Sunday, April 02, 2006

Having fun yet?

It can be assumed that Disney’s Burbank-based Marketeers were in charge of giving direction to the Imagineers who made such a mess of Epcot in the late 1990s. The suits at Team Disney just love spreadsheets, and the more abstract and “touchy-feely” a concept is, the more it needs to be broken down into some sort of numbers that they can review and understand.

Focus groups are great for doing that. In focus groups, a moderator spends hours talking to small groups of people about their feelings and emotions regarding a product or concept. For instance, at a focus group about Epcot, the moderator might ask, “What did you like about it? What didn’t you like about it?” and then the recent theme-park guest will spend 20 minutes giving an answer. Sounds great – except that marketing managers and financial analysts don’t understand long, detailed answers; they want numbers.

So, the guest talks about how much she liked World Showcase, but how she found it a little slower-paced and more relaxing and less frenetic, and the moderator will try to break down that answer into its component parts. Suddenly, the marketing manager will be told that, on a scale of 1 to 10, guests rate World Showcase a 3 for excitement and an 8 for “slow-paced.” (Note: I am making this up based on the focus groups I’ve seen in action; none of this is based on an actual Epcot focus group.) Spaceship Earth, the marketers and finance guys are told, rates a “2” for “thrills” and only a “5” for “repeatability.” In actuality, the guest may have said that she loved Spaceship Earth, but that it wasn’t as fun as, say, Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride over at the Magic Kingdom.
And there you have it: Epcot isn’t fun. Guests don’t have fun at Epcot the way they do at The Magic Kingdom or Disney-MGM Studios.

Well, duh.

They enjoy Epcot, they find it compelling, they like spending time there – but if you break “fun” down to mean whether they find it thrilling and exciting or warm and cuddly, then, no, they don’t find it fun.

The bottom line is that the bottom-line marketers equate “less fun” with “less successful.” They don’t spend time talking to the guests and experiencing the parks for themselves. (Keep in mind, a lot of the people who make the big decisions about the Florida parks live in Southern California.) They don’t see the big eyes of a child seeing the marine life inside The Living Seas or hear people saying, “I never knew that” after disembarking from Living With the Land.

They don’t get it. All they hear is that Epcot isn’t “fun.” And they want to do something about it. After all, people who come back from the non-stop thrills of Islands of Adventure say they had “fun.” At Epcot, they’re bored – at least, by comparison, they are. So, the reasoning goes, it’s time to turn Epcot into something else, to make it fun.

There’s only one problem with that: Millions of people loved Epcot just the way it was. Yes, it needed updating and improving, but it was very, very good.

The marketers, who didn’t understand the concept of Epcot themselves, became obsessed with the idea that everyone had to “have fun” at Epcot, and that “having fun” meant the same thing at Epcot as it did at The Magic Kingdom or Disney-MGM Studios. But it doesn’t, and it never did.

Epcot’s fun was different. It was based on the concepts of discovery and thought and communication and other things that don’t readily fit into the “top two boxes” in a satisfaction survey and aren’t easily explained in a focus group.

In their zeal to make sure everyone has “fun” at Epcot, the marketers and Imagineers have come too close to stripping Epcot of what made it fun in the first place: A sense of optimistic wonder and discovery.

Let’s hope that the new generation of managers at Disney will be less concerned about “fun” and more concerned about what makes Epcot so special.


Klark Kent 007 said...

So true.

Matt Arnold said...

On more than one occasion, cast members in Walt Disney World told me in casual conversations that Epcot Center was signifigantly the least-attended of the parks. I love the wonder of education and the beauty of global inspiration as much as the next geek, but Disney is running a business, so the numbers that matter are ticket numbers. If it is the whole point and nature of Epcot Center to be a park for geeks, and there just are not enough of us geeks, then the business suits have to change it to something that is no longer really Epcot. The satisfaction of Epcot fans does not, in and of itself, necessarily turn a profit if there are not enough Epcot fans. Thrill rides and cartoon characters do turn a profit. I don't like it, but whether or not I like it only matters if I have hundreds of millions to donate to the park at my own financial loss. As Homer once said in an episode of the Simpsons, while he flew above Epcot Center, "oh no, it even looks boring from the sky!" It might be... just might be... that there are not enough people interested in the knowledge and cultures of the human race to sustain the park. We might be a nation and a world of Homer Simpsons. That's where the problem is, and if I were Disney management I don't know how I could change that with any amount of advertising.

Epcot82 said...

The 2004 estimate of U.S. theme park attendance from Amuseument Business shows the following attendance figures for Disney theme parks and their overall rank in the top 10:

1) The Magic Kingdom, 15.2 million, up 8% from 2003
2) Disneyland, 13.4 million, up 5%
3) Epcot, 9.4 million, up 9%
4) Disney-MGM Studios, 8.3 million, up 5%
5) Disney's Animal Kingdom, 7.8 million, up 7%

It's interesting to see that Epcot, which has been suffering from a lack of creative attention (with the ultimate slap in the face being the recent closure of the entire Wonders of Life pavilion) actually had a bigger growth rate than any of the Walt Disney World parks, and is the second-most-attended theme park at the Resort.