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.


Anonymous said...

Great idea! Journey Into Imagination could be changed to feature the inside of Al Gore's head as well. Since we're on the verge of an apocalyptic collapse due to the greed of Americans and not really the slow, natural changing of the Earth and Sun (the Sun actually has seasons), let's dump science from Epcot completely. Let's charge $75 per ticket per person to educate them about why they are destroying the earth.

While we're at it, the World Showcase could be changed to match the theme as well. The American pavilion could feature a show educating on the evils of capitalism.

Yeah... great idea.

Anonymous said...

Clearly, you haven't seen the movie. What a snotty comment that showcases the kind of closed-minded mentality that says "I'm never gonna believe that anything *I* do could be bad." It's a blog posting and some musings, which are kind of interesting if you won't be such a jerk about it.

Anonymous said...

Hey be fair to GM, they have their own hybrid tech (Saturn Vue Green Line), biofuel (E85) and hydrogen power research (over $1 billion in research the last decade according to something on MSNBC I just Googled and found).

Toyota still makes its fair share of popular gas guzzlers. They have, however, made smaller good small cars (Corolla, Scions, Yaris), where GM has really dropped the ball.

My point is that the test track "pavillion" could easily be about all sorts of transportation technology and still retain GM sponsorship.

Great site, by the way. I just watched the EPCOT portion of the Tomorrowland DVD and the Big W himself described the place as a testbed of technology. I would love EPCOT to get back to its roots.

Epcot82 said...

Thank you. :-)

I wasn't trying to be overtly political in the suggestion, just to point out that there's a really great thread of a "storyline" in what Gore talks about -- whether you buy into his basic ideas or not, the point is that it's possible to give Epcot a compelling story, make it really different from everything else out there, and make it timely and compelling -- and keep the fun!

Anonymous said...

Ehh, i dunno about this. I think some of Epcot's charm would be lost if it had obvious political overtones in each pavilion- even if they were *fun* political overtones.

Your idea basically sounds like the motives of the "Circle of Life" movie at The Land- but present in every single Epcot attraction. I always feel like I'm being scolded when I see that movie, and it leaves me with more of a reprimand rather than a lesson. If that feeling were to exist in *every* pavilion, I don't know if I would enjoy Epcot as much as I do now.

Anonymous said...

but the whole point of epcot originally was to educate as well as entertain, to inform and inspire. if you feel "scolded", maybe that tells you something about the impact the movie is having? i agree that epcot should be fun but there is much more that they could do to make the pavillions say something and be substantive...

Anonymous said...

quote:"if you feel "scolded", maybe that tells you something about the impact the movie is having?"

Anonymous, yes, and that impact is more of a downer than an eye-opener.

Anonymous said...

i guess everything educational isn't always uplifting....!

Anonymous said...

Nor is it fun. And isn't Epcot supposed to be fun?

Anonymous said...

Mentioning Al Gore and Walt Disney in the same sentence makes me want to vomit.

Epcot82 said...

Once again, I did not mean to put an overtly political context to my musings. Read them for what they're worth, setting aside your political views.

Do keep in mind, however, that the new regime at Disney is much more politically liberal than any in the past.

Anonymous said...

E82, I love your blog. You do a service to let Epcot fans have some food for though, and a chance to weigh in.

I think you took a wrong turn here, though. Epcot has always reflected a (perhaps naive) optimism. It shines the light on some achievement and recognizes mistakes as merely stepping stones to an idealized "Future World".

I believe that Walt thought that we were only a certain number of inventions away from solving our problems as a world. In some ways he is right. The beautiful mural under Spaceship Earth shows man progress from living in caves to exploring outer space. The beauty of Epcot is you can explore theses concepts in an educational and entertaining manner. Finally you can combine the concepts of Future world with a flavoring of the worlds cultures.

That's a great way to spend a day. I don't fool myself that it is a sober look at history or of our challenges. An undertone of The Land is that world hunger can be stopped though better farming. They don't mention the starvation of millions in North Korea as a political tool of the state. We all know what happened in Germany in the early 1940's, but I don't want to see reference to it in their pavilion, just as the American adventure doesn't show Truman sign off on using a Nuclear bomb on a city (not a military base, a city). It was necessary, but not a great moment for mankind.

I always wonder what the Chinese workers think when the movie in their pavilion shows Tienamen square. In a way the movie is perfect, it (just like the official position of the communist government) makes no reference that anything ever happened there. I know the movie predates the slaughter, but since the government feels nothing happened there why would it need updating?

I don't want a "Tragedies of History and Crimes of Nations" park. Nor do I want the newest thrill ride to be "Riding our Hummer to the Apocalypse". I'll settle for laughing when Bill Nye says global warming has "a lot questions" in an attraction paid for by Exxon. Hell I'm surprised he didn't say it makes hurricanes weaker.

brkgnews said...

I had to chuckle a bit at the suggestion of using a WoM with hybrids. If you remember the Simpsons EPCOT episode, they rode in something similar. It was sponsored, though, by big oil... so the car was a sickly-sounding wimp that couldn't go far or fast without plugging back in. Still, an interesting idea, nonetheless. I'll be interested to see what happens with the oft-rumored UoE overhaul, especially with Exxon-Mobil apparently out of the picture now. Still, you've got to admire how much non-oil "propoganda" (solar/wind/hydro/etc) they allowed into the attraction when Big Oil was still footing the bill.

Matt Arnold said...

I'm sorry to come so late to this discussion this time, but I really hope people are still reading this comment thread so that they get this.

People identify EPCOT with science, but not with politics. Did you ever notice how non-committal the American Adventure is about partisan political agendas? Most of its words are either agreed on almost universally, or are so vague that an audience member can interpret it to mean that the show supports his or her politics.

The problem with the science revealing climate change (as well as the science supposedly debunking it) is that it is so politically charged that many of us are still not quite sure who is truly speaking for scientific research. My complete lamentation on this topic can be found here:

Every scientist quoted in the debate appears to be cowed and censored with funding at risk, a mis-quoted and edited sock puppet on the hand of industries seeking exploitative profit, or of regulatory government seeking election to pass the rest of their platform. There is too much money and power at stake to allow the truth to emerge unslanted, in either direction. Neither faction, for or against environmentalism, is innocent of Lysenkoism.

It's best to stick to reporting scientific facts in EPCOT without proceeding to promote an activist agenda of specific policy recommendations based on those facts. "An Inconvenient Truth" was a feature-length campaign commercial. I would not like EPCOT to be a political advertisement.

Anonymous said...

Nice post epkat. Epcot is a great place for science and technology and even for some recognitions of their challenges. It is not the best place for politics. Who wants a political park?

Another blog recently mentioned either a time capsule or something of the sort where Walt thought that War would be on the scrap heap of history by 2006. Unfortunately we aren't evolving at that pace yet.

Walt is right that technology can be an incredible source for good, and raising living standards. Unfortunately politics do matter. Governments do matter. Culture and History do matter. None of this makes good material for a theme park though.

Leave Epcot as it is. I'll enjoy the Universe of Energy and the China movie while I'm there. I'll examine the serious questions of global warming or the level of freedom in China, when I'm not in my favortive vacation spot.

Epcot82 said...

"I'll examine the serious questions of global warming or the level of freedom in China, when I'm not in my favortive vacation spot."

At the risk of causing offense, I think it's this kind of attitude that got Epcot into a lot of the trouble it's in in the first place. Epcot was conceived as a showcase for ideas and opportunities for the future. That meant it would need to tackle some difficult questions.

Guests weren't prepared for that, and when asked if they liked Epcot, they said they thought it was too serious and too difficult. So Disney changed it to become a "standard" theme park. It took time, but ultimately Epcot abandoned most of the ideals and concepts that made it so unusual and unique in the first place. (I use that word "unique" a lot -- it's fitting, I guess.)

I believe Epcot would be a better place, I believe Disney would be a better company, if the park brought back some of those challenging, "boring" subjects and explorations. Guests who don't like it don't have to go. Disney's theme parks are wildly profitable money-makers. There's room for daring.

There's room to be different.

And if you don't like to "think" while on vacation, your option would be simply to avoid Epcot ... or to allow yourself to expand your mind and accept that "fun" and "thinking" don't NECESSARILY have to exist on entirely separate planes.

Anonymous said...

I can't let that go without a response. You took 2 posts about the balance of Epcot dreams vs. real world and it's appropriateness in a theme park and boiled it down to "I don't like to think on vacation". It's a little bit of a cheap shot.

Here is how I see it. Walt wanted a real city as a beacon to the world of American ingenuity. He would build it with the latest of technologies, and try to make it a Mecca of scientific invention hoping to draw people who shared that vision to it. He also hoped to have a social utopia with no crime or welfare (everyone would work) and he hoped this would also become an example to the World. Walt died and the stockholders or bankers wouldn't hear of it. They said build a theme park.

And that is what it is. It touches on concepts. It educates a little (and yes I find learning fun). It is still unique.

I merely tried to point out that the average person can be inspired by Epcot, without mistaking it for something it's not. It is not the home of cutting edge science research (except maybe The Land), and It is not the Rosetta stone to a social utopia.

Why isn't this place what Walt intended? It's not just because it's a theme park. The realm of societal changing inventions is no longer in the hands of a few big companies (AT&T's Bell Labs, GM, GE).

As for the utopian a society we can't agree on what mix of human rights, regulation, taxation and other policies are right. Think the US has a consensus over such bedrock concepts as Freedom of Speech or separation of church and state? Then listen to the pandering jackasses in the Senate sell their flag burning amendment or stand in the huge crowds of those praying to keep the 10 commandment statue in the Alabama courthouse.

Epcot reflects the optimism and dreams of Walt and I believe it to be well received. A scolding global warming park or the pavilion of Chinese political prisoners, will cause huge losses and soon be bulldozed for an "all barfing all day" roller coaster park.

Epcot82 said...

Funny thing, I never mentioned Chinese political prisoners. :-)

If you go back and look at my original post, once again, I'll emphasize that my idea was apolitical. It was simply based on the fact that I found the ideas presented in An Inconvenient Truth to be a) interesting; b) presented in an engaging way; c) compelling; and d) perfectly in keeping with the areas of human existence that Epcot also supposedly "explores."

But China? Nope. Not a word.

Anonymous said...

OK the China thing was my idea. The point of Epcot was always half technology and half societal. I figured if you wanted Future World to answer the tough questions of technology you would apply the same standards to World Showcase.

Anonymous said...

Hey if Al Gore says so ... it must be true. Afterall he invented the internet, if you don't believe that - just ask him.

Anonymous said...

Hey E82.. love the blog. Fun.

And enough with the Gore bashing, folks. Global warming is real, and we caused it... there was a study by the National Academy of Sciences presented just this week that validates just about all of the points made in An Inconvenient Truth.

I think it would be great if Epcot went back to a place where people could be inspired and educated, but it's not in the cards, unless Lasseter and Co. really make some stunning changes.

That said, I don't see why an emphasis on the story of humans trashing their planet actually has to be a downer. If the attractions are written from a perspective of "OK... here's what's wrong, but here's how we can change it and make the world a cleaner, safer and more peaceful place," it could be done without slamming politics over people's heads. If stories are told with Disney storytelling and style, I think Epcot could begin to distinct itself from the pack of ordinary theme parks into which it is currently straying...

Epcot82 said...

Thanks for your compliments!

Gee, John, what you're suggesting -- Disney storytelling and style to enlighten people about issues in their world and how they can make the future better -- sounds an awful lot like ...

um ...

EPCOT Center?


Anonymous said...

I am always baffled when subjects like global warming or pollution are deemed "political". There's nothing political about the facts, although there are obvious political ramifications to what you decide to do about them. But it's not as if only left-leaning quiche-eaters don't want mercury in their fish.

I don't think even gently "scolding" the guests would be appropriate, however. A Disney attraction is unlikely to change the beliefs of someone who has already decided to believe this or that about their lifestyle, and even things like the Circle of Life feel a bit forced to me.

I do think the ideas you're talking about can be brought into the mix at Epcot, but that they'd need to be presented in a more positive manner. Rather than going on about what we're doing with fossil fuels now, I think it would more productive to show a future in which they are unnecessary. To implant a vision in the head of the guests that allows them to imagine a world in which all of these controversial things have become no-brainers.

Don't harp on nuclear waste, just present a world in which that waste isn't generated...that sort of thing.

Future World used to be about the triumphs of human civilization and presenting a path to further greatness, and I think they should stick to that theme.

Epcot82 said...

No doubt they could be worked in well; it's what Imagineers used to do so well -- be creative and use their imaginations. Too bad they seem to be prevented from doing that at Epcot lately!

Spaced Out Dude said...

Very cool. Site, I shall mention it on my podcast.

Everything Podcast;