Sunday, July 23, 2006

Fuddy Duddy Strikes Back

I’m not quite 40, but apparently I’m already a fuddy duddy. That’s what one of my blog readers called me last week (see comments in the post "All Princesses, All the Time).

In my 15 years in the entertainment industry, I’ve been called lots of things, many of which started with the same two letters, and generally they’ve never gotten to me. For some reason, “fuddy duddy” did.

Look, despite my protesting turning Akershus into an all-Princesses dining experience, I am not unfriendly toward kids. I’m fully aware that it was as a kid myself that I became enamored of Disney.

It’s just that Disney in general, and Epcot specifically, hold happiness and discovery for everyone, not just kids. By making Disney increasingly into a kid-oriented company, the executives there – and in the theme-park group particularly – do themselves a disservice and, sadly, sell Disney short.

Take, for instance, the difference between Test Track and Spaceship Earth. They were designed and developed by completely different generations of Imagineers, and it shows.

Test Track is the “new” regime: fast, loud, frenetic and bearing only a teaspoon of storytelling and discovery. You leave Test Track thrilled … and that’s about it.

Spaceship Earth is the “old way”: leisurely, elaborate, rich and designed to entertain completely. It envelops the rider in 360 degrees of story, and if it doesn’t demand that attention be paid, it rewards riders who concentrate and focus.

The thing is, entertainment in general today is made for undemanding audiences. They complain if they’re not entertained and couldn’t care a whit about nuance and artistry. If it moves fast and looks shiny, that’s all they need. Is there anything wrong with that? No. Heck, one of the very first movies ever made was of a train pulling into a station. It thrilled and mesmerized audiences, but it had no story and aspired to nothing more than providing a sensational rush of adrenaline. But moviemakers soon learned they could do much more with audiences than just thrill them; they could tell stories and captivate them, they could create an emotional and intellectual rush, not just a visceral one.

Walt Disney knew that, too. Most of the first attractions at Disneyland were not much more than gussied-up carnival rides. But knowing that, like cinema itself, a theme-park experience could immerse and involve guests, Disney took things to a new level. The pinnacle: The Haunted Mansion and Pirates of the Caribbean.

It’s ironic that some 40 years later theme-park designers have not only failed to reach those heights, but have actually caused their own industry to retreat. The closest that Disney has come to replicating the lengthy, fully immersive, story-driven attractions have been Star Tours, The Great Movie Ride and the Indiana Jones Adventure; the “newest” of these is 11 years old.

Epcot was once the proving ground for the best that Disney theme-park designers had to offer. They created enormous, elaborate attractions that took the ride-through concepts of The Haunted Mansion and Pirates of the Caribbean and pushed them to new levels. Universe of Energy, Horizons, Spaceship Earth, Journey Into Imagination, World of Motion, El Rio del Tiempo and Maelstrom (despite its shortcomings) built entire worlds and took riders on a true adventure utilizing every trick possible, from Audio-Animatronic figures to innovative ride systems to multi-media showcases.

Epcot’s most recent additions, Mission: Space and Soarin’, as good as they may be, just sit there and show you a movie, moving you around some. (Well, moving you around too much in the case of Mission: Space.) Disney has devolved from epic, full-scale shows to a seat with a TV screen in front of it.

What does this all have to do with being a fuddy duddy and (supposedly) not liking loud children? Everything.

Because Disney has shortchanged itself, and nowhere is that more apparent than at Epcot. It has given into the notion that the child-rearing techniques favored by many parents today – namely, sitting your kid in front of a box with moving images – should be the basis for its theme-park rides. It has gone the easy route by dumbing down Epcot and removing virtually all of the wonder and discovery and making it into a place where you can see lots of familiar cartoon characters.

Disney has scaled down its dreaming in the name of being more kid-friendly. And if you can’t get your dreams from Disney when you’re a kid, where can you get them? More importantly, if Disney tells you your biggest dream should be to meet Cinderella or find Nemo, it’s kind of sad – the dreams used to be a lot bigger than that.

Disney should want more than to sell tickets, get people to turn to ABC and make sure little girls wear Princess dresses. It used to want that – EPCOT Center was a shining example. No, it wasn’t Walt’s EPCOT, but it was something pretty extraordinary, something no other company could ever attempt to design or create.

So, if wanting Disney to be as bold, as inspiring, as wonderfully creative in 2006 as it was in 1976 (stop with the Shaggy D.A. jokes, you know what I mean) is being a fuddy duddy, I guess I’m a fuddy duddy.


The truth hurts, I guess.

Monday, July 17, 2006

Epcot's Rewards

I spent last week in an unusual situation: I was in Central Florida and I went to two theme parks, but they weren’t at Walt Disney World. Instead, I spent my time at Universal Studios and Islands of Adventure.

These are two solid parks. Universal’s evocation of 1940’s glamour Hollywood and its celebration of the movies can’t be beat. Up until seven years ago, I wouldn’t have thought this possible, as Disney-MGM Studios gets so much right. Then, Disney Imagineers added Rock ‘n’ Roller Coaster, which is a great ride in the wrong park. (Did no one at least consider the idea of having the limousine be late to a movie premiere or, say, the Academy Awards, instead of an Aerosmith concert?) In 2001, the addition of the much-maligned Sorcerer’s Hat created a new icon for the park … and sealed its fate as a park that doesn’t so much celebrate movies as shill for Disney’s own entertainment.

So, Universal Studios, though somewhat over-concreted and under-landscaped, wins hands down in the battle of the movie theme parks these days.

Islands of Adventure, on the other hand, may have (arguably) the most thrilling attractions in Central Florida and one of the most elaborate dark rides ever with The Adventures of Spider-Man. It may attract the much-coveted teen audience. (Why theme park operators want this audience so badly is beyond me, since they don’t seem to spend much money and mostly just make the lives of families and adult groups miserable.) The failure of Islands of Adventure to be much more than a slightly more elaborate version of a Six Flags theme parks points out exactly what Disney does so well … and, more specifically, Epcot.

For, while I spend a great deal of my time on this blog lambasting and criticizing Disney Imagineers for what’s wrong with Epcot, it should be noted that when it comes to finding a way to create elaborate, intricately themed experiences that fully engulf a guest’s senses, Disney is the clear leader – and Epcot is perhaps its crowning glory.

Epcot, for all of its faults (and they are only getting more numerous), has at its core the concept of not just offering one-off rides and attractions in a single location, but at creating enormous “mini-destinations” within a single park.

A guest doesn’t head to The Land only because “Soarin’” is there – or, if s/he does, is quickly reminded that there’s much more to experience. An hour or more is spent inside one pavilion, and a guest feels that Disney has over-delivered a worthwhile experience. Imagination, The Living Seas and most of World Showcase (even those pavilions without a “ride”) fall into this same category: they create a wholly immersive environment, and instead of passively walking through and experiencing a single ride, guests find themselves absorbed for a half hour, an hour or longer in one place.

This is something Epcot offers that no other theme park can match – and while the other WDW parks come close at times (and the “Walt” attractions, being the predecessors to Epcot, are the best at it), it’s what Disney’s “competition” can’t even begin to do. As I watched Universal’s guests dutifully wait in line for 45 minutes to experience a 95-second roller coaster, it dawned on me that Epcot isn’t just about instant gratification, it’s about rewarding guests who have patience, inquisitiveness and imagination. Epcot, in many ways, gives as much back as a guest puts into it, and works best for those who give themselves over to the pace and the basic precepts of the park.

Spaceship Earth, the Universe of Energy and The American Adventure may seem to violate this concept. At first glance, they’re large pavilions with a single attraction at their core. Outside of this attraction, there’s not much to them. Oh … but what attractions! These are 15- to 30-minute multi-sensory experiences that seek to envelop (and develop) all of a guest’s senses. If they don’t thrill the adrenal gland, they do (at their best) thrill the heart and mind. They take their time, they offer an immersive adventure on a grand scale. They are individual “rides,” but they take the concept of a “ride” to a new level.

What, then, to make of recent developments like Mission: Space and Test Track? These attractions are where Disney is showing us the potentially devastating future of Epcot. They are massive in scale, but tiny in scope. Even their layout shows us what’s wrong: The enormous pavilions that house them are primarily given over to the queue area and/or a retail location. Interior space that Imagineers previously would have used to create “sub”-experiences of the main attraction (think of the ImageWorks at Imagination) are now used either as waiting areas or to grab more cash.

As for the rides themselves, no matter how elaborate in execution, they’re basically short thrill rides, which neither take the time to allow a guest to savor what s/he is experiencing nor showcase the remarkable detail and flair that was once a hallmark of Disney’s design. They are elaborate in design only, not in execution.

In other words, they’re a lot like Islands of Adventure, where designers seem to have lavished so much attention on the breathtakingly gorgeous “Port of Entry” they had nothing left for the other areas of the park. (OK, there are some exceptions, but you get my drift.)

Epcot rewards those with patience, those with the ability and desire to look past the immediate thrill to ideas, concepts and stimulation that extends beyond the merely physical. Epcot rewards those who love to explore. And, if Disney can grasp this concept (a critical-eye visit to Universal might help), Epcot just might continue rewarding future generations who are looking for more than just a cheap thrill.

Thursday, July 06, 2006

Could Epcot Rock?

Sing it with me:

In 1787, I'm told,
Our founding fathers did agree
To write a list of principles
For keepin' people free.

If you immediately launched into a tune from your childhood, you grew up in the age of Schoolhouse Rock on ABC, and probably used that little ditty to get you through at least one or two tests in high school and college.

Schoolhouse Rock remains one of the finest examples ever produced (at least in the U.S.) of combining education and entertainment. Its catchy songs taught kids about important concepts and subjects in ways that were memorable and didn’t pander. I imagine that it instructed more than a few adults, too.

Imagine if Epcot’s designers took a cue from Schoolhouse Rock and created new storylines and – importantly – new songs for key Epcot attractions. If a concept as difficult as what started the American Revolution (you know, that “shot heard ‘round the world”) or the forces of electricity could be conveyed in less than two minutes of interstitial television programming, think of what could be done with 15 minutes of immersive ride or show time.

Think, for instance, of a new song for The American Adventure (though I do love “Golden Dreams,” does it really say anything?) that imparts some of the key concepts of democracy. Or a memorable tune for Spaceship Earth that conveys the importance of communication in our life.

Perhaps what’s needed at Epcot isn’t so much a wholesale rethinking of the central attractions as much as a re-jiggering that really takes into consideration how to combine education and entertainment. The Imagineers are some of the best creative minds in the world, but they aren’t educators or instructors, and could do well to look to Disney-owned ABC’s own past to draw some inspiration.

Epcot could indeed rock if the lessons of Schoolhouse – which I rediscovered on iTunes – were applied. It’s not about “forcing” education down the throats of guests, it’s about making educational concepts fun and appealing, treating them as entertainment and recognizing that, at its finest, “entertainment” is really a tool that can be used to communicate difficult concepts in a fun and engaging way.

There’s still a lot that can be done at Epcot to retain its central concept, of informing and inspiring while entertaining and delighting, without resorting to thrill rides and “E-ticket” attractions. Taking a hard look at what’s already there and how to make it even better, and learning from what has worked in the past, could be a great start to making Epcot truly remarkable.