Monday, April 10, 2006

Finding Mediocrity

Word comes down from Bob Iger that The Living Seas, opened 20 years ago, will be dumbed-down starting this fall.

Really, really dumbed down. I mean, to first-grade level.

What was once a way for families to learn about the wonders of the deep in a truly educational, fascinating way will become the latest Pixar-ization of the Disney theme parks.

In announcing the change, Walt Disney World President Al Weiss said, “We're always adding innovation, creativity and entertainment value to our resort.” Forgive me, please, but I don’t quite understand how plastering characters that Disney itself didn’t even create all over a truly awe-inspiring attraction adds “innovation” and “creativity.” Seems to me it’s doing exactly the opposite – removing all traces of innovation and creativity from The Living Seas and replacing them with mediocrity and commercialization.

Years ago, I had a lengthy talk with a Disney Imagineer who worked on the update of Spaceship Earth. We discussed how difficult it was to take difficult, complex subjects like communication, transportation and oceanography and make them understandable to a large number of people. The trick, and it was a big one, was to make the concepts something that a vacationing tourist could understand while touching on ideas and theories that would add depth for those who were truly interested.

It was an incredibly demanding and thought-intensive process. It took time and effort. The easy thing would be to make Mickey Mouse tell you that telephones are cool, I remember him saying – the tougher thing was convincing kids, adults, the educated and the not-so-educated that there were ideas within the realm of communication that could interest them.

The same applied to all of the Epcot pavilions. The challenge was to find a way to add just a hint of “Disney magic” while keeping things interesting and informative.

Yeah, I know – that approach labeled Epcot as “boring.” As Homer Simpson said of the fictitious “EFCOT Center”: “It’s even boring to fly over.” Drubbing Epcot is fun, complaining about its lack of “Disney-ness” is easy. Understanding it is hard. Trying to improve it while keeping its core values? Nearly impossible.

But that’s supposed to be what Imagineers do best: Create the impossible.

They are not supposed to celebrate mediocrity. They are not supposed to be devoid of creativity. They are supposed to wow us, not disappoint us.

Why did they opt for the most simple “character slap” possible when it came to re-inventing The Living Seas? What’s next? An Audio-Animatronic version of Simba roaming the Kilimanjaro Safari? Shere-Khan laughing it up over in DAK’s Asia?

Based on this development, I wouldn’t put it past them. A 15-story Mickey hand next to Spaceship Earth is a sad commentary; a giant hat that blocks the majestic Chinese Theater is a travesty; characters from The Lion King at The Land is a jammed-in “fit” at best. Now this.

I hate complaining about Epcot; I was hoping to humbly offer some “constructive criticism” with my next few posts. But this latest development is a sad, sad commentary.

The Pixar characters have their place in Disney theme parks –- the Magic Kingdom and Disney-MGM Studios are ideal homes. But why, oh why, must they suddenly be placed all over Epcot?

Is it not enough to try to instill a sense of wonder and excitement in guests by having them go under real water to see real creatures of the deep? Are we saying that nature herself isn’t good enough? That Dory and Nemo somehow improve on the boring mundanity of real fish, sharks, rays, urchins and the like?

That is both the saddest and the most hubristic of the unspoken messages here: Disney is telling its guests that the real world is boring, that only when its entertainments are involved is it worthwhile. Epcot was meant to celebrate our world, our place in it, our hopes and possibilities for the future -- not fill it further with mindless, blatant product plugs.

I pray this doesn’t mean my future world is filled with over-commercialized animated characters.

What is happening to The Living Seas is truly, truly shocking and painful.

If this is an indication of what's to come when Mr. Lasseter takes control of the theme parks, what are we to think?


TMIV said...

I guess marketeers really can't have an experimental prototype community of tomorrow without inserting the entertainment branding of today. It makes their jobs easier. The future is pre determined to be over run by disney characters. Could be worse, could be then incredible mr. limpet's living sea.

Anonymous said...

I just wanted to add a comment about the hat in MGM--According to a friend of mine in managment for the park, the hat was initially added not for the 100 Years of Magic celebration, but because the owners of the original Grauman's Chinese Theater, Mann Theaters, were throwing fits about the parking being identified by the landmark--"MGM? Oh yeah, that chinese theater park". The hat was added in to prevent the theater from being the outstanding landmark of the park.

I can't 100% confirm this, but I've heard it twice, both from people pretty high up in the totem pole.