Thursday, August 31, 2006

World of Emotion

I bought a cool World of Motion t-shirt recently that elicits comments whenever I wear it. No doubt, most people don't know what it means, but those that do ... well, they fawn all over it and start talking about how cool EPCOT Center used to be.

They often use those words: used to be.

But the t-shirt attracts attention, I think, despite the reputation the "early" EPCOT had for being too aloof, too antiseptic. For many people who grew into the artists, engineers and writers of today, EPCOT made an enormous impact.

Far from being a place that failed to engage, it hooked many of us at a most impressionable age and left us very different people.

I really do wonder whether today's incarnation of E-lower-case-p-c-o-t has the same effect.

You already know I hated Mission: Space beyond all measure, but I do understand that there are many who get a thrill out of it. Test Track was fun for about 15 minutes, but now is garish, overloaded exterior clutter and been-there-done-that ride system feel less than exhilirating.

So, why do I still get a rush from Spaceship Earth? Why do the dinosaurs and the spectacular films (not to mention the still-very-cool vehicles) in Universe of Energy still give me a boost? Why does Living With the Land still make me curious? Why am I still absolutely captivated by The American Adventure?

I promise you that it's not just because I like to live in the past and relish the "relics" of my youth.

Rather, I think, it's because attractions like these -- despite the fact that many of them haven't been updated in, quite literally, decades -- encapsulate what makes Disney theme parks so successful: They blend story and emotion, they stir the brain cells, they provide an experience you can't find anywhere else. Like The Haunted Mansion, Pirates of the Caribbean and the Great Movie Ride, they rely not on visceral thrills but on engaging the senses.


That's what they have, in spades. Now, some will laugh and scoff and say that Spaceship Earth, for instance, is utterly devoid of emotion and has been from Day 1. The old Universe of Energy, they'll argue, needed that Ellen injection because people found it dull and boring. It's why World of Motion absolutely had to give way to Test Track.

And yet ... 20 years from now, I find it hard to believe anyone will wear or even want to buy a Test Track t-shirt. World of Motion may have been cheesy and somewhat pointless, but just like the kid whose short film lacks any flair but is still charming, it tried.

The old school EPCOT Center attractions tried to be ambitious, to be daring, to be steadfastly unlike anything else in the entire world. Universal Studios, Six Flags, Busch Gardens, Cedar Point -- they never even tried to match Disney's blend of storytelling and characters in their attractions because they knew they'd never come close. They gave up and went the all-thrills-all-the-time route, and they achieved a certain success with that.

Disney, on the other hand, remained true to itself through the 1980s and 1990s. Even when it stooped to selling "thrills," it couched them in a remarkable setting, giving way to Splash Mountain at the Magic Kingdom, Tower of Terror at Disney-MGM Studios and Maelstrom (poor Maelstrom) at EPCOT Center.

And then, finally, inevitably, Disney gave up. Screw emotion, let's go for the jugular. If an outdoor steel track is good enough for them, we'll "plus it up" just a tiny bit, put some static figures along the track and they'll never know the difference.

But they do. I can tell every time I wear my World of Motion shirt.

People smile, they think back to those vacations, they remember what got them motivated to learn about technology and art and their world: Disney did. And EPCOT Center was a big part of that.

It's a shame when an individual or company doesn't believe in its own legacy.

I've spent many years in L.A., and I've seen what happens when people think a little cosmetic change will "correct" the effects of time. Some people realize that time allows us to learn, to grow, to improve and to highlight and be proud of what makes us unique. It gives us a chance to underscore what is best about our unique selves and make small adjustments to downplay the things that don't work so well.

To others, time simply makes you look old. It replaces the shiny new feel of youth with a broken-down body that needs a wholesale rebuilding. It's simply too much effort to examine and explore what is best about ourselves when money can buy a new appearance altogether.

EPCOT Center was a bit like a daring young adult, sometimes unsure of itself but also willing to take chances, to revel in its shiny difference, to believe in an optimistic future.

Lower-case Epcot is that young adult grown up and grown cynical. Forgetting the emotion and excitement of youth, its middle-age examination led it to believe that it had to change itself completely. It looks today almost as ridiculous as a plastic-surgery patient. The quirks, the wrinkles, the oddities that made it fascinating have been "smoothed over" ... and now, those expressive eyes, those lovely lips, that alluring smile are all gone.

On the surface, it might look better to some (certainly to itself, meaning Disney execs). To many of us, though, it looks odd and slightly silly ... and the emotion that used to run through it, that once inspired and influenced so many millions of people, is all gone.

Instead of substance, flash. Instead of inspiration, a shiny "new" face. Instead of emotion, emptiness.

The upside is that the emotion is still there, buried deep down in the core of what it means. Now that the plastic surgery has been botched, maybe its time for some serious therapy, some legitimate self-examination to get to the heart of "who" it was ... and "who," with time and effort, it can be again.

Wednesday, August 30, 2006

While I've Got You On the Line ...

Thanks to all -- and I do mean everyone -- who weighed in on my last post. It's been called spot-on, it's been called way off base; it's been called well-done, it's been called trash. It's been called interesting, it's been called misinformed.

Whatever your thoughts on it, I'm glad you read it, and if you added some comments, I'm grateful for those, too.

I started this blog simply as a way to get people talking about Epcot -- what they like, what they don't like and, mostly, how Epcot's grand vision of the future, of optimism, of bridging technology and society, can be rediscovered and restimulated.

Rather than go the "it's my blog, I'll say what I want and you'll like it" route (as Disney seems to do -- just substitute the word "theme park" for "blog"), I will say this: I appreciate your feedback more than I can tell you. I love that it got you talking, got your dander up, got you thinking and sharing and communicating.

Kind of what EPCOT Center used to try to do, I guess!

I'll have more very, very shortly. (You know, summertime travel, vacations, etc. take their toll!) But I just wanted to say thanks to everyone. Your comments have been most insightful.

Saturday, August 26, 2006

Strange Priorities

I've been on some business trips the last couple of weeks, and while I was in L.A. I discovered that Disney is spending who-knows-how-many hundreds of millions of dollars to build a new headquarters for its most poorly performing division, the Consumer Products group. It's to open in a few months near the DreamWorks studios, and will feature a built-in Panda Express ... for no reason other than the division president loves Panda Express.

And all the while, Disney claims it doesn't have enough money to remove the maligned wand, to renovate Wonders of Life without a sponsor, or to upgrade painfully old attractions at Epcot.

Yet, it does have enough money to placate the spoiled head of the only division that has shrunk in size over the years.

At the same time, the company just promoted one of its executives to a higher position within the Disney Vacation Club, with plans to expand that concept even further -- no doubt leading to even more aggressive, more unattractive DVC sales kiosks shoved obtrusively into theme parks. So, while Disney can't, for instance, overhaul Spaceship Earth and bring its storyline into the 21st century, it can spend mega-millions to devise new ways to get more money from you.

I just don't understand the priorities of The Walt Disney Company.

Or, perhaps, I don't want to, because Disney is increasingly doing nothing to hide the fact -- even from its guests -- that a bottom-line mentality devoted to "shareholder value" is all it cares about. (Which is kinda funny, since I sold most of my stock in 2001 at 40 bucks a pop, and five years later it's not even close to that price ... so I wonder where the value for shareholders is?)

Sorry to rant and rave about money today, but it just angers me so much that Disney can spend money when it wants to on projects that do nothing but placate its executives or crassly pull more cash from wallets, yet it claims it has no money to restore the glory to what was once its most unique and exciting theme park.

Saturday, August 12, 2006

The First Quarter Century

There’s a lot of reporting online today about Aug. 12 being the 25th anniversary of the personal computer. I’m barely computer literate, but it amazes me that just a quarter of a century after the very first consumer PC was introduced, I’m sitting here typing at a keyboard connected to a monitor and processor that were virtually unthinkable back in 1981.

Perhaps I’m just an old fuddy-duddy waxing nostalgic, but I can’t help but read the stories about the PC and think, “Boy, we were much more enthusiastic about the future back then.” Take Epcot, for instance. (Well, you are reading an Epcot blog, after all, so it’s only natural my thoughts should turn toward our favorite theme park.)

Next year, it’s Epcot that will be turning 25, and it’s hard not to muse that, while every single day, it seems, brings continuing new advances in computers, Epcot still shows movies made before the park officially opened.

I remember visiting EPCOT Center in 1983 and having a hard time being pulled away from the touch-screen computers, the video-conference monitors, the “build-it-yourself” roller coaster and, for that matter, the park itself. Even back then, I knew nothing about computers or science or technology; my leaning was (and remains) toward the liberal arts. But the fantastic thing about EPCOT Center was that Imagineers had infused it with a sensibility, a very clear message that our collective society was capable of great, great things, and those things would become even more spectacular in our future.

At first glance, EPCOT Center’s “split personality” of Future World and World Showcase made little sense. What did a world of the future and an exploration of cultures have to do with each other? It wasn’t until years later that I understood the message – whether intended or accidental – was that our future success as a people relies on understanding each other as individuals. Just as the two halves of EPCOT Center were linked, the two halves of ourselves – the intellectual and the emotional – were linked and needed to work together for success.

Yes, I really did glean all of that from EPCOT Center. I went from pavilion to pavilion eager to soak up the amazing sights and sounds, and even if the rides themselves (such as, for me, World of Motion) weren’t as exciting and fantastic as I had hoped, every single one of them made me curious to know more.

Now, it’s quite possible that EPCOT Center simply worked on my natural curiosity as a teenager. Maybe I was an unusual kid, interested less in the fads and music of the day than in reading and understanding. Possibly. I like to think, though, that EPCOT Center simply worked its magic on me.

Likewise, the teens at the time who became infatuated with personal computers have gone on to change our world – quite literally. I’m a little envious, because my creative leaning (and lack of analytical skills) prevented me from being involved in that revolution. But they were invigorated, excited, inspired and jolted out of their young minds by the possibilities of the future.

It’s interesting to me that two of the most future-oriented concepts imaginable to me – the personal computer and EPCOT Center – both appeared at roughly the same time. It was a time of optimism in spite of a dire world situation, a time of excitement despite economic hardship, a time of looking to the future even though the recent past was filled with dissension and turmoil.

Somehow, two remarkably exciting, forward-thinking ideas – based in a combination of technology and humanism – leapt to the forefront in the very early 1980s.

One of them has thrived, flourished and shown the world that, at 25, it has only begun to show its potential. It has seized imaginations, inspired creativity, connected far-flung people, all the while being constantly reinvented, tinkered with (sometimes poorly) and re-introduced to the public in different forms. It has been a truly astounding success, both technologically and creatively.

The other, I’m afraid, is Epcot.

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

Not to Be Missed? Not to Be Seen.

Around my house, buying the latest edition of Bob Sehlinger’s Unofficial Guide to Walt Disney World is something of a tradition. Even during years in which we do not travel to Florida, we like to read comments by Sehlinger and his reader-contributors about the latest attractions and changes in the World.

When it comes to Epcot, we’ve noticed a disturbing trend of late: Terrible things are happening to the attractions that Sehlinger considers “not to be missed.” In many cases, missing is your only option.

Spaceship Earth: Sehlinger says it’s “one of Epcot’s best; not to be missed.” Attraction status: Essentially unchanged since a redesign in 1994; its “future vision” of communications technology, such as instant video exchange and global sharing of news, is now commonplace.

The Living Seas: Sehlinger calls it “an excellent marine exhibit … the strength in of the attraction lies in the dozen or so exhibits afterward. Status: The attraction is being redesigned and rechristened as “The Seas” with a cartoon-ified vision of the oceans courtesy of “Nemo and Friends.” The original incarnation is, essentially, closed.

Living With the Land: A Sehlinger reader writes, “I really wished I had not had a preconceived idea about an exhibit. Living With the Land was truly wonderful,” and Sehlinger calls it “inspiring and educational … not to be missed.” Status: The attraction’s “personal touch” of a real, live cast member guiding guests through the greenhouses – something that’s been done for 24 years – is being abandoned, and the attraction is being “automated.” The version Sehlinger writes about? Soon to be gone.

Honey, I Shrunk the Audience: “An absolute hoot!” Sehlinger raves. “Not to be missed.” Lots of people are doing just that, as the 3-D movie – based on a film that’s nearly 20 years old and unknown to most Epcot visitors – reportedly is suffering from low attendance. What was once innovative and cutting edge is outdone by other 3-D shows throughout Walt Disney World and at other theme parks.

Body Wars: Sehlinger says it’s “not to be missed” but you’ll have to do just that – it’s permanently closed.

Cranium Command: The Unofficial Guide says this one is “Epcot’s great sleeper attraction.” It sleeps forever. Despite the Guide’s rating of “not to be missed” … it’s closed.

The Making of Me: It’s “excellent and should be moved from its tiny space to a larger theater,” Sehlinger writes. “Of course, we’ve been saying that for years.” They don’t have to complain anymore. It’s closed.

Universe of Energy: Though Sehlinger calls it “the most unique theater in Walt Disney World,” that kind of praise isn’t enough to get it any attention; it hasn’t been updated or substantially renovated in a decade, despite the advent of hybrid cars, hydrogen fuel cells and calls for cleaner energy. It also features a “Jeopardy!” set that was updated more than half a decade ago, and co-stars an actor whose last TV show aired three years ago.

The American Adventure: “Disney’s best historic/patriotic attraction,” Sehlinger writes. “Not to be missed.” And you shouldn’t, despite the fact that – even though the U.S. has seen extraordinary changes in the past 20 years – only the final film has been revised since Epcot opened … and that last happened 13 years ago.

Impressions de France: An “exceedingly beautiful film,” according to the Guide … and also one that shows France as it existed more than two decades in the past.

As I peruse the book from year to year, I wonder why Disney executives don’t do the same. They could learn a lot from Sehlinger’s more-or-less impartial (and hefty!) guidebooks – such as which attractions it’s thinking of closing, altering beyond recognition or neglecting for another year might actually be worth a second look.

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Baby With the Bathwater

Epcot had to change. Its very nature demanded it.

Epcot’s entire creative concept was built around the idea that our world and its people changed rapidly, and that only by sharing ideas and cultures could we hope to understand and contribute to the future of our planet.

Change, by itself, at Epcot is welcome and worth celebrating. For a while, it seemed Imagineers might have had it right. The now-distant renovation of Spaceship Earth and Universe of Energy – no matter what you think of them – at least attempted to inject a more up-to-date storyline into the experiences. The now seemingly ancient (and meaningless, given that it’s closed) addition of Wonders of Life expanded Future World beyond the external and into our own selves.

Additions of Norway and Morocco to World Showcase, the relatively frequent updates of exhibits around World Showcase are lovely for those who take the time to explore them. The almost constant (by comparison to other attractions) changes to Illuminations have only made it stronger and more compelling and wonderful.

Why, then, do the most recent changes to Epcot – which, as I said, demands change for its very existence – seem so … wrong-headed? By emphasizing Disney characters and the “Disney brand” at all costs, Disney’s management style at Epcot seems to be one that values the proverbial bathwater itself and pays little heed to the baby its supposed to be protecting.

It’s not just the unspeakably disturbing rumor that Kim Possible will find a home in the Imagination pavilion, taking over the area that once excited children’s imaginations with artistic and educational interactive displays. (I worked at Disney long enough to know that rumors that work their way into the public are almost invariably true; the minute Disney denies them, they practically become gospel.)

Nor is it the lunkheaded takeover of The Living Seas by “Nemo and Friends.” (It will become, simply, “The Seas,” sending the unintended message that the world’s oceans are not alive and vibrant.) Clearly, Disney believes that a topic as incredible as the undersea world is nothing without its own characters tacked on – an idea that seems to be refuted by a recent trip I took to a local aquarium, where I waited in line for 20 minutes just to buy tickets and saw children who were captivated by simply looking in the tanks … without a cartoon character in sight.

It’s not even the move I lamented that brings Disney Princesses into the restaurant at Norway, once again sending the very clear message that the real world is just plain dull without Disney’s characters roaming around it to remove any chance that you might learn something by experiencing a new culture.

The concern that all of these moves raise in my mind is that by focusing more on how “Disney” (aka The Baby) can be added to Epcot, the very notion of what Epcot is (aka The Bathwater) is undone. No longer, Disney is saying, is it important to try to find exciting new ways to communicate to its guests – no longer, in fact, is it worth trying to design and execute a theme park unlike any other. As long as Corporate Synergy is being served, the notion of Epcot is expendable.

It’s a terribly short-sighted notion, one that leads to a lesser experience for guests and to a less creative, less challenging, less imaginative, less forward-thinking company overall.

Now, I know that some will argue that by providing “Disney entertainment,” Disney is just making the place more fun, and there’s nothing wrong with that.

Ah, but that assumes the original notion of EPCOT Center – the same sparks of creativity and ingenuity that led to such inventions as the PeopleMover, Audio-Animatronics, the Monorail, the feature-length animated film and the like (just take your pick of advances made by Disney over the years) – was not Disney entertainment in the first place.

“Disney entertainment” doesn’t just mean Mickey Mouse, “That’s So Raven,” Kim Possible and Bambi II.

Disney used to expand the very definition of entertainment. It never saw “Disney” as being a confining concept, but rather an invigorating one – one that drove new advances by simple virtue that the company’s guiding philosophy was creating things that would improve the world and that the entire family could enjoy together.

EPCOT Center genuinely offered that form of Disney entertainment. It expanded the definition of “theme park,” it tried something novel, it dared to be different.

By making today’s Epcot conform to the increasingly narrow definition of what “Disney entertainment” is – i.e., recycled characters packaged for the masses, with every attempt to be bland and inoffensive and as financially successful as possible – the changes to Epcot further showcase how un-creative, how un-inspiring today’s Disney is becoming.

If it makes money, the thinking around today’s Disney goes, that’s what matters. Who cares about creating something strikingly innovative when you can churn out the same old stuff and make money hand over fist.

When and if the public ever catches up with Disney (as it did in the 1970s and early 1980s), Disney’s management is going to realize it really mucked things up at that strange, crazy theme park down in Florida … you know, the one with the big Mickey hand sticking out of the golf ball. What a mess that’s going to be.

If only they had paid a little more attention to that charmingly unique, preternaturally intelligent little baby when they had the chance …

Monday, August 07, 2006

Everything Pixar, Cartoons Or Television?

**Travel, a busy work schedule and some personal matters have prevented me from updating this blog recently, but hopefully such a long time won't elapse until the next posting! Thanks to all who have written asking me when the next post is coming.**


You’ve heard the alternate meanings for EPCOT for years: “Every Person Comes Out Tired,” “Everyone’s Paycheck Comes On Thursday,” “Employees’ Polyester Costumes of Terror” … but here’s a new one, and it’s not all that funny.

The announcement that Kim Possible is going to be taking up residence at Epcot makes it clear that Disney’s “brand managers” are either sleeping on the job or have a very bizarre sense of what makes up an individual brand.

As more and more companies are trying hard to establish distinct brand identities for distinctly different products (think Coca-Cola and its trademark drink, its Dasani water and its Tab energy drink – each of which has a very different look, feel and consumer proposition), Disney is blending its brands more and more to the point that its “brand recipe” is becoming a tasteless, bland, overcooked stew with too many ingredients.

Epcot is a perfect example. I wouldn’t be surprised to soon see it renamed “Disney’s Epcot,” ostensibly making the concept “more” Disney but completely and permanently distancing itself from its roots. Back in the late 1990s when it lost the name “EPCOT Center” in favor of the less meaningful, more confusing, “non-acronymed” Epcot, it began losing any sense of identity. The very things that made it so unique – its lack of connection to any of the other theme parks, its focus on the real world instead of the fantastic, its efforts to blend education with entertainment – seemed to become liabilities. More than anything, the fact that it never really was hospitable to Disney characters became something that brand managers seemed to feel had to be fixed.

So, we got an influx of Mickey, Minnie and the gang and a bizarre daily character “bus ride” through World Showcase, which has morphed into the “Character Connection” in Future World. (As one reader pointed out, Disney even stoops to calling these characters “characters,” something it never would have done a few years ago when it insisted on making sure they always appeared in a story context.)

Then, we got character dining, both in Future World and World Showcase. Then, we got Nemo swimming into The Living Seas.

Now, it’s rumored, the oh-so hip and trendy Kim Possible is going to make a new home in the Imagination pavilion.

Never mind that Kim Possible has absolutely no connection whatsoever to the pavilion, or that guests (both hardcore Disney fans and those who visit only occasionally) have long complained that Imagination needs Figment and Dreamfinder – its original animated inhabitants.

What matters most to Disney is that it can cross-promote and “synergize” itself to within an inch of its life.

But, creatively, is this the best Disney can do? Just drop a character into a theme park, whether or not it belongs? Frankly, this latest announcement about Kim Possible in particular strikes me as a Six Flags-style move – you know, like when you’d see Looney Tunes cartoons in line for a roller coaster just because both happened to be owned by Time-Warner?

Not only does Kim Possible have absolutely no connection to Epcot and its themes, the character is usurping what was once one of EPCOT Center’s most celebrated areas, the ImageWorks. Rather than upgrade the area and put some genuinely new and exciting thought and imagination into it, Disney’s marketers took over and figured it would be a good place for a standard character meet-and-greet; it’s almost certain that you’ll see signs and brochures for the Disney Channel throughout the pavilion once Kim Possible arrives, bringing more crass commercialism into the parks.

On top of this creative brain fart that it’s hard to redeem or excuse in any way, Disney announced just this weekend that it’s raising prices at its Florida theme parks; it’ll now cost $67 for a one-day ticket to Epcot.

Think about that for a minute: A family of four spends a few days in Florida as mom or dad attends a convention and decides to pop over to Epcot for the afternoon. For their nearly $300 investment, they now get not the best creativity and inspiration that Disney’s Imagineers have to offer, but come ons for the Disney Channel, for the Disney Vacation Club and for Pixar movies.

Epcot – like much of Walt Disney World – is evolving into an unimaginative dumping ground for quick marketing projects for cartoon characters, Pixar movies and television shows.

What used to be a park with a bold vision of informing, exciting and educating people about the world in which they live has become another place to shill Disney entertainment. It’s like serving a TV dinner on your best china – even if it looks good, it’s still lousy to eat and a really insulting way to utilize such beautiful craftsmanship. The plate deserves better, and you deserve better.

Epcot deserves better and its guests deserve a heck of a lot more respect than this.