How could Disney get something so spectacularly wrong, so consistently?
Put simply: Innoventions is awful. Making the problem even more fascinating: It shouldn't be.
As Disney demonstrated in its Theme Parks & Resorts pavilion at the D23 Expo earlier this year, it has world-class designers who can create exhibitions that showcase imagination and creativity and fantastic design sensibility. The D23 Expo Theme Parks & Resorts pavilion was a shining example of how to engage and fascinate large groups, how to move them through, and how to lay out exhibits in a way that made sense and was tremendously appealing.
And as family-oriented science centers across the country demonstrate every day, learning can be fun and engaging, and education can be packaged in a way that appeals to guests who are 5 and guests who are 50. Just because an exhibit is designed "for kids" does not mean it has to be boring for adults or childlike in its execution.
So, why does Innoventions get it so wrong?
The original incarnation of Innoventions, CommuniCore, was a whole lot better, combining better design, better exhibits and more forward-thinking technology (for its day) than Innoventions does. It took the themes of EPCOT Center and created "spin-off" exhibits that actually did offer more insight and exploration into those subjects. As an experience, it supplemented a visit to EPCOT Center -- and, not coincidentally, provided a lengthy, welcome respite from Florida heat (or rain, depending on the time of year).
From a design standpoint, CommuniCore was divided into four quadrants that helped make navigating it easier. Everything in CommuniCore was designed to reflect EPCOT's theme of a future world in which we all connected to each other and in which communications technologies would allow us to learn more about the world around us, and to participate in it more fully. A Utopian ideal? Absolutely, but then EPCOT didn't pretend to posit that we could (or wanted to) achieve anything less -- and was blissfully unaware or unconcerned with charges of totalitarianism or socialism. Politics wasn't the agenda ... offering a vision of an idealized future was.
Of course, CommuniCore had a decidedly commercial bent. Everything was "sponsored by" or "presented by" a sponsor company, often the same ones who sponsored Future World pavilions. It was also a place where guests could explore not-ready-for-prime-time technologies like PCs, personal videogames, fiber-optic-driven communication, video conferencing and instant polling.
Twelve years after opening, CommuniCore gave way to Innoventions -- which may have outlived its predecessor by three years (and counting), but is one of Disney's worst concepts ... poorly designed and executed, to boot.
Like a goofy PBS kids' science show no one wants to watch, Innoventions takes a hodgepodge of ideas -- ranging from personal financial saving to trash management -- and mixes them all together in a zany mish-mash of styles, designs and themes. Although there is allegedly a master plan and design, Innoventions feels thrown together, despite repeated attempts to redesign and rebuild it.
There's precious little learning or discovery going on. Yes, you can drop a hammer onto a TV screen, and allegedly learn how safe your TV is thanks to Underwriters Laborator. Sure, you can ride a Segway for about two minutes (if you can handle the lines). You can see a very dull "House of Innoventions" ... if you can figure out where to enter. But learning? Actual science? Real discovery and enlightenment?
Compare Innoventions to the truly extraordinary California Academy of the Sciences in San Francisco, which, granted, is about four times the size of Innoventions ... but also encompasses a planetarium, a tropical rain forest and a full aquarium.
On the other hand, COSI in Columbus, Ohio, was for many years about the same size as Innoventions* ... and is world-famous for its blend of science, entertainment and interactivity.
Around the country, and around the world, there are science centers that beat Innoventions hands down. The truly discouraging thing is that CommuniCore beat Innoventions hands down.
In its current incarnation, Innoventions may occupy the physical center of EPCOT's Future World ... but it is far from being its heart.
* Thanks to an anonymous EPCOT Central reader for pointing out that an earlier description of COSI's size was incorrect.