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 …


Anonymous said...

I continue to enjoy reading this blog, even though it slightly depresses me from time to time. It’s truly sad to watch the slow, grating deterioration of what was once a one-of-a-kind family experience. The glory days of EPCOT Center are long gone, but at least it’s still relatively intact (from a physical standpoint, NOT a conceptual one.)

“If it makes money, that’s what matters.”
This has been Disney’s corporate mantra for the past 15 years. But ironically, this way of thinking over a sustained duration will only hurt them financially in the end. They cannot continue to turn a cold shoulder on quality. Look at the string of crappy movies, shows, attractions, etc. that Disney has been putting out the past several years. Think of all the nauseating ABC sitcoms, Disney Channel dribble, pointless straight-to-DVD sequels, and truly terrible movies (e.g. “Shaggy Dog” with Tim Allen) that the “magic makers” continue to churn out to make the quick buck. Let’s face it: the company may be doing well theme park wise, but they have got to be struggling with their other media. And because of this sagging elsewhere in their empire, they are now using their theme park cash-cows as channels to unambiguously advertise (i.e. cram down our throats) their movies, TV shows, products, not so loved characters, etc. to boost sales and make more profit.

Of course, Disney is a media and business giant, and they need to keep those revenue streams flowing. That’s completely understandable. They’ve always been after our money; however, they in turn actually gave us something we wanted. Something that possessed true quality. And now they don’t care what the people want because they’re exploiting the notion that the people will keep paying regardless. Rather than spend money to effectively enhance Epcot to keep the spirit of the original park’s concept alive, they’ve decided to pollute it with characters to gain that synergy they are always desperately chasing. And after all, it’s much cheaper than updating original rides, adding more countries to the World Showcase, or adding attractions that are very much in tune with the concept of Future World (or what’s left of that concept… is it even called Future World anymore??)

As long as the public keeps paying the premium (much like gasoline), the more likely Disney will continue to hike prices for less quality (did you see daily tickets were raised again this year earlier this week to nearly $70?!) Epcot is still a great park and has a lot of potential as it’s always had; it’s just a shame that that potential continues to be squandered.

Rant complete!

- Mike
Tampa, FL

Anonymous said...

I know of no other business or industry in which every time a product is LESSENED, the price goes up. It now costs $67 to visit EPCOT, but the Wonders of Life (four attractions!) is closed, Living with the Land is being robotized and pavilions like Canada and France haven't been updated in, literally, decades. The product gets worse, the price gets higher. What kind of business practice is that?!?!?!

Epcot82 said...

It is indeed a shame, Mike. Thanks for your comment and sharing your thoughts! I'm very pleased to know you like the blog.

antikewl said...

Sad, but very true. I loved Epcot as a kid for it innovation and the ability to discover stuff there that I'd never seen in front of me before. Are repeat viewings of Disney characters and screen-based attractions all that kids are after nowdays? I doubt it.

mr smartass said...

I wonder just how pointless it would be to get some of this information and what some of us think about what is going on, to the big wigs at Disney? I wonder if enough people told them that what they are doing is just WRONG, would they care or do anything about. I am heading to "The World" in Sept and let me tell you, I will be hunting high and low for surveys, customer service areas, anything that I can find to tell someone about the HUGE mistakes that are being made in EPCOT.

Keep going, I enjoy the blog!!

Epcot82 said...

Thanks very much!

It's strange, isn't it, how little Disney execs seem to pay attention to all of the blogs out there (Mouseplanet, Miceage, Laughingplace, etc.)? I mean, it's FREE CONSUMER INSIGHT! Most companies would kill for the kind of "fan" feedback Disney gets, and for the most part it seems they not only ignore it but go out of their way to close, alter or mangle the things the fans love most about the theme parks! Very, very bizarre.

Anonymous said...

There's no mystery why Epcot is such a wadded ball: No guts, no glory. It takes GUTS to dream and design forward with optimism. It takes guts to say, "We've dreamt it. Now let's do it." Disney theme parks aren't about guts now. They're about "being smart." Being Safe.

They think about stuff too much. They analyze the hell out of everything. They over-think and get too smart for themselves and worst of all, they try to lead with their marketing hand (no pun intended). I'm glad I got to know Epcot when I did. They've closed Cranium Command? I can only shake my head in wonder.

Why did they put up the wand?

Epcot82 said...

"Why" they put up the wand is debatable. Supposedly it was for the year 2000 celeberation; it went up in 1999 with the magic wand pointing at the numbers "2000." It was OK as far as that was concerned.

Apparently thinking that a garish, disembodied cartoon hand and silly sparkly stars added something nice to the majestic, unique-in-the-world Spaceship Earth, they decided not to take it down after 2000 came and went, and instead left it up with the horrendous, curlicue "Epcot," as if to remind everyone of where they were, assuming the sight of Spaceship Earth wasn't enough.

Hey, these are the same genuises who covered up the intricate, gorgeous, smile-inducing Chinese Theatre with the huge Sorcerer's Hat. That's another story for someone else's blog. ;-)

Andrew McFerrin said...

Re: The (formerly) Living Seas:

I recently spent the day at the Columbus Zoo, including an hour or two in their aquarium. Pleasant enough, until I heard a small, toddler-aged voice pipe:

"Mommy, where's Nemo?"

On the fourth iteration - each coming from a different child, I might add - I felt it would be best for everyone involved if I simply left the area before drowning any and all onlookers in a torrent of possibly profane irritability. I calmed down shortly upon reaching an exhibit featuring several animals with no talking cinema avatar, so that was all right. But the point is that, as ignoble and clueless as they are, the Disney board of execs certainly got the point across to those four kids - who needs beauty and awe when you can move a bunch of ten-cent plushies?

Epcot82 said...

Which is the rationale they give ... that kids know and "love" the characters. So, you know, give 'em what they want. That's been such a good philosophy so far! (Sarcasm.)

Anonymous said...

The Kim Possible in Imagination is just a technology test using an empty (sadly) room. No word on where it will be located if installed permanently.

The thing itself is precisely what should be happening at World Showcase, engaging kids while in no way detracting from the experience for anyone else (i.e. giant Mickey hand). It's quite clever and fun.

Anonymous said...

Actually, you're almost right ... the goal should be to engage ALL guests, not just kids, and it should be done using new, original creations, not mediocre TV characters.

Anonymous said...

I wanted to add a comment about the new Living Seas (for me, Seas With Nemo & Friends, will always be called the Living Seas!), and this was the most relevant post I could find ;)

I hope you get a chance to do the ride soon, I had the pleasure of doing it three times this afternoon and I have to say... I was impressed. I held the same worries as you regarding the characters.

Yeah, there are A LOT of characters in it, but it's beautiful and if I could say it, awe-inspiring. They kept the observation deck (it was packed when I went!) and the manatee exhibit. It was extremely well done, and while it felt extremely "YAY DISNEY CHARACTERS WHEEE!" it was beautiful, and interesting. The ending song is children, singing about the "deep blue world" and exploring it. I think they did a good job as they could have done, putting characters in. You walk out of the ride and the pavillion with an appreciation for the ocean.