Sunday, March 26, 2006

Lost: One EPCOT Center User's Guide

Lost: One EPCOT Center User's Guide.
Last seen: Around 1994, when EPCOT lost its capitalization.

If found, please contact:
Bob Iger
500 S. Buena Vista Street
Burbank, CA 91521


John Lasseter
Pixar Animation Studios
1200 Park Ave.
Emeryville, CA 94608



Imagine that you were given the ownership of one of the most powerful communication tools ever devised. With this tool, you could make millions of people listen to your message and hear it exactly the way you intended. You would have a platform for your vision of the future, and you would be speaking to people who were eager to hear what you had to say.

Now, imagine you lost the instructions.

You had the tool, you just didn’t know how to use it.

Put in this predicament, most of us would probably do everything we could to understand the tool that we had been given. We’d study it, examine it, talk to others who had successfully used it in the past to comprehend how we could effectively wield it and perhaps even make it better.

That’s exactly what happened in the mid-1990s when a new group of Disney executives came to Walt Disney World and turned their attention to EPCOT Center. They didn’t actually lose the “instruction book” – more precisely, they threw it away, eliminating jobs at Walt Disney Imagineering and thereby losing the key to understanding the EPCOT Center concept.

To be fair, they did try to deconstruct EPCOT Center. When I was a kid, I took a phone apart to see what made it ring; once I had taken it apart, I couldn’t put it back together. And that’s what Disney’s theme-park “experts” did. They so completely tore apart EPCOT Center trying to understand “what made it ring” that they left the place in shambles. In putting it back together, they tried to make it like it was before, just taking out the parts that “didn’t work.”

Those parts didn’t work because they were unique. They looked and acted nothing like the parts of other theme parks. They weren’t roller coasters and 3-D movies and gift shops. They were attempts to get people to think, to spur the imagination, to capture just a few minds out of the millions of visitors every year.

They were, in effect, components of the greatest communication tool ever devised. Greatest, you ask? Mightier than television or the Internet? Yes, I’d argue. Because unlike those communication tools, visitors to EPCOT Center were listening only to one message, one idea, one way of thinking. That might seem insidious to some, but it’s what made EPCOT Center so powerful. Messages were carefully crafted and regulated. Sponsor companies could impart their visions, saving conflicting views for the real world.

There was one common theme among all of the messages: optimism for the future. Sure, we found out as we aged that all of those companies were cynical and profit-driven. But at EPCOT Center, we heard that they had a vision, they had a plan to make our lives better, and we would all benefit from their work. We believed it.

Just as The Magic Kingdom told us that if we wished upon a star our dreams would come true, EPCOT Center promised that if we moved forward with a positive vision of the future, the world would be better. EPCOT Center was the “real-life” version of Disney’s pixie dust.

It was, in its prime, the most sophisticated and effective communication tool imaginable, spreading its messages to tens of millions of people a year, who heard and believed them.

It would be nice to get that instruction book back. Note to Disney’s new management: It’s out there. You just need to ask around a bit and be prepared to take lots of notes. It may not be intact … but it’s most definitely out there, resting with the millions of people who once believed in what EPCOT Center promised them.


G-Man said...

Wow dude! Great new blog!

Cynthie Thomas said...

Yea, I sometimes think if Walt were walking around EPCOT he'd say...

"Yes, those Segway transporters are just the thing.

No, I won't ride Mission Space, we need kids from 4 to 94 to be able to ride it. Get with the engineers that did the teacup ride and get back to me.

I don't do doctrines, just think of it from a kid's point of view.

Where are the plans on the "Treasure Planet" space ship and the "Atlantis" Shang-ri-la?

We need to get more employees back to the parks, at the busiest times. They really need to see more of this. Next company meeting will be at "Journey into Your Imagination""

I like playing CEO of Disney, can you tell?

Epcot82 said...

And doing a nice job.

For many years, the phrase "What would Walt do?" was essentially forbidden at Disney -- and with good reason, as the company tried to move itself out of the shadow of its founder and find its own voice.

It did that very successfully from 1982 to 1996 or so.

Ironically, it's now time for Disney to have its executives study Walt's guiding principles and ask themselves exactly that question. Disney needs to re-discover why it holds a unique place in the entertainment industry. It's not just another Sony or Universal. It's Disney, and being Disney is about more than slapping the "Disney" logo and Mickey's face on something.

What is it about? That's what the executives need to discover. Epcot's a great place to learn about Disney's unique identity. And readers of this blog, perhaps, can help them!

Anonymous said...

You're doing a great job, epcot82! This blog is probably one of my favorites (well, they are ALL my favorites, but you know what I mean). "What would Walt do?"... I've always wondered about that when I stroll around Future World or the World Showcase Lagoon. Would he be able to make things the way they should be? We may never know. . .