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.


Anonymous said...

It's you're favoritr 19 year old again ;)

Going to WDW, thus experiencing Epcot in 1996 couldn't have been more of a coincidence for me. My family had no personal computer at home yet, we were still using a typewriter! In school only the minor of faculty had the big white beheamouth now known as the early PC ;). In class we were still using 9 1/2 inch floppy discs with pixilated and green displays on a 10'' macontosh monitor.

Experiencing the original 1994-1998 Innoventions was quite fun, but I feel somehow it would have been better for me to grasp Communicore had it been refreshened and not completely wiped out, but then again the fast moving technological era was approaching.

I remember Innoventions hosting some of the first 3D graphics video games like Mario Kart Racing. I also remember HiDef TV, and prototype DVD's.

While it's all fun and games to remember, what worries me is that Epcot may not see that 25th we all want to. Who knows we still have over a year and if Disneyland was built within one, a wand and stars, and rehab changes can easily occur within one year!!! :)

Here's hoping because sadly parts of Epcot are stuck in a time gap...and it's mostly from the mid 90s.

Epcot82 said...

I love your reminder that Disneyland was built within a year. Yes, keep that faith that "Disney magic" means anything is possible. (I won't tell you what the cynical side of me thinks!)

Anonymous said...

There's no mystery why Epcot is a wadded ball. No guts, no glory. It takes guts to commit to an optimistic design for the future. It's not for the weak-hearted, the uninformed, or the cynics. It takes guts to say, "Okay, we've dreamt it, now let's do it." Walt Disney Imagineering used to have some mighty big ones.

Disney theme parks aren't about guts now. They're about being smart. Being Safe.

They think about things too much. They analyze the hell out of everything. Worst, they lead with their marketing hand (no pun intended). It's ass-backward and it doesn't work.

Why did they put up the wand?

Anonymous said...

They put up the wand to say, "The year 2000 is bigger than all of this." They left it up and changed the lettering (and what inappropriate typography it is!) because, probably, it was cheaper than taking it down. The resulting message was, unfortunately, "Name recognition is bigger than all of this."

"My name is Disney, Brand of Brands."

Epcot82, is your hope waning?

mr smartass said...

The part that bothers me about that wand is that it is completely unnecessary!! The Magic Kingdom's Cinderella's castle was designed and placed the way it was so that small portions of it were visible just outside the park. It was done to heighten the excitement. As was Spaceship Earth. You see only a portion from the parking lot until you get the gate area. Getting to EPCOT you are ALREADY ON Disney property!!! The last thing that is a needed is a huge billboard telling you that you are already where you want to go! And that, I think, is what EPCOT suffers from. To those of us who saw it back in its beginnings, it seems that now Disney is telling us that there almost is nothing else, no new advances, no cool stuff to play with, and nothing new on the horizon (pun intended).

Anonymous said...

That's what's always cracked me up about that stupid "Epcot" sign on top of Spaceship Earth. In ADDITION to being ridiculously, hideously, unbelievably ugly and gauche, it is the most redundant thing in the world. It's like writing "New York" on the side of the Empire State Building or putting up a big sign that spells out "St. Louis" over the arch, or, worse (and perhaps more appropriately in this case), installing the flashing letters "P-A-R-I-S" on the Eiffel Tower.

It is, to put a fine point on it, stupid. Perhaps Disney doesn't realize this, but it showcases the company's complete lack of imagination -- and even of understanding anymore what the WORD "imagination" means. It is being literal to a fault, and acknowledging that marketing is all that Disney can do anymore ... rather than create and design wonderful new things.

Anonymous said...

I recently watched a video of the World of Motion ride (I only rode it once and was too young to remember it well) and the audio wasn't too good. What was the point of the theater rooms near the end through the stars and stuff? I think that the first half of the ride looked good, but after that I had no clue what was happening.
I also watched a video of Imagination before the redo in 98(?). Wow, it was so much better in almost every way... Much more elaborate, much more style, creativity and... imagination. That ride I also only vaguely remember, but it was clearly superior to the current ride. (Even though Eric Idle is the man)

Anonymous said...

Oh yes, forgot to mention World of Motion. I was never impressed with it either, although the frowning Mona Lisa was one of my favorite sight gags in all WDW.

I found the Eric Idle version of Imagination to be insulting. Insulting. You're telling me my imagination is boring? You're telling me that a dark ride with a paltry smattering of second-rate optical illusions, loud noises, and blasts of air is going to inspire me to be creative enough for your standards? I have choice words for you, you so-called "Imagineers," and they are not suitable for polite company.

Eric Idle is the man, no doubt. Damn shame they did absolutely nothing worthwhile with him.

If Disney is lucky, the worst thing you'll ever hear about anything at Epcot is, "At least it's not Journey into Imagination."

Epcot82 said...

Sadly, St. Chris, I fear it is. I'll continue to try to keep some of it, though!

Anonymous said...

"Like writing P-A-R-I-S in flashing letters on the Eiffel tower ..." That's funny! I can see it in a WB cartoon.

They put that horrible, awful, "gauche" -- HOW TRUE! -- wand there because they couldn't think of anything else. OR ... more likely, because they didn't feel confident spending the money on anything else.

Then there's the blant disregard for the design of a full geodesic dome, a pretty cool structure. There's something insulting about the wand, a breath-taking lack of ... something. It's like taking a Victorian mansion and replacing all the exterior trim with stucco molds. Or painting the Golden Gate black.

Anonymous said...

It does totally belie any knowledge of or appreciation for the history of the geodesic design and the imporance of R. Buckminster Fuller to science and architecture ... like anyone at Disney would even KNOW that name!

Anonymous said...

bravo for you, rob. sadly, disney has people who are supposed to do that. they are called market researchers and customer relations managers. if they saw your numbers, they'd say, "a significant percentage of our guests love the wand and feel it adds 'placemaking' value to epcot." whatever that means.

Anonymous said...

Wow, Rob, that's way cool. Almost 7:1 against! I hope that goes up the chain.

Amid all us complainers, I'm glad we've got an activist.

Anonymous said...

I live in California, and have only visited Epcot twice, once in 1984, and again in 1998.

When I saw "The Wand", I thought it was temporary. (Why, I don't know.) But I remember also thinking how ugly it was, and how typical.

Having grown up in Southern California, I have been to Disneyland many, many times, and you can see the destruction through construction attitude all over the place. The greatest sin being DCA. It just seems like the current generation of Disney management has completely "forgotten the face of their father".

I long for the good old days when I could actually feel Walt's touch when I walk down Main Street. I also agree with John Hench who said, "I liked it better when it was a parking lot."

Anonymous said...

Anonymous said...
It does totally belie any knowledge of or appreciation for the history of the geodesic design and the imporance of R. Buckminster Fuller to science and architecture ... like anyone at Disney would even KNOW that name

If you look at the Imagineering Field Guide to Epcot, Fuller's name comes up right away in the piece on Spaceship Earth

Epcot82 said...

I can understand why, 20 years ago, Disney executives were fearful of the "what would Walt do?" mantra. They wanted to try new things with the company, to make it a creative powerhouse, to explore what Disney could be. And they succeeded tremendously well. With the exception of the 1930s and 1940s, it's hard to think of a more creatively fulfilling time in the company's history, with amazing expansion at theme parks, growth in TV, terrific movies and imaginative products, including a successful retail concept. It was a fantastic time.

But now, you're absolutely right that they have "forgotten the face of their father." The phrase "What would Walt do?" is asked by competitors to Disney, by people in other industries, by academicians and business people alike. Walt Disney has been recognized as one of the pre-eminent creative geniuses and business entrepreneurs of the 20th century.

The irony is that the only company that seems not to take Walt's legacy particularly seriously is Disney itself. They have turned it into hagiography, learning nothing from the patterns, thoughts, motivators and ambitions of its own founder. Sad.