Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Splitting Up the Family

The Sullivans are on vacation at Walt Disney World from their home in Columbus, Ohio. They’re a nice family – Mom, Dad, 14-year-old Steve, 16-year-old Scott, 18-year-old Shauna and 7-year-old Sarah. Today, they’re at Epcot. After taking a good long look at the park map, Dad announces “OK, family, here’s the drill:

“Your mom and I are going over to World Showcase for a few hours. While we’re there, Steve and Scott are going to ride Test Track and Mission: Space and go play the video games in Innoventions. Shauna’s going to take Sarah over to see the cartoon characters at Imagination, The Land and The Living Seas. After that, we’ll all meet up and go back to the hotel for a while. Ready? Let’s go!”

And so the lovely Sullivans split up … undermining the concept that made Disney theme parks a must-see destination for so long. From the 1950s to the 1990s, the idea was that the entire family could enjoy the parks together, something Walt found he couldn’t do when he would take his daughters to local carnivals.

In many ways, EPCOT Center was the pinnacle of this concept. Families could not only enjoy the attractions together, they could discuss the ideas presented afterward and begin to appreciate the different views and opinions each family member held. They could have fun and learn about a variety of topics – but, most importantly, they could learn about each other. Whether it was a traditional “nuclear” family or a family of friends or schoolmates, EPCOT Center brought people together.

Now, it splits them apart. Smaller children are too short or too timid to try Mission: Space and Test Track. Teenagers have outgrown Simba, Figment and Nemo over on Epcot’s west side. Adults need some peace and quiet after the hyperactive environments of the thrill rides.

If the recent rumors that a thrill-style attraction may replace the Universe of Energy hold true, Epcot’s east side will be primarily for teens, the west side – where every attraction is home to an animated character – will be primarily for younger kids, and adults will have to be content with the more-or-less static attractions of World Showcase.

Only Spaceship Earth and The American Adventure will remain true to EPCOT Center’s original concept of entertaining, stimulating and (gently) educating.

Carving Epcot into these niches flies in the face of 50 years of Disney theme-park design. If the Future World “family split” was created by accident, it’s time for Imagineers to fix the mistake. If it was created by design, it’s time for a serious evaluation of whether the people who are designing theme parks for Disney really understand the concept of a Disney theme park.

Meanwhile, the MBAs and marketing analysts running Theme Park & Resorts would do well to stop focusing so much on market research and start walking the parks themselves. At this rate, they may start dividing The American Adventure into red seats and blue seats just to try and please everyone.

Niche marketing may be all right for fast-food restaurants and television networks; it doesn’t work with theme parks – particularly not those as unusual and precious as Epcot.


Anonymous said...

YES! Mega-dittos!

However, playing devil's advocate, prove that niche marketing doesn't work with theme parks. Examples of Disney (with its well-known brand and appeal) doing it before? Evidence? Proving it by answering these types of questions can help win over those who disagree with passion.

Epcot82 said...

OK, let's see:

* Disneyland's per-capita spending has gone down, attendance has stayed relatively flat and crowds have become unmanageable after work hours and on weekends due to Disneyland's change from marketing to a general tourist population to marketing to the "niche" of local day-visitors. The tactic of marketing specifically to a local audience has backfired. (I do not have spreadsheets or annual budget figures for hard proof.)

* Disney's California Adventure failed because it wanted to reach a teen and young-adult crowd with this new theme park while reaching families with Disneyland. The marketing efforts confused the public, and the investment in Disney's California Adventure has yet to show a return.

* Disney-MGM Studios spent most of its time and energy becoming a theme park showcasing Hollywood and entertainment for a broad, family audience. When the park added Tower of Terror (admittedly one of the best attractions ever) and Rock 'n' Roller Coaster, then began focusing on Disney films specifically (versus Hollywood entertainment overall), the park did not see an increase in teen and young visitors, but experienced an overall decline in attendance. Marketers took a once very clear message and -- by amping up the Disney quotient and adding thrill rides -- confused it.

* The Magic Kingdom used to be the "Disney place" at WDW. Epcot was the "education place." Disney-MGM Studios was the "Hollywood place." Very, very clear, very easy to understand. Now, it's all Disney, all the time, trying to make sure ALL marketing segments are "happy" at EVERY park ... and, guess what? Attendance has barely moved, satisfaction has barely moved, and Disney's high-spending core audience of adults with a strong Disney affinity have ended up displeased. Disney effectively alienated its core audience and didn't appreciably change the response of its "casual" visitor with its attempts to market to every audience.

The message is clear: Make the parks distinct and different, give each a specific identity, don't try to layer on "Disney" where it doesn't belong. Some people will be displeased -- they always are. If you change yourself to please those who will never be satisfied, you'll muck it up for everyone else.

(By the way, I'm certain Disney marketers do NOT view their core audience as middle-aged adults with a high Disney affinity and sizeable disposable incomes. They think their core audience is moms and kids between 2 and 8. That's a big part of the problem right there.)

Matt Arnold said...

Over the past twenty years, I and my siblings, parents, and grandfather have been to Epcot Center something like fifteen and eighteen times. I've never gone there without my family spending the day split up into small groups.

That having been said, I don't recall the family being split demographically. You may have a point.

But given that this is going to encourage even more splitting up, I recall that I've spent several hours as a child in Epcot waiting at rendevous points where other family members never showed up due to a miscommunication. It was extremely upsetting to waste time in the park that was more precious to me than gold. In this day of GPS and instant mobile communication, I think it would be great for this huge and sprawling park to invent some kind of method for group messaging or an improved way to locate lost guests.

That would be a beautiful example of the kind of futuristic prototyping that I would expect from Epcot.

Epcot82 said...

Nice idea. Better than "Pal Mickey"! Maybe someone is listening ... ?

vfxpro said...

AMEN! Finally I find people that share the same thoughts on WDW as I do. I truly miss Horizons, the Chroma Key Theater, Worldkey Information System, LaserPhonic Phantasy, Earth Station, etc. Every little tidbit that made EPCOT Center what it was.

While EPCOT Center wasn't what Walt invisioned, it surely was an amazing and inspirational park. The very reason I am an artist today is because of the old pavillions at EPCOT Center.

Mind if I link to your blog on my blog and websites?

Epcot82 said...

Yes, of course ... please do! Thank you for the nice comments!