Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Not for Children Only ... and That's OK


"When I was 6, EPCOT was so boring to me. I'm glad they changed it."

"I may not care for Nemo, but my 5-year-old loves it."

"When my teenagers go to EPCOT, they're bored silly and want to leave."

"EPCOT needs more rides for kids."

These are some of the comments (some real, some paraphrased) that EPCOT Central readers have offered recently, and it's an interesting observation -- because it assumes that Walt Disney World as a whole and EPCOT specifically need to appeal to kids.

"I thought," Walt Disney said back in the 1950s, "there ought to be a place where parents and kids can have fun together." The result was Disneyland, a place with a carousel and a (now-defunct) tobacconist, a place with a treehouse and a (now-defunct) silent-film cinema.

Walt Disney, thankfully, didn't think, "There ought to be a much cleaner, better-run amusement park where my kids can have fun." He knew the joy of an amusement park ride so cleverly conceived that guests of every age enjoyed it.

Disney has long marketed Disneyland and The Magic Kingdom to kids. There's little arguing with the success of that -- though an effective debate could be made that Disneyland was just as popular when its marketing was aimed at both kids and adults.

But EPCOT Center, from its inception, has always been a different story. EPCOT was a decidedly, almost unashamedly, adult park, and that concept certainly made as much sense in 1982 as it does today: A day or two at the Magic Kingdom to entertain and bring joy to the little ones could be followed by a day or two at EPCOT, where the discoveries and pleasures were directed at older guests. After all, not everyone who visits Walt Disney World is an 8-year-old kid ... and many, many guests don't even bring kids -- a fact that Disney, over and over, seems to ignore.

But being "grown up," Disney-style, somehow quickly got equated with being "boring." Imagine a family of four visiting Paris or Rome or San Francisco or New York and saying, "Well, there wasn't much for the kids to do." Imagine spending a day at the Louvre or the National Gallery and saying, "I loved it, but we left early because my little boy was just so bored."

EPCOT isn't for children only, and that's not a bad thing. It's designed to spur the imagination and a sense of discovery. To some people, unfortunately, that means it's boring -- just as some people could walk among the pyramids of Egypt, perhaps, and find nothing to interest them. Not everyone needs to love EPCOT, and not everyone does. That's OK, because there are three other theme parks, two water parks and a whole host of activities at Walt Disney World to occupy a day that might be spent at EPCOT.

Disney, though, doesn't seem to see it that way. Like most entertainment companies, it's obsessed with numbers: If EPCOT's attendance falls, if its exit polling data isn't as high as every other park, if EPCOT is perceived as "less popular" than the other parks, then it must be a failure. We've seen that mindset in play at Disney's California Adventure -- which, it shouldn't be forgotten, got rave reviews from most mainstream media when it opened, and wasn't quite as much a creative failure as revisionist history holds it to be, but is now the subject of a billion-dollar makeover that emphasizes kid-oriented fun, not California-themed discovery.

In this new "kids at all costs" Disney era, it would indeed be interesting to see what might have become of the never-built Disney's America, which probably would have been considered a catastrophic creative disaster, rather than an interesting, offbeat foundation on which to build.

Which gets us back to EPCOT, a park that was built not to entertain the younger set, but to inspire all ages. EPCOT's deck has long been stacked against it -- it is virtually impossible to take a subject like "the history and development of energy technologies" and make it understandable, palatable for guests of every imaginable age, education level and language. But the Imagineers saw that as a challenge, not necessarily a problem, and tried their best to create something that would work for everyone. Some results were better than others. But they were always fascinating.

The same, unfortunately, can't be said for the once-is-enough Seas With Nemo and Friends, or the surface-only thrills of Mission: Space or Test Track. They're cute and fun rides, there's no doubt, but they are designed to appeal primarily to younger visitors, and to amuse, not inspire.

A revised, revisited, renewed EPCOT -- should such a thing ever become a priority for Disney -- can take its inspiration from the original concept of a park that would engage every age. No, it wouldn't be as universally well-received as a park dedicated to Disney characters, or a park about the movies (if it really is that anymore) or about animals. It would be almost a "niche" park.

EPCOT would appeal to a particular sensibility. Not everyone would love it ... but those who did would adore it. They'd visit it again and again, and like a museum or a science center or a grand city filled with opportunities for discovery, it wouldn't be just for children. And that would be OK. Because EPCOT would appeal to the curious child in all of us -- and open a child's mind to the opportunities of adulthood.

27 comments:

rdeacon said...

It's not even has to be an adult park. Kids are smart, and should not be played down too. EPCOT needs to go back to its core by challenging and inspiring us. Adding characters to every attraction to make them "kid friendly" just makes them rides bland. The Seas with Nemo is a good example, the pre-show movie gave me chills, now I have a starfish asking me dental questions? How about they imagineer a ride that can deliver to all ages. Yes its hard, and a challenge, but isn't that what makes Disney.. Disney?

Dan said...

Exactly. I loved Epcot as a kid, nearly as much as the magic kingdom. We visited when I was 8 in 1984, and multiple times afterward. I wasn't a big fan of shopping in World Showcase, but there still was plenty in EPCOT to enjoy. Now it still has charms, but is so disjointed. You could spend an entire morning just at Wonders of Life or The Living Sea! There were so many little things to do that just aren't there now. The balance is shifting too much towards the easy, obvious path.

Future Guy said...

I visited EPCOT three times in the '80s at ages 6, 8, and 10. And I was never bored, except when my mom was dragging us through World Showcase so she could shop. But Future World? It was impossible to be bored there. It was like being inside the gleaming future that was supposed to be right around the corner.

Truth be told, I was more bored by the Country Bear Jamboree than I ever was by even the driest of EPCOT attractions (like the original Universe of Energy)

Anonymous said...

You have described my family experience perfectly. I have a large family, two brothers and a younger sister. The Living Seas used to be a family favorite. We would go htere first and the Whole family would spend a good hour. As it is now, we all just wait for my little sister to do the nemo ride, while the rest of us stand around. like many of the offerings at EPCOT, there was something for everyone in our family to enjoy. Not anymore.

Josh said...

Excellent post, sir! I hate to see the kiddification of the parks to the exclusion of adults. Like the other posters here, I LOVED Future World when I was a kid and didn't care much for World Showcase. Has that changed? Yep. Now I love World Showcase. And that's part of the beauty of it.

Giving kids something to look forward to when they're older is infinitely better than dumbing things down so they grow out of them.

Michael said...

Excellent post. And I would like to echo the sentiments of the other posters, because I loved EPCOT as a child more than any other park - even the MK. And yes, I was bored by shopping in World Showcase too. :) But Future World was golden.

Now, we're faced with a situation where parents have to sit on the concrete planters waiting for their teens to get off of Mission: Space - isn't that the same situation that caused Walt to create Disneyland in the first place?

Kids aren't nearly as dumb as Disney thinks they are. And this is a great, great quote from the post above:

"Giving kids something to look forward to when they're older is infinitely better than dumbing things down so they grow out of them."

Blake said...

1987 was my first visit to EPCOT. It changed my outlook at SIX years old, it single handedly molded my nature to attempt to preserve the Earth, my interest in science and technology. My family bought a computer soon after our return. EPCOT was one of the most significant events of my young life.

Chris said...

Nailed it once again with the insight of a problem that many of us Disney fans have come to realize...Disney is only interested in making attractions for kids and dragging their parents along with them, instead of making attractions that older kids and parents enjoy and little kids can "grow" into enjoying.

It's interesting that there is another park that was designed for the adult set, and it's had rave reviews since it's inception and plenty of visitors, yet not quite as many visitors as it's neighbor Disneyland park...........Tokyo DisneySea.

Yet somehow, while they are ADDING kid themed attractions, they aren't removing the existing attractions and they're making them as fantastic as possible (see Turtle Talk's pics for example). They knew their market and advertised it as such, young adults on dates, groups of friends, etc.

Its ironic that Walt tried for so long to expand his audience to where it seemed like practically anyone could have an interest in some aspect of Disney (from the nature shows, and live action movies, to the more thrilling rides), and it was starting to be successful....... has been forgotten and shrunk down into just targeting one demographic and their parents as an afterthought.

Yes, Disney has thrown in a couple of thrill rides over the years, but that isn't the same idea.

Brian Place said...

I really wish I could see a profit & loss statement from EPCOT. Just because EPCOT doesn't perform as well as The Magic Kingdom (and is that even true?) doesn't mean it's not a success.

From a financial standpoint EPCOT's costs are likely staggering compared to the Magic Kingdom due to staffing costs (literally double) - but EPCOT has myriad additional revenue streams (world showcase food & shopping; food & wine festival; etc.) that Magic Kingdom can't touch.

The point is: EPCOT is no financial slouch, so I don't understand why they have to keep addressing only kids with their attraction makeovers when it's the adults who are spending all of the money.

(I am literally heading back to EPCOT in an hour before heading back to my home in Seattle. :)

Anonymous said...

Earlier this week my 7 year old pointed out a mallet and said 'that looks like what people used to use to make paper' (from a spaceship earth scene). When I asked him what his favorite part of the ride was, he said it was the ending where he could see his 'future'.

The 'future' may be what he remembers from that ride, but the 'past' is what stuck with him.

I agree with what you said, EpcotCentral. It's not a place for everyone, and that's OK.

Mark Taft said...

GREAT post!
In my mind, EPCOT Center or Epcot is the sole reason the Disneyland Resort can nevr match Walt Disney world. Too bad the company won't go back to the park's roots.
Mark
www.InsightsandSounds.blogspot.com

Carvahall11 said...

EPCOT82, If only Disney would start caring. However, I always find Mission Space and Test Track exhilariating and innovative: Using state of the art technology to emerge guests in the posibilities of the future of space travel. My dad can never stop talking about how INTERESTING Test Track is. Seeing in person how cars are tested...It's relavent and I take 'em seriously. Just my opinion. (though Mission Space could never replace Horizons.) For all EPCOT Center enthusiasts reading, I have a mission. I've written Disney about it. I've written the Japan pavilion's sponsor, Mitsukoshi about it. The canadians asked for a new Canada movie...they got one. Write to Bob Iger. Also, write to Mitsukoshi about how they're doing a great job. I asked them to consider the posibility of sponsoring a film or to revive the idea of the "bullet train attraction." Suggest that they put their name on it and promote with it. http://www.mitsukoshi.com.hk/contact.html This is a goal of mine. An experiment, if you will. The space is available in that pavilion. It might be a lost cause but perhaps you could post something about this along with the link I pasted. We just need people to write. Arigato!

DTK said...

I think one reason California Park was a failure was in the iteraction of desgin and location. A park about the Cali experiance would have worked wonders in Florida where many of its guest would be from diverse places around the world, and perhaps never been or never will go to the western part of the US, IE Cali. That being said its no wonder the park is being Recommdified into a kiddy oriented park like so much of Disney these days.

I wonder how much it would cost to pick the whole park up lock stock and Barrels, and "magically" transport it to Reedy Creek?

Anonymous said...

Your analogy with the Giza pyramids is perfect.
Unfortunately, I think most Americans are not interested in these types of experiences. Most choose not to travel, or go to museums, or wonder at all about anything but their immediate lives.
I'm afraid Epcot (Center) will never improve much, because there is just not enough interest.
Sorry for the pessimism.

Anonymous said...

Greetings,

[Sorry for posting this as a comment and I hope it doesn't appear on our blog without your approval]

I'm a Disney fan (at least a dozen trips to DW and two to DL) that is about to self-publish a funny but satirical novel about two families on a trip to Disney World. Although I love that place, I always find a few things to laugh at and a few visitors with some behavior that is so extreme that it's comical. I've highlighted all of that in my novel.

Ninety percent of the story takes place in the four Disney World parks or hotels (everything is renamed but anybody will recognize what they're reading about). Like I said, it's a little satirical but my love of Disney World shines through.

I was wondering if I could plug my book with a post on your blog. I understand completely if it's not your bag. Self-published authors need to scramble to self promote because that's the only promotion we get.

It's already out as an Amazon Kindle book and the hard copy book (also known as "dead tree book") will be out in about a week.

I'll post the backcover blurb below just in case you want to see what it's all about. Thanks either way and keep up the good work!


Dave Conifer
daveconifer@rocketmail.com

-- Snodgrass Vacation --

Dave Jevik wasn’t too happy to hear that his wife had scheduled a family vacation to Snodgrass World Resort with the Zandanels. Loudmouth Vinnie is hard to put up with for an hour, let alone a week. But when Vinnie spots wheelchair-bound George Van Morrison in first class on the flight to Florida, the dreaded trip takes on a sense of purpose. Van Morrison claims he was injured at a restaurant owned by Dave’s friend back home and the lawsuit has already been filed.

Dave and Vinnie just know he’s faking it and they have a week at Snodgrass World to save the restaurant by proving it. They’ll have to dodge fleets of wheel chairs and scooters long enough to expose him while taking in park attractions like ‘Brutal Yet Fun and Lovable Buccaneers’ and ‘Showcase of Random Allied Countries.’

Vinnie’s sharp-elbowed wife is indispensable as she leads the way past line-cutters, other people’s obnoxious children and the maniac driving the scooter with the on-board colostomy bag. When they befriend a crotchety bartender back at the hotel, Dave and Vinnie unexpectedly tap an inside source that just might help them get their man.

Anybody who’s ever taken a trip to Orlando will recognize most of what they read about in Snodgrass Vacation, a fun satire of theme park life written by a Disney lifer.

Marilyn said...

Thank you for an amazing, truth telling post. It seems Disney has decided it's not profitable to appeal to adults - everything has to be "dumbed down" (love that phrase) to kids. We loved the original EPCOT Center - it was one park we could go to and not be assaulted by screaming kids and their ever present strollers. With the introduction of Disney characters at EPCOT, it has become what some are calling the "Magic Kingdom South." It was never meant to be on the same level as the MK. If you want characters, and Disney movie rides there are parks for that. I know there is absolutely no way EPCOT Center will be restored to what it was. But it's truly a shame that Disney feels everyone wants the MK experience in every park.

Anonymous said...

How many kids enjoy the food and wine fetival?

Scott said...

I'd be interested in how many of the commenters have children. I saw one comment mention his 7 year old. I'm wondering if Epcot82 has kids, too. Just curious.

Captain Schnemo said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Captain Schnemo said...

Let's be honest. EPCOT Center wasn't for adults, it was for smart people.

The trick was to make intelligent, thoughtful attractions that appealed to smart people and also somehow managed to entertain the stupid masses.

I don't believe any of the stupidifying of Epcot has increased attendance. People who go to WDW are going to visit all four parks, including Epcot, if only just to see what that big golf ball is all about. Those people are going to eat expensive meals and buy expensive merchandise. If they're a little confused by some things or some stuff goes over their head...so what?

They're still spending the money. Has Epcot's attendance ranking ever significantly changed?

Disney should try promoting a park for smart people (most of whom now, rightly or wrongly, consider Disney to be synonymous with "mindless lowbrow pablum"), if only to draw in those with a statistically higher income. It's a vast (well, OK, large-ish), untapped market of people who, frankly, aren't courted by entertainment destinations all that often.

They don't have to be snobbish about it, but they shouldn't act like a straight-A student hiding his good grades in a misguided attempt to hang out with the cool kids. They need to learn to be proud of Epcot and stop trying to bury it in a sludge of generic princesses and "magic".

There is no shame in being smart. Just don't be a jerk about it.

In that vein, I would forever banish the term "educational" from any promotional materials about Epcot. That frightens people off, even smart people. Whenever they want to say "educational", they should say "inspirational", which is really what Walt was shooting for anyway.

Back to the point, look at all the smart people reading this blog who were inspired by EPCOT as children. Maybe they were even smarter than their parents who didn't quite get it.

The park was for them and the great unwashed who said "Look at the big fishies!" when pointing out the dolphins to their children, or discovered for the first time that China and Japan are not the same thing.

(I reserve the right to be a jerk about stupid people because I'm not trying to get them to come to my park.)

Hector said...

I loved EPCOT Center growing up, and it is still my favorite today.

I just went a week ago, and was a bit amazed at how many of my friends also have this part as their favorite!

Anonymous said...

Back in 1994 it was Spaceship Earth and Norway at the world pavilion that spurned me on into an even more diligent study of the classics, theology, church history, philosophy, art, music, and the humanities overall.

It's not to say that EPCOT is as grand as the Louvre or Westminster Abbey or the Smithsonian, but there and then imagination and discovery -- one little spark, anyone? -- were taken seriously. The feeling was palpable in the presentation and the ambience was crafted with genius. The old world was confirmed and the new was portrayed as wide open for us to explore.

EPCOT was not ever boring. It required *PATIENCE* and a little effort on our part. Unfortunately the term "boring" is the catchall phrase used by kids, teens, and tweens to simply convey, "Hey, I can't stretch my mind with effort; I need to be subjected to a dumbed-down blitzkrieg of sights and sounds."

Well, I make no apologies for my protestations. EPCOT used to be appealing for its thoughtfulness and ability to inspire. I hope it doesn't transmute much more.

Stainless Steel Rat

Andy JS said...

My brother and me used to love EPCOT when we were about 10 years old. The funny thing was that we instinctively sensed that other kids might be bored by the park and we were constantly afraid that Disney would spoil the park and change it to suit kids who might get bored more easily than we did. Thankfully, throughout the 90s Disney kept the park pretty much the same, except for changing Communicore into Innoventions.

I feel that Disney went from one extreme to the other with Communicore/Innoventions. Communicore was like a huge open space with a fairly small number of exhibits and things to do. Innoventions was the opposite. Something in between the two would have been ideal.

Dave said...

I first visited Epcot Center in 1985, so much of my views are molded by the incarnation of that time.

I was seven, almost eight.

First and foremost, Epcot did not treat me like a child: it did not condescend or patronize. It gave me enough respect to let me think about more mature ideas, and framed them in a manner my child's mind could grasp.

Universe of Energy taught me about where the power comes from: how it got here, how we use it, how we find new sources and means.

Horizons (a favorite), inspired the wonders of the future. As the second half of the Carousel of Progress (it's the same family), it was a continuation from one Disney park to the next. A progression from the pure nostalgic childism of Magic Kingdom, to the maturing future in Epcot.

World of Motion (the zany funny ride of yesteryear), spoke to the American love of motion: the car, the plane, the train, and what comes tomorrow. The current Test-Track would have been a lovely second half to the old.

Journey into Imagination spoke to foster our imaginations. It was about what could be if we stopped and imagined. If we took that luxury for ourselves.

The Land was about teaching children the benefits of conservation, recycling, proper nutrition, how we get our food today, and maybe how we get it tomorrow. Listen to the Land (and now Living with the Land) was/is my highlight of that pavillion. Soarin' is great; but it's not about the Land, it's the sky.

The Living Seas, I loved: I went soon after it opened (lines, massive lines). The movie was so profound and beautiful: I watched it every time I went. The hydrolators and the cars crafted the illusion that we actually were going to an undersea research base. But it did start to get old. Mid to late 90's several of the acrylic windows were significantly bowed inwards (actually saw an art student drawing, wedged into a window beneath the bulge). In it's day it took us seriously and treated us right.

Spaceship Earth:
Vic Perrin, Cronkite, Jeremy Irons: the three good versions, each a worthy successor to the previous. It talked to us.
Judi Dench: patronizing and condescending, with a removed second half. It talks down to us. The future video is interesting, but I still haven't received my emailed versions from that dang kiosk.

World Showcase:
Loved then: Mexico, China, Germany, UK, America, Canada, Japan.
Ignored then: Italy, France, Morocco,
(Norway hadn't been built yet)

Loved today: Mexico, China, Germany, UK, America, Canada, Japan, Norway, Morocco
Ignored now: Italy, France (only just discovered last month they've had a movie the whole time, that's how often I visit)

Wonders of Life:
Wasn't opened by the time we first moved away from Florida. Only went once since we moved back. Decent, but not really killer. Sad to see that it is all but removed: relegated to the same position as the Odyssey restaurant.

Manetoys said...

It would be nice if EPCOT could appeal to those who like the original and not have to worry about appealing to the masses, but unfortunately, EPCOT cost SO DAMN MUCH to run, that if it DOESN'T appeal to the masses, it would be losing money and over time, we wouldn't have ANY EPCOT.

meghan said...

This is a wonderfully written article. I can relate to both sides of the comments that were made at the beginning of your post. When I was younger, up to my teenage years, Epcot didn't really appeal to me. As I got older, however, I began to love it more and more. Now Epcot is my favorite park and I'd rather go there than anywhere else. As far as the new rides like The Seas (which I really like) to Test Track and Mission Space (not so much, I wish they'd make more of an effort to bring back older things. Figment, The Land, Body Wars, etc etc. But this is a park of new thinking and ideas, so I can't complain too much!

Liz said...

Epcot has been my favorite disney park since I was 6. I was a big disney princess fan yet I've been a huge science geek for as long as I can remember. MGM and Animal Kingdom were hardly interesting to me- I loved animals, but AK was pretty boring set aside It's Tough To Be a Bug which traumatized me enough at the tarantula scene to have me running out of the ride and MGM only entertained me through the Honey I shrunk the Kids playground. I enjoyed the attractions at MK, but mainly for the disney princess recognition. Epcot was the park that stuck to me. I was a curious, knowledge-hungry kid that liked to know how things worked, fascinated by both the solar system and the human body, science in general.
I don't think that learning at epcot is just limited to the adults. I think natural curiousity, initiative, optimism and an appreciation for progress is all that is needed.
Sad to hear that kids are now bored with such an elaborate place as epcot, when all it took for little miss short attention span six year old me to be even overwhelmed was the giant spaceship earth.