Tuesday, January 20, 2009

EPCOT, Obama and the Future


Today, U.S. President Barack Obama delivered an inauguration speech rich with promise and hope, and as he spoke, my mind surprisingly turned to EPCOT Center.

Twenty-six years ago, Disney created a theme park of remarkable scale and ambition, one that attempted to tell us where America and the world had been, where we are going, and what we may find when we get there. The theme was also filled with promise and hope, with optimism and pride. And for the past decade and a half or so, it has been considered outmoded and cheesy, irrelevant to a nation obsessed with commercialism, consumerism and brand identity.

And yet, on the first day of the Obama Administration, our president admonished us for having forgotten those very ideals, those lofty dreams, the idealism and vision that helped create an entire nation out of nothing during the course of just two centuries.

President Obama said, "Now, there are some who question the scale of our ambitions -- who suggest that our system cannot tolerate too many big plans. Their memories are short. For they have forgotten what this country has already done; what free men and women can achieve when imagination is joined to common purpose, and necessity to courage. What the cynics fail to understand is that the ground has shifted beneath them ..."

These were words that had me recalling the very feelings I first felt as a teenager visitng EPCOT Center. Our country is strong. Our world is strong. Our future is strong, if we just have imagination and a sense of purpose.

Earlier in the speech, he said, "We will restore science to its rightful place, and wield technology's wonders to raise health care's quality and lower its cost. We will harness the sun and the winds and the soil to fuel our cars and run our factories. And we will transform our schools and colleges and universities to meet the demands of a new age. All this we can do. And all this we will do."

Science. Technology. Harnessing the sun and the soil. Joining imagination to purpose. As he said this, I recalled Spaceship Earth, the Universe of Energy, the World of Motion, Living With the Land, Communicore, The Living Seas and all of the audacious ideas and concepts they tried to present. I thought about World Showcase and its humbly unspoken message that we all live next door to each other, we are all working together for the vision of the future that is just on the other shore, so close by, waiting to be explored.

As Obama related the struggles of our forefathers, I recalled that The American Adventure offers a similarly stirring story. But is so often overlooked these days, and Disney has responded not by improving and refining it, but by installing the Kim Possible activity, by encouraging young guests not to explore the true stories of the world's nations and peoples, but rather the fictional adventures of a Disney cartoon.

Today's EPCOT reflects our times.

It is crass consumerism, pointed "brand positioning" and unabashed, meaningless "entertainment." It is like everything else, and our society has come to value things that are like everything else. We want our movies to be the same, we want our TV to be the same, we want our cars to be the same. We value profits and economic growth over hard work and sacrifice, over imagination and progress.

"Progress" was a word Walt Disney used frequently. Obama uses it, too. Maybe it will become part of our vocabulary again. "Progress" is different than "growth." "Progress" is change, imagination, inspiration and promise. "Growth" is selfish gain.

Maybe you don't want to be told these things on vacation. Disney has made sure you don't have to be.

Maybe Disney just wants to make sure EPCOT makes the most money it can. Surely after losing billions of dollars on Hong Kong Disneyland and Disneyland Paris and Prince Caspian and ABC Family, Disney can afford to have one theme park that isn't as much a slam-dunk as the others?

We are faced with the opportunity to answer a call to try harder. To come together as an American and a global family. To see ourselves in the faces of those who look and live differently. To shine a light on the path that leads to the future.

These are all things that EPCOT Center tried to do.

It's a shame that EPCOT has given up this attempt. Because more than ever, as we were told today by our president, we need to set an example for what we can be, what we should be. The next generation of EPCOT did lower its sights, and now we see the outcome.

The time has come, Obama reminded us today, citing Scripture, to put away childish things.

Here's hoping someone at Disney was listening.

26 comments:

St. Chris said...

Amen.

Anonymous said...

Are you going to continue the "best and worst" series?

Epcot82 said...

Yes. Thanks for asking!

Matt Hunter Ross said...

How about the "Ten Steps to a Better EPCOT" series?... just curious.

Another great post. Let's pray for a new infusion of progress at Disneyworld.

Epcot82 said...

"10 Steps" is not forgotten! So much has happened in the meantime. Thanks for the reminder.

Coffee House and Home said...

Awesome post! EPCOT stands as a reminder of what we were, what we are, and what we can be.

EPCOT has faltered, but it is still there. The foundation is sound and the idea is worthy. Now is the time to bring it back to where it belongs.

Thanks for opening our eyes!

Brian Place said...

I am really glad you linked Obama's speech with EPCOT - because I did the same thing in my head yesterday.

Shawn said...

Wow!
That was wonderfully done!
Very nice!

Anonymous said...

Why does that picture of Spaceship Earth make me want to eat cookies?

Brad S said...

Wonderful entry as always. You make a lot of great points on this blog, many of which raced through my mind last week as I enjoyed the park. And I totally agree about the placement of Soarin'. Fantastic ride (one of the best at WDW), just an odd location.

Anonymous said...

Epcot82, I believe you missed the point in Obama's speech and the intent of EPCOT. I believe them both to be mutually exclusive.

As stated by both Walt himself and by the dedication plaque out in front of EPCOT Center, EPCOT was originally intended to be a showcase to the world of the creative imagination of American free enterprise - the private sector and free market solving society's problems.

Obama's inauguration speech described government solving the problems of American society, as if the government is the engine for a person's happiness and well-being. The new president even went so far as to tell everyone to ignore how big government gets - a very dangerous line of thought.

Walt Disney was a free-marketeer and a big advocate of the American private sector (why do you think he bought all that land in the first place?). It seems that President Obama's only solution to any problem (social or otherwise) is a centralized government bureaucracy.

In other words, Walt's brand of "progress" was technology based, with the private sector providing individuals - through the free market - with the ability to freely choose their own destiny. President Obama's definition of "progress" involves expanding government and inevitably limiting the choices of the individual for a concept he called "collective salvation".

I don't honestly believe that Walt would have approved of the new president's worldview, much less his brand of "hope".

I agree with you that EPCOT Center leaves a lot to be desired and that Disney is asleep at the wheel when it comes to its vision for the park. But to shoehorn the president's vision of "progress" with Walt Disney's brand of "progress" is an insult to Walt and his vision.

Epcot82 said...

Your comments are always welcome. I won't turn the forum, however, into a political debate. I was focusing on the concepts and ideals, the inspiring words, the philosophies behind his speech, not their practical, political application. I like to believe I'm intelligent enough to have heard the words, understand the pragmatic concepts behind them, but also appreciate the feelings and beliefs they inspired in me and others. I don't believe I missed the point as much as I saw a different view.

Coffee House and Home said...

Epcot82....fantastic reply!

Anonymous said...

On ABC during the inauguration they played Illumination's Reflections of Earth music to cut to and from commercials. Coincidence?

http://forums.wdwmagic.com/showthread.php?t=396581

Matt Hunter Ross said...

(^) yeah, I was wondering about that - very cool. yet, its not all that shocking seeing how Disney is so into cross-pollinating now. still, a good go for Gavin & EPCOT - woohoo!

Andy JS said...

(Sorry to be off topic here): Most people I know started going to EPCOT in the late 80s, early 90s, and that's true of my family. Did anyone commenting on this site go to EPCOT in the first few years, like 1982-1986? I'd love to hear from you. Thanks, Andy.

Spokker said...

"As stated by both Walt himself and by the dedication plaque out in front of EPCOT Center, EPCOT was originally intended to be a showcase to the world of the creative imagination of American free enterprise"

Originally, it was intended to be a showcase of American free enterprise but Michael Madoff made off with Spaceship Earth's refurbishment budget...

Socialism is evil, unless we want to bail out auto and bank executives and preserve their quality of life. Universal health care for the working poor? NO! BIG GOVERNMENT BAD! ME HATE GOVERNMENT!

Critifur said...
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Critifur said...
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Critifur said...

Andy JS - I went to EPCOT Center a few months after it opened in 1982, I was 15 years old. And repeatedly after that. What can I do you for?

Epcot82 said...

As for myself, my first visit was in June 1983. It's not easy to forget that!

Anonymous said...

Boy, Obama's bromides are fit for a Hallmark card. But little else. The man speaks with such little substance that it makes me nauseous.

EPCOT is filled with substance. Obama's speeches are not.

Digital Jedi said...

If you think, Anonymous, then you haven't been listening closely at all.

bluesky said...

I am back from my Orlando trip and I have some things to report. As stated in previous posts. I would not visit any of the Disney parks while on my trip. (For personal "foamer" reasons) I did however buy a seven day pass to Universal. Which I have not visited since the early 90's when it first opened. While Universal is a nice enough theme park, it is in no way comparable to the Disney experience. That is unless we are talking about the "new" Epcot. I could not help but draw comparisons between the two parks. Both are a cold, disjointed, mishmash of wannabe thrill rides. Sure as you are in a particular ride you may get lost in its theming, but outside nothing makes any sense at all. Anyone who has recently visited both parks surely knows what I am talking about. Ok, now back to the topic. I agree with everything you are saying about the idealism of Obama's speeches and the original concept of EPCOT. In fact I made a very similar comment back in November on this very blog under "The Promise of Brighter Days." It reads, "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 the 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 cliché. But, think outside the box. America is dying for the promise of a better tomorrow. Bring it to life at EPCOT."

Anonymous said...

After having seen the direction the Obama Administration has gone since Innauguration Day, I feel sorry for those who held so much hope on that day. It is clear now that he is not the answer.

Anonymous said...

huh? Obama is doing everything he can to clean up the mistakes of the past while also pushing for the Epcot future of new energy technology, better healthcare and medical advances, land conservation and clean air, and promoting peace between nations.

Obama has done more in 60 days than most presidents have done in 8 years!