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.

14 comments:

Anonymous said...

Boy I hope Mr. Fitzgerald reads some of the letters addressed to him that are swirling around the interwebs. The fact that people are taking the time and effort to compose these pleas is a testament to how much people do care, how much they exhibit the optimism instilled in them by EPCOT Center.

Whether Mr. Fitzgerald reads the letters or not, I sure hope that he and his team have something great in store for the park. I have hope.

David Landon said...

I completely understand where you're coming from. This blog was a huge part of the inspiration to start my own, and at the time I was peeved at the direction EPCOT had taken but cautiously optimistic that as soon as the suits at Disney realized how bad things had gotten, things would be corrected. We might never get Horizons back; they'd never rip Test Track out and put World of Motion back in there, but eventually maybe we'd get a refurbished and refocused Energy, Wonders of Life, Seas, and Imagination pavilions. Maybe Innoventions/CommuniCore would get a refurb to bring it out of the '90s and exciting new exhibits would be put in, and the entirety of Future World would get a cohesive visual overhaul that modernized it and brought it back to its roots at the same time.

But none of that has happened. And during my time in the online Disney fan community, I've learned something: the company's executives are well aware of EPCOT's deplorable state. They just don't care. This is the company that clears billions in profits, but whose cheapskate ways led to the entirely preventable death of a Monorail pilot back in 2009. You think they care about Walt Disney's vision of the future? They don't even care whether their employees live or die, except for the negative governmental and media scrutiny that comes with the latter.

To the leadership of the Disney company, EPCOT is nothing more than the park that sells booze. That's it. As long as the food and alcohol revenues keep pouring in, as long as the bloggerwhores that they buy off with freebies and preferential treatment continue to hype overpriced, mediocre restaurants like Le Cellier or the Coral Reef, nothing will change.

Sure, a lot of online letters have been addressed to Tom Fitzgerald since he took over the "creative direction" of EPCOT. But within Imagineering, there is an active disdain for people like us, people who demand more than vacuous, video-screen-filled thrill rides themed to the latest Disney or Pixar animated property. Tom Fitzgerald isn't listening to people who remember what EPCOT used to be. He and his colleagues would rather we just went away.

It looks like you have, and really so have I. I haven't set foot on Disney property in 3 years, and I have no plans to do so again unless there are massive changes.

I've enjoyed your blog over the years. Thanks for being here, and thanks for inspiring me and so many others.

Epcot Central said...

David, I tend to think you're right. This isn't a problem unique to Disney, but it is crippling the VERY long-term viability of the company. Their multi-millionaire executives only care about the next few quarters, maybe couple of years, and are concerned only about what analysts think, not guests.

The supreme irony of this is that if Walt Disney and Roy O. Disney had felt the same way, none of these people would have jobs today.

The investment return on the expense of the $1 billion (or more) wristband/marketing program is much, much easier to calculate than expanding the Monorail to all parks, creating an attraction that will stand the test of time like Spaceship Earth, or doing much beyond "franchise management" -- which is why I won't at all be surprised to see "Frozen" in the Norway pavilion soon. Disney has absolutely no interest in artistic integrity of any sort, whether at the theme parks, in its films, or in the management of its company.

"Frozen" was certainly a fluke, and one that Iger is making sure everyone knows he is going to exploit aggressively and fully. The mentality won't change at all when Iger leaves -- in fact, it is what is rewarded in business and industry today.

All you need to do is read a solid biography of Walt Disney to understand how he was always at war with his brother Roy. Roy admitted he had no creative ability. And Walt irritated him to no end with his insistence on spending money they didn't have, investing the profits from successful products right back into the company's next initiatives, and blowing ridiculous amounts of money on things the public would never see or care about (according to him). The difference is that for the formative years, Walt won. Over and over. Roy lost, and had to figure out ways to finance these ridiculous ideas that even the banks and other investors didn't want to touch. Walt nearly bankrupted the company over and over with concepts that seemed utterly far-fetched and impossible.

If he hadn't done exactly that, Bob Iger, Jay Rasulo, Tom Staggs, Alan Horn and Bob Chapek wouldn't even have jobs, much less John Lasseter and Kevin Feige.

Speaking of those names, nothing has been more disheartening than the way John Lasseter has sold himself out for cold, hard cash. He promised he would set about major change at Disney's theme parks, promised they would return to the quality they were famed for -- then dropped Nemo into The Living Seas, for instance. Lasseter, in his role as the alleged head creative honcho at Disney, has presided over a decline in quality far greater, in many ways, than was ever seen under Pressler. Pressler's era was cheap and tacky. This current era is simply cynical and arrogant. Rasulo has even said the only goal of the Magic Bands program is to make guests open their wallets wider.

It's crass, it's unbelievable, and I sadly don't think it is going to change.

Like you, I haven't been to any Florida Disney theme park in more than two years now. Recently, friends of mine visited Florida with their two kids, ages 9 and 4. When they returned, they said they were eager to go back, but only to Universal, because Disney was overpriced, too crowded, too focused on selling them stuff, and seemed run down. Their words, not mine. They were apologetic, knowing I love Disney. They said they went to Epcot for two hours and left because they tried to ride Soarin' and found (again, their words) "the place looked filthy and no one was there to try to help people." (Quoting from an email.)

Epcot Central said...


This breaks my heart. And I'm tired of having my heart broken. My family has several trips planned over the next few years. We are excited about them. None of them involve Walt Disney World.

I'll get by on my memories, which hopefully will grow rich and happy with time. One more trip to the unhappy place Epcot has become might just leave me with no good memories at all.

I'd like to hold out hope that Tom Fitzgerald will change things. I'm GOING to hold out that hope. But reading Disney executives' comments in the latest quarterly earnings report made me realize nothing, absolutely NOTHING, is going to get better, at least not before it gets much, much worse. They still have costs they can cut, still have attractions they can shut down or overlay with tacky movie commercials, still have maintenance they can avoid, still have cast members they can fail to train, still have managers they can fire to keep profits going up, up, up for years to come. Investors will be ecstatic.

Guests? Aw, who cares about guests? It'll be years before they notice anything's wrong, and by that time all the executives will have retired and it will be someone else's problem.

And if Walt Disney had acted the way they are, there would be no company to pay them their millions. It's such sad, bitter irony.

Anonymous said...

Gee, I like Epcot. We just returned from the Flower and Garden Festival. We enjoyed going to the food booths. We thought the new emphasis on adult eating was great. The new Spice Route Table was delicious. We loved our two afternoons at Tutto Gusto (which has the best cheese I've had since I moved back from two years living in Switzerland.) We like that there are lots of foods and drinks to enjoy. We think the new Test Track is very creative (huge improvement there). We think the shopping is great. There was a time when merchandise variety was really poor (Disney merchandise only). But now there are lots of interesting things in the stores from all around the world. There are a lot of things to complain about at Disney -- high prices, constant cost squeezing, dirty restrooms. But overall, we enjoyed our recent visit immensely. Perhaps I am an optimist. But I also do not think things are so bad in this country either. The president is trying to do all he can to help us recover from the disastrous Bush years -- which brought us the worst terrorist attack in US history, two horrible and useless wars and the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression.

Epcot Central said...

I'm glad to hear you like EPCOT as it is. If you like a food court and shopping mall with a few outdated attractions, that's fine. I don't deny Test Track is an improvement -- and that it is one of the few genuine improvements versus the original. (I was never a major fan of World of Motion.) What they've done to the building, though, is akin to putting a roller coaster on the side of the Washington Monument, if you ask me.

I'm really, really glad you like what's there. I am. And so, I'm sure, is Disney, because it validates their strategy of putting the minimum effort into their theme parks.

I intentionally did not want to get political with my comments. It's a sociological observation that we are a fractured, disappointed, under-employed country. I made that statement to draw parallels with the post-Vietnam Cold War environment of the 1970s and early 1980s. It is rather amazing to me, political leanings aside, how much we have in common with those times. We could use a refurbished, bright, shiny, enhanced EPCOT to point us to the promise of a better tomorrow.

Anonymous said...

I'm glad to see you've posted again, even if it will probably be your last.

I am so sad about the state of EPCOT as well. Future World is a mess. How do you shutter a whole pavilion, turn it into an event center, and think that is an improvement? As you said, there is so much about healthy living and the body we are learning. There is renewed interest in these things, yet the pavilion lays unused to its best potential. Odyssey restaurant is a glorified bathroom. Mission Space is beautiful from the outside, but the ride itself is a boring thrill ride. Don't get me started on the amazing experience that Horizons was!

The Imagination pavilion, Living with the Land, and Innoventions are also in sad states.

I hope things turn around, and soon.

Anonymous said...

While I don't necessarily agree with your premise or conclusions (in this post or any other) I have always found your observations to be well-written; thoughtful reflections on the state of Epcot as you see it. For that, I'm sorry you won't be posting anymore as these things alone make your blog a rare thing.

Hopefully you'll reconsider and continue with your essays from time to time. Thanks and good luck.

SQV

Anonymous said...

OK, so you're going to plaster Anna and Elsa and bunch of other marketable characters over half the park. Fine, we can't win that battle.

Just give us a new version of Horizons, and we'll make peace with the rest of it.

Anonymous said...

Every time I go shopping in the World Showcase it seems slowly but surely all the "Authentic" merchandise from the various countries is being replaced with Micky Mouse Disney junk. The only place that this is absolutly not true is Mitsukoshi in Japan. Morrocco seems to be holding it's own as well but in creeps those two dopes Aladdin and his GF. I hope the whole thing does not turn into Mouse Gear International.

Omnispace said...

If Mr Fitzgerald is serious about restoring Epcot to it's former principals, he should take the time to read the rest of the posts on this blog as well. There is a lot of valuable insight recorded here.

I think that those who feel that the original mission of Epcot is irrelevant in these times are seriously misunderstanding what it's purpose was. Epcot wasn't just about presenting the latest new shiny things. It was about making sense of the overwhelming amount of information about our world that was just as relevant in 1982 as it now. The idea was to create a place that would put the guest in the right setting and right frame of mind to see through all the noise to what's really important -- all the while being entertained and inspired. Whereas the means of doing that may change with social tastes, (corporate partnerships aren't what they used to be), the necessity of it is still just as relevant.

Even though guests are on vacation it doesn't necessarily mean they only want to be entertained at the most basic level. Form what I understand of human nature, people mostly want to experience those memorable moments in life. If Mr Fitzgerald can recapture that veritable "lightning in a bottle" with Epcot's attractions, and create shows that really inspire and impress, then guests will be equally satisfied, if not more so. My hope is that he is up for the challenge of really making a difference this time.

I'm looking forward to reading more posts on this blog!

Anonymous said...

I agree! EPCOT needs to go back to becoming the boring park. The park filled with to the brim with slow moving, 'educational' rides. Kids need to enjoy and learn what people from the 50's thought the 80's would be like. It needs to be the 'punishment' park. Hey kids, you're not going to the Magic Kingdom, you're gonna LEARN!

Yes, the attendance rates continue to go up every year, but what do those commoners know! We need to rise above and maybe think about leaving our basements..Nahhh.

Spokker said...

EPCOT circa 1980-1990 is definitely the greatest theme park I've never visited. As a Southern California kid, I remember pouring over low-res images of Horizons, dreaming of the day I would experience it for myself.

But that period of my life where I would obsess over Disney theme parks is long over. Did Disney theme parks change, or did I? It was probably a little of both.

rob young said...

Dear EPCOT Central,
I had seen your post some time ago and meant to send a reply. I want to thank you for your incredible blog these past years. Seeing your response in May was a delight and I'm glad you have stated that it will be your last. I'm not glad you are not posting! It just frees me from longingly waiting for you to post again!

I don't think EPCOT will change for the better. We live in a society that is based on instant feedback and what makes the most money. I feel sorry for those who did not get to enjoy EPCOT Center in the eighties. Everything before the Body exhibit opened (which I was there on first day and was so let down). A great memory of mine is still the second floor shopping area of Communicore with the roller coaster marble game that I always wanted when I was younger and didn't have enough money to have. But, it was always there.

I still have an annual pass as I live in Orlando and every year I get closer to saying I'm not going to renew. I always tell myself that I am supporting my friends who work there. One day, I will not renew (and I've had a seasonal or annual pass since 1984).

Carrying on ... THANK YOU , THANK YOU, THANK YOU. I'm glad your blog is still up so I can revisit past entries. I wish you great things because you gave me great reads and entertainment these past years. Maybe one day, we'll get to see you repost. I'm crossing my fingers! But I'm free from wondering if you will do so. It'll be a nice touch that EPCOT has done something good and you do a post. Take care and thank you again!