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.


Anonymous said...

Never apologize, epcot82. You have a great blog and I look forward to your updates... I probably check a little too often.

Now on with the debate:

I sort of agree with you here. Disney needed to respond to the up-and-coming competition. Although I really loved many of the attractions (Horizons, World of Motion, the original Journey into Imagination), I felt that something had to be done. EPCOT was quickly becoming outdated. Before long, it would have become a joke.

I believe Disney was right to respond. Here's where I agree with you: Disney responded by trying to be more like their competition. Disney should have stuck with imagination, escapism, and inspiration. Instead, we got thrills.

Don't get me wrong - there's nothing wrong with the thrills the engineered. It's just, well, you know... okay. Can you imagine replacing Pirates of the Caribbean with a roller coaster? Of course not. Disney should have either updated the existing rides or replaced them with equally fun and inspiring rides.

If we're going to implement Al Gore's ideas, however, I still think his head should become the new Journey Into Imagination. ;-)

Epcot82 said...

Maybe I should be like Mary Poppins and never explain anything. :-)

You're right. Upgrading, reinventing, renovating, refurbishing, redesigning, re-engineering, rethinking and improving are all good things.

But since Disney has, in 40 years, never quite topped its storytelling in "Haunted Mansion" and "Pirates of the Caribbean," that should tell you something.

They did try to continue that amazing, never-been-duplicated form of storytelling with "Spaceship Earth," "World of Motion," etc. -- but seem to have completely abandoned that in favor of being like everyone else.

As my mother used to say, "Everyone else is boring. Why would you want to be boring?" Ah, mom was right.

brkgnews said...

Great post. A heavy dose of new imagineering could have easily countered the slide in attendance -- just look at how well Animal Kingdom is doing after a $100M shot in the arm. For many people, it made the park actually worth going to.

Disney has also apparently had good luck with "positive reinforcement." Take a look at Magic Your Way and Magical Express. Both reward guests for staying at Disney -- one with cheaper tickets for extended stays, and another with free transportation to the Mousse House. That alone makes it "worth it" to miss Universal or Sea World, and more money stays with Mickey.

Finally, Disney has the upper hand to begin with. They were the definers of the medium -- they invented the modern theme park. And even if folks don't actually know that, they can sense it. As someone once pointed out over on the forums, folks who go to Universal will usually spend at least one day at Disney -- the opposite isn't always true. If you're in Orlando, WDW is an absolute must-see for anyone who has grown up since 1955. Mom and dad remember seeing the fireworks over Sleeping Beauty castle on TV, watching Annette, Jimmy, and the gang on the Mickey Mouse Club, and whistling while they worked. Nothing at the non-Disney parks tugs at that heartstring, and they never will.

Matt Arnold said...

The reason we seem to have conflated the ideas of "An Inconvenient Truth" with the politics of "The Inconvenient Truth" is that the science is hopelessly mired in economic and social agendas. Even the movie itself spent too much time on rabbit trails about irrelevant details of the life of one politician. The scientific research, both for and against the conclusions of this film, is too often funded by politics, in which all factions have too much to gain and too much to lose to allow the truth to get through without being massaged.

Tocpe said...

I for one thought your post "A Convenient Theme?" was a very good one, and right on the money. I always thought Epcot's purpose was a simple one:

Entertain. Inform. Inspire

And you're right, EPCOT's management has spent too much time trying to chase their competitors. Why, I don't know. Maybe they were scared of being unique. Maybe it was too hard for them to be different. Who knows.

All I know is they've muddied the heart of EPCOT Center into something that's almost unrecognizable.

Here's hoping Tony B. and John M. can straighten out the mistakes of the last 12+ years and realign EPCOT Center to it's original intent. To celebrate humanity. To enlighten us. And to inspire us.

Anonymous said...

...And above all, take our money! Haha...

Anonymous said...

Darn you! This is the second night your silly blog has kept me up. Last night, it was to watch the movie where Walt demonstrates his original vision of EPCOT. Tonight, it was to write my own post about Walt's vision and how I have finally come to understand that Walt was, indeed, a true visionary.

Now I'm gonna be all tired again tomorrow. Thanks a lot for the inspiration. Sheesh!

Anonymous said...

Nice post, tocpe. I think you hit it on the head with the loss of the "inspire" component in today;s Epcot. Heck, Disney couldn't even bother to keep the teacher resource center open any longer. That right there was a strong indicator of them throwing in the towel. They couldn't even try to maintain one online... that way they could still have their precious space where Coke can market their wares (actually, come to think of it, that does inspire me to hate Coke!) and only have to pay a few online content people.

Epcot82 said...

You're right -- they had no idea what to do with the teacher's center, though it was a fantastic concept that lasted all the way through the mid-1990s. Bringing it back online sounds like a fantastic idea.

Please be sure to send a link to this blog to people you know -- ultimately, through those six little degrees, I hope someone at Imagineering or at Pixar will start reading (and maybe let me know -- hehe).

Anonymous said...

I have a different perspective on this...I think that Disney had a great opportunity with Epcot and failed. They could have taken the best inspiring work they could think of, while also making it more thrilling.

Reading one of the blogs regarding Mission:Space replacing Horizons, someone noted how they could have had a similar type of ride like Horizons, and at the end, shoot you off into space in a different way.

Basically they could have still made parts of the ride with the same focus as before, but they didn't. Another testament to this was the old Journey into Imagination ride being replaced by the new "Your" version (which failed so bad they changed it again). They took a very fun, whimsical ride which didn't look outdated and turned it into a boring ride with half of it in the dark. Clearly the imagination was the part missing, as ironic as it seems.