave and say what a lousy guy that George is. The EPCOT/Epcot conundrum is a bit different, though.
While EPCOT Center clearly did not represent Walt Disney's vision for his great Community of Tomorrow, it was deeply influenced by Disney's dreams. The Community would have included an expansive area in which American companies could show off the best of their current and leading-edge technology (Future World), as well as an internationally themed shopping area that would take guests on a trip around the world without leaving Florida (World Showcase). Those two ideas were central to Walt Disney's concept, and they survived, they were the starting place for what became EPCOT Center.
So, in many ways, EPCOT Center was closer to realizing Walt's ambitions than most people give it credit for. True, there are no residents -- but virtually every other part of Walt's EPCOT actually did get realized, in the grand concept and design of Walt Disney World. Transporation, business centers (albeit with a bias toward retail), hotels and resorts, recreation ... it's all there, though not nearly as ambitiously realized as Walt had hoped and dreamed.
But EPCOT Center maintained one massively important concept, one that was vital to understanding everything Walt Disney was trying to achieve: It brought together corporate giants who were leaders in their industries and offered them a chance to show to the public what they were doing to create a better future. Although EPCOT was never built, exactly, EPCOT Center was, and its very name explained its existence:
The Center of the Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow. The Center of the grand concept. The Center of it all.
EPCOT Center was (and, in word, at least, remains) dedicated to the same concepts Walt Disney wanted to explore further: How to inspire hope and ambition in young people, how to instill pride and optimism in adults, how to make the world better, how to communicate, cooperate and dream.
EPCOT Center, then, was more than a "theme park," it was the world's first (and only) "concept park."
If it wasn't a perfect realization of that concept, it was astonishingly close.
The very idea of EPCOT Center was communicated brilliantly through park guide maps (which used to be much more extensive than the fold-out brochures of today) as well as through technology like the now-defunct WorldKey system. EPCOT Center spent time trying to impart its concept to guests, and even if all they took away from it was, "it's the educational park," that's more than most people ever take away from any "theme" park. (Ask someone what the "theme" of a Six Flags park is -- yes, they bill themselves as "theme" parks.) In its own modest way, that was a major success.
But it went further than that. EPCOT Center's theme was infused into everything it offered and presented. The signs, attractions, restaurants and shops of Future World constantly served up reminders that guests were meant to be experiencing the future ... while World Showcase could not have been more successful in carrying out its international theme. Every ride and show EPCOT Center presented was acutely aware of the concept of the park.
But then something happened. Instead of updating, revising and rethinking each attraction as it grew outdated (a flaw that was absolutely inherent in EPCOT Center's basic concept, and completely unavoidable), Disney's eternal, damaging tug-of-war between Imagineering and Theme Park operations took its toll. The idea that EPCOT was largely outdated and antiquated (which was true enough) was interpreted to mean the park needed a drastic re-thinking.
The fact that Future World's attractions were serious in nature and educational in approach was seen as a flaw. When compared with other theme parks in the Central Florida region, which were competing for the mighty dollar of Disney guests, EPCOT Center seemed "boring." It needed a massive overhaul. It needed humor and relevance. It needed modernization to bring it into the '90s. It needed thrill rides and adventure. It needed to be more like other theme parks.
And that redesign was its undoing. Because at its very core, right down deep in its "theme park DNA," EPCOT Center was "genetically" incapable of being like other theme parks. But damn it all, Disney's largely MBA-educated management was going to try.
Out went a Universe of Energy and in (before she was "out") came Ellen DeGeneres and Bill Nye (who?) the Science Guy. Out went Horizons and in came ... well, for many years, absolutely nothing. Out went World of Motion, in came Test Track and a lot of scaffolding and traffic signs. Out went the extraordinary pre-show to The Living Seas and in came little Nemo. Out went the Wonders of Life, and in came ... oops, nothing. Out went Kitchen Kabaret, in came ... Food Rocks?
And if you are feeling all of that seems somehow frenetic and non-sensical, it kind of was. Because when they threw out the name "EPCOT Center," they threw out the very concept of what EPCOT was -- and they forgot to put anything in its place.
For a while, they tried to show how "timely" Epcot was by putting the year after its name: Epcot '94. Epcot '95. Then they called Epcot the "discovery park" -- which was fine except there wasn't really anything to discover there, and it more or less left out what World Showcase was all about. They brought in lots of Disney characters, because EPCOT didn't feel "Disney" enough, but they failed to realize that EPCOT itself was Disney; characters were almost redundant, like painting the White House red and blue, as well, to emphasize the point. Disney invented EPCOT, so it was, by definition, Disney by nature.
But it's ideas like these that Disney has failed to grasp as it has continued to tinker with Epcot.
Today, Test Track is just a cool ride in a car. (In my last visit to Epcot, the pre-show boarding area wasn't functioning, and guests didn't even seem to realize or notice; it's not integral to understanding the show.) The Seas is an excuse to see Nemo. Mission: Space is a semi-unique thrill ride. Imagination struggles to be about anything, since Disney doesn't seem to care much anymore about either Figment or "Honey I Shrunk the Audience." The stores all sell the same Disney junk you can get at several dozen other stores throughout Walt Disney World. The restaurants sell the same mundane food. Disney Vacation Club kiosks are randomly scattered through the park, reminding guests that all of this is really just about selling you on more Disney.
It's all now seemingly randomly placed, randomly designed, randomly developed. The institutional-white walls that form the "exit" of Mission: Space could be at any Six Flags park. The clamshells guests ride in to experience "The Seas With Nemo and Friends" could have been plucked from Fantasyland.
Even over in World Showcase, which used to seem like a portion of the park that could never really lose its theme, "Kim Possible" is soon to take over (a now-canceled Disney cartoon), and Jasmine and Belle spend their days in Norway. It all, frankly, feels a bit like a mall.
It's beyond sad for me to really contemplate what Epcot has become. When it was "boring," at least it had an identity, it was proudly all of a piece. It was literally a theme park, one that carried out a unified theme beautifully.
Today, it's a "Disney Park" through and through, with all the mediocrity implied by that mundane, joyless moniker. "Disney Parks" need to be able to communicate an instant message -- one of laughing children, happy cartoon characters and beatiful princesses, one of cartoon-style adventure and innocent fun.
EPCOT Center didn't necessarily offer those things, and yet it was a Disney Park. It was a quintessentially Disney Park, before that became a "brand" -- one whose ambition and concept were as daring as Walt himself was, in his folksy, seemingly innocent way.
EPCOT Center was the Disney park, with a theme unlike any other, the ultimate realization of everything that a Disney-designed and Disney-built theme park could be, combining technological prowess with storytelling and an optimistic vision of a future that, this time around, wasn't fake. It was a storybook ending in the real world, one we could all work together to achieve.
Today, Epcot really has no theme. It stands without a unifying concept, without any real direction or ambition. Sadly, I think, it has become exactly what Disney's highly paid, "creative" executives want it to be:
Epcot is just one in a global chain of Disney Parks.
And one way or another, they need it to start acting like the rest of them.