Saturday, March 07, 2009

EPCOT Center Was Boring


"But," the oft-heard argument goes, "EPCOT Center was boring. No one liked it."

Sorry, EPCOT Central isn't buying it.

Say the EPCOT had to change, and you're on to something. Say that EPCOT grew stale and didn't reflect the rapidly changing times, and it's a fair assessment. Say that EPCOT paid the price for not explaining itself to guests, and the argument holds water.
But, folks, EPCOT Center was not boring.

In 1993, film critic Roger Ebert (who used to work for Disney) wrote a review of the richly emotional The Remains of the Day, which he compares with the simliarly thoughtful The Age of Innocence. His review concludes: "I got some letters from readers who complained the movie was boring, that 'nothing happens in it.' To which I was tempted to reply: If you had understood what happened in it, it would not have been boring."

So it was for EPCOT Center, a theme park that from inception was designed to be unlike any other, and suffered the consequences for its one-of-a-kind ambition.

EPCOT Center, as it was conceived in the years after Walt Disney died, was a hard-to-define combination of world's fair and theme park, where guests could learn about the world around them -- both how it worked and who made it work. Its two distinct areas, Future World and World Showcase, may have seemed quite separate, but shared a common theme: We are all in this together.

Politics and economic philosophies were cast aside, and with good reason. Because at its core, EPCOT Center sent a message that whether we believed in progress at the hands of major corporations, or whether we believed that individuals shaped our destiny, the world was ours to make of it whatever we could dream.

This was a brazen concept. It conformed to no pre-existing "rule" about theme-park design. There was no "hub-and-spoke" concept to lure guests into the park. Visually, much of EPCOT Center couldn't be seen from any given location. Simple "rides" were transformed into lengthy experiences. Each of these experiences hewed to the theme. It wasn't enough to create a fun attraction; the central concept of our future world or our shared global culture had to be reflected.

Where EPCOT Center went wrong was less in the execution -- though that was no doubt hampered by the economic realities of spending $1 billion in the late 1970s and early 1980s, money that Walt Disney Productions simply didn't have -- than in the communication of the message.

What was EPCOT Center? It was almost impossible for guests not to know that it existed; they just didn't know what it was, and once they got there, those who hadn't sought out the explanation for themselves were left not knowing what to make of it. Two miles away, The Magic Kingdom was filled with fun and frivolity. Around the Walt Disney World "Vacation Kingdom," simple pleasures like golfing, tennis, water skiing and horseback riding beckoned. They didn't need explanation. EPCOT Center did.

One of the most frequently maligned attractions of EPCOT's early days was the Universe of Energy, sponsored by a Exxon -- a company that, even in the oil-crazy days of the 1970s, was hardly a bastion of trust and integrity. Exxon had an agenda, and the Universe of Energy proved a perfect platform from which to extol the virtues of petroleum-based energy products. With the leaden, stentorian tones of a dull college professor, the attraction insisted that oil and gasoline would lead the way. Considering the times, and particularly what followed EPCOT Center's opening, the attraction was tone deaf and, yes, dull.

But was it boring? Not to anyone who disagreed with its view. Not to anyone who looked beyond the surface to explore the ideas and concepts that were buried just under the surface. If the Universe of Energy wasn't exactly inspirational, it wasn't boring. Even in its deceptive simplicity, it was unusually complex in its ambitions.

No, neither the Universe of Energy (used here as just one example) or EPCOT Center could be defined as "boring." Challenging, perhaps. Ambitious and not entirely successful, without doubt.

The problems with EPCOT Center, looking back, came not from execution, but from expectation. Guests expected to find the prototypical, happy, silly, tune-filled Disney merriment, but came away confused. Confusion is never good for a brand-conscious company like Disney, so over the years, Disney marketeers sought to decrease the confusion.

"Epcot" became a "discovery park" for a while, and today has no real definition. It's just another "Disney park," one that can't be defined as "the Hollywod park," or "the animal park" or "a place where fairytale dreams come true."

EPCOT Center has never lived down its early reputation as being boring. But it didn't earn that reputation. More accurately, Disney never tried to combat that label. Instead of developing a team of marketers, publicists, brand managers and operations staff who could further define and understand EPCOT, Disney gave up on it. Now, it's a dumping ground for anything that doesn't quite fit anywhere else. It's a hodgepodge of ideas, one that seems somehow easier to define for its lack of a consistent theme than it ever was when it knew what it wanted to be.

EPCOT Center was never like any other place. It might be true that few 11-year-olds were blown away by the place, found it to be exciting and captivating. But as one reader recently observed, when he first visited the park, he found it boring. Today, he can't get enough but his family finds it dull.

As a high-school teacher used to say to our class, "Only boring people are bored." For those of us who went in knowing what to expect, who were willing to open our minds to the ideas presented (even if they were rudimentary), who wanted something more than passive entertainment, EPCOT Center was hardly boring, and could have grown and changed into something even more spectacular, even more ambitious ... not just a dumping ground for cute cartoon mascots and high-tech thrills.

Had EPCOT Center truly been boring, this blog wouldn't see thousands and thousands of readers every month. It would have been forgotten. As flawed as it may have been, EPCOT Center stirred the imaginations of a great many who visited it. Only time will tell, but it's hard to imagine the same thing happening with the lower-case Epcot. It just seems like a big waste of a great idea.

13 comments:

Digital Jedi said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Digital Jedi said...

There were many aspects of EPCOT Center that were less then thrilling, but there were many aspects that were mind blowing and inspirational. The original EPCOT took three days to completely take in, but it would be easy for less discerning Guests to miss the better aspects of the park by hitting the less interesting attractions too many times in a row in a single day, making the park seem dull. I always felt a few too many wide screen films lent themselves to that perception.

Josh from England said...

Just as EPCOT Center had to change, EPCOT Central has too. Nice new look, pal.

DeeJay said...

As one of many who agree with you that EPCOT Center had to change, but that it just was never permitted to develop, nor was it understood by those who found themselves running the park, I did a little experiment today after first reading you latest entry this morning.

As it neared my daughter's bedtime (she turned 6 last week), I loaded Martin Smith's tribute to Horizons onto my laptop. Even though she was extremely tired, she asked what I was watching.

I told her it was an old ride at Disney World that they tore down before she was born. She watched the entire video, asking me questions such as "What is space?" and "Why did they put those suits on before they went swimming?" and finally, "Are those all the people we saw in the other places singing happy birthday?"

She then asked "how do we get back?" and I told her to watch the screen as the person riding chose the space route home.

"Ohhhh...that's cool!" she said while watching the space return of the shuttle.

The first thing she said after the video finished was, "I want to watch that again." The second thing she said was to ask "why did they tear it down?"

I told her the people in charge said the foundation was bad and she asked me what a foundation was. I told her the ground something is built upon.

"When was it built? Before you were born?"

"No, 1983."

"I thought you were going to say 1982. How did they know the foundation was bad?" she asked.

"I don't know if they ever did?" I said back to her.

"Then why did they tear it down?"

"I don't know, honey. To put something else up in its space." I replied, pun intended but not for her to catch. "But the new ride would make Mommy and Daddy sick, so we wouldn't be able to go on it with you when you're old enough."

"Does it make you throw up?" she asked, wrinkling her nose.

"You could say that."

"Then I wouldn't want to go on it either, not without you." she said before asking me to start the video over.

I can only dream how enthralled she would have been with the actual attraction, but I'll never be able to live it, not for real. My 6-year old didn't think a video of Horizons was boring, I have a hard time believing she would have thought the real thing was either. She did, however, fall asleep the second time through the video.

Future Guy said...

I first visited EPCOT in the mid-80s, when I was six, and the only time I was bored was when my mom dragged us to the World Showcase so she could shop in Morocco. Future World inspired, fascinated, and excited me.

Sure, there were bound to be people who thought it was too "boring" to be worth their time, but those kind of people have NASCAR and pro wrestling to keep them entertained.

Chris Dugan said...

As a 6-7 year old in the late 80's Epcot Center absolutely captivated me—much more than the Magic Kingdom did. You really got the feeling you were looking into the future and the slower pace of the park encouraged exploration and discovery. I have very fond memories of the original Epcot and wish they'd bring some of that spirit back. Sadly, in today's short attention span, video-game culture I don't see that ever happening.

Anonymous said...

It has become clear, The Walt Disney Company must be liquefied and forgotten, with no remains of it's existence.

Richard said...

"But was it boring? Not to anyone who disagreed with its view."

That could be equally extended to the whole park - with the caveat that one need not disagree to not be bored. One simply needed not to define "entertainment" as escapist fantasy.

bluesky said...

There are truly amazing and exciting things just on the horizon. Our futures are about to be changed drastically with things like dust microchips, ultra efficient solar panels, super computers, full body scans, biotechnology, etc. Epcot could take full advantage of this, helping shape our future with exhibits and rides. Why not even look to space travel without the huge space ship. Like the movie Contact, manmade worm holes could transport us to completely different worlds. There are so many creative and exciting things that could be implemented into Future World. But, alas it will never be. Cheap thrills seem to be the future that Disney wants to create. It is really too bad.

Tracie the Red said...

RE: "Sure, there were bound to be people who thought it was too "boring" to be worth their time, but those kind of people have NASCAR and pro wrestling to keep them entertained."

Amen to that.

Ed Rhodes said...

Dude, I went in '90 when I was six and the only thing that kept me the least bit interested was Journey into Imagination and it's Imageworks. That was it. Maybe I was too young to appreciate what they were trying to do but I was not impressed with a ride about growing plants or a ride about how horrible the world was before the car was invented.
Could Epcot now be more? Sure. Is it being held back? Yeah, It is kinda. I've often thought "Epcot could save the world if they let it." But let's not be blinded by nostalgia here. EPCOT center was boring. At least when you're six it was

Michelle said...

Though a few of you are saying young kids couldn't appreciate EPCOT Center for what it was, that doesn't explain why at 3 years old, I loved it dearly. I was fascinated by Horizons and Spaceship Earth. There was something about it that even now, I can't put my finger on, but I know how it made me feel then and how it makes me feel when I remember it. I was recently accepted into the Disney College Program as an Attractions Cast Member, and I only wish I could have the opportunity to work on Horizons. I understand Disney is shifting its focus to be more "extreme" and "thrilling", but I just hope they remember that Disney is supposed to be for ALL ages, not just the 13-30 crowd. Sometimes guests just want to rest their feet, and sit in a nice air conditioned ride and feel like they are traveling through time for a few minutes. It's the same as black and white movies, or classical music. Boring to some, but brilliant to others.

Enoch said...

Epcot is awesome, but it could have been better if it was actually was a city.