Monday, May 01, 2006

The sad side of Epcot

Why am I so fascinated with Epcot? Why am I so disappointed?

This clinches it: a comment by James W. Rouse, Urban Developer of the New Town of Columbia, said in his keynote address before the 1963 Urban Design Conference at Harvard University. One of the brightest minds of the era observed:

“I may hold a view that may be somewhat shocking to an audience as sophisticated as this; that the greatest piece of urban design in the United States today is Disneyland... I find more to learn in the standards that have been set and in the goals that have been achieved in the development of Disneyland than in any other piece of physical development in the country.”
And look what has happened.

I know there are people who regret what Disneyland has become, what Disney’s movie division has become, what has happened to concepts like The Disney Store and DisneyQuest but I’d argue that they pale in comparison to the plight of Epcot.

Epcot was the last dream of Walt Disney, as everyone reading this will know. And everyone knows that, bless ’em, the executives who were left in charge after Disney died believed that they were honoring his dream by creating the EPCOT Center theme park.

Most claim they didn’t; I think they did – honor it, that is, at least in spirit. They put an emphasis on the hopes and possibilities of the future, they opened the concept to large companies to showcase their developments; they took the idea of an enclosed mall themed to the world’s nations and turned it into World Showcase.

More than that, they kept alive at least the ideals, the basic thoughts, behind Disney’s impossibly grand scheme. (So impossible that no one, not a single person on the planet, could likely have made it come to pass without Walt.) When it was presented, when it opened, through its first decade and a half of operations, EPCOT Center proudly stood as the symbol for what made The Walt Disney Company unlike any other company on earth.

It wasn’t a theme park; there weren’t all that many rides, at least by “normal” standards. It wasn’t a science center; most of its attractions were centered around ideas, not hard facts. It wasn’t all fun and games and it wasn’t all happiness and light. It was decidedly unique.

Its towering structures glistened in the Florida sun, monolithic and sometimes overpowering, as if laying claim to the future itself. Inside the gates, many guests were undoubtedly puzzled by its concept, but just as many came away enervated, eager to learn more, eager to move into their own futures with a sense that anything was possible. (Some just came away drunk, but that’s a different story.)

What made Epcot truly meaningful was that it was so different. Twenty-five years on, it’s hard to qualify; trying to explain what made Epcot unique is like trying to explain why yellow is your favorite color; it just is.

Or, in Epcot's case, it ... was.

Now, Epcot is overrun by Disney character merchandise, by the insistence that this is fun, by the desire to be like everyone else.

The tragedy is how assertively and insistently Disney’s management in the past 10 years have forced Epcot to become like everything else. They had something that could last for the ages, something that could always be in the state of becoming, something that no one else – ever, anywhere – could duplicate.

That scared them.

I know much of what I’m writing is similar to what I’ve written before. But as I review that comment by James W. Rouse, I am saddened to see that Disney, once a force unlike any other in entertainment (or any other industry, for that matter) has become so mundane, so much like everyone else. Is there a single mind at Disney who could envision a concept so radical it would win the admiration of one of today’s most eminent scholars? Is there anyone who could dream a concept so daring that it would never be duplicated by anyone, anywhere?

There seem, instead, only to be people so scared by the idea that they are the custodians of something special that they’d rather destroy that object than protect it and care for it any longer.

As I watch Epcot become Pixar-ized and made mundane and meaningless, I am at a loss. I still love it. I love that glistening sphere of Spaceship Earth; the beautiful architecture that reminds me of a time when the future was exciting and new. I love hearing the futuristic music that makes me imagine (goofy me) a time when we’d all wear matching jumpsuits and go to work in hovercrafts. I love seeing the pristine walkways and waterways that meander past glass-and-steel structures that promise wonder and amazement. I love the concept of Epcot; I do still get excited when I return there.

But more and more, hard as it is to admit, I just get sad. I hate seeing people give up on their dreams. I really hate seeing companies, with their unlimited resources and infinite possibilities, give up on the dreams of others.

That’s terribly, terribly disappointing.


Matt Arnold said...

One of your links is broken. It is

It should be

DisneyQuest is even more of an artistic success than EPCOT. These are the greatest attractions in the world.

Anonymous said...

The last month's issue of Wired magazine, and issue devoted to games and gaming, there is a short interview with a former Imagineer. He discusses how Disneyland was the original "game," how it was a created place that one entered without knowing what to expect, and through gentle visual clues and guidance, and using your own itinerary, you could explore this new space and come up with an adventure that was your own. It was a clever thought, Disneyland as interactive game. But he was right.

The last answer he gave to the interviewer's questions was about EPCOT and how it's been misunderstood. I have been looking for the intervieew online, but it seems Wired has become a shadow of its former self as well. They no longer archive all the articles from their magazine.

The issue is at home, so I'll try to post his quote for you when I get home tonight.

Tocpe said...

I still love EPCOT Center too, and I miss it dearly. It's a shell of its former self.

Anonymous said...

Okay, I finally remembered to get that Wired magazine. I can't type the whole interview, which is interesting, so I'll just put in the final question, which regards EPCOT.

The interview is with Danny Hillis designed ride technology for Imagineering.

WIRED: Walt envisioned Epcot as the ultimate interacive space. It was supposed to be a place where people lived and had a real stake--the Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow.

HILLIS: I never met Walt; when I talk about him, I'm talking about the virtual Walt. But if you watch the Epcot film from 1967, you see the genuine Walt, the Carousel of Progress Walt, excited about the future and where we're heading. But he died before anyone else understood what he meant. They gave up and turned it into what they knew how to build: a theme park. If he'd lived, we would have gotten an experimental city.

This is interesting because Hillis (I call him Danny) points out that even the EPCOT that was built in the '80s was not correct, not what Walt had meant when he described EPCOT. This is true. But at least it was a DIFFERENT theme park, and one that's being slowly turned into nothing special.

Charles G said...

Great writing. Thanks for putting up this blog!

Anonymous said...

So, the Living Seas getting Nemo characters, but primarily starring Crush and Mr. Ray over the rest of the cast, is deemed "Absolute Pixarification" of the parks. Granted Wonders of Life just becoming a blatant opportunity to show Pixar characters without any well thought idea of how the characters could bring guests the universal theme of the pavillion and how it affects us and just be to sell crap would be bad. But the thing is, at least with Nemo, they are still telling of the oceans life which by all means was the general theme of Sea Base, though Sea Base of course told of the wonders man had yet to find.

For a blogger concerned about Epcot, why the hell haven't you spoken about the mess Imagination is become? The Institute is total crap and a really bad substitute for Figment and Dreamfinder's good old Dreamport. And have you seen the condition old ImageWorks is in? Mostly intact with broken old monitors being stored up there. Clean up the place and it would be easy to reopen...

Anonymous said...

I have to admit... I don't even go to Epcot anymore. My wife hates it, my kids hate it. And I can only remember how it once was...

Ir depresses my way too much. And the "World" NEEDS EPCOT. Can you imagine going to only MK, AK, and MGM? Wow. Talk about giving Universal Studios a better chance to be competetive to WDW.

jahosifatz said...

You literally have extruded the words out of my mouth. I long for the days of walking into the park and hearing that so familiar entrance music, seeing the acrylic Epcot emblem above the water and boarding Space Ship Earth. As I have mentioned in numerous posts throughout cyberspace is that Disney is stealing Epcot's identity and making a clone of MK. Epcot was great, in that it wasn't a "Disney" Park. Any association to the mouse was left out the gate, and that was a great idea. The MK is such an intangible fantasy, that you don't expect any type of realism, but at Epcot, we were witnessing the future, and it was something to behold. Now, it's just another MK, with animated movie characters prancing about.