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.

16 comments:

Anonymous said...

So true!

EPCOT has ruined so many rides that once made people want to return again and again.

the land ride has not been updated in 25 years, journey into imagination is horrible, test track is a big commercial, communicore is no longer fun and exciting. Horizons was fun and taken away.

Anonymous said...

Good points! Anyone living in area as I have for just past 5 years would see Disney's gradually stepening decline long before the economy started down. If it's not sponsored and all 'free' to Disney, they're not going to do it. The parks need major cleaning/overhaul/updates. I vision a day when the parks are entirely stores and character meetings at the current company mindset. There' so much potential. It's like a big sleeping giant. It will improve on what made it famous, or die. Like any other business.

Matt Hunter Ross said...

Ditto all of the above.

Also, as you've said before, Epcot82, this park is rare in the theme park industry in what it could, and used to, offer to the public. I mean, if they're at a loss for direction, why not look at other concepts for gods sake - like Futuroscope, or COSI - that have a semblance, even if it's not perfect, of an structured theme.

Personally, what I always thought made these Disney attractions unique was their incredible storytelling and use of "dioramas" to display the concepts. You don't need a rollercoaster to give people a thrill, you just have to transport them from reality and place them in fantasy. What the hell happened to that concept?

I see it in the other parks - like MK & AK - where they're spending dollars on the most minute back alleys that visitors rarely even pay attention to, which is great, but what about EPCOT?!

I want Horizons back!

bluesky said...

Speaking to the nature of this posting, this country is dying for leadership and change. Whether or not you are an Obama supporter is irrelevant. The speech that he gave the night of the election gave shivers down my spine. You could see it on the faces of the thousands and thousands of people that gathered at Grant park in Chicago. This country is sick and tired of he same ol' same ol'. It is looking for something new, forward thinking and exciting. The Disney top brass would be crazy not to take advantage of the peoples need for a bright future. EPCOT would be the perfect place to explore the future and all it has to offer. Get creative! What EPCOT was in the early 80's was mind blowing at the time. When is the last time a Disney ride challenged you to think or really wowed you? I hate this clich'e. But, think outside the box. America is dying for the promise of a better tomorrow. Bring it to life at EPCOT.

Subsonic said...

I made a post on my site about how Disney has been selling out "Theme" for "Quick a buck" and then I came here. You summed it up so well with "Intellectual curiosity was replaced with celebrity" I had to quote it on my site. Then you get into the Kim Possible (which I made a post about as well) aspect where kids are more interested in a cartoon then culture.

People say, "Times are changing. That's how it is." EPCOT wasn't like that though, it decided to break the mold that Walt did so many times before. Why oh why can't Disney realize that they need to ALWAYS break the mold and exceed our expectations. I believe that culture, ingenuity, science, agriculture, and the future could be presented in such a stimulating manner that people of all ages could learn in a non-boring way.

Thank you so much for your site, views, and opinions Epcot82.

offkilter06 said...

I agree whole-heartedly. I don't understand why both these Kim Possible things and the KidCots couldn't be reformed to kid friendly areas that taught about the country. Stick a few people in there to talk about aspects of their respective countries that would seem interesting. Colouring a mask and pinning a piece of paper to it does not warrant a damn thing. Kids like to know cool facts, so I've always thought (even when I visited Epcot for the first time at 11) that it would be cool to teach some interesting facts or cultural lessons that would might stick with the kids. Come on, Epcot!

I tested the Kim Possible adventure the other day. I thought it was buggy, uninteresting, and too much trouble for not payoff whatsoever. Meh.

Geoffrey said...

I agree with offkilter06 bring back something that teaches kids in a kindof a "kid friendly" way...

I remember a few years ago when I was at Epcot around christmas time with my nephews and they had castmembers (some in regional Santa outfits) discussing their respective Santa's....

Why couldn't they do this all of the time instead of just around Christmas??

I haven't been to Epcot yet this year and I'm not looking forward to the Kim Possible additions and all of that new input, it seems kindof a sign of the times though as Disney has resorted to giving away free park entrances to people on their birthdays to try and entice people to attend their parks...

Can't wait to see what the future holds without GM though.

Jack said...

Epcot82,

It needs to be addressed before I start my rant: This is the very best blog on the internet. I first visited WDW as a young, naive, 10-year old, back in the days when there was 1 park, 3 hotels, and a Campground. I rode horses, visited Marshmallow Marsh, and swam freely in Bay Lake. I walked over to the Contemporary's main building (again, as a 10-yr old) to watch films such as "Herbie," "Gus," and "The Computer Who Wore Tennis Shoes." My highest ambition for the last 34 years of my life was to work for Disney.

My 6th trip to Disney I was 3 months from the Epcot Center opening, my next trip back a year later absolutely, positively changed my life.

It needs to be stated beforehand that I am a Senior Marketing Manager. I started out in Graphic Design and "grew" from there. In truth, I am a failed animator, all I ever wanted was to work for Disney, but I love Walt Disney, the Man.

So... I am writing this impassioned comment - for no other reason than... and forgive me for this... to "leave a legacy" on the greatest blog that ever took up the idea of Walt's last dream.

You see... Walt Disney was indeed a dreamer. More importantly, Walt Disney was a visionary. His company was a testament to his belief in the "promise of the future". In essence, Walt's park was an extension of everything he held near and dear.

That certainly cannot be said about today's current management.

I watched my other hero - my Dad - get up each and every day for the better half of 35 years to follow a man he believed in - Edwin Land, a pioneer and visionary who created Polaroid Corporation. Polaroid stands as a classic example of how one man's vision can be utterly destroyed by the people left to take one's place. Where there was once heart, there became only a spreadsheet. Where once a business was a personal quest, it now is simply a barometer in which we measure our dollars and cents. 50 years of Polaroid's employees bought into Edwin Land's idea, and years of neglect and an inability to innovate or "LEAD" led to their utter destruction. You may see the Polaroid name today, but it is simply that - a name, hired out to any company that makes electronics and wants to market themselves with an "industry-established" name. Nothing - I mean NOTHING, is made by Polaroid anymore. They just sell their name to the highest bidder.

That's the way our business sector has handled the last 20 years, and its the way our government has allowed American jobs, American businesses, and American dollars be sold to the highest bidder. Our society has brought us to a point where small children are allowed to chew on poisonous paints found on "Disney-created" toys made in China - all so Disney stock can elevate itself another 10 cents on the dollar.

It is said in Marketing that everything has a shelf life. There becomes a time that everything hits its saturation and decline stage. Disney is soon to find itself there - not simply because it's product has died, but its ideas have.

Blue Sky (above) spoke eloquently about our President-elect, and I sure wish I could feel the same way. But I don't - and I feel that everyone who so blindly believes in that "Change" we've all been praying for will see exactly what happens when our attention-deficit-disorder society realizes our latest "Camelot" is nothing more than another tremendous marketing scheme - no better than JFK, The Beatles, or dare I say it, Hannah Montana.

Disney cannot overcome this. They are now nothing more than a bank vault - caring little about their founder... unless, of course, they can use and abuse his face for their own quick monetary gain "I.E. Disney Disneyland Secrets DVD, or perhaps a night in Disney's New Orleans Square apartment."

Innovation comes when there is a person strong enough to "believe (in a thing) all the way, implicitly and unquestionably." That cannot happen within a corporate culture like Disney, and it certainly cannot happen within the government we have chosen for ourselves.

In your heat-of-hearts Epcot82, you know this. That's why you have stopped this blog from time to time. You understand that you are - indeed - a small voice calling out in the wilderness. But still, I have always come back. I click on the link off my personalized link page because I hope. I pray things will indeed change.

Thus... although I don't believe there will ever be a day when Disney returns to its roots, I commiserate with those who feel the same as I, and look toward a day when people/companies/governments look to a far higher purpose than simply their stock price.

- Jack

Scott said...

Well, the "no change" thing wasn't working too well for a lot of Americans...

Walt had a quote I got out of Pat Williams' book, and I don't have it in front of me, but it was something about young people feeling that the future was closed to them and implying the need for inspiration. I think one could also infer that Walt wanted to be an "inspirer". And he was.

Disney today doesn't seem to care a lick about this stuff. It's a pity. My own kids are inspired by visits to Adler Planetarium and to Chicago's Museum of Science and Industry. Maybe those are a better spot for inspiration today. But Disney could at least give it a try.

Great post with some nice parallels from the opening to today's situation.

Virtual Toad said...

Jack said: "[Walt's] company was a testament to his belief in the "promise of the future". In essence, Walt's park was an extension of everything he held near and dear."

It sounds like your early experiences with Disney were very much like mine. Growing up in Central Florida in the 1970's, I can tell you that Walt Disney World was considered to be much more than a theme park; the entire property was actively marketed as a true-to-life utopian system. WDW was a shining example of what the future could hold... which is why the addition of EPCOT was such a natural. It just reinforced what the WDW brand, at the time, was all about.

Unfortunately, today's Disney is just a sad reflection of the malaise that's plaguing the entire nation. "Give 'em what they want" is the mantra now, but it wasn't always that way.

There was a time when American industry (Disney included) felt a larger obligation to society. Strengthening the nation culturally and intellectually was good for business *and* good for the country.

Maybe now is the time for us to get back on the right track. A reinvigorated EPCOT leading the way to brighter days would *definitely* be a welcome first step.

Anonymous said...

Tomorrow's child, tomorrow's child,
shining a brand new way,
for the future world is born today.



:-)

Epcot82 said...

Thank you for your comments, Jack. Your example of Polaroid is spot-on. This was a company that revolutionized picture taking more than any other company since Kodak, but the need to meet Wall Street's expectations ultimately killed it. What is the point, I wonder (other than pure greed), of increasing profits and running up the share price if, over the long run, the cost is the health and even existence of the company itself?

AT&T, MGM, IBM, TWA, PanAm, Woolwoorth's, AOL ... the list of companies that were once at the top of their game that are no longer (or barely) in existence is a long one.

Anyone who thinks Disney can't be added to that list because it's just too important should probably study their business history a little more! Let's hope it never comes to that.

Anonymous said...

Should we just say that it's the end of the world no do anything as there is nothing we can do because of what we did in the past that caused us to be in a point where doing anything will make everything worse?

Anonymous said...

Blue Sky - Go choke yourself. Obama will ruin America thanks to cretins like you.

starshinecruzer said...

The problem with the Walt Disney Company lies in its name: It is the Walt Disney Company. They're run by corporate executives and accountants, coasting for too long on the creative drive of their late founder. Eisner brought new ideas and energy along with him to the helm of the corporation, but even that wasn't enough.

The Disney execs are now trying to adhere to the idea of "family amusement", playing it safe every way they can by adhering to research, surveys, and attempting to serve the lowest common denominator.

But that *isn't* what made the amusement parks and films of Walt Disney great. Not only did he seek to push the envelope and innovate (as he put it, to take a good idea and "plus" it), but he also rigorously stuck to the concept of building/producing films and amusements that made *him* happy. Walt would see a good idea, let it get stuck in the back of his head and rattle around for a while, then take it apart and understandd how to make it better.

*That's* what made him great.

I remember the recounting from one of his original Anaheim employees about the early mornings in the park. Before Disney Land was open for visitors Walt would sometimes go to the firehouse and take the fire engine out for a spin, driving around the park to visit the various lands before the front gates opened.

They said it was like watching the luckiest boy in the world playing with his own full-sized playset. And it really kinda was.

Jack said...

Epcot82,

I was sitting around thinking about the time I made the comment above! I have - at the time of this update - been unemployed about 9 months now. I certainly don't feel much like giving the ol' "I told ya so." Matter of fact... with a nationwide election coming on Tuesday, I see us falling further and further down the rabbit hole. (We must always remember to try and use Disney-related analogies, no?). I know its been a long time since you've written, and I feel reasonably comfortable that this note will most likely only come across your eyes. I just wanted to "catch up" and let you know you are very missed. This, of course, is not to pressure you into returning. Heck, I haven't a job and couldn't fathom writing a blog like this. Nope, I just was hoping these days find you well.

As you wrote so long ago: "To brighter days!" - Jack