Wednesday, June 28, 2006

The Hidden Potential of Epcot

In recent weeks, Disney has introduced a new line of “Fairies” products, branched out into dog food and pet supplies, heralded the success of it’s “Princesses” line and shown the world how it can trumpet its “new” Pixar brand.

Though there are some things that it does quite poorly, “branding” isn’t one of them. Disney loves to turn its entertainment properties into “brands,” using a single name (such as “Princesses”) on a wide range of previously unrelated products. By turning a property into a brand, Disney manages to make everything into its own.

Disney’s favorite “brand,” of course, is Disney. Though Roy E. Disney famously said “brands are for cattle,” Disney management disagrees, and every chance it gets, Disney management slaps that name onto something else. Think of the resorts at Walt Disney World – what used to be the Contemporary Resort is now “Disney’s Contemporary Resort,” etc. (Lest we get it confused with all of the other Contemporary Resorts out there.) Even things that aren’t Disney become Disney – I recently received an e-mail communication friend of mine claiming to have been written on a “Disney Blackberry.”

So, if Disney has become arguably the world leader in figuring out how to make something into a brand … why hasn’t it paid any attention to Epcot? Boy, if any “brand name” is ripe for the pickin’, it’s Epcot.

The name Epcot has been in common usage for more than 25 years. In 1981, in fact, Disney executives told reporters that by the time EPCOT Center opened on Oct. 1, 1982, their goal was to have every single person in the U.S. at least aware of the name. They succeeded – even the least Disney-savvy acquaintance of mine knows what Epcot means.

But in their zeal to become a powerhouse media conglomerate, Disney overlooked many of its own assets that were ripe for “exploitation” in the late 1990s, and Epcot was chief among them. Instead of delving into the remarkable opportunities it offered, Disney let the park – and the name – languish. EPCOT Center became EPCOT, then Epcot-followed-by-the-last-two-digits-of-the-year, then, finally, just Epcot, a shell of its promising former self.
What did Disney miss out on? What could Epcot have been? What could it still become with a little imagination and determination? Many things, which neatly fall into several categories (most of which Disney is already active in). Food for thought:

TELEVISION – Instead of wasting the $5 billion purchase of Fox Family Channel on repurposing ABC shows (which never worked; now, it appears, Disney will try to rebrand the network under the “Jetix” name – a name that means nothing if you’re older than 12), Disney could have turned Epcot into a major television player. How? Well, consider that the Travel Channel, the Food Channel, the National Geographic Channel and Bravo are all essentially “discovery” channels (oh, yeah – so’s the Discovery Channel). The Epcot Channel could be broader than any of these, yet still supply family friendly programming that explores the world, science, technology, health, culture and the future. The Epcot Channel would have a wealth of programming opportunities, many from the Disney and ABC vaults themselves. Epcot was made for television.

PUBLISHING – Travel & Leisure, National Geographic Travel, Budget Travel, Discover, Popular Science, Men’s Health … all of these popular and successful magazines cover subjects that are already present at Epcot. An Epcot magazine, published monthly, could not only offer a family friendly mix of articles and activities for all ages, but quite naturally and effectively promote travel to Disney’s own theme park with every issue – a place where you can learn more about and explore the very subjects covered in the magazine. (Heck, there could even be two magazines: Epcot’s World Showcase for travel and adventure; and Epcot’s Future World, for science and technology.) Given that Time, Newsweek and magazines as far reaching as The New Yorker and the Economist routinely cover science and health, this seems a natural.

INTERNET – could become a home base for teachers and students, offering information, lesson plans, study guides and a community geared to learning about the world we live in. would be a natural extension of the now-defunct Teacher’s Center at Epcot, but would be much, much more, making real many of the concepts explored in Spaceship Earth and that are central to Epcot’s themes.

CONSUMER PRODUCTS – Epcot wares from around the world, available on … the latest clothing and apparel from and inspired by designers worldwide on the Home Shopping Channel (or on a special shopping program on the Epcot Channel) … books, videos and CDs that explore the world around us and different languages … the latest consumer technologies from leading companies, packaged under the Epcot name. All of it makes sense and can help grow the revenues of the struggling Disney Consumer Products division.

Is there more? No doubt. This is just a sampling of what Disney’s branding power could make of Epcot.

If only anyone at Disney even gave Epcot a second thought. It reminds me of a line from the Elton John/Disney version of Aida:

“But in the end, I know it’s rather sad /
that a life of great potential /
is dismissed, inconsequential /
and only ever seen as being cute …”

Change the word “life” for “park” and you’re on to something.

What potential! Is it hidden, waiting to be (re-)discovered ... or has it been sadly squandered for too long?

Monday, June 26, 2006

What Epcot Taught Me

Since I first set foot in EPCOT Center in 1983, I’ve learned a lot from my favorite theme park. So have you, I bet … even if you’re one of those who think education and entertainment just don’t mix. Some of the things that EPCOT Ce-- er, Epcot has taught me over the years.

Some of it’s honest-to-goodness information, some of it’s stuff that affected me personally, and some of it’s just fun recollections of a once-great theme park that, we can all hope, will soon be great again:

* My hypothalamus monitors all of my vital functions (Wonders of Life)

* Jewish and Islamic scholars were vital to mankind’s intellectual development after the Dark Ages (Spaceship Earth)

* DNA projected on an IMAX screen can make you queasy (Horizons)

* Windmills in San Francisco Bay would be an awesome sight (Universe of Energy)

* Manatees are wonderfully gentle, intelligent and friendly sea mammals whose habitats are constantly in danger from pleasure boaters (The Living Seas)

* The printing press was important because it was the first time people could easily share information and knowledge – a lot easier than having monks transcribe things by hand (Spaceship Earth)

* Nuclear energy exists in a minute way in every single atom (Universe of Energy)

* Touch screens are, even today, very, very cool (WorldKey kiosks)

* Seen from space, the wake from a cruise ship disrupts water and can be visible for many hours (The Living Seas)

* Nothing smells finer than the scent of fresh oranges (Horizons)

* Earth’s supply of oil is not inexhaustible … yes, I really did learn this from Epcot 23 years ago -- kind of meaningful today! (Universe of Energy)

* No matter how commonplace videoconferencing gets, you still say, “Can you see me OK”? (EarthStation)

* Three species of tigers disappeared from the planet in the past 60 years (Universe of Energy)

* Few things match the magnificence of a space shuttle liftoff (Universe of Energy)

* The first toll booth appeared long, long, long before cars or even boats (World of Motion)

* Conch may taste great, but it is one ugly little critter (The Living Seas)

* Alternate hot and cold coils and the mind plays tricks on you (Wonders of Life)

* We always think the future is going to be grand, gleaming and hopeful (Horizons)

* I’d love to live under the ocean (Horizons)

* On a spot between the Fountain of Nations and World Showcase lagoon is (or, at least, until Disney began selling off and swapping real estate, was) the geographical center of Walt Disney World (Undiscovered Future World Tour)

What lessons, memories and ideas has Epcot left you with over the years? Click on the comment link and let everyone know!

Sunday, June 25, 2006

Givin' 'em What They Want

Let’s go back a couple of decades to the opening of EPCOT Center. “Our goal,” wrote Marty Sklar, then a vice president at WED Enterprises (later Imagineering), “is to inspire the visitors who come here, so that they will be turned on to the positive potential of the future and will want to participate in making the choices that shape it.”

As an introduction to Richard R. Beard’s book Walt Disney’s EPCOT Center: Creating the World of Tomorrow, Sklar promised, “Remember that at our opening in October 1982, we are just getting started – there’s much more to come!”

Later in that book, Beard wrote, “While entertainment will continue to be a highly visible attraction of Epcot (sic) Center, it is the underlying educational value of Future World that is its most important contribution.”

Aw, c’mon. You can’t be serious. Education is boring. No one goes on vacation to learn. (Strange, then, that Kennedy Space Center remains such a draw.) Being inspired? Phooey. Participate? No way -- I'll do that when I get back home and go to the PTA.

That was the most commonly heard complaint about EPCOT Center in the first 15 years of its existence. It’s boring, it’s too serious, it’s too difficult. This vacation stuff is supposed to be entertaining and fun. Less of the tough stuff, please. More cartoon characters, please! More thrill rides, please!! MORE DISNEY, PLEASE!!!

Disney listened. And Epcot changed. Too much on both counts, if you ask me. (Well, you didn’t, but you’re reading my blog, so maybe you care a little.)

Now, I’m a huge proponent of listening to the customer ... when it comes to commodities and retailing. If your customer says s/he doesn’t like something, you do one of three things: you change, you innovate or you go out of business.

When it comes to artistic endeavors, though (and a theme park is most certainly an artistic endeavor, one of grand proportions), that’s something quite different.

We’ve seen over and over and over again how basing creative decisions on consumer sentiment leads to a bad product.

After all, Hostel, Madea’s Family Reunion, The Pink Panther and Scary Movie 4 each were the No. 1 movie in the country at some point in 2006. Financially successful? Yes. Creatively? You be the judge. Each was made because it appealed to a particular demographic or followed a routine formula that has led to success in the past, not to fill an urgent creative need. Each made a lot of money. Each will be completely forgotten 25 years from now.

When the public voted, American Idol said goodbye to Elliott Yamin, Chris Daughtry and Mandisa – all of whom were believed, at one point, to stand a good chance at winning the contest and were considered by virtually all critics to be better than eventual winner Taylor Hicks (who, I admit, I happen to think is OK). Hearing the outcry was always amusing; after all, how can viewers be shocked by their own actions?

See, the thing is, people don’t always know what’s good. I’m not being elitist, and I’m not saying that, individually, we don’t appreciate quality. Collectively, though, it’s very often a different story. The least-common denominator almost always wins out.

It’s truly important to listen to what your customer says if you’re selling soap, cars or candy bars. But if you’re selling entertainment, and you aspire to something out of the ordinary, you don’t listen to what others think. You just don’t. People who don’t make movies, who don’t write plays, who don’t design theme parks are not the people to trust.

They’re the audience, not the creators. Of course, they may have opinions (as I do, clearly), and it’s important to hear what they have to say. They may even hate what you have to offer. But if you’re committed, if you’ve got a vision, you stick to your design.

As a rule, consumers of mass entertainment will say they do not want to be challenged, do not want to be “inspired,” do not want something that’s different – they just want to be entertained.

Except when they don’t.

See, more and more people say that they don’t get enough out of movies, TV and, yes, theme parks. These diversions leave them increasingly dissatisfied.

Huh? Aren’t these the products that they said they wanted to see? Ahhh … strange how that works, hm?

Epcot tried offering guests an experience with “underlying educational value,” but they said they didn’t like it. So, it’s grown into a park that fulfills the thrill-seeking ambitions of a 14-year-old boy, but increasingly offers nothing new for anyone other than him. Disney spends hundreds of millions to upgrade attractions that appeal to boys and teens, but won’t spend a dime to improve those that are deemed to be “for adults.”

That’s what happens when you pay too much attention to what the public thinks – when you forget that you (meaning Disney management) are getting paid because you’re supposed to be an expert at creating a fantastic guest experience … not just at surveying park guests and interpreting the numbers. You're supposed to make the decisions, develop the concepts, do the fine-tuning -- you're not just supposed to ask people if they like what you've done and change it if they don't. The tougher task, the toughest task, is getting them to appreciate something that's difficult and challenging and "good for them." You know, just like it's tough to get a 9-year-old to eat broccoli, no matter how good, how worthwhile, how important it is. (Which may be why we're raising a nation of obese people ... it's much easier to feed ’em McDonald's -- to give ’em what they want.)

So, now, here we are 24 years and some months after Epcot opened with its grand ambitions, its promises of something that would blow us away. For a while, it did. But now that so many people have made Disney management second-guess almost every decision that went into the creation of Epcot, we’re left with the theme-park version of The Pink Panther or Taylor Hicks:

Bland, inoffensive, fun on the outside … and hollow within. Give ’em what they want, right?


And let them get what they deserve.

Can it be changed? Can Epcot regain its spirit and adventure and style that made it so different? Perhaps, if Disney listens to its creative geniuses, not to a hot, tired, cranky guest.

Saturday, June 24, 2006


Even as the Wonders of Life sits shuttered and Mission: Space finds itself with 10- to 20-minute-long lines on a good day, even as World Showcase continues without a new pavilion in nearly two decades, The Walt Disney Company finds ways to spend money on theme parks.

News reports say Disney's chairman, George Mitchell, confirms that the company is exploring the possibility of opening a theme park in Shanghai, China.

Nice to know that they can still spend hundreds of millions of dollars on dubious foreign investments. Too bad they can't make significant investments Stateside.

They can't even afford "closed" signs at Epcot -- they just place benches in front of doors to prevent anyone from walking into a non-functioning area (see photo above; nice "show," eh?) -- but they can spend wads of cash in China.

Gee, is it just me, or does Disney have a funny sense of priorities?

By the Numbers, Part II

Epcot continued to see attendance growth in 2005, according to attendance estimates from Amusement Business (which were released a while ago, so I'm way late in discussing this). So, it continues to be a head-scratcher why Disney seems to put such little creative effort into developing Epcot. In 2005, the park got a ride transported from Disney's California Adventure; closed an entire pavilion; saw two people die on a controversial thrill ride/vomit machine; and allowed its Living Seas pavilion to become the latest victim of Pixarization.

(Don't get me wrong, please -- I love Pixar ... but, they didn't have to do it like this.)

Here are the top five North American theme parks for 2005. Epcot's growth slowed substantially from 2004, but it actually came close to welcoming 10 million visitors last year, which would have put it into the very rarified realm of eight-figure "population."

1) The Magic Kingdom, 16.1 million, up 6.5% vs. 2004
2) Disneyland, 14.5 million, up 8.5%
3) Epcot, 9.9 million, up 5.5%
4) Disney-MGM Studios, 8.6 million, up 5%
5) Disney's Animal Kingdom, 8.2 million, up 5%

Epcot is like the middle child starving for attention. It continues to succeed despite Disney's best efforts to dumb it down, make it wear stupid clothes (or, at least, a stupid magic wand and big glove -- photographic evidence above) destroy its spirit and make it be like all the other kids when it's clearly different.

You gotta love it for that, at least!

It's like the Jan Brady of Disney theme parks.

Friday, June 23, 2006

A Little Slice of Logo Heaven

Ah, the old days of EPCOT Center. When the future was cool, when sleek and shiny was in, when optimism reigned supreme.

Remember that? I spent many days (I can admit this now, in my 30s, but denied it vehemently in my youth) drawing logos from EPCOT Center on my book covers and notebooks, tracing pictures of them on my Disney light-table (did anyone else have one of those?!), waiting impatiently for the day that EPCOT Center would open. Living in California, there was no way I was going to be able to actually visit it back then, but just the thought that it was possible got my mind racing. (Thankfully, I actually did get to visit in June 1983, thanks to a family vacation probably designed to relieve everyone from having to listen to my EPCOT Center "reports" any longer.)

Now, an EPCOT Central blog reader sends me this link to some fantastic, fabulous, beyond wonderful t-shirt creations on The reader nets $1 from each shirt sold, which s/he promises to donate to charity. Meanwhile, I'm in EPCOT nerd heaven with these shirts! Oh ... and these, too -- more awesome EPCOT shirts!

Monday, June 19, 2006

When Disney Blinked

OK, first, let me say that clearly many readers of my blog disagreed with my comments about how the themes that run through An Inconvenient Truth might make an interesting, compelling storyline for the pavilions in Future World.

Thank you for reading, thank you for letting me know. I think many people confused the ideas behind the movie with the politics of the movie. I also received quite a surprising amount of feedback, both in blog comments and via e-mail, that Epcot should be “fun,” and that being “serious” and being “fun” somehow are incompatible. That’s an assertion with which I strongly disagree. Going back and looking at some of the animated shorts and films that Walt Disney made in the 1950s and 1960s clearly indicate that he believed his form of entertainment could be used to provide fun and to illuminate and educate, and that sometimes the two were mutually exclusive. For a good example of what I mean, check out the Tomorrowland DVD in the Walt Disney Treasures collection. Films like “Our Friend the Atom,” “Man In Space” and even his final EPCOT sales film showed that Walt Disney not only was quite politically astute and active, but wasn’t afraid to challenge audiences to think and react to his movies.

Nevertheless, let me say that if you were somehow offended by my comments and musings, I’m sorry – I started this blog site as a way to spur thinking and discussion, however, so I certainly won’t back away from my comments.

But I digress.

Sort of.

Because it’s exactly that sort of mindset – of challenging, of presenting ideas, of trying to do something different – that used to set Disney’s theme parks apart.

Having worked at Disney during the mid-1990s and early 2000s, it seems to me it was around 1993 or 1994 that Disney’s theme park division really began to change – and that a great deal of the reason for the change was that its management suddenly began to view other theme parks as competition.

Of course they were competition, you’ll say. Of course Disney, being a large company, had to respond to the increased competition of Universal Studios, Sea World, Busch Gardens and Six Flags.

Not necessarily. See, the big change in mindset that took place was that Disney used to view itself as the competition to the other parks. Six Flags needed to respond to what Disney did, not the other way around. Universal (put aside the argument for a moment that Eisner was responding to the plan to build a park in Orlando when he greenlit the Disney-MGM Studios) needed to keep up with Disney. And so on and so forth.

But in the early 1990s, after Universal had established itself as a legitimate draw in Orlando and Six Flags had begun to market itself aggressively, particularly in Southern California, Disney panicked. Instead of continuing its tried-and-true formula of marching to its own drummer and leading the pack, Disney blinked.

It was a major change in philosophy. If you are in the lead in a race, you don’t look around and wait until the others catch up – in a foot race, if you turn your head, you could change your movements enough to lose your first-place position. Likewise, if you’re at the top of an industrial heap, you don’t react to the competition … they react to you. We saw it in 1985 with Coke vs. Pepsi, when Coke decided to mess with a good thing because they had lost some market share and suddenly worried about Pepsi. Guess what? Pepsi won, and Coke had a very hard time recovering – it took years.

Disney was the undisputed leader of theme parks for decades; it invented the market, it led the market, it owned the market. And then, suddenly, it lost a little bit. Teens started going to Six Flags, families started making a day for Universal.

What Disney could have done was infuse its theme parks with a heap of inspiration and cash. It could have studied what made it unique and expanded the definition of Disney.

Instead, it tried to simply out-Disney everyone else. Managers reasoned that the only thing that differentiated Disney was Mickey and the gang and the curlicue signature.

What happened? Disney began taking on attributes of its competition. Just as Coke tried to make itself sweeter to reach Pepsi drinkers, Disney added thrill rides to reach teens, added more Mickey to reach kids, added cheap midway rides because, as Paul Pressler allegedly said in a meeting once, “If it’s good enough for Six Flags, it’s good enough for us.”

That was the start of something sad. It may be true that, by the numbers, Disney is still the leader – but by public sentiment, the competition has gained quite a bit of ground.

Epcot is perhaps the park most affected by this shift in tone. Epcot used to be so unique, no one could even really define it. (The MBA marketing geniuses tried, in the late 1990s, to call it “Disney’s discovery park,” not realizing that “Epcot” had really become both the noun and definition.) Too unique, because it wasn’t like Universal, it wasn’t like Sea World, it wasn’t like Busch Gardens or Six Flags. So, instead of figuring out what it was, the idea came up to make it more like those places – to mold itself in the shape of the competition, rather than force the competition to emulate it. Test Track and Mission: Space and the appearance of Ellen and Bill Nye in the Universe of Energy have been some of the results. More and more, Epcot looks like any other theme park.

It looks like its competition, because the competition became the measuring stick.

It doesn’t have to be that way. All that’s needed is for management to say, “We will not be like anyone else.” That’s called a winning attitude. It’s called being a leader. It’s called being original and exciting.

Disney’s competition became its undoing, but if Disney will start using its internal imagination and inspiration as its only form of “competition,” Epcot can only become a better place that fulfills some of the promise it held for so long.

Saturday, June 17, 2006

A Convenient Theme?

Anyone who has seen the documentary An Inconvenient Truth knows that, no matter your political leanings, Al Gore makes a persuasive and insightful case for learning more about the future of our all-too-real and fragile Spaceship Earth.

As I watched Gore talk about transportation, energy, farming, the world’s oceans and the use of satellite imagery and the Internet, it dawned on me that he was talking about all of the basic concepts inherent in EPCOT Center. Not the hyper-commercialized, overly thrillivized Epcot that exists now, but the EPCOT Center that was originally conceived by Disney.

After all, Gore argues eloquently that it’s our lack of understanding of the impact of our choices in transportation and energy that are impacting Earth in ways very few of us truly comprehend. Though it could be argued that Gore’s elaborate PowerPoint presentation, which forms the backbone of An Inconvenient Truth is a bit left-leaning, it’s also illuminating and captivating. It makes you want to learn more about the topic, to gain a better, more personal understanding of the issues and our future.

In short, it accomplishes what EPCOT Center originally set out to do.

It would be fascinating to see Disney Imagineers (led by the rather left-leaning John Lasseter, Pete Docter and Ed Catmull) use Gore’s basic outline to rethink and re-imagine Epcot.

Think about what such a re-thought Epcot might contain, starting (as so many guests do) with Spaceship Earth.

The ride inside the geosphere could be redesigned to offer a basic introduction to, well, Spaceship Earth. Instead of focusing solely on communication, it could use the ride as a way to discuss the fragile nature of our planet and our own role in ensuring its health and vitality. The communication aspect would still play a major role, explaining how man can reach out beyond borders to share information and ideas.

Once you’ve exited the ride, the interactive pavilion at its base could be used to learn more about the various climates, geographies and people who live on our planet – a nice way to tie World Showcase and Future World together: we all share responsibility for Spaceship Earth, so we should all learn more about each other.

The Universe of Energy pavilion could lose its Big Oil sponsorship and instead become an “independent” pavilion that seeks to introduce guests to the newest and most promising non-fossil-fuel based energy sources. In the update pavilion, guests would ride through time and learn how different energy sources have been used throughout the world and over time – and how the development of new sources can lead to a better environment.

Instead of GM’s Test Track, Toyota could sponsor a new attraction at the old World of Motion pavilion that retains the basic ride system but takes guests on an adventure through alternative types of transportation. Instead of a gas-powered car, Toyota can showcase how hybrid technology (or even hydrogen technology) can provide a ride that’s as fast and exciting as any you can get by burning gasoline.

The Land would retain its basic structure, but more closely focus on how the Earth’s resources are slowly being depleted, and how new research is developing new technologies for farming that don’t harm our environment. Soarin’ can be used to take a dramatic tour of Antarctica, the Amazon, Africa and other the other places that have been ravaged by global warming, delivering a fun ride while raising a bit of awareness – and ending with a hypothetical view of a future world that has been saved from disaster.

The Living Seas already showcases the beauty of the oceans, but could add more of a focus on how global warming is raising ocean temperatures, and what that is doing to life above and below the surface. Turtle Talk With Crush can deliver the message in a fun and compelling way.

No doubt there are more ideas; I haven’t even touched on Imagination!, the now-defunct Wonders of Life or Mission: Space, all of which could be subtly or completely overhauled to match the theme.

Suddenly, the Epcot experience would seem cohesive and would have a story that stretches throughout the day. It would inspire people to learn more about their planet and their place on Earth; it would encourage them to think about the future and the things they can do to ensure that it is a happy one.

Epcot could truly be inspirational, educational and fun – and, possibly, even help save the planet.

Monday, June 12, 2006

All Princesses, All the Time

I’m not blind to the fact that, whether they appreciate it or not, kids accompany their parents to Epcot. It’s understandable, then, that Disney would want to make the park engaging for them.

But why on earth did Disney feel the need to destroy the ambience, charm and cultural discovery of a truly rare dining experience by making Norway’s Restaurant Akershus into an all-princesses-all-the-time character-dining location?

First, The Garden Grill became a lunch- and dinner-time home to Mickey and the gang. What had been a relaxing, unique restaurant became a place for 4-year-olds to run, shout, scream, cry, laugh, hoot and holler, and essentially turned into a restaurant that few childless adults would want to patronize.

Fine. I get it. Give the kids someplace to go where they can all be kids together. The Garden Grill was only a little bit of a loss.

But on my last visit to Epcot, I was chagrined to discover that my favorite restaurant had been given over to the 6-year-old set. Restaurant Akershus has been taken over by the Disney princesses. Not just at breakfast, not just at dinner – but all the time.

Look, I realize that Disney Princesses are big business. I get that parents need someplace that’s kid-friendly. Really, I do. I also recognize that after 15 years of trying, Disney had never really been able to figure out a way to market Norwegian dining to the masses.

Nonetheless, Restaurant Akershus was a marvelous dining experience. Norwegian food, it turned out, was interesting, a little adventurous, a little familiar and darn good. The cast members at Restaurant Akershus were routinely among the nicest and friendliest of all the restaurants.

Taking friends and family to Restaurant Akershus became a tradition. “What’s Norwegian food?” they’d ask. “You’ll find out,” I’d reply, and invariably (this may have been part of the problem) there were walk-up tables available. And, equally invariably, we’d enjoy two hours or more of eating, enjoying every bite and getting one of the best bargains (due to the smorgasbord style of serving) at Epcot.

Now, I daren’t set foot inside Restaurant Akershus lest it be stepped on by a screaming Snow White or a belligerent Belle running around at waist height. Perhaps I’m stereotyping young guests a bit too much – but after a couple of dozen visits to Epcot during all times of the year, I think I’m being kind.

Sorry, I digress. Back to the point: Restaurant Akershus was one of those elements that made Epcot unique and wonderful. It would be fine if Disney wanted to make the restaurant into a character experience at, say, breakfast and lunch … or even breakfast and dinner.

But as a guest who wants to experience cultures and cuisines in something at least resembling an authentic way, can’t I have the chance to savor the dining treats of Norway without having to run into princesses who aren’t even Norwegian in the first place? (Come to think of it, France or Germany would be more logical locations for a princess dining experience.)

I’d love Disney to figure out a way to find a balance, to give little girls a chance to dine with their favorite princesses ... while giving us grown-ups who aren’t, um, blessed with children the chance to appreciate Epcot without being overrun by ballgowns and tiaras.

Friday, June 09, 2006

Bold. Exciting. Fun. Forgotten.

When I was 11 years old, this was the image that hooked me.

It wasn't the conceptual drawing of Spaceship Earth or of a space pavilion or a ride through the human body -- it was this strangely moody rendering of a "Rhine River Cruise" ride that appeared in the Walt Disney Productions Annual Report circa 1976 that got me hooked on EPCOT Center.

It seemed so strangely exotic, it seemed so adventurous, it seemed so perfectly in keeping with the Disney theme-park attractions I had come to love like The Haunted Mansion, Pirates of the Caribbean and Adventures Thru Inner Space: a ride that would take you somewhere you had never been, and that would show you sights that your little 12-year-old mind could hardly comprehend:

Boats wait to be boarded across the river from a darkened German village at twilight. Large mountains loom in the backround -- the Alps, perhaps? A child implores her mother to hurry to the ride, and the mind reels -- what exotic adventures await? Please let us see!

EPCOT Center was going to be more than words could possibly describe. It was going to be the most wonderful place that ever existed.

For a while, it came pretty close.

Whatever happened to bold Imagineering concepts like this one, or the Japanese bullet train, or the immense Space pavilion? Jim Hill Media has a wonderful article about the Epcot that could have been -- well worth checking out and exploring at great length.

As for the Epcot that is ...

I just read a reader comment that El Rio del Tiempo is going to become El Rio de los Cartoons thanks to a renovation that will incorporate The Three Caballeros.

Now, many of you are right, it is a specious argument to say Epcot needs more exciting, innovative attractions on one hand, but on the other to complain when Imagineers actually deliver something new.

So, I'll give 'em credit for updating a 24-year-old ride. But, come on, do we really need more Disney cartoon characters in Epcot? Is that the best that Imagineering can do these days?

What happened to the bold, exciting ideas that didn't rely on Disney cartoons but instead relied on a sense of excitement, fun and adventure? Whatever happened to attractions that take you places you've never been but always dreamed of experiencing (whether real or imagined)? What, I guess I'm asking, ever happened to the minds that brought us the Rhine River Cruise?