Wednesday, October 29, 2008
Untrue. The root of that belief is likely in the idea that what we'd love to see is EPCOT return to the concepts and theme that made it such an unprecedented and amazing park in the first place.
While many cast members are absolutely wonderful at their jobs, it's far too easy and common to encounter cast members who are either a bit too socially oriented (ignoring guests for the sake of chatting with each other) or really have no idea what they're doing there, which is unfortunately particularly true of World Showcase cast members. This is not meant to criticize those cast members who are fantastic at their jobs! Rather, it's particularly important at EPCOT because every cast member has a chance to communicate, both through action and through conversations with guests, the basic theme and concept of EPCOT.
Tuesday, October 28, 2008
Equatorial Africa always seemed a bit of a stretch to me, more confirming that geographically illiterate guests (of which there are many, and sadly mostly Americans) would be led to believe "Africa" is a country. Ultimately, it morphed into Animal Kingdom, which has been a terrific addition to Walt Disney World -- and, with the continuing slump of EPCOT, is probably my favorite park to visit, as it gets more beautiful with every year (except the Dino Land area).
Friday, October 24, 2008
Thursday, October 16, 2008
Monday, October 13, 2008
Saturday, October 11, 2008
Thursday, October 09, 2008
"Whatsoever Ezra does not know and sanction, that thing is
heresy, worthless for knowing and wicked to consider. ... Such is our
comfortable position and sure faith. Would he not betray himself an alien cynic
who should otherwise portray Main Street, or distress the citizens by
speculating whether there may not be other faiths?"
-- Sinclair Lewis, "Main Street" (1920)
I ran across something rather ... unexpected today.
It's a rather magnanimous, roundabout denunciation of the magnificently haunting and dramatic "pre-show" film that opened The Living Seas. The one that began with the words that, to me, define everything The Walt Disney Company used to be about: “Try to imagine.”
And it opened my eyes to one possible, and possibly rather upsetting, reason for the change in EPCOT from serious examination of the world in which we live to lighthearted fun.
It’s a possibility I had never considered before.
Try to imagine ... that a number of ultra-conservatives who believe in the concept of “intelligent design” (a concept that didn’t really exist until the late 1980s) put forth the view that the scientific theories presented in The Living Seas were at odds with their religious beliefs. And try to imagine that their concerns were brought to Brad Rex, who was vice president of Epcot, and who made no secret of his religious faith and had no problem talking about it openly and publicly.
Now, please understand, I am not opposed to any belief system that is different than mine, with one provision: It should not be forced upon me, nor should it be used in a way that positions itself as superior to anyone else’s. I believe in exposing people to different faiths, different beliefs, different ideas.
That’s why science, to me, has always been so fascinating: It attempts to prove theories using facts, and rarely, if ever, sets forth the notion that its ideas are absolutely inarguable and unwavering; it’s why, for instance, the theories of evolution and relativity remain, to this day, “theories.” If they cannot be proven to any degree that is entirely infallible, they must remain theories.
So I never, ever imagined that anyone would take exception to some basic education, some awareness they might not have had before. Indeed, one of the reasons I lament the passing of The Living Seas was because it presented its offerings so simply, without fanfare – the seas that surround us were shown only to be extraordinary wonders we have barely begun to understand.
And then I read that blog entry.
And I got to wondering. Is it possible that Disney bowed to the wishes of a rather vocal group of ultra-conservative evangelicals and “Nemo-ized” The Living Seas, made it into a happy, un-threatening place, all because a group of people felt that the science on view in the pavilion was antithetical to their religious views?
It’s certainly possible – and possibilities are hard to discount.
Holding this view as plausible, it explains why discussion of man’s role in nature (in “Symbiosis”) was replaced with cute, cuddly “Lion King” characters. The effect of an animated warthog on nature is much less difficult for conservative groups to explain to children than, say, a factory’s impact on the environment.
It explains why, despite the appearance of one of the most visible gay-rights advocates in the country (the world, perhaps), “Ellen’s Energy Adventure” is much less threatening than an exploration of how man’s dependence on fossil fuels is depleting our earth’s resources. (The Big Bang and dinosaurs are still represented, but might they be on the chopping block in future incarnations?)
Perhaps I am too concerned, drawing too many tenuous connections.
But I have to wonder, given the role of faith in life of the executive who was in charge of Epcot, the rather interesting viewpoint expressed by Randall Niles, and the relative inanity (and harmlessness) of The Seas With Nemo and Friends ... is it possible?
Almost by definition, science exists to challenge our notions of the world in which we live. Challenge, it appears, is becoming a scarce commodity – and it’s quite possible that we are paying the price for demanding a world in which tough answers aren’t sought. (I won’t dwell on this idea, except to say I can’t believe that “easy credit” and “easy answers” aren’t related in at least the smallest of ways.) Science is challenging, it is difficult, it can even be confrontational if your own world view conflicts with it – just as it was for those who for centuries insisted the world was flat and the earth was at the center of the universe.
To hear that we are one small sphere amid “a hundred thousand million suns” does indeed fly in the face of any conservative views.
But I wouldn't expect hard science if I were a guest to The Holy Land Experience in Orlando, I likewise don’t expect religious views, or their influence, to factor in to a visit to EPCOT.
Perhaps they didn’t. That's very possible.
And yet ... perhaps they did.
Try to imagine.
One well-placed letter, one influential guest complaining about EPCOT’s lack of “inclusiveness.” One guest threatening a boycott – or, worse, suggesting that his or her family might not buy the new Disney DVD because their sensibilities were disturbed by a dramatic, memorable recitation of the science of the creation of our little planet.
Try to imagine.
Monday, October 06, 2008
Disney has virtually made a science out of the art form of marketing. Through highly paid consultants and outside agencies, through focus groups and incessant testing, Disney has learned its business well.
And yet, Disney’s relentless, inexhaustible marketing machine also has removed any trace of real personality from its products. As Disney Consumer Products head Andy Mooney told the Los Angeles Times a few months ago, the new “Tinker Bell” movie wasn’t made for entertainment value. It was made to make money. Mooney said, “We were fundamentally missing an opportunity in terms of getting Tinker Bell out there as a character. There’s clearly latent demand.”
That’s how Disney thinks: Consumer demand drives creative decisions, not the other way around. And from a long-term value standpoint, the problem is, “the other way around” is exactly how The Walt Disney Company became so successful in the first place.
And all of that, in a roundabout way, brings us to EPCOT.
EPCOT Center wasn’t created because consumers demanded a more adult-oriented theme park dedicated to exploring future technologies and world cultures. If you had asked 100 adults in 1976 if they thought such a place was needed, or even interesting, you likely would have been met with 100 blank stares.
Focus groups weren’t asked if EPCOT Center would make them feel better about Disney or drive their interest in visiting a Disney Park.
EPCOT Center didn’t fill a gaping void in Disney’s theme-park catalog, wasn’t designed to appeal to the company’s “core consumer.”
EPCOT Center was created because it was a great idea that hadn’t been tried.
EPCOT Center was built on a vision. (Yes, you could argue it was a flawed one) It was conceived by creative artists who might have had a limited reach, as opposed to Walt Disney’s, but who were at least aspiring to something new and different.
The consumer proposition came later, as the project was handed off to marketers and merchandisers and publicists, who had the task (enviable, in my book, unenviable to some) of introducing and explaining this entirely new idea to the public.
The idea came first. The selling of the idea came afterward.
The dream was the most important thing.
Twenty-six years later, EPCOT does not fit any sort of “core message” that Jay Rasulo and his marketing team at Disney Parks have devised for the theme parks. That’s a problem. Because while Disney has the collective brain and skillset of thousands of very smart marketing executives, there’s one thing it doesn’t have: a collective heart.
Unfortunately, that’s the very thing that EPCOT and, increasingly “Disney Parks” in general, needs.
Until they can make it into “Disney’s Epcot,” this marketing group, for all of its expertise in other areas, simply can’t sell the thing.
So, instead of trying to understand what they don’t understand (as Pocahontas might say, of learning “things they never knew they never knew”), they’ll keep adding Pixar characters and Disney characters and princesses and kid-oriented activities and cartoons and “magic” to the place until only the architecture sets it apart. And although there will be no good way to explain that giant golf ball, those sleek buildings, the massive pavilions, the unusual layout, and all those weird “country places,” it won’t matter.
It will be “Disney,” as that word has come to be defined. Then they can sell it.
The Disney of today manufactures and markets filmed-entertainment products like Beverly Hills Chihuahua and ever more Pirates of the Caribbean soon-to-be-DVDs, but would not be able to take the bold creative steps that led to, say, Fantasia, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, Mary Poppins or The Wonderful World of Disney ... much less Disneyland or EPCOT Center.
In all of those instances, the idea came first. The idea drove the business. And though he is, unfortunately, not recognized for the towering achievements he made to American Industry, Walt Disney’s concept of putting the idea first created a company unlike any other.
Despite his accomplishments, Walt Disney knew he was corny, reveled in it. So it made sense that he would approve of a lyric like, “If your heart is in your dream / No request is too extreme.”
Those who have inherited what Walt Disney built aren’t corny. They want to be hip, cool players in today’s Hollywood. They don’t, as a rule, seem to really understand or appreciate the sentiment behind those lyrics. The idea is secondary; the ability to market the idea comes first.
So they can’t quite understand what happens when your heart’s not in your dreams.
They need look no further than EPCOT.
A few weeks back, a Walt Disney World executive and I were talking about the woes that have befallen my favorite theme park. I reminded him of its origins, its concept, its message, and wondered to him why Disney didn’t try to rebuild that concept.
He smiled at me and said, “Wow, you really believe that stuff, don’t you?”
It made me doubt whether he even knows the lyrics to When You Wish Upon a Star. Or maybe, after 22 years of “Disney marketing,” he’s simply forgotten.
Friday, October 03, 2008
Wednesday, October 01, 2008
To all who come to this place of thought, expression, ideas and dreams, welcome. EPCOT Central is yours. I hope you will continue to speak your mind here, and to share in the dream that Disney will someday regain its appreciation of this most unique, daring theme park.
As daring as EPCOT Center was when it opened, 25 years ago, it dared even further with the opening of Horizons. The massive, single-ride pavilion, originally sponsored by GE, made a declaration that, sadly, The Walt Disney Company would prove itself unable or unwilling to realize: “If we can dream it, then we can do it.”
It’s unlikely that, in January 1999, executives at Disney realized just how wrong they would be in assuming that Horizons was antiquated and needed to be replaced. Certainly, they could never have anticipated the outpouring of emotion and nostalgia that so many feel for the attraction.
In many ways, Horizons represented the pinnacle of Walt Disney Imagineering. It boasted a large number of Audio-Animatronics figures, a theme-park innovation that no other company (sadly, including today’s Disney) was ever able to replicated. It offered guests an immersive experience that transported them out of their worlds and, briefly, into another. It improved on an existing ride system and increased capacity, so that while by today’s standards its hourly intake was relatively low (I’ve read about 700 an hour), there was rarely a wait, and the experience felt seamless to most guests. It blended humor, music, nostalgia, optimism, futurism, hope and even smells into a ride unlike any other, before or since.
Its unique “immersion” into “the promise of brighter days” may have left some guests cold, no doubt, but for many others, it offered the glimpse of a world in which, true, we might not all actually wear jumpsuits, but in which we had a chance to know and understand more about our life. It told us we had choices, and each was rife with possibility.
Horizons was markedly un-ironic, and it could not exist in a company that seems to believe post-modern irony is what makes its guests chuckle. No, it wasn’t markedly un-ironic – it was gloriously un-ironic.
Allegedly, Horizons fell victim to a sinkhole that mysteriously appeared a few years after GE failed to renew its sponsorship. How GE, or any other company, was supposed to re-invest in a concept that Disney itself appeared to have lost faith in is something I can’t explain. The “official version” aside (sinkhole, no sponsorship, guest surveys), it’s hard to accept any reason for Horizon’s fate than this: Disney didn’t believe in its basic message. No one understood it, and as Horizons lost its lease on life, so did EPCOT Center’s original theme.
I like to believe that the (Disney) world will be a better place someday. Soon, I hope. Because instead of new horizons, it’s increasingly showing us very limited horizons that look awfully like the world we live in now, filled with glitz and flash, but little substance, and, frankly, very little hope or optimism.