Tuesday, November 25, 2008

A Whole Lot Less for a Whole Lot More

Just a few months ago, when gas prices were at their highest and the signs of an imminent economic meltdown were everywhere, The Walt Disney Company did what it did best -- it raised the price on a one-day, one-park ticket to $75.

A scant three and a half years earlier, the price was $59, which means that prices rose by more than a penny every single day in that time.

Today, a family of four who has one day to visit Disney's properties in Orlando (and that's not something that happens infrequently) would pay $300 for admission alone. In itself, that figure would be astonishing, but let's assume that family chooses to go to EPC-- er, Epcot for the day. Here's what they'll find:

  • Touringplans.com reported this weekend that Disney has unceremoniously shaved an hour off of the opening hours of Epcot -- and, indeed, a scan of the Disneyworld.com website shows that on Fridays beginning in January, World Showcase will be open to the general public (that is, non-Disney Resort guests) from 11 a.m. to 8 p.m., or nine hours a day. That family of four is paying $33 an hour to visit Epcot.
  • The same website also reports that Disney is removing the Viking ship from the Norway pavilion. No doubt, this is a minor development in the scheme of things ... but it's also indicative of where Disney's collective head is at. The ship is an example of the detailed "plussing" that has always been a hallmark of Disney's theme parks. Removing it may not seem like a big deal at all, but given the hugely important role Vikings played in Norway's history (and, indeed, world history), it's really not such a minor thing. Losing the ship means losing an integral part of the theming of this pavilion.
  • From January 5 to March 22, the Universe of Energy* (aka Ellen's Energy Adventure, which is how it's listed on Disney's website) will be closed for refurbishment. Of course, attractions routinely need to be refurbished, and if there are any changes or improvements to the Universe of Energy, it will be cause for praise. However, keep in mind that ...
  • Wonders of Life remains closed. An entire pavilion with two major and multiple minor attractions remains a not-quite-literally empty shell, shut off to all guests, and rather vividly displaying Disney's lack of interest in maintaining the integrity of Epcot. From January to March, literally half of Future World's east side will be closed.
  • Park maintenance continues to be wanting. As EPCOT Central has pointed out before, directional signs don't match, the Fountain of Nations is in disrepair, and public areas aren't patroled nearly as much as in the past. Adding to the disappointments that park guests experience, older Audio-Animatronic figures, notably in the American Adventure and Living With the Land, are creaky and slow, desperately in need of some "spare parts," at the very least. The first image that accompanies this post is of a sign that hasn't been touched up for more than a year -- the word "West" was simply removed and the sign wasn't redesigned or replaced, indicative of how Disney takes more money from consumers but doesn't put it back into the simplest of fixes at its parks.

Remember, all of this comes at the highest price for park entry in Disney's history.

What other industry raises prices to record levels, then cuts back on basic services, functions and even hours of operations? Airlines, perhaps. But does any business want to be compared with the airline industry?

EPCOT was already suffering. If the park experiences a further decline in attendance, let's just hope Disney doesn't try to blame it on the "theme" (what little is left) and acknowledges that there's just a limit to how much the public will accept.

When we pay more we expect more.

When we get this much less and the price goes through the roof, we're entitled to be unhappy about it.

*Also worth noting is that the Epcot section of Disneyworld.com doesn't even list the pavilion as a major attraction. Like Gran Fiesta Tour, The Circle of Life or Honey I Shrunk the Audience, it's classified simply, and rather sadly, under "Other Attractions." Confusingly, however, Universe of Energy is listed as a "Pavilion," separate from Ellen's Energy Adventure. Got that?

LAST-MINUTE ADDITION (I'm allowed these frivolities!)
A coomment to the main post implied that Epcot Central doesn't "like" EPCOT because the blog is filled with compalining. There's a difference between criticizing and complaining, though some don't agree with that. Here is one of the "rare" complaint-free blogpsots that offers thoughts on what can go very, very right during a visit to EPCOT Center (dang it, I mean Epcot):
Tuesday, January 23, 2007

I EPCOT. Honest.

The photograph above is a perfect example of why. I’ve traveled to many points of the globe, and there are few memories more lovely to me than standing on the edge of World Showcase Lagoon at night, after Illuminations has ended and the crowds are leaving.

The view is magnificent, there is blessed isolation (even amid many people) – it’s serene and beautiful. Click on the picture for a larger-sized version.It’s just one of the many reasons I love EPCOT Center (yes, I know that’s no longer the official name).Several people have subtly accused me recently of concurrently bashing EPCOT and caring too much. For the record, I don’t want to do the former and I could never do the latter.

What I don’t like is that the people in charge of EPCOT and of Disney’s Theme Parks & Resorts division don’t seem to care very much at all. They want EPCOT – all of the parks, really – to be easily marketable, to be almost interchangeable. That’s why you’ll now find Nemo at Disneyland, Disney’s Animal Kingdom and EPCOT. It’s why Mickey Mouse is at every park … lest anyone forget that they’re at a “Disney park.”

In this way of thinking, “Disney Parks” are all the same. The joyful individuality they used to have is stripped away; walking through Disney-MGM Studios you’re reminded less and less of the glamour of Hollywood and more and more of the ubiquity of Disney. Likewise, EPCOT has lost its grand themes and has become about buying more Mickey merchandise (even the shops of World Showcase have taken on a sameness).

That’s what I don’t like.

What I do like?

Ahhhhhh … that list is almost too long to detail, though
I did take a stab at it several months back.

I love that EPCOT was designed to celebrate the best in mankind’s nature, and still does that to a certain degree. The ingenuity of humans is on display, and that makes me happy.

I love wandering around EPCOT and just … looking. At nothing in particular, just taking in the feeling of being there, the festive environment of World Showcase and the implicit majesty of Spaceship Earth hovering above everything, almost everywhere you go.

I love Illuminations: Reflections of Earth, which is still perhaps the single best attraction of any sort Disney has ever created (and, yes, I know that’s saying a lot, but I love it that much).

I love the moment the curtain rises in the Universe of Energy and you begin moving forward into the world of the dinosaurs; no matter how cheesy and silly the attraction has become, that moment still holds power.

I love rising into Spaceship Earth, despite the jerky, lurching feel that the attraction has taken on. I love hearing Jeremy Irons’ voice intoning, “Like a grand and miraculous spaceship, our planet has sailed through the universe of time.” Wow. Gets me every time!

I love staring at the artificial reef in the Living Seas (oops, the Seas) pavilion; yeah, Sea World is great, but there’s something about this place, about watching the silent little oceanic dramas playing out in front of you, that is really spectacular.

I love Ice Station Cool, though I love it a little less without the igloo (which is strange, because that comment absolutely contradicts everything I generally say and feel about what Disney has done to the old Communicore); it’s one of the most unexpected, meaningless little throwaway, commercially driven attractions, but I still get a sense of discovery about the way other people live when I go in there – oddly, it kind of (as Foxxfur commented) conveys the spirit of EPCOT.

I love the Fountain of Nations, whether it’s performing or not; it’s a bold visual feature, and it just “works.” I love the “upside-down” and leaping fountains in front of the Imagination pavilion; how fun are they? They’re one of the few holdovers from 1982 that haven’t changed at all, and they don’t need to.

I love Listen to the Land. I imagined that I would hate it when they took away the cast members, but I have to admit it works well now, and it’s genuinely compelling and insightful. Even the interior films and limited-motion animatronic figures seem to have thought and care put into their creation.

I love the “splashdown” moment in Maelstrom, when you suddenly feel as if you’ve been transported to the North Sea. That one moment and the entry into the Norwegian fishing village are two perfect little “show” moments that absolutely transport you to another time and place. (For that matter, I still love the Norway travelogue that plays after the ride, no matter how impossibly and unbelievably dated it has become; Norway seems like a fascinating place.)

I love that EPCOT is there to discover at your own pace. If you’re in the vast majority of guests who just care about getting a ride fix and moving on, you’ll get your fill at EPCOT. If, however, you like to move at your own pace, you could (even still) spend three or four days solely at EPCOT and not discover everything there is to see and learn.

Much of EPCOT still works. It’s the parts of EPCOT that are so clearly clearly “malfunctioning” that get me angry and agitated, simply because so much of EPCOT works so well, these problem areas seem that much worse.

EPCOT is still a wonderful place. It has a spirit, and try as they might, they can never quite take that away. The planning, design and execution of EPCOT Center was so strong, a lot of it still shines through, even 25 years later. Try as they might, they can’t take it away completely.

I wish they would quit trying.

What do you love about EPCOT? I'd really like to know! I hope you'll post a comment and share your thoughts, especially you Disney folks (and I know you're out there). Don't worry, when you choose "Anonymous," you really do remain anonymous ... no one will know it's you. (Even
me!) posted by Epcot82 at

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Tidbits from 25 Years Ago

It was a surprise to run across the late Steve Birnbaum's Walt Disney World Guide from 1983 during a recent thorough housecleaning. The book is truly a window on a lost Walt Disney World. It's also illuminating and thought-provoking when read a quarter of a century later, as you'll see!

Theme Park Prices

Magic Kingdom Club One-Day Ticket for EPCOT Center or the Magic Kingdom:
Adult -- $14.00
Junior (12-17) -- $13.00
Child (3-11) -- $11.00

Three-Day World Passport
Adult -- $32
Junior (12-17) -- $30.00
Child (3-11) -- $25.00

Four-Day World Passport
Adult -- $41.00
Junior (12-17) -- $38.00
Child (3-11) -- $32.00

Six-Day World Passport
Adult -- $54.00
Junior (12-17) -- $50.00
Child (3-11) -- $42.00

(Note: To put these prices in perspective, try visiting an inflation calcluator,
like this one or this one.)

Vacation Package Prices
WORLD VACATIONS -- This is the ultimate vacation experience, with unlimited access to Magic Kingdom, Epcot Center, and dining and recreational facilities in the Walt Disney World Vacation Kingdom.

* Four-, five-, six- and seven-night plans
* Accommodations in the Contemporary Resort Hotel, Polynesian Village Resort Hotel, Golf Resort Hotel or a two-bedroom Vacation, Treehouse, or Fairway Villa
* Admission and unlimited use of all attractions and adventures in the Magic Kingdom and Epcot Center
* Unlimited use of all Walt Disney World recreational activities and facilities
* Breakfast, lunch, and dinner at a wide variety of Walt Disney World restaurants, including breakfast and dinner shows
* Unlimited use of the transportation system in the Walt Disney World Vacation Kingdom

Priced from $496 per adult, double occupancy

Introducing EPCOT Center
"Walt Disney's dream has become a reality. It's impossible to say whether Epcot (sic) Center is consistent in every detail with what Walt would have wrought, but there's no doubt that it embodies the spirit its originator intended. ...

"From opening day, Epcot Center will be the standard by which all other such understakings are measured, and the future phases that are planned will further expand even the current high level of attraction.

"There's never been anything quite like Epcot Center before; it's unlikely there ever will be again."

Thursday, November 20, 2008

The Promise of Brighter Days

EPCOT Center opened in the midst of one of the United States’ more memorable recessions. To this day, the park’s “boring” nature is cited as the reason its attendance declined substantially after its massively hyped opening. (The economic situation the country was experiencing in the early 1980s generally seems dismissed as a primary reason.)

Yet those who visited EPCOT Center in its infancy never forgot the experience. This unique theme park had a genuine theme, and promised a future of hope, opportunity and optimism, a future in which the troubles of “today” would be overcome by sheer determination and cooperation.

While much of this EPCOT Center persisted for years, it ultimately changed – much in the same way our world changed. Optimism was replaced by a sarcasm that barely masked cynicism. Voyages of the mind and spirit were replaced by journeys that provided immediate thrills. Intellectual curiosity was replaced with celebrity.

Now that we’re facing an economic downturn of staggering proportions, it is obvious that executives at The Walt Disney Company and its Parks & Resorts division are sweating the economy like an overweight tourist on Main Street in August. And they’re looking for short-term fixes.

Fixes like giving away days at Walt Disney World. Fixes like cutting back in areas that directly impact guests. And fixes like the new Kim Possible “feature” at World Showcase.

There’s an ugly assumption to that last one: Since kids are more interested in cartoon spies than cultural awareness, that’s what Disney should give them.

Perhaps this myopic view of today’s youth helps shed some light on why USA Today reported that 71 percent of Americans scored an “F” in their understanding of basic civics – they’re not interested in learning about such “boring” topics, and since they’re not interested, no one will try to educate them, just titillate them.

Disney and EPCOT aren’t to blame, but the way they’ve changed in 25 years is symptomatic of a much larger problem.

“Leveraging the awareness” of a pre-existing Disney character in order to get younger guests interested in the offerings of World Showcase (and all of EPCOT) is the cheap and easy route. It’s the opposite of imaginative – it’s mind-numbing. It underscores the consistently unspoken message that learning is not as important as entertainment.

As Americans, we’ve found ourselves in a very deep hole, and we seem to be asking more and more why we’re here. Here’s hoping that Disney is doing the same.

When we’re finally out of this mess, will park attendance rebound? Will people still want the same increasingly mindless entertainment they’ve been getting ... or will they want something different, something that reflects the optimism and spirit they will so desperately need? Will we go back to the way we were, or come out of this as we did in the ’40s and ’80s, urgently needing someone to remind us of our potential?

EPCOT Center was, in many ways, borne out of the situation America found itself in throughout most of the 1970s. Beaten down by an unwanted war, tired of economic struggle, coping with massive social change, Americans were ready to be told there was something better on the horizon.

Once we got there, the message changed. Enjoy what you have! Live for the moment! Buy more Mickey Mouse plush!

Now, times are tough again. Can Disney seize on this desire for change – which extends to all walks of life, and seems to spurn the remarkable materialism that has become the basis for the United States – and (re)build an EPCOT that makes good on the promises that the theme park once offered?

Can Disney (re)create an EPCOT that dares to educate as well as entertain, to thrill the brain as well as the body, to capture the mind as well as the wallet?

Or will Disney succumb to its own need to, as so many defenders of the status quo love to put it, “be a business” and continue EPCOT on its current course of simply being another showcase for Disney “product”?

Of course, change like that only comes if it’s desired. It takes determination.

And it takes something EPCOT desperately needs: vision.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

End of the Road?

Sometimes, change isn't planned, it's simply the only option.

Such may be the case EPCOT soon finds itself facing given the imminent collapse of GM. While Capitol Hill and Wall Street debate whether GM will really go away or get bailed out by the government, it's clear that GM is in deep, deep trouble. And, just as certain, a marketing initiative like GM's sponsorship of Test Track will soon seem like an unnecessary luxury.

GM was one of EPCOT Center's original sponsors, putting its money, name and ideas behind the World of Motion pavilion.

While Disney has never made public the details of its sponsorships, though GM's website indicates that the latest contract was signed in 1994 and actually expired in 2007. Now that GM and Disney have reached the 21st century together, maybe it's the end of the road?

Will Test Track go the way of the 100,000-square-foot ghost town that used to be Wonders of Life, which mostly serves as a reminder of Disney's lack of vision for and attention to EPCOT?

Will it be razed completely so that Test Track, like Horizons, Cranium Command, Body Wars and the World of Motion before it, becomes just a memory?

Will Test Track continue to operate without a sponsor, which likely means without a real post-show, so that the pavilion becomes just an even more meaningless thrill ride, one that lacks any theme or purpose?

Will Disney act decisively to find a new sponsor, one who could bring some much-needed innovation and ingenuity to what is now a 10-year-old attraction (not much younger than World of Motion was when it was shuttered)?

Most tantalizingly, might Disney use this opportunity to stay true to the theme of transportation, but go in a bold new direction, perhaps securing a sponsor that could showcase what the future holds, not just explore the present?

Two things are almost foregone conclusions: GM won't be the sponsor much longer, and Detroit doesn't hold the keys to the future of the pavilion.

Time will tell just what it will be.

EPCOT Central hopes only that it will be something ... and something good.

Sunday, November 09, 2008

America: Home of the Hamburger

This is a special time of year for many EPCOT fans, who enjoy the park's Food & Wine Festival, which offers expanded selections of world cuisines. For those who can get to EPCOT, it's a great experience. For those of us who can't, we've got to make do with what EPCOT offers the rest of the year.

Sometimes, it's wonderful. There are some truly tempting choices, ranging from a great steakhouse at Le Cellier to surprisingly good Middle Eastern fare in Morocco. In recent years, though, EPCOT's culinary selections have become decidedly less adventurous and more middlebrow, perhaps in recognition of the fact that many guests don't like to be "challenged" at mealtime.

Still, the Japanese offerings are distinctly Japanese. The French restuarants are inarguably French. Mexico offers Mexican food.

America offers hot dogs and hamburgers.

The United States has a remarkably diverse population with remarkably diverse regional cuisine, and it wouldn't take too much for EPCOT to acknowledge this and offer a broad selection that reflects the food and flavors that make America so unusually rich in mealtime fare.

The current menu at Liberty Inn, a counter-service restaurant, offers bacon cheeseburgers, chicken nuggets, hot dogs and peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches. There's no doubt that these are genuinely "American" offerings -- but is this really a reflection of American tastes?

Travel north from Walt Disney World and into America's Deep South and you'll find gumbo, etouffee and muffalettas.

Journey even farther north, and specialties include pierogies, cheesesteak sandwiches, Buffalo chicken wings and, in our nation's capitol, Senate bean soup.

The Western United States has a rich culinary history and flavor -- everything from such Mexican-influenced fare (with an American flair) as fish tacos ... to San Francisco's famous sourdough bread and cioppino ... to French dip sandwiches (arguably "created" in Los Angeles) ... to the trout and salmon of the Pacific Northwest.

From Boston baked beans and Boston creme pie to Maine lobster rolls and Chicago-style deep-dish pizza, America is an embarrassment of riches when it comes to food.

Our food choices reflect our country. No two places are quite alike, yet it's our differences that bring us together and make us stronger.

While many of these choices are indeed available at other locations throughout Walt Disney World, the same holds true for sushi, pasta and steak. EPCOT's World Showcase is a place where Disney can bring everything together and put it on display, to proudly offer the best the world has to offer.

Just because we like fast food doesn't mean that it showcases America in the best light.

Can't the "American Adventure" reflect our culinary heritage, as well?