Friday, May 09, 2014

An Open Letter to Tom Fitzgerald

Dear Mr. Fitzgerald,

I read last week that you are taking over the creative direction of EPCOT, and I know I am not the first to write an open letter to you, delivered via the Internet.

I am certainly not going to pretend I know how to tell you to do your job.

But I would like to remind you about what life was like in 1982, when EPCOT Center opened its doors.  EPCOT had been in development for a long time, as you know, and when Walt Disney died in 1966, a lot of wonderful people at WED Enterprises felt that the best way to honor him was to bring his final vision to life.  Much has been written about how that never happened, but I'm one of those people who realize that it actually did.  Walt Disney World was, for a very short time, known as "Epcot," and its building codes, its construction philosophies, the way it was designed and created, and much of what we know and love about Walt Disney World today came directly from the work that Imagineers did to research the feasibility of building a city.  And they did build a city, just not the kind where people live in neighborhoods and go to schools and churches.  Tens of thousands of people each day, however, work and play in Epcot, and EPCOT Center was to be the heart of it all.

Thirty-plus years ago, our country (arguably our world) was in a lousy place.  Every moment, we thought we might very well blow up.  The companies we had given our trust -- like Monsanto, AT&T, IBM and Kraft -- turned out not to be trustworthy at all.  The man we had trusted as president had lied to us, had taken us down a path to avoidable war, and too many of our children were dying.  Things got so bad, so unreliable, so unimaginable that young people turned to mind-altering drugs as a way to escape the reality.  By the time EPCOT Center opened, people were pushing their cars to gas pumps, couldn't afford to go to the grocery store, and were losing their jobs in record numbers.  No one and nothing could be trusted to have the best interests of Americans at heart.

In the midst of this tumult came EPCOT, bright and shiny and optimistic and entirely out of place.

EPCOT's core philosophy was one of Walt Disney's guiding principles -- that the future of the country, even the world, would be safe in the hands of American industry.  He died before Agent Orange and Napalm, before Watergate and the Ayatollah, before Vietnam and RFK and MLK, before acid rain and deforestation, before bra-burning and draft-dodging and LSD and sit-ins, before Americans became so very weary.  If he had lived through these years, what would he made of them?

It doesn't much matter, because EPCOT was so wildly anachronistic from the very day it opened that, for a time, it worked -- brilliantly.

EPCOT was a reminder to those adults whose patience had been tested that the bright, shiny tomorrow they hoped for might still be possible.  For children and teenagers, who were only vaguely aware of why their fathers grumbled through dinner and their mothers sighed through the day, EPCOT was a promise that everything wasn't ruined yet.

Then came the end of the Cold War, the rise of the Internet, the growth of the new economy.  And now, 32 years later, we're in a place that looks awfully familiar.  I don't need to tell you how divided we have become as a nation, how distrustful we are of our government and profit-hungry corporations, how suspicious we are of each other.

And now here you are, ready to drive EPCOT into this strange new world.

As a big fan of EPCOT and a believer in some of the naively optimistic views that Walt Disney himself used to hold, here's what I ask:

Remember back to a time when EPCOT promised a future of possibility.

There aren't many people who visited EPCOT as children or teenagers and weren't amazed by fiber optics, touch screens, computer games, two-way video conference calls and the architecture of EPCOT -- simultaneously plain and almost imposing yet so simple we could project our own hopes onto it.

EPCOT offered us a peek into a world that was off-limits to most people, one in which other human beings were exploring and dreaming up concepts we never imagined would actually be real, but that today are part of our everyday lives.

Back then, Walt Disney Productions was virtually bankrupt and had to rely on corporate sponsors to tell its story.  No more.  Disney theme parks made $2.2 billion in profit last year.  Certainly some of that money, it seems to me from a layman's standpoint, can be used to improve those parks?  More importantly, it can be used to help EPCOT present a vision of our world that is free from corporate interference.  No other company needs to be involved in telling the story of humanity, our place in the world, our hopes and fears, our possibility.

EPCOT is not like any other theme park in the world.  That is a little scary to numbers-focused financial types who can't compare EPCOT to anything else and say, "Here's what the return on our investment will be."

But to you, I hope, it's a wonderful chance to try bold, exciting new things.

In the past decade or so, EPCOT has become increasingly Disney-ized.  Disney no longer seems to trust itself to tell great stories and showcase humanity's potential.  Just look at what's happened to The Living Seas or, worse, the Wonders of Life.  EPCOT has, quite literally, given up even trying.

Yet even despite those failures, every single day we discover new things about the world around us -- some good, some bad, some just plain amazing.  We learn more about the oceans that surround us and what promise they hold.  We learn more about how the human body works and what we can do to improve our lives and health.  We learn incredible things about energy -- and how little we really understand.  We communicate with each other around the world instantaneously.  We share, we grow, we take ownership (for better or worse) of the planet we all call home.

EPCOT does not need to be boring or silly.  It does not need to be filled with Disney and Pixar characters or become home base for Star Wars.  It can be something only Disney could create.  It can be something The Walt Disney Company is proud of.  And it can do all that and become more successful than ever before, because no one -- not Comcast, not Sea World, not Universal, not Cedar Point -- ever can replicate.

EPCOT is special.

You know that, I know that.  I hope you are going to be able to do something about it.

I hope that in two or three decades' time I'll be able to point to EPCOT with pride to children and teenagers I know, smile and say, "It almost wasn't this good."  I hope you can make it that good.

I hope you will believe in the power of EPCOT.

This is my last post on EPCOT Central.  Ever.  Unless, of course, you give me reason to believe again.

I hate to say I've given up on EPCOT, but I have.  I've moved on.  I don't want to, and I haven't done so happily.  I would like to believe in the potential of EPCOT to show me that the world is a good place, that the future is bright, that everything doesn't have to be "branded" and Disney-ized, that "Disney" means much more than characters, much more than franchises, that Disney is a place filled with limitless imagination and hope.

EPCOT Center was the future.  Not just the technological future, but our future, a showcase for our ingenuity and our humanity.  EPCOT Center was everything that was possible.

I hope, Mr. Fitzgerald, that it will be that way again.

All my best to you for enormous success in the work that lies ahead of you.  Make EPCOT shine.