Thursday, November 19, 2009

EPCOT: What Doesn't


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.


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* Thanks to an anonymous EPCOT Central reader for pointing out that an earlier description of COSI's size was incorrect.

22 comments:

Chris said...

I definitely was a fan of Communicore and to be quite honest, Innoventions when it opened was not that bad...yes, it was a hodge-podge of things and gone were the wide open spaces, but there was a LOT to do there and enjoy...

...then I guess Disney stopped getting sponsorships or didn't have any vision for it anymore and it became a mere shadow of its former self. Now we get to play outdated Disney games on old consoles and walk around a lot of closed off areas.

Thankfully we do now have a thrill ride in there, Raytheon's the Sum of All Thrills.

I am no expert on how Disney gets sponsorship deals with other companies but I would think it might be a good idea to reach out to the pioneers out there right now...those companies who are doing a lot of things for the future.

Heck, even Dean Kamen's Segways are only a very small part of the work he has done for the world...where's the rest of his inventions?

This topic is timely for me as I just learned about the TED conference held annually which brings together many, many of the best minds in many areas...what comes out of these conferences is mind-blowing...

I think it would be very good for Epcot to try to pull these kinds of conferences in, along with science fairs and whatever else speaks to the great ideas that the original EPCOT Center was known for...it's not that difficult!

Epcot82...as a side note, are you going to post a blog about the absense of the Lights of Winter this year?

Epcot82 said...

Having never actually experienced the holidays at Walt Disney World (I've been too scared off by the consistent reports of crazy crowds), I'm not going to be commenting on it -- but it sounds like it will be missed by many. Fortunately, there are many other ways to celebrate the holidays throughout Walt Disney World!

Captain Schnemo said...

Innoventions is actually one of the things that is very close (in theory, anyway) to Walt's original vision of EPCOT.

He wanted the leaders of industry to have a showcase that the public could witness. It's one thing to show a movie saying "solar panels are coming!" and another to show you an actual solar panel, functioning properly, hopefully powering something cool and presented in an interesting way.

The kind of thing that when you went home and later saw something on the news or the Discovery Channel about how this or that new tech is coming, you could think "Hey, I've seen that before and it actually works!".

I think the problem is that they are thinking way too small. There's too much tech that wouldn't impress anyone who has an iPhone or an Xbox or has ever been to an electronics store.

Segways are fun, but they've been around a long time now.

Instead of being a commercial for what you can buy now, it should be a showcase of tech which is still years from coming to market. And it should be updated frequently.

The commercial electric car that was there ages ago was a good example. After seeing that, people could imagine driving an electric vehicle that didn't look like an oversized golf cart.

Assuming the original concept is worth doing, they could certainly do something interesting here, mostly on the dime of the sponsors.

If they can't make that work for business or technical reasons, then perhaps abandoning the concept entirely is worthwhile. They could use the area to tie Future World together into a more coherent theme, with each quadrant representing the respective attractions surrounding it. That would make a lot more sense than a general "science museum" theme, and could do a lot to work the brand.

Dylank said...

I agree with everything said here, both the article and the comments. Innoventions was not so bad when it first changed from communicore to the horrid thing it is now, even if it was just basically an arcade which EPCOT didnt have at the time. The idea that its closest to Walts original dream is a nice one too. However, all that said, Innoventions is most terrible place in EPCOT, the times ive been there after it open ive avoided it like the plauge. And im a person who would normaly like everything thats there, like future tech thats still in beta or stuff thats old but still futureistic that not everyone has yet like Segway, even video games are great thing to do in Disney in my opinion.

The problem is that EVERYTHING pretty much innoventions does isnt the future. Its ethier the present or god forbid the PAST! This part of EPCOT would do better as some wierd gateway museum to World Showcase than as a hub of Future World. Yeah its nice that Raytheon put a Kuka Arm there and that goes a long way to starting some improvements but one good attraction does not a pavillion make. I suppose the original problem that Communicore had was that its vision of the future has of early 90s pretty much been realised.

This is also the basic problem of EPCOT itself. Who cares to go to a theme park about the future when more or less we all live in that great and glorious future that it presented....NOW.

Guess that just leaves WS, and with the wholesale abandonment of Country Sponsors its pretty much ruined too.

Poor EPCOT. You outlived your time.

Anonymous said...

i'm glad you noted the design, layout, etc. communicore had a much better feel to it partly due to the open floorplan. it seems now that walking through innoventions, i feel like i'm walking through an endless hallway with 12' walls pinballing guests forward.

regardless of whether the content is better or worse, the physical design of the space is simply not inviting. that, it would seem, should be one of Disney's strengths! i would hope given a little time and attention, that even the underwhelming house of innoventions could be more compelling within a better layout.

Anonymous said...

One correction - COSI is about three times as big as Innoventions.

Growing up and seeing Communicore on TV, I was so excited by the idea of going to EPCOT. Walking through Innoventions these days is positively depressing!

Epcot82 said...

I based the size information on Internet research that showed COSI is about 100,000 square feet -- more or less the same size all four "quadrants" of Innoventions combined. My apologies if this information is incorrect.

Anonymous said...

That may have been the square footage of the previous location - it's been in a 320,000 sq. ft. building for the last ten years. You can find that number on the COSI page - http://www.cosi.org/about/history/

Epcot82 said...

Thanks, and I stand corrected!

Anonymous said...

I was on the opening team of Innventions, and can tell you there were several problems from the beginning.

First, Michael Eisner wanted it to be like the Consumer Electronics Show, where companies could showcase their upcoming technologies. The problem was, you had competing companies exhibiting their wares, and they weren't going to tip their hands to the competition. So they displayed their most RECENTLY announced items - which irked Disney to no end. Rather than showcasing the future, they were showcasing the present.

Then there was the Disney management team, who basically told the companies the same line that Disney had been feeding the bigger corporate sponsors; "You need us more than we need you. Go ahead and leave, there are plenty more companies begging to be in Innoventions" and when companies started leaving, it snowballed and Disney couldn't fill the spaces.

Just my 2 cents... :-)

Anonymous said...

This is another example of Disney's "threat" actually being right. They DON'T need sponsor companies, as much as they claim that the sponsor model is the prevailing business model for Epcot. Disney simply needs to tell its Imagineers, "We need the very best science museum in the country, primarily focused on the communication, energy, oceanography, transportation, space, environment and imagination concepts presented in the rest of Future World. Give us your best ideas."

They don't need to sponsor each exhibit or area; they just need to create the best damned interactive museum of science and industry that has ever been seen.

Carvahall11 said...

It looks like they're really improving Innoventions. A handful of new sponsors are pouring in there. Isn't that what EPCOT needs? The Sum of All Thrills uses innovative technology to help you use actual math and engineering to design your own ride. The touch screen, Tony Stark-esque work desks look out of this world. It's all about using math. That's not only learning, but it's learning through the use of cutting edge technology. Yes the end result is a thrill ride, but isn't that how things are designed in the real world? It makes the use of mathematics real as opposed to staring at it blankly in a textbook and saying, "When will I ever use this?" It make people want to actually try the math.

Innoventions is improving. The Sum of All Thrills is a major contributor to this. The whole place has been getting a gradual makeover. Visual clutter in the plazza is being removed. Signage is subtle, it has a clean color scheme, it actually has sponsors, and IBM is coming out with something that I think is communications related. (don't quote me, I need to read up on it.) Wait and see, things are happening, otherwise they wouldn't been talking to these new sponsors and spending money on cleaning it up cosmetically. House of the Future is going out soon, so we should expect a new exhibit there.

Tuckenie said...

I agree with pretty much everything that's been said, however, I am SHOCKED that Epcot82 has not been to Epcot or WDW for the holidays.

Dude, take a tip from a cast member, the ONLY weeks there's a lot of guests in November and December are the big "holiday" weeks (Thanksgiving, Christmas-New Year's) The rest of the time the parks are EMPTY.

I just walked to my car at Epcot because the trams aren't running. They're not running because there were six rows full on each side. SIX! Expected attendance at Epcot today: 20,000. That's the high for this week! (And no, that's not abnormal at all for this time of year.)

GET DOWN HERE MAN! Epcot is AMAZING this time of year. The weather is great. It's cooled off. Holidays Around the World is up. And two words early December: Candlelight. Processional.

BTW: Yes it's sad the Lights of Winter are down (I hear they've been degrading rapidly the last few years...) But I believe it's been announced so I can share that a choir will be performing at the fountain stage during the season. From what I hear it should be great...

Andy JS said...

I'm looking for some decent photos and/or videos of Communicore from 1982-94. The strange thing is we had our video camera in 1993 but we didn't take any footage in Communicore itself, just a few shots of the outside of the building.

Thanks, Andy

Epcot82 said...

Andy,

While I don't have any myself, there are some pretty good videos available through a basic online/Google search.

What is easily forgotten, and that I didn't mention in my first post, is that Communicore was designed to be two stories so a PeopleMover could run through it ... which would have been an interesting idea, if executed!

Carvahall11 said...

You've gotta admit this looks slightly CommuniCore-esque. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Tpeh6zKWLuI It looks more adult-oriented than the other stuff at Innoventions. IBM and Raytheon have given us two new exhibits that look adult-oriented. Visual-wise they look rather sleek too. This is something Future World needs visually. Fountain of Nations has a new silver, sleek, futuristic railing with LED lights. They replaced that hideous green railing. Original paint job has returned to Universe of Energy. Future World is getting getting some improvement and Spaceship Earth and Project Tomorrow have kick-started it. Let's have some optimism.

Dylank said...

Wow just watched above link to IBMs project in Innoventions....very slick and yes very communicorey i agree. This is a good direction...I love that big spherical display! I can immediately think of so many uses for that! Theres your optimism, perhaps all the gloom and doom is paying off and someone is listening? Ill have to ask my uncle who works for IBM in Detroit more about this!

Andy JS said...

We're used to complaining that today Disney doesn't take EPCOT seriously enough sometimes.

But I read somewhere that when Disney set up the Person of the Century display in Communicore at the beginning of 1990 the staff used to mess around with it and put in the names of people they knew, and stupid stuff like that, which messed up the whole idea. I think it was supposed to run from January 1990 until December 1999 when the person of the century would be revealed according to how EPCOT guests had voted during the 1990s.

So actually stupid things like that have been going on at Epcot for longer than we might sometimes think they have.

I was there with my family in February 1990 but I can't really remember the Person of the Century thingy. I wish I could.

Andy JS said...

Sorry - not sure if staff is an American word or not. It's British meaning employees which would be cast members in Disney World of course.

Carvahall11 said...

Please check this out. Look at the photos of IBM's Smarter Planet at Innoventions: http://www.wdwnewstoday.com/forums/showthread.php?t=5410 In this exhibit, you have to vote on important world issues according to your opinion. It gets you thinking. Thinking. Please check this out. Thanks IBM for the futuristic optimism!

not a gator said...

Exploratorium, SF. Children's Museum, Boston. Museum of Science and Industry, Chicago. Air and Space Museum, Dulles, VA. Baltimore Aquarium.

A day's worth of entertainment at 1/3 the Disney ticket price AND you might actually learn something AND no risk of heat stroke.

The food is usually cheaper, too.

I only visit World Showcase. Sadly, it doesn't open until 11am. Talk about a rip.

PartyPigTN said...

I work on and off for Disney the last time I walked through Ebpot I noticed it kinda does look at of place I do know tat sponsorship is down and that limits the show which is hwy they need to completely rethink it possiably back to just a Commmunicar