Monday, December 11, 2006

A New Year's EPCOT Wish

End-of-year vacation and work obligations will keep me from posting through the end of the year. For those of you who have spent time reading EPCOT Central, writing me, posting comments and letting the EPCOT community know your thoughts, I send enormous thanks and gratitude. Your enthusiasm for EPCOT Center has been tremendously encouraging, and it is really wonderful to know there are others like me out there, who were inspired by EPCOT at an early age and who would like to see Disney once again turn its attentions to this most unique and potentially marvelous place.

If you’re new to EPCOT Central, please explore and continue letting everyone know your thoughts. While I may not have the opportunity to respond to each e-mail I receive during the holidays, I assure you that I read and appreciate all of them! (Below, I’ve included some links to past articles that you may have missed.)

As 2006 winds down and we head into 2007 – the 25th anniversary of EPCOT Center – I’m reminded of the excitement I experienced as a pre-teen who was so excited and intrigued by the promise that “the 21st century begins Oct. 1, 1982.”

In this silver anniversary year, I hope that the traditional gift will be taken literally by Disney and that the garish wand and sorcerer’s hand above Spaceship Earth will be removed so that we may be able to see the silver majesty of the geosphere again rise so magnificently above the Florida landscape. It would be the most welcome anniversary present of all for all guests.

It’s my New Year’s EPCOT wish ... that someone, somewhere at Disney will have the integrity and inspiration to realize just how special EPCOT is – that they will look back at the millions of words written about this theme park over the years and come to the conclusion that Disney has the opportunity to return EPCOT to its roots. Today’s entertainment industry continues to look for ways to blend entertainment and education in a way that is intriguing, engaging and relevant … yet EPCOT tried to do that a quarter of a century ago.

It’s my New Year’s EPCOT wish ... that The Walt Disney Company will spend a tiny fraction of the money it pours into television and movie programming of dubious quality on this most unusual and unorthodox theme park. Instead of chasing the “impossible dream” of building another cookie-cutter theme park in China, Disney can turn its attention to a park unlike any other, one that can showcase everything Disney is capable of doing.

It’s my New Year’s EPCOT wish ... that quality will be restored to the park. Instead of cartoon characters and quickly dated movies, a new influx of immersive, ride-through experiences of the sort only Disney has ever been able to create can breathe new life and new vitality into EPCOT.

It’s my New Year’s EPCOT wish ... that Disney will recognize the enormous potential of EPCOT to create that “holy grail” of a global brand that stands apart from the Disney name, one that stands for a different kind of “family” entertainment, that aims to educate and inspire as much as entertain, that can be applied to everything from magazines and housewares to electronics and books.

It’s my New Year’s EPCOT wish ... that an expansion and refurbishment of the park, announced during its Silver Jubilee, will honor the incredible growth and explosive pace of the world in which we live, will highlight the ways in which we can live together and learn from each other.

It’s my New Year’s EPCOT wish ... that our shrinking “global village” will receive the tribute of additional pavilions in World Showcase, celebrating and exploring places on the globe that many people may never get to experience in real life, but which can be presented in microcosm in this rarest of environments.

It’s my New Year’s EPCOT wish ... that the park will be blessed with a management team that understands its unique position and incredible profile around the globe. (Ask many people who have never even been to Walt Disney World what “EPCOT” means, and most will at least have heard of the name … that’s a name recognition that most creations never achieve.)

It’s my New Year’s EPCOT wish ... that the 25th year of EPCOT will be only the start of 25 more years of inspiration and discovery … not simply of showcasing the latest Pixar movie or thrill-ride technology.

So, my New Year’s EPCOT wish is actually many wishes. But I once heard that wishes can come true. I’d like to believe it’s possible.

Happy New Year, EPCOT … and readers of EPCOT Central. Thanks for the great times. May there be many more!

And for those of you who would like to explore a bit more of EPCOT Central, here are some of the articles that have received the most feedback and response:

Being Unique

When Disney Blinked

Lost: One EPCOT Center User's Guide

The First Quarter Century

A Convenient Theme?

Enjoying EPCOT

Sunset on a Spaceship

When Enthusiasm Was Enthusiastic (retro video from EPCOT Center's opening)

Sunday, December 10, 2006

A Lack of Energy

What’s with the Universe of Energy pavilion?

It was once the single most ambitious, epic, over-sized efforts in an ambitious, epic, over-sized park, yet today – from start to finish – it’s one of the most lackluster and unimaginative offerings in Disney's theme-park portfolio.

Although I happen to think Ellen DeGeneres is a fabulously gifted comedian with a wonderful, unique delivery, 10 years of her is more than enough at Epcot. Moreover, she’s teamed with Bill Nye the Science Guy, a former Disney “property” whose TV show was only a modest hit … more than a decade ago.

Then, you’ve got a much younger version of Alex Trebek hosting Jeopardy! on a comparatively ancient version of the game show’s set in a not-very-funny little sketch co-starring an actress, Jamie Lee Curtis, who recently announced her retirement.

Calling this show dated is like calling Nicole Ritchie a little on the thin side.

And then there's the simple fact that it's just not entertaining anymore.

It's got a tired, listless quality (with the exception of the Audio-Animatronic dinosaurs at the heart of the show – which remain exciting and fun) exacerbated by C-list celebrities and humor that would barely warrant a laugh-track response on America’s Funniest Home Videos.

Most bothersome and frustrating about Universe of Energy, though, is how it demonstrates Epcot’s unwillingness or inability to keep up with the most basic of world issues, to change, grow and educate based on what we know today about tomorrow, not what we knew a decade ago.

Communications, transportation, the oceans, space exploration and health are all, without doubt, major topics that affect the entire planet. They were chosen to be represented at EPCOT Center for a reason, and it's a pity that Disney's latest incarnation of lower-case Epcot has been so creatively lazy and financially frugal when it comes to updating them. (Unless, of course, there's a chance to make them cartoon heavy or turn them into meaningless thrill rides.)

That's particularly true when it comes to energy.

Now, I know virtually nothing about this topic, I’ll be the first to tell you. Still, I am aware that global warming is an energy-based subject that is increasingly in the news and increasingly accepted by scientists of all political stripe. I also know that finding personal vehicles that don’t consume gasoline is a subject that even Detroit and Washington are beginning to take seriously. Likewise, I know that heating and cooling my house has become increasingly expensive, and that I am becoming aware that there are alternative options.

My point is, I’m pretty much in the dark about energy, but I’d like to know more, I’d like to get an idea of where we’re headed in the next 20 years, and I’d like the kids in my life to be aware of the issues that are going to be confronting them.

Does that mean Universe of Energy has to become a boring, staid lecture on energy? Absolutely not.

If anything, it means that this attraction -- more than any other -- stands the most to gain from a complete overhaul that could see it become truly revolutionary. Universe of Energy can and should be one of the most exciting and mind-expanding Epcot pavilions, not one of the most dull and sparsely attended.

It is nothing short of astonishing that Disney pays such little heed to the original mission of Epcot that it allows Universe of Energy to impart old, outdated information that has little, if any, relevance to the lives of the guests who visit it. Rather than offer an experience that presents the most cutting-edge, up-to-date information in a compelling way, Universe of Energy offers stale, underwhelming information in an environment that actually seems more dated than the 1980s stars of Cranium Command.

The novelty of Ellen and Alex Trebek wore off years ago. (For the huge number of non-U.S. guests who visit Epcot each year, was there ever any novelty at all in seeing such quintessentially American pop-culture celebrities?) The discussions of solar and wind power are meaningless in a world that is more focused on hybrid vehicles and global-warming issues.

It’s far past time to give Universe of Energy the infusion of, er, energy it so sorely needs.

Come on, Imagineering – this is a great chance to thrill us again and to remind everyone, particularly Disney itself, what Epcot can and should be.

Thursday, November 30, 2006

Another Chance to Wonder

No doubt most of you reading EPCOT Central are aware of this, but Disney has announced that the Wonders of Life pavilion will be open “seasonally” during the holidays.

While I’d love to applaud Disney for this effort, the fact is that there’s no good reason for the pavilion to be closed in the first place.

When Disney makes billions off of the sale of its media assets, as it recently did, and can rake in hundreds of millions of dollars in profit from its movie business, there’s no logical business reason that it can’t fund the refurbishment and maintenance of its theme-park attractions itself, absent a corporate sponsor.

Although MetLife long ago pulled its sponsorship of the Wonders of Life pavilion (thereby removing the Peanuts characters from Walt Disney World!), Disney’s decision to completely shutter the pavilion was a lunkheaded move that spoke volumes about its commitment to its theme-park business. Letting a major component of Epcot fall by the wayside, claiming that operational costs needed to be shared by a sponsor, should serve as a rather alarming indication that Disney is not particularly committed to the creative health and long-term quality of its parks, only to the assurance that it will realize as much profit from quarter to quarter as possible.

I’m thrilled that guests will have the opportunity this winter to experience the Wonders of Life. However, it will be in a “stripped down” version, with the food-service and stage areas of the pavilion closed off. And, of course, it will be in the shape it was in when it closed – relatively uncared-for, with attractions that feel rooted in the 1980s.

Nonetheless, Wonders of Life is a pavilion that is essential to the thematic success of Epcot’s Future World. While other pavilions explore the world around us, Wonders of Life explores the world within.

As we learn more about (and experiment more with) genetics, biotechnology and human health, there would hardly be a better time to update the Wonders of Life with exhibits and shows that demonstrate how much there is left to learn about the way humans work – and how we are making discoveries every day.

Pick up any recent copy of Time or Newsweek magazine and you’ll see how far health issues have moved into the “mainstream.” The Wonders of Life has the opportunity to bring today’s ever-evolving issues into the minds of guests at Epcot – it’s a fantastic opportunity that is sad to think may be wasted by Disney’s corporate mindset.

If you do visit the Wonders of Life this winter, be sure to write to Walt Disney World at and let them know how much you value the pavilion, even if Disney itself does not!

Sunday, November 19, 2006

A Simple Spaceship

Photo illustration created by and courtesy of Werner Weiss,

The fantastic Disney-fan website Yesterland, which is home to an impressive array of essays and photos of Disney attractions (mostly at Disneyland) that no longer exist, has been bit by the Epcot "what-if" bug.

Yesterland curator Werner Weiss has demonstrated impressive Photoshop abilities by reminding visitors how much worse it could get with the "dressing up" of Spaceship Earth. Spaceship Stitch, anyone? Capt. Jack Sphere-ow?

His imaginings are both hilarious and a bit scary -- if the wrong folks at Disney (so many of whom seem to have such a poor sense of humor) get a hold of these parodies, they could come to think of them as "conceptual designs," and might start getting ideas.

If they do, they'll hopefully spend most of their time looking at the final image on Werner's Spaceship Earth page. There, they'll find (reprinted above, with Werner's kind permission) the best possible concept of all:


No hand, arm, no wand, no stars, no curlicue "Epcot" -- just the 180-foot-tall geosphere of Spaceship Earth against a beautiful Florida sky ... "naked" and proud.

Werner's Photoshopped image leaves in the garish mauve awnings (what are they for? It can't be shade, as they provide little) that rise above Innoventions Plaza, and it's most interesting to note how they detract from the overall scale of an unadorned Spaceship Earth. Not that that's a reason to leave up the hand and wand, mind you! And not that today's Imagineers seem to care much about a sense of scale (see the Sorcerer's Hat at Disney-MGM Studios -- this link takes a minute to load, but it's worth it! While you're at it, check this out for an excellent proposal on what to do with the hat.).

It's a lovely image to consider ... Spaceship Earth, restored to the way it was meant to be. How many people, even wand supporters (if you're out there), can look at the image at the top of this article and think the wand should stay?

Saturday, November 18, 2006

Why It Matters

I received this comment from a reader via e-mail:

"Future World in EPCOT Center inspired me to become an engineer, and the Energy Exchange in Communicore encouraged me to pursue nuclear power."


How much more proof do you need that EPCOT Center mattered, and that the problems of today's Epcot are worth "whining" about?

The old saw says that if you can reach just one person, you've succeeded. So, there's proof. I welcome any of you who were equally inspired in any way by EPCOT Center to let me know. (For what it's worth, I was inspired to my own profession by Spaceship Earth and the story it told of the power and meaning of human communication.)

I can't think of many places in the world -- many, I wrote, not any! -- that could inspire young people the way EPCOT Center could. Did it also inspire adults? I don't know, possibly; but the cynicsm of adulthood could easily get in the way. For young people, EPCOT Center represented everything that lay ahead of them, everything that they had a chance to make real -- whether it was new technology, new ways to work and think, or the possibility of traveling the world and bridging cultures.

It's hard to imagine many people being terribly inspired by today's Epcot. Or, worse, that Disney even considers itself to be in the "inspiration" business anymore.

Thursday, November 16, 2006

'The Hopes of Progress'

While reading the novel Saturday by Ian McEwan, I ran across this passage I wanted to share. Take from it what you will, but it seemed very relevant to the ongoing discussion of why Epcot has sunk so low and what it means about the "creative" minds at Disney. The bold highlight is mine:

He remembers some lines from Medawar, a man he admires [note: the reference is to Peter Medawar, 1960 Nobel Prize winner in Physiology and Medicine]: "To deride the hopes of progress is the ultimate fatuity, the last word in poverty of spirit and meanness of mind." ...

"But if the present dispensation is wiped out now, the future will look back on us as gods, certainly in this city, lucky gods blessed by supermarket cornucopias, torrents of accessible information, warm clothes that weigh nothing, extended life-spans, wondrous machines. This is an age of wondrous machines. Whole music libraries held in an object the size of a child's hand. Cameras that can beam their snapshots around the world. Effortlessly, he ordered up the contraption he's riding in now through a evice on his desk via the Internet. The computer-guided stereotactic array he used yesterday has transformed the way he does biopsies. Digtialised
[sic] entertainment binds [a] couple walking hand in hand, listening through a Y-socket to their personal stereo."

I read this passage and wondered ... where is our generation’s celebration of our world, our life? Isn't that, at its core, what EPCOT Center was and why it worked so well?

It reminded us of how much we had to be happy about, and how much happiness and improvement to our lives was still to come. It reminded us of who we were at that time, how fortunate we were to live in that time – and every once in a while chastised us very lightly for not doing more to be even more interested in our world.

It wasn't about princesses and caballeros and cartoon clownfish singing songs and imploring you to be happy and irritate your parents.

That's why I'm so disappointed: As a result of its changes, Epcot itself has begun (intentionally or by accident?) “to deride the hopes of progress” – to present exactly the wrong subconscious and contextual messages than it was intended to offer.

And, by extension, these changes to Epcot have shed light on what Disney itself has become – a country that values quick financial results over the long-term continued growth and expansion of its creative side; an organization that, for all the "happiness" it claims to offer, has developed a terrible and quite real “poverty of spirit and meanness of mind.”

It’s my hope that EPCOT will one day begin to celebrate again, to champion and proclaim the future and the world around us as worthy of optimism, of moving toward continuous and never-ending progress.

Some may believe that's a silly and naive goal (you have made yourself very clear in your e-mails), but I think it remains a noble cause, one that not only reaps accretive – but substantial – economic rewards for the company but also even greater intangible rewards such as motivating and inspiring new generations to believe in something much more than simple commercialism. For even in its previous, sponsor-heavy incarnation, the messages that came across most clearly were that people were thinking about, working on and creating a better world, not simply that our future would be brought to us by AT&T, Exxon and United Technologies.

EPCOT Center was magnanimous in spirit, was kind and gentle of nature, was of an inspiring, active and enviable mind. Those are not words that even the most lenient among us who care about this place would say about Epcot.

Where is the spirit of the old EPCOT? Can it be rescued? I hope so ... because , to steal a line from the old That's Entertainment, boy, do we need it now.

The future, as it existed in 1982, looks back kindly on EPCOT Center, not because it was perfect, but because it tried, and that in and of itself was admirable and wonderful.

The future of 2006, I am afraid, will not look back so kindly on Epcot nor on the Walt Disney Company that steadily and (I believe, more and more) quite intentionally oversaw the destruction of a cultural institution that existed so well, so lovingly, for nearly a century.


Postscript (Nov. 17, 2006): I did a bit more research into the speech that Peter Medawar gave in 1969 that contains the line quoted above. It is an incredibly rich, difficult speech to read, but for anyone interested in his observations on society and progress -- honestly, for anyone seriously interested in why EPCOT Center proved to be so much more than many people perceived and why its recent failings are so monumentally disappointing -- Medawar's speech is really remarkable and highly recommended. He may have given the speech 37 years ago, but it remains extraordinarily relevant.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Sign o' the Times?

Thanks to Epcotrob for this great Photoshop creation that pretty much says what's on many of our minds!

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Mexico, Schmexico -- They're All Latin!

That's what Disney seems to be thinking when it comes to a renovation of the Rio del Tiempo ride in the Mexico pavilion.

Word is out that Disney is planning a refurbishment, and the long-rumored plan is for Imagineers to base an updated ride on the 1944 Disney animated movie The Three Caballeros.

There's just one little problem: Only one of the three caballeros is actually Mexican, and a good chunk of the movie takes place in Brazil.

The movie was designed to promote good relations with all South American countries. To base a Mexican ride on a project that was inherently Latin but not specifically Mexican is to thumb a corporate nose at understanding what makes each Latin-American country unique. It's a shame to think Disney might stoop to this level just to introduce still more animated characters into Epcot ... a move that the more cynical among us might imagine to be aimed at selling more merchandise, not at actually improving the ride.

Mexico is a beautiful country with a remarkably rich culture that goes all the way back to ancient times. To even imply that a ride aimed at showing off that culture and heritage can be "improved" by adding in some cartoon birds (sorry, Donald, Jose and Panchito, but let's call a bird a bird!) is to ignore the thousands of years of progress and contribution that Mexico has made.

The Rio del Tiempo refurbishment is an opportunity for Imagineers and Disney's park management to show they understand what makes Epcot so special and what it needs to return to its former glory.

Let's hope this rumor is really a rumor, and that Disney won't cheapen Mexico's history and people by adding in some funny cartoons and making yet more Americans and Europeans think that all Latin countries are essentially the same.

Thursday, November 09, 2006

A View of Horizons

While this video may not be perfect ... I can almost smell the oranges!

This is a great way to remember why Horizons was such a terrific, entertaining addition to EPCOT Center, and is also an excellent reminder of what we miss when Disney insists on filling its theme parks with thrill rides instead of the immersive, creative, ambitious entertainment at which it used to excel.

As in the video I posted earlier that features Spaceship Earth, it's also interesting to note how smooth and animated the AA figures are when they're new and/or properly maintained!

So, click on the video image above and travel back to Futureport ... and get ready for a fun, sentimental journey into a future that probably never would have been, but now, sadly, never can be.

(And while you're at it, try clicking on the link to the Horizons tribute site on the right side of this page. Not only does it present some great photos and music ... but there's a nice little description at the end of the webpage that details just how prescient Imagineers were in what they presented in the Horzions attraction. Maybe this vision of the future wasn't so far-fetched after all ... or, even better, perhaps some young engineers were inspired 20 years ago by what they saw at EPCOT Center.)

Saturday, November 04, 2006

16 Suggestions for Fixing EPCOT

I had thought that many of the signs of Epcot’s continued decline that I witnessed during my recent vacation were temporary. Sadly, they appear not to be, based on a report over at

It doesn’t have to be this way. Disney does not need to invest tens of millions of dollars into whipping Epcot back into shape. As EPCOT Center (and the lower-cased Epcot) prepares to celebrate its 25th anniversary, there are some ways Disney could show good faith in what used to be its crowning theme-park achievement.

Below are 16 suggestions I have that don’t require massive capital-intensive investment … or, frankly, even a whole heck of a lot of work, for the most part. No doubt, you can think of more!

1) Leave the Legacy
First impressions count, and the first impression guests get at Epcot these days is one of blank granite walls. It makes for a great kitchen-counter showroom or government-designed war memorial, but the whole concept of “Leave a Legacy” has been, let’s face facts, a failure. There’s supposedly room for 750,000 images, but only a small fraction of that have been installed six years after the concept was introduced. Disney’s own website has essentially given up on the “Legacy” idea, and it’s time Epcot did the same. My suggestion: remove the image plaques and create beautiful etched images that tell the story of man. Make this a sculpture people want to look at and admire. Add some additional water or flower elements to the area. It may be too costly and impractical to remove the “gravestones,” but they certainly could be improved visually, and bravely admitting that the “Leave a Legacy” idea was a failure would mean that the incredibly ugly kiosk at the base of Spaceship Earth could also be removed.

2) Vacate the Vacation Club
The hideous purple kiosk that touts the Disney Vacation Club is just one of scores of sales-pitch stops that guests encounter throughout the parks, resorts and recreation sites at Walt Disney World. Enough is enough, particularly in Epcot’s Future World and World Showcase. Open a permanent Vacation Club information center in one or two of the old, never-used ticket booths at Epcot’s main gate if this timeshare sales pitch is absolutely imperative … but, please, you’ve already taken several hundred of my hard-saved vacation dollars from me when I entered, do you really need to keep insisting I spend more? And does such a sales pitch belong inside the park? Imagine sitting in a movie theater and having the show interrupted with an ad to buy snacks. If the parks are living movies, then that’s exactly what these blatant sales come-ons feel like. They seem out of place at all of the parks, but particularly at Epcot.

3) Off the Outdoor
A few well-placed outdoor-vending carts are always going to be welcome sites, whether a guest is in the mood for a cold drink, some ice cream or a quick roll of film. But outdoor vending has gone haywire throughout Epcot; on my most recent visit, World Showcase was lined with carts. Epcot is beginning to resemble a flea market, and that’s just not necessary. I don’t need to buy tacky necklaces made of “light,” knock-off lightsabers or bizarre machines that make string do weird things under black light. These items and the way they’re sold make me feel like I’m at a cheap state fair, and selling them is one of the ultimate signs that Disney will do anything to turn a buck, even have cast members stand around like sideshow barkers. One of the real joys of Epcot is shopping in World Showcase and discovering items you’d never find back home. Keep the outdoor vending to a minimum (really, what more is needed besides a few key snacks and some beverages?) and let us go inside to buy our souvenirs.

4) Ban the Ball
While we’re on the subject of outdoor vending, you know those “Ballzac” things that take up space in the breezeways between Innovations Plaza and Future World’s east and west sides? Get rid of them. In all my years of visiting Epcot, I’ve never seen a single guest actually purchase one of these (though, I reckon, they must, since they’re still sold), but I have seen guests play an unwelcome game of dodgeball when a bored cast member banished to the lowly post of selling these “fun” items decides to have a little fun. They’re obnoxious; they have nothing to do with Epcot’s sense of fun, futurism or discovery; and they just clutter the place up. I have strong doubts that Epcot’s per-guest spending rate would drop dramatically with the elimination of the utterly incongruous “Ballzac” junk.

5) Fix the Films
It’s a travesty to see a beautifully produced (if awfully outdated) film attraction like Impressions de France look like a travelogue that’s been touring the country for decades. Scratched, dirty, out of focus and out of alignment, it’s just one of the movies that Epcot’s management really needs to fix. That doesn’t mean that WDI needs to go out and spend millions to produce all-new movies (though it can’t cost that much, relatively speaking, to re-do these every five years or so – certainly less than the $250 million or more that the company will spend on Pirates of the Caribbean 3). Strike new prints, install them correctly, update the projection equipment and show off these still astonishingly gorgeous and beautifully produced movies properly. They’re classy; the way Disney has treated them is anything but.
Fix #7: Save the Signage

Fix #6: Shine Up the Shops

6) Shine Up the Shops
MouseGear was filled with broken fixtures and endcaps on my last visit. Top shelves in some stores actually showed dust. Particularly in Future World, the retail locations look tired and unappealing. Frankly, some of the stores are beginning to get a creepy Six Flags vibe, and that’s just not good. Bring some showmanship back to the stores. If Disney’s “centralized” merchandising group doesn’t see fit any longer to create fun, unique items for individual theme parks (much less Resorts, based on the Disneyland/Walt Disney World merchandise that is increasingly common), at least show off the wares with some flair. Pay particular attention to the stores in Future World, which are increasingly threadbare and look more and more like the Woolworth’s down the street … just before it closed.

7) Save the Signage
Throughout Future World, particularly, the directional signs look sad and neglected. Instead of really showing us the way or imparting information, they just sit there with names of attractions blanked out looking dirty and kind of gross. The signage throughout Epcot is another example of how exactly the thing Walt Disney wanted to avoid – cheap, vaguely dirty carnival-style parks – is exactly the outcome of the management techniques Disney has put in place in the past decade or so. In my collection of old Disney News magazines is an article from the early 1980s describing the meticulous care Disney’s designers put into the signage. These days at Epcot, fonts and colors don’t always match, the signs barely point us in the right direction, and some of them look like they haven’t been touched in almost the entire 25 years Epcot has been in existence. Pay attention to little details like this … and guests will notice! (Frankly, the old signs, with the stylized circular logos for each pavilion and the names of countries in script that recalled their cultures, were a lot better looking.)

Fix #16: Whack the Wand

Fix #8: Deep-Six the Sales

8) Deep Six the Sales
In the area originally called “World Showcase Plaza,” one of the two large retail buildings is being used for … a fire sale. Tacky signs with Mickey Mouse hands and a crappy cartoon font script scream out, “We couldn’t get rid of this stuff anywhere else, so come get it cheap!” That’s not really what they say, of course, but it might as well be. To use prime real estate for what is essentially an outlet store is horrible show and a terrible management decision. If I can get stuff here for less than 10 bucks, why should I pay full price somewhere else? In today’s Wal-Mart world, that’s bound to be the message guests take away from this retail reduction. It’s just a lousy idea, and should be axed.

9) Adjust the AAs
As a recently posted old video montage of EPCOT Center shows, the Audio-Animatronic figures in Spaceship Earth, Universe of Energy and The American Adventure used to look so much more animated. Give these guys some TLC, show us what makes AA figures so cool. Lube ’em up, or whatever you call it, but put some life back into them. Give us more of what makes Disney so uniquely Disney … and that does not mean recordings of Stitch and appearances by Mickey and Minnie – it means the technology and creativity that sets Disney apart from any other theme-park operator in the world. AA figures are a huge part of that, and EPCOT Center had more of them than any other park. They made EPCOT special, and can do it again.

10) Acknowledge the American Diet
Now, I love hamburgers, hot dogs and French fries as much as the next guy, but they do not define my diet – not by a long shot. In my extensive travels throughout the U.S., I’ve had extraordinary local cuisine, from Seattle to Miami, from Boston to Kansas City. Certainly there must be a more creative and honest way to represent American food than a fast-food joint? Show some flair when it comes to showing off the dining options in the “home country” by offering something more than fast food at the American pavilion.

11) Nurture the Norway Pavilion
I’ve already written about my extreme disappointment in the way the Norway pavilion has been treated, and I don’t need to go into more detail here. But, come on! Show Norway a little respect. It’s one of the few countries represented in World Showcase (along with China and Morocco) that are out of reach for most American tourists. Though its customs and culture may seem familiar, they’re quite unique, and deserve much more than they’re getting. At the very least, bring back a non-Princess Akershus for the dinner meal, if nothing else.

12) Enliven the Exits
Guests who experience the epic (in length, at least) Universe of Energy and immersive Spaceship Earth deserve much more upon exiting than empty rooms. Granted, it seems that Siemens will be upgrading the old Earth Station/Global Neighborhood in the near future, but when Exxon dropped its sponsorship of Energy, was it necessary to just shutter up the exit area? Inexpensive displays that explain some of the concepts we’ve just seen would be a welcome addition, a way for guests to feel they’re not being unceremoniously dumped into a far corner of Future World upon the ride’s completion. Likewise, the exit of Mission: Space is nothing but a series of blank hallways. Couldn’t Imagineers at least add some nice wall displays to enlighten us a bit more on space travel? After experiencing (and surviving!) a hugely expensive attraction, designers could have done a bit more than give us a very long hallway to walk before the admittedly well done (and sparsely attended) space-themed interactive area. At the very least, these centerpiece attractions deserve exits that are as good as the entrances.

13) Clean the ’Core
No matter what you call it, it will always be Communicore to diehard EPCOTers – the “core,” the physical heart of Epcot. It doesn’t need to look like a dizzy-headed relic from 1988. If designers refuse to get rid of the non-shade-providing sunshades and the bizarre whirlygigs, at least remove some of the actual clutter from this area – the carts, the booths, the needless tip board. (Given how few attractions Epcot actually has – though, admittedly, they’re large ones – is a tip board necessary at this park?) Clean it up a bit, give it a sense of place, make it look less like a techno junkyard.

14) Sell the Story
You know that park map everyone (theoretically, at least) receives on entering? Use it to tell the Epcot story. Explain the park a bit, tell newbie guests why it’s unlike any theme park in the world. Prepare them to find a little less “Disney” but a whole lot more to engage their senses. Tell a bit of the back story of Walt Disney’s original plan, explain the “permanent World’s Fair” concept, and proactively combat the “where’s Mickey” syndrome by telling the Epcot story. The map might be well-served by reprinting the EPCOT Center dedication. If guests don’t “get” Epcot, help them … and telling the story on a brochure everyone receives would help them understand and appreciate the park that much more.

15) Serve up the Center
A bold move: Rename the place EPCOT Center. Admit that, despite all efforts to the contrary, that’s what everyone calls it – at least, that’s still the name most guidebooks and even a few lingering Disney items (like that dedication plaque) use. There’s nothing wrong with the name, and, in fact, it has a great history and heritage. It’s EPCOT Center. Does it mean anything? No more than “Disney-MGM Studios” (which are neither studios nor contain much MGM) or, over at the competition, “Islands of Adventure” (they’re not islands!). What’s in a name? A sense of place, a sense of style, a sense of substance. EPCOT Center is a great name; it’s the “center” of a concept that brings our world closer together, moves us toward a day when that “Experimental Prototype” might be possible. And, if you want to get really literal, you could go back to the old way of thinking – that Walt Disney World as a whole was the concept of EPCOT brought to life (as it is, virtually, a city unto itself), and the theme park was the Center of that place. But in the end, admit that “EPCOT Center” says a whole lot more than just “Epcot” – and if it served the park so well for 20 years (prior to construction even being complete), it must have been pretty OK to begin with.

16) Whack the Wand
I’ve yet to receive a single e-mail, even from Imagineers themselves, defending the wand. No one likes it. It’s an eyesore. I once read that an Imagineer claimed the wand and sign helped “better identify” Epcot. Ummm … a 180-foot-tall, unique-in-the-world geosphere doesn’t do that? If recent rumors are true, the wand might actually be on its way out. A move like that … well, the thought alone leaves you thinking that maybe, just maybe, there is a little imagination left in the world!

Thursday, November 02, 2006

Rethinking Mission: Space

Especially for those of you who have accused me of "fuddy-duddiness" and incessant complaining about EPC-- er, Epcot, this will come as a total shock. I know it shocked me.

After my absolutely scathing indictment of Mission: Space several months ago, I ventured on board again during my recent vacation to Walt Disney World. Damn it all ... I kind of liked it.

Make no mistake: I absolutely hold to many of my original criticisms. The ride is absolutely not suitable for all guests -- in fact, I'd wager that the vast majority of Epcot visitors would leave the ride highly agitated. It is an intense experience with sensations that would best be described as disturbing to most non-teenagers and questionable for those who are younger. It is most decidedly not the kind of ride Walt Disney had in mind when he wanted to make a theme-park experience for the whole family, or what Imagineers had in mind when they created EPCOT Center.

And yet ...

I rode it four times in six days, and I learned how to enjoy it. It still left me queasy and slightly afraid for my own well-being. Even the "less intense" version is a borderline terrifying ordeal, one to which I would suggest most people to subject themselves.

But for those who can stomach it, there is some genuine awe on Mission: Space. I actually felt, for a few moments, that I was not at a theme park in Florida but on board a spacecraft headed to Mars. I felt the weightlessness, felt the extreme g-forces, felt the rush of excitement that comes with pushing the limits of what I ever thought I would allow myself to do.

(As a side note, it's a telling sign of the public's general rejection of this expensive addition that on a crowded Saturday afternoon the wait time for Mission: Space was listed as 10 minutes -- and in actuality was about three minutes -- while the 24-year-old Listen to the Land boat ride boasted a 35-minute-long queue.)

There's something almost addictive about Mission: Space, once you accept that it's a thrill ride through and through.

It's still very much the case that I learned nothing about space travel (and came away, after four rides, confused whether we're supposed to be going to Mars or, as the ride seems to indicate, just training for that). I'm not even sure if astronauts-in-training actually experience things like this. It left me with no sense of discovery or excitement other than a pure adrenaline rush.

At any other theme park, Mission: Space would be an extraordinary, noteworthy accomplishment, but at Epcot it remains just another example of trying to appeal to adrenaline-addicted teenagers.

Nonetheless ... I've softened just a tiny bit. Mission: Space is still all wrong for Epcot, but it is a heck of a ride.

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Sea Base Memories

Here's a wonderful look back at The Living Seas as it was in 1989, just a few years after opening.

Listen to the kids responding eagerly to the sights they encounter while on the Sea Cabs. Notice how much more interesting and enticing the presentation in the Sea Base is because it's being done by a real person. (And ask yourself, could Disney's cast members pull off such a good performance today?!)

Thanks to YouTube and videocameras, this is a great little time capsule that hints at just how cool The Living Seas was when it still seemed fresh and new and Disney hadn't turned its back on the pavilion.

The Way-Back Machine

"The Perky Pickle" blog contains a fun, bouncy look back at the original EPCOT Center with nary a hint of my cynicism or melancholy!

I encourage everyone to hop on over to the Pickle for some fantastic vintage photos and a different perspective on the EPCOT Center we all knew and miss so much! (This link will take you to Day 5 of the five-day series; earlier days can be found along the right-hand side of the blogpage.)

EPCOT Center: Disney's Taurus?

Last week’s announcement that Ford was finally pulling the plug on production of the car that was once its top seller, the Taurus, elicited enormous press coverage. Among the obituaries for this once-innovative automobile was a beautifully written editorial in USA Today that remarked on Ford’s “well-developed talent for turning success into failure.”

The death knell for the Taurus had a familiar ring all throughout the news media, but particularly in the USA Today piece. Here’s another quote: “They pin their hopes on their next new thing that will have to survive in a ruthlessly competitive market.”

Sound familiar?

The outcry of disappointment in Ford’s decision bears a striking resemblance to the way The Walt Disney Company has treated its theme parks, particularly EPCOT Center. Rather than upgrade, innovate and put serious thinking into saving and updating its most noteworthy car in decades, Ford decided to throw in the towel, claiming that the car-buying public wanted SUVs and trucks instead of sedans. Not looking back, Ford barely acknowledged how groundbreaking and revolutionary its Taurus was, and how it helped rescue the company from near ruin in the mid-1980s.

Similarly, Disney has claimed that years of study reveal its consumers want Disney characters, thrill rides and basic amusement-park entertainment, and it filled EPCOT Center with those things, ultimately acknowledging that the park had strayed so far from its roots that its original name would be dropped in favor of the simpler “Epcot” – a name, we all know, that means absolutely nothing.

Like Ford, Disney turned its back on its own management in these decisions. Innovative, risk-taking managers had decided to chart a new course, one that would be a gamble but could ultimately open new doors of opportunity for the respective company. They relied on their own expertise, experience and instinct to determine what their company should offer – not simply on focus groups and market-research surveys. In Ford’s case, the result was a home-run, a car that proved to be both enormously popular and influential. In Disney’s case, the result was a solid double, a theme park that tried new things and, by most accounts, succeeded quite well.

Consumers ultimately tired of these innovative offerings, more as a result of a lack of refinements and redesigns in each than due to a flaw in the basic offering. As consumers began looking elsewhere, neither Ford nor Disney responded by upgrading and improving their offerings – in each case, the company essentially let the product turn stagnant. After offering something truly new and exciting, both Ford and Disney suddenly lost the desire to continue trying new things. The innovation stopped.

Ford and Disney turned their attention to what the public claimed it wanted – SUVs in one case, thrill rides in another. Not surprisingly, it turned out that, by and large, the public didn’t want those things from these companies; others did them better. (Witness Ford’s devastating $5.8-billion quarterly loss and Disney’s debacles at California Adventure, the Walt Disney Studios Paris and Hong Kong Disneyland.)

The Taurus and EPCOT Center were both products of an odd era in corporate American history, one in which decades of bold innovation were about to be laid to waste by marketing-driven business decisions. In the Taurus and EPCOT, two American icons offered one final showcase of ingenuity and creativity. Beginning in the early 1990s, each company would be driven not by the desire to create the best and most innovative products, but by pleasing shareholders with the best possible financial performance.

In Ford’s case, we’ve seen what happens when a company is ruled solely by the bottom line and drops innovation in favor of giving the public what it wants; in Disney’s, the final outcome remains to be seen.

Monday, October 23, 2006

As Goes Epcot, So Goes Disney

There have been some great conversations going on here at EPCOT Central -- sometimes contentious ones, but ones that have a point and have valid arguments on both sides. As I consider the discussion that has been going on about the relative merits of The Living Seas vs. The Seas With Nemo and Friends I have been thinking a lot about the state of creativity at Disney.

It's probably true that there will never be anyone as creatively driven and as fiscally reckless as Walt Disney again, at least in the entertainment industry. If ol' Unca Walt were around today, he'd be driven out of town by the very people who run his company today, laughed at for such ludicrous notions as investing bazillions in a single project and ignoring the desires of his own shareholders.

EPCOT Center was one of the last projects for which he proposed an outline, and everyone can agree -- even the most ardent EPCOT fans -- that the theme park doesn't come close to what Walt himself envisioned.

Nonetheless, EPCOT throughout the 1970s and 1980s was a place where Disney felt it could experiment with new technologies, new theme-park concepts and new ways of telling stories. It was a tremendously fertile ground for toying around with ideas and blending concepts that were tried-and-true (the Omnimover, Audio-Animatronics) with ones that were bold and ambitious (a serious-minded park, pavilions instead of single attractions).

I recently had a discussion with a friend who works at Disney, and I argued that while financially Disney is a good, sound investment, creatively the company has reached a nadir that I believe descends even lower than its hard times of the late 1970s. Then, at least, Disney was attempting to explore the very definition of its name while staying true to the spirit of its founder. Projects as varied as "Space Mountain," The Black Hole, Tokyo Disneyland, The Black Cauldron, "America Sings," Tex and The Disney Channel were not simply attempts to make money (ironically, most didn't), but honest attempts to expand Disney's presence, build a foundation of new franchises and businesses, and in doing so enlarge the public's concept of what constituted Disney entertainment.

EPCOT Center was chief among these. Misguided as many claim the attempt to shoehorn the EPCOT "city" concepts into a theme park, it was a sincere and honest effort to push Disney into a bold new era of theme parks that didn't rely on Mickey Mouse, that showcased the here and now rather than the fantastic, and, in today's MBA terms, that created a new "brand" that could stand on its own alongside "Disneyland" and "Walt Disney World."

If you've been reading this blog for a while, you know how I feel about the vast majority of developments at EPCOT Center in the past decade or so. They have cheapened EPCOT, made this once-grand theme park lose its unique identity, and coddled the public into believing that the only "true" Disney is one that brings you Mickey and the Princesses and anything Pixar.

That, of course, is also what the company has become -- managers of an entertainment brand that does not grow and change and develop, but stays more and more the same, trading off of its decades of goodwill seemingly limitlessly and to the point of exhaustion. It has swallowed up new brands, like ABC and ESPN, only to decide that pushing them into the theme parks, too, is a good way to "network" the company. ("Network," by the way, is the new word for "synergize.")

There is almost no imagination, no true creativity -- and certainly no bold daring -- on display. So, I would argue, is the case at Epcot.

Which makes me wonder (much like Sarah Jessica Parker in Sex in the City), could it be that today's Epcot is a perfect mirror for the creative problems of The Walt Disney Company?

Just as Epcot suffers from a lack of focus, so does The Walt Disney Company.

Just as Epcot has increasingly surrendered its identity for the sake of shoehorning in more and more "classic" Disney characters whenever possible into all possible realms (whether they make sense or not), so does The Walt Disney Company.

Just as Epcot has trouble clarifying its goals and its mission, so does The Walt Disney Company.

Just as Epcot seems to regard guests as a way to make money, not as a consitituency to entertain with new concepts, so does The Walt Disney Company.

Just as Epcot has demonstrated a lack of truly innovative, creative concepts, so has The Walt Disney Company.

Could it be possible that the trajectory of EPCOT Center -- which began with all great hopes, all possible funding, all extraordinary ambition -- is that of Disney as a whole? Amazing creativity, incredible innovention ... giving way to relying on characters, price increases and job cuts in order to turn a profit, even if, in the long run, it loses what made it so special in the first place?

Even if, heaven forbid, it renders itself obsolete and irrelevant in the process?

Thursday, October 19, 2006

A Living Seas Imagining

I earlier posted this as "comment" to the previous post about The Seas With Nemo and Friends. Then I thought, "Hey, why am I posting this as a comment? It's my blog! I can make it a real post!"

Your comments made me think about whether there could have been a way to both appeal to the Nemo set but still uphold the integrity of the EPCOT Center ideals. Of course, it's just an imagining (and one written in 15 minutes!), but still ... it might open up some other ideas, or at least a discussion! I'd love to know your thoughts:


Guests enter the pavilion through a queue area that reminds us how little we know about the seas.

We see images of (perhaps fossils or even small AA figures) some of the most bizarre creatures imaginable -- and learn that they actually live just a few miles away from us ... down.

As we journey through the queue area, we move from happy, light imagery (representing the top surface of the ocean, which we think we know so well) into darker, more ominous motifs. It never gets too scary, just inky and murky enough to make us remember that the bottom of the sea is only a short distance away but might as well be on another world.

A series of signs informs us we are about to enter the training room for Seabase Alpha, where we have been invited as the first civilian visitors.

The doors open and we are taken into a seating area that will give us important information we should know before entering Seabase Alpha. We are told that centuries of exploration have left us knowing little more about the seas than we did years ago, how mysterious they are, how much we can learn from them, how they may hold the answers to problems of disease, pollution and famine that plague the top of the earth. We are told that we are about to embark on a grand adventure that many have dreamed of but few have taken -- a voyage to a working seabase that in many ways is an even more remarkable feat than a space station.

The doors open and we board the vessel that will take us down into the ocean's depths. We ride past scenes that show us descending further and further. Odd, luminscent creatures poke out at us; shipwrecks fill our view. We receive data and information about this trip, then ride past scenes that show us how this amazing feat was engineered. We're told it's not so deep that it is impractical to science, but deep enough that we can discover and develop new marine technologies. We see it coming to life, and finally we step off our vessel and into ...

Seabase Alpha.

The inside of the Seabase is part "industrial-functional," part futuristic. We learn that it has several different layers, each of which represents the different layers of the oceans. For instance, as we disembark, we see familiar marine mammals, and watch and interact with scientists who are studying them. We learn about how man interacts with this top layer of the ocean, and how we are impacting it. "Turtle Talk With Crush" is in this top area for the kids to learn more about the oceans.

One level down, we see the main aquarium tank and learn about sealife that never comes to the surface. Nemo himself presents information about fragile coral reefs for kids in a short video that leads into an underwater replica of a real coral reef (complete with the fish that live in and near it). Adult guests, meanwhile, are able to watch and interact with the divers.

On the lower level are the "Mysteries of the Deep." Here, a new, widescreen 3-D presentation about some of the most unknown creatures on earth shows us things that few people have ever seen. It has no host, but rather is presented as an almost eerie "journey to the depths," providing an oceanographic perspective that few other aquariums or sea parks even address.

Beyond its doors is a spectacular new three-dimensional, Imagineered diorama that shows some of these creatures and also offers a "customizable" self-guided audio tour (one for adults, one created specifically for kids, narrated by Dory) that talks about some of the amazing scientific and medical uses that these creatures may provide in the future.

We exit Seabase Alpha as we used to enter-- through the "hydrolators" that take us back up to the surface. Upon our exit, we walk through two enormous tanks that show off beautiful undersea displays and remind us of the amazing things we just saw and learned.

The pavilion provides enough education for adults and entertainment for children. It capitalizes on the success of Finding Nemo but does not fully rely on Nemo for its appeal. It incorporates a reconfigured ride and also allows guests to see and experience the attraction at their own pace.

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Sea? This is FUN!

I'm happy to know that so many reports are coming back with positive things to say about the newly retooled pavilion with the unwieldy name The Seas With Nemo and Friends. Full disclosure: I have not experienced it myself, and probably won't get the chance to do so for quite some time.

That said ... I'm not sure I want to. Having visited the half-finished pavilion several weeks ago, none of the reviews I've read online lead me to change my mind about this Epcot pavilion: It's Pixar-ized pabulum that dumbs down what was for many years one of the most challenging -- and most rewarding -- of the Epcot attractions.

The Seas, etc., etc. would, from what I gather, be a lovely addition to The Magic Kingdom. It's fun, it's colorful, it's firmly rooted in fantasy. It's got loveable characters that are nicely integrated into a well-conceived ride.

But here's the thing -- what I'm realizing is my basic problem with turning EPCOT Center into Epcot and now into, it seems, Discot (Pixcot?):

The Magic Kingdom is a place where adults can feel like kids, where kids (by virtue of being able to share most of the attractions with their families) can feel a little bit like adults, where fantasy is the common touchstone for everyone who visits. (I'll put aside the relentless commercialization and even the non-Tomorrow Tomorrowland.) It's a place where animated characters and fairy tales can come to life, alongside recreations of our heritage and our idealized notion of how we came to be (at least, if we're Americans).

In short, it's a place that you grow up in.

EPCOT Center was something quite different, and here's the conclusion I've reached: It was a place you would grow into. You could be too young for EPCOT Center, without a doubt. If you were 8, the place would be boring, and Disney knew that -- so they tossed the kids a bone in the form of a purple dragon and some silly-looking characters in World of Motion.

Other than that, EPCOT Center was resolutley and steadfastly determined to present itself as different than The Magic Kingdom. As you "grew up," you would find more and more to EPCOT Center to stimulate you. A child has little interest in shopping for interesting home decorations, visiting displays that teach about the history of a country, or discovering how food is harvested. But for most of us, those things become increasingly fun, increasingly relevant, increasingly interesting, the older we get. They remind us how much we don't know about our world, and how much there is to explore and learn. EPCOT Center was made for those who found The Magic Kingdom a little silly.

No one is allowed to do that today.

We're not allowed to think our own thoughts, conceive of our own lives, without Disney's help when we go to Walt Disney World. To me, The Seas, Yaddah, Yaddah is yet another example of that.

Let me state again: I believe (and want to believe) that it's a good, fun ride. I don't doubt that the Imagineers have done a terrific job at making it look great.

But The Living Seas celebrated our world, not a digitized, Pixar-ized vision of happy, talking fish. It reminded us that there are mysteries here on our very own planet that we have only begun to explore, and then invited us to explore those mysteries at our leisure. It held a view that the oceans were vast, exciting, vibrant and alive with creatures that seem infinitely alien but share our own planet.

I just don't believe, as well done as it may be, that a turtle who loves saying "Duuuuuuuuude" is quite the same as discovering for ourselves how little we know our own world.

When Enthusiasm Was Enthusiastic

Particularly by today's standards, this is not a great piece.

The music (even for 1982) is pretty mundane, the images are tough to decipher. Looking at it 25 years later, it's almost quaint how outmoded and old-fashioned this technology looks.

But here's what really strikes me about this video, which showcases the technology that was used to run EPCOT Center: It believes in what it's telling us. It's enthusiastic. It wants to excite us, to get us eager to learn more.

It may not be great, but it's fun, and it fits in perfectly with the EPCOT Center message that technology can be used to bring great things to life.

It's about EPCOT, not about Disney. It's not about selling, it's about energizing. It's not about "branding," it's simply meant to showcase EPCOT center. It's so simple and "out-of-date," it's almost astonishing to see how effective (and infectious) it is.

(And, I noted with a sly little smile, the monorails have not a single marketing banner or sticker on them anywhere! Back then, they didn't even feel the need to use crazy character voices to "synergize." It was just about that great voice telling you that you're "now approaching EPCOT Center." For millions of people for many, many years, that alone was thrilling enough.)

Monday, October 16, 2006

Seeing Into the Future

Here's another classic bit of video found on YouTube -- a feature on EPCOT Center produced for the Today Show. Apart from seeing Jane Pauley looking her early '80s best, it's a great example of just how clear Disney's "messaging" on EPCOT Center was -- and how bungled it has become.

My favorite bit? That EPCOT is a place parents will drag the kids, not vice-versa. Today, we seem to think there's something wrong with that concept!

It certainly is amazing how barren the opening-day version of EPCOT Center looked. Today's mature gardens are so much more beautiful ... if only there weren't so many random carts, kiosks and unnecessary buildings blocking their full view.

At any rate ... enjoy!

Sunday, October 15, 2006

Why EPCOT Center Was So Special

What made us fall in love with EPCOT Center? What is the ineffable "something" that has all but been erased by Disney's current management in the past decade or so?

This terrific 1982 video gives us some fantastic early images of EPCOT Center and presents some terrific insight into the making of Spaceship Earth. Ironically (or not), one of the people who speaks about the importance and significance of EPCOT Center and Spaceship Earth is Marty Sklar -- the same person who oversaw the deconstruction of the brilliant EPCOT Center as he tried to navigate and manipulate the politics of Eisner-era Disney.

Are you a Disney employee or executive? Do you know someone who is? Please make sure to view this video and send the link to those who you think might like to see why today's "Epcot" is so far removed and so much less effective than the original EPCOT Center.

(Notice, too, how much more animated and effective those AA figures looked a quarter century ago!)

Spaceship Earth, the video reminds us, "embodies the spirit of EPCOT Center." Today's Disney executives would do well to keep that in their heads!

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

A Grand and Miraculous Spaceship

Every day, thousands of people walk right by it, but how many actually consider the mural at the entrance to Spaceship Earth? Not enough!

It’s a gorgeous painting, showcasing many of the images that await on the journey through the geosphere. It also tells a beautiful story on its own, about man’s constant quest to share information and communicate with others.

Dramatic and bold, easy to digest in a glance -- but at the same time wonderfully detailed and worth studying closely, the mural also serves as a beautiful reminder of what EPCOT Center aspired to be: intelligent, adventurous, compelling and most decidedly “un-Disney.”

Seeing the mural always brings a little joy to me, because it’s one of those traces of EPCOT Center that hasn’t been wiped away and Mickey-ized. Grand and miraculous (well, maybe that’s a bit of a stretch) itself, the Spaceship Earth mural reminds us that exploring our world, our universe, isn’t boring – it’s an enormous adventure through time and space that can spark the imagination and lead to fantastic discoveries.

Let’s hope the mural never goes away!

Thursday, October 05, 2006

A Happy Accident

December 15, 1966. On the "CBS Evening News With Walter Cronkite," commentator Eric Sevareid made these eloquent observations about Walt Disney just hours after the world learned that Walt had died:

"He was a happy accident, one of the happiest this century has experienced. And judging by the way it’s behaving, in spite of all Disney tried to tell it about laughter, love, children, puppies, and sunrises, the century hardly deserved him."

The discussion that's been taking place in the comments section of "What's It All About, EPCOT," has both fascinated and unnerved me. Have we truly grown so cynical that Sevareid's words are more accurate and prophetic today than 40 years ago?

By all accounts, it would appear so. "Humor" today is defined by irony and sarcasm -- particulary if the object of scorn is someone in a social class or political party other than your own. The idea of simply telling a joke is outmoded; today, wry observance is what we think is funny, because it allows us to be superior to others.

Belief in anything considered childlike or simple is ridiculed. A fairy tale, as we witnessed with Shrek and Shrek 2, isn't enough; the story has to mock the idea of believing in a fairy tale and show how anachronistic and backward that idea is.

We deconstruct ideas, entertainment, people (especially celebrities and politicians) and belief systems so that we may mock them. And when we do strip them down to nothing, we find that mockery on its own does not sustain us; as a nation and, increasingly, as a species, we are unsatisfied and unhappy to learn that anyone else might by satisfied and happy using the same tools we have. (Therefore, for instance, we shout out "That's so fake" on a ride because we are fearful others might actually be enjoying the illusion.)

We find ourselves angry that our lives -- individually and collectively -- are not as happy as we imagined and believed they would be, so we make fun of the lives, likes and moral systems of others so we can feel better about ourselves. And, of course, we don't.

Cynicism has reached epidemic proportions. More distressingly (as the human condition has rarely been one of happiness or contentment), we have destroyed what few outlets we had to combat that cynicism. (I will not address issues of religion here; feel free to determine on your own whether cynicism has invaded that aspect of your life.)

In past decades and centuries, humans often turned to artistic outlets both to express their frustration, grief and sorrow and, more importantly, to celebrate and gain happiness from expressions of positive feelings -- of joy, of discovery, of friendship, of beauty, of scale and scope, of awareness and idealization.

It can be no accident that Walt Disney's unique brand of entertainment achieved its highest level of popularity -- turned the man himself into a celebrity of such a caliber he often marveled at it -- during two calamitous times in U.S. history: World War II and the start of the Cold War. When, as Sevareid said, the nation (and world) was grappling with how to accept the reality of "intercontinental missiles, poisoned air, defoliated forests, and scraps from the moon," Disney reminded his audiences that there was another side to life, one filled with that "laughter, love, children, puppies and sunrises."

In the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s, people saw these things as a relief. They believed what Uncle Walt told them: that there was nothing at all wrong with finding solace in simple joys. He said we would use these potentially horrifying threats only for good, that man, at his core, believed in himself and in fulfilling his own potential. He said that life, for lack of a better term, was good.

After Walt Disney died, of course, the world experienced chaos -- but this is no history lesson, and, more importantly, the chaos of that day was little different than the chaos of today ... or the chaos we have ever faced.

What's different? I don't know -- well, I have theories, but they are not worth going into here. They boil down, however, to this: No one has offered anything as pure, as simple, as honest as Walt Disney did. No one has expressed such an individual voice.

For years, The Walt Disney Company recognized that it had an incredibly unique place in entertainment as the only organization built on such a strong foundation. Although "What would Walt do?" became an overused question no one could answer, it was important that the question was asked. There was a genuine commitment -- even when the company began trying to branch out into different kinds of entertainment in 1983 -- to quality and to the integrity of its guiding philosophies. If they couldn't re-create the "magic," they at least tried.

No one's trying anymore.

EPCOT Center, for whatever faults it may have had, possessed enormous strength of conviction. It imparted a message of hope and idealism, and wasn't ashamed to say that idealism, gosh darn it, wasn't a bad thing. We could all strive to be better. Did some laugh? Of course. Did many millions come away believing the message? You'd better believe it. Like Sevareid said of Walt himself, EPCOT Center was "a happy accident," borne from a desire to see at least a semblance of Walt's last, greatest dream brought to life. Bastardized as it may have been, it could be said convincingly that at least some of what Walt wanted was there. At least some of Walt's amazing vision for our future was in it.

There's very litle of Walt left in today's Disney. It is not goverened by any philosophy or conviction but by the desire, simply and relentlessly, to make money. It is not above cashing in on the diminishing goodwill created by Walt Disney, goodwill that survived for nearly four decades -- even if it bankrupts itself of that goodwill in relatively short order.

If today's Disney and its employees and managers come across as cynical, it is because the concepts and "creativity" they present are not backed by ideas, emotion and thought, but by manufactured marketing strategies that increasingly make very little pretense that the Disney mission is to part us from our money and make a small number of people very wealthy.

How can we help but respond to that with a cynical eye?

When many of us initially regarded John Lasseter, we did so happily because we imagined he would approach his role with the zeal, gusto and heart that no one has since Walt himself. As we hear of him approving Pixar-based rides and (apparently) endorsing the idea of turning Tom Sawyer's Island into a Depp-influenced pirate's cove, hearts sink because one person who could turn the tide of cynicism is failing to even acknolwedge that the cynicism is there.

A kid who says those pirates on their Caribbean journey look fake is doing it because he has never received approval from the outside -- from parents, teachers, friends or, worse, himself -- to believe, to imagine, to pretend. In Bedknobs and Broomsticks, a movie Walt Disney helped develop before he died, a wistful song refers to "The Age of Not Believing." It seems we've entered that age, and we're worse off for it.

Walt Disney gave approval to believe, not just to children, but to the world. It was a gift of light. The light, at long last, is fading. Whether it can be brightened again remains to be seen.

I don't blame society for being cynical. I blame the simple lack of anyone who has risen up to say, "There is more than this."

On that cold December night 40 years ago, Sevareid left his audience with these 10 words:

"People are saying we will never see his like again."

He may, indeed, have been right.

And if you've made it this far, thanks for getting through such a long diatribe.

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

What's It All About, EPCOT?

I've been trying all day to figure out how to get YouTube to link to the blog, but to no avail. The YouTube "blog-linker" thing just hangs and hangs. Nevertheless, I had to pass on this terrific video that Captain Schnemo sent me. It's a terrific reminder of what EPCOT Center was, why we used to get so excited about it, and what's missing from today's Epcot -- a sense of excitement, wonder and genuine excitement about the future and our world.

It's really great stuff. Hope you agree.

(By the way, if you have a moment, click on the photo to see the full-size version of this image. I was very impressed with the picture that my new digital camera generated ... it was taken from across World Showcase Lagoon with no tripod!)

Monday, October 02, 2006

Belief and Pride

There it is for all to see.

Walk toward EPCOT Center -- well, Epcot (unless you believe one line in the plaque itself) -- and the basic philosophy is spelled out plainly.

"Epcot is inspired by Walt Disney's creative vision. Here, human achievements are celebrated through imagination, wonders of enterprise and concepts of a future that promises new and exciting benefits for all."

Interestingly, the plaque only furthers the debate over whether the marketing-driven name "Epcot" is preferred over the traditional "EPCOT Center," as it reads both ways.

I question how many Disney marketing executives have bothered to read the plaque (or even know it exists). I question how Princess dresses in Norway, Ellen acting goofy in her Energy Adventure, test-track cars that often don't operate, or cartoon fish usurping real ones "instill a sense of belief and pride in man's ability to shape a world that offers hope to people everywhere."

In my line of work (which is not too far removed at all from what Disney does), when we lose sight of our goal, when things just don't seem to be working properly, or we begin to question our effectiveness, we pause for a brief moment and go back to our original goals. Do those original goals still apply? If they do, are we sure that what we're doing will lead us to meeting those goals?

The goals of EPCOT Center are carved in bronze for all to see at the front of the park. Except for some half-hearted tinkering with the name of the park, the goals have been the same since 1982. Those are some pretty long-lived, hardy goals. They haven't changed at all.

So, my questions are: 1) Does EPCOT Center, as it exists today, match those goals? And 2) Does anyone at Disney even realize those goals still exist?

Happy Birthday, EPCOT Center

I'm a day late, so while the wishes are belated, the sentiment is no less strong: Here's to a happy 24th birthday for EPCOT Center and a year ahead that is filled with only good things!

Saturday, September 30, 2006

Where's Spaceship Earth?

It's a topic that's already been discussed here and, with some lovely visuals, at Re-Imagineering. Nonetheless, after this last trip to Epcot, it can't be repeated enough: Epcot's central plaza has become a overcluttered, carnival-style eyesore.

Look above at the way EPCOT Center was designed. If you're wondering where this image is taken from, it took me a while to recognize it as well. That large gray structure under Spaceship Earth in the 1982 postcard is the exit area of the attraction. To the left is Communicore East (now Innoventions East).

The peaceful, almost serene calm of the scene underscores the idea that our world of the future can be orderly, calm and quite lovely -- that technology can bring us some peace from the chaos. The future promises a well-ordered, but not stark, world unlike the noisy one in which we live.

The redesigned Future World (below) says exactly the opposite: We need fun! We need noise! We need to be busy and chaotic! (Heck, on my last trip, I even saw -- I'm not making this up -- a cast member throw a large ball directly at guests trying to "engage" them.)

And missing in the redesign? Well, where, exactly is Spaceship Earth? Oh, there it is, behind the clutter, behind the "festivity," behind the madness. It's not looming majestically over everything -- it's hidden. I'm beginning to think Disney might be ashamed of it ... ?

No, No, Norway

Let me first say: I love Norway.

Thanks to my visits to the Norway pavilion at Epcot, it's one of the countries I most want to visit in my life, and I've spent time learning about its culture and people.

The Norway pavilion at EPCOT Center inspired and intrigued me perhaps more than any other.

The Norway pavilion at today's Epcot stinks.

It's poorly conceived, poorly staffed and poorly maintained. It is an enormous disappointment desperately in need of re-thinking. First, let's remember what the Norway pavilion used to be like. Opened in 1988, it was the last of the World Showcase nations to be constructed (hopefully not the very last!).

Though many people feel they "know" Norway since it's a Germanic, European country (and, therefore, must be like Germany, Sweden and Holland, right?), the Norway pavilion proudly offered a Viking ship and stave church at its entrance, as if to say, "This is not the Europe you think you know."

Maelstrom, the pavilion's centerpiece ride, revolved around Norwegian troll mythology, and though the ride was (and remains) disappointingly short, it managed to pack into a few minutes some exciting new technology. Upon its conclusion, riders were invited to watch a short "travelogue" on Norway, focusing on the people whose spirit makes them different than other Europeans. After exiting the ride and the film, a travel kiosk staffed by a Norwegian student offered details on touring the country for those who were inspired to know more after the immersive experiences.

Shops featured Norwegian clothes, crafts and snacks. For a dining experience, Norway offered both a traditional bakery and an unusual smorgasbord buffet at a restaurant called Akershus. While most of those elements are still in place, it's what has happened to the in the past 18 years (and particularly the last five) that is devastating.

The Viking ship, once a play area, has become a static "photo opp" thanks to the overzealous Disney attorneys (who would probably shut down all theme parks if they could -- lest someone fall or get sunburned!). Seizing on this now-kidless area, mangement decided to put a heavily traveled smoking area next to the ship.

The stave church is mercifully still in place and currently offers a fascinating (albeit tiny) look at Viking history -- I actually learned a bit looking at this little exhibit. Unfortunately, instead of trusting inquisitive guests to open the door and explore themselves, Disney management has hung an obtrusive banner over the two entrances ... though I seriously doubt a colorful marketing banner would ever hang over the doorway of an authentic church.

Maelstrom is still around, but it seems the ride has hardly been touched by Imagineers over 18 years. It's creaky, it's jarring and its Audio-Animatronic figures look like wax dummies more than ever. Is it fun? Yeah, a bit. But it sorely needs to a full rehab; when your boat comes to a sudden stop and turns to go over the waterfall backward, the experience feels labored and difficult, not surprising and fun.

No one even bothers to try to get guests to stay for the five-minute film after the ride. Guests brazenly march through the auditorium, determined to see the next thing instead of look at some lovely images of Norway. (And they are very lovely indeed.) The cast member working the attraction during a recent stay actually encouraged guests to leave by saying that the movie was "a little boring." It's not -- not in the slightest. But it is horribly outdated. Watching a modeling session in a Norwegian shopping center is like reliving your senior year of college: shoulder pads, garish eye makeup and vaguely "futuristic" haircuts. In one scene, a scientist works on a computer -- but it's a terminal from the mid-1980s that bears little resemblance to the thing I'm using to write this. It's laughable.

Norway is hoping this will make the country look exciting and progressive? During my recent visit, the Kringla og Kafe bakery and its little seating area looked like they hadn't been cleaned for days. There were empty tables, but no one wanted to sit at them they were so sticky and dirty. For a country that prides itself on cleanliness, Norway's Disney incarnation gives the impression of slovenly grime.

Worst of all is what has happened to Restaurant Akershus. If you've been reading my blog for a while, you already know my thoughts on this. But my recent visit provided me the opportunity to see it first hand, and it was genuinely sad. The restaurant has become an all-princesses character dining location, completely removing any semblance of cultural authenticity or appeal for adults without children. Indeed, it's difficult even to get in to the Norway pavilion through the sea of strollers that now clogs the entry! The restaurant is now the "Akershus Royal Banquet Hall," and exists solely for little girls and their accommodating parents.

Please understand, I am not a curmudgeon, a fuddy-duddy or a mean adult. I think kids should have an opportunity to have fun while at Walt Disney World. (Though being screamed at by my mother or father for being a little cranky in the heat, as I have so often seen, is not my idea of fun at any age!) But to take a truly unique and unusual culinary location, particularly one where the food was as fine as it was at Akershus, and turn it in to Princess Central -- despite the fact that, when I last looked, the number of Norwegian princesses in the Disney Hall of Princesses was exactly zero -- is really unpardonable.

It showcases Disney's brazen desire to make money at all costs and to "monetize" everything they possibly can. It is a cynical restaurant location, one that undermines the basic concept of Epcot's World Showcase and that is, by all accounts, a very unpleasant place to be even for parents of young girls. But it makes money, and that's Disney's sad raison d'etre these days. "Screw creative integrity, let's make a bundle!"

Akershus and Norway display that mindset brilliantly.

One area inside its Puffin's Roost store is now filled with all sorts of Disney Princesses junk that has nothing to do with Norway. A cart with even more Princesses stuff is set down in the middle of the pavilion, lest any father or mother walk away with a few bucks still in their billfolds.

Most distressing to me is the fact that Disney has shut down Norway's tourist kiosk. There's no information on traveling to Norway, no cast member stationed there to talk about his or her home country (during my last visit in 2001, I spent about 40 minutes talking to a cast member about my desire to visit Norway), not even a simple brochure with lovely photos. There's still a sign overhead claiming to offer travel information ... but when I asked a cast member if the kiosk would ever open, she not-so-helpfully responded, "Oh, I think that's just there for decoration."

Ironically, next to the now-shuttered travel kiosk is a plaque that states the Norway pavilion was opened by Crown Prince Harald in June 1988. The opening was broadcast on national Norwegian television. No doubt the prince and his subjects were tremendously proud of the pavilion -- and justifiably so at the time.

I wonder what they'd think of it now.


Postscript: After writing this, I read on Wikipedia that the Norwegian government, "against the recommendations from their American embassy (sic)," stopped making payments to Disney in 2002. That may explain the loss of the travel kiosk. If this was another of the "we hate Eisner" scenarios, let's hope Bob Iger's diplomacy can work with the Norwegians as well as it did with Roy E. Disney.

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

What a Wonderful World (Showcase)

Though it would benefit enormously from the addition of a country or two (or more); though many of its shops have lost their individual personalities in favor of increasingly generic Disney-branded stuff; though it has been almost ignored by Disney since its inception (save the addition of two countries); though it lacks any sort of "E-ticket" thrill ride; though it is resolutely low-tech ...

World Showcase remains simply awesome.

Each time I travel to Epcot, it seems to me more and more that World Showcase really is the heart of the park. Future World is where the action is, Future World is fantastic and wonderful to explore ... but World Showcase is where the charm lies. It is a beautiful place.

It's really a shame Disney's management doesn't see how special their cross-section of the world is and do more to make it bigger and more representative of our planet's nations. Nonetheless, I can hardly think of a better place to spend a day ... and that's why on each successive trip to Epcot, I find myself spending more and more time there. It is a genuinely special place.