Monday, October 02, 2006

Belief and Pride

There it is for all to see.

Walk toward EPCOT Center -- well, Epcot (unless you believe one line in the plaque itself) -- and the basic philosophy is spelled out plainly.

"Epcot is inspired by Walt Disney's creative vision. Here, human achievements are celebrated through imagination, wonders of enterprise and concepts of a future that promises new and exciting benefits for all."

Interestingly, the plaque only furthers the debate over whether the marketing-driven name "Epcot" is preferred over the traditional "EPCOT Center," as it reads both ways.

I question how many Disney marketing executives have bothered to read the plaque (or even know it exists). I question how Princess dresses in Norway, Ellen acting goofy in her Energy Adventure, test-track cars that often don't operate, or cartoon fish usurping real ones "instill a sense of belief and pride in man's ability to shape a world that offers hope to people everywhere."

In my line of work (which is not too far removed at all from what Disney does), when we lose sight of our goal, when things just don't seem to be working properly, or we begin to question our effectiveness, we pause for a brief moment and go back to our original goals. Do those original goals still apply? If they do, are we sure that what we're doing will lead us to meeting those goals?

The goals of EPCOT Center are carved in bronze for all to see at the front of the park. Except for some half-hearted tinkering with the name of the park, the goals have been the same since 1982. Those are some pretty long-lived, hardy goals. They haven't changed at all.

So, my questions are: 1) Does EPCOT Center, as it exists today, match those goals? And 2) Does anyone at Disney even realize those goals still exist?


Ivonne R. said...

1.) No I do not believe that the Epcot of today meets these goals. Lately they have been dumbing down a lot Epcot in favor of making it appeal to a broader audience with thrill rides and such. They may be meeting their attendance goal but not the goal of Epcot itself.

2.) I don't think anyone at Disney knows about these goals nor do they care. Right now they are just adding whatever they can to get people through the gates, and whether it fits in with the goals originally set, doesn't seems to matter. There have been some surprises like Soarin', but the other attractions while being thrill rides, don't really fit the bill with respect to Epcot, or just Disney rides in general.

I may be just rambling though. It is almost 2am as I write this! :p

Anonymous said...

To answer your questions:

1) I compare today's Epcot to a heart transplant patient. The original "heart" of EPCOT Center was Walt Disney's driving force to create a place that could get people to think about the world they live in; not just a mere theme park, but an inspirational EXPERIENCE. It was about presenting abstract concepts to people in a way that was both entertaining and educational, while not being patronizing or condescending. Card Walker did the best he could to guide this concept to a "workable" model. He pulled in off by giving the public the essence of Walt's EPCOT.

Over the years, the heart became old and weak. Eventually, the heart had to be taken out, replaced with a new heart (Michael Eisner's reign begins here). One might think that after the transplant, the patient would be better than ever.

However, this new heart has a different makeup than the rest of the body. Just like an unsuitable donor heart, the "body" is rejecting it and is now steadily deteriorating. These two differing blood types cannot co-exist. In today's Epcot, there are two differing agendas fighting for supremacy.

2) This segues into the next question. The MBAs and accountants at Disney have no clue what a powerful tool they have at their disposal. It's got a bum heart, but they don't want to replace it because it costs too much money and it seems to be working fine the way it is. It's still beating, albeit weakily, but still beating.

The real point is this: EPCOT Center, and the rest of the pre-Eisner Disney Theme Parks for that matter, are not functioning to their potential. EPCOT Center is the prime example. It is being run as something it is not: a theme park.

When Disney opened EPCOT Center in 1982, it was a whole new concept in entertainment. Now, management is trying to shoehorn the "theme park" mindset into it (Princess stuff, Kim Possible, Leave-a-Legacy, etc.). EPCOT Center is rejecting it and it shows. The money-sucking areas seem forced and out of place in EPCOT. The park is currently in a state where it doesn't know what it is. I don't even think management knows what it is anymore.

Right now, Disney is still the leader in the theme park industry. The most potent threat to this industry dominance is internal implosion. I just hope it doesn't come to that.

"A house divided against itself cannot stand".
- Abraham Lincoln

Anonymous said...

I agree with most of your post, especially since I've been sick of watching management stick beans in their ears and pretend Epcot's not supposed to be about learning. It is, and learning is as much fun as any roller coaster in its own way. That's what I learned back in 1987 as a little kid at Epcot.

But I do take a bit of issue with this: "cartoon fish usurping real ones", regarding the Living Seas. If you've been to an aquarium (and this past summer, I had the good luck to visit three, including Baltimore), you'll see kids make a beeline for any fish they recognize from "Finding Nemo", and there's always a few staffers ready to tell them how the real fish compare to the cartoon equivalents. The amazing thing is, the kids are genuinely interested in the real fish & how they live. I honestly feel that hearing how a real Blue Tang lives from Dorie will make kids even more interested in learning the real world information, so I just don't understand the slight.

Epcot82 said...

My biggest concern about "The Seas With Nemo and Friends" (ugh!) is that while live sea turtles and marine animals flourish in the tank, the attraction that's being touted as the one to see, the one that's drawing all the attention, is a cartoon turtle projected onto a screen with a backdrop that looks like the ocean. Real water, real fish, real animals, real nature (well, in a compact, man-made form) is steps away, but again Disney tells us that its version of reality is better and more fun.

Scott said...

So let me get this straight. The dedication plaque was changed when EPCOT changed to "Epcot"? Or was there no plaque prior (which I find hard to believe)?

Also, the top of this plaque alone is a mixed message if I've ever seen one. The EPCOT Center logo sits above the "Epcot" designation. Which is it?

I know everyone likes to talk about the MBAs who approved the attractions during the Eisner era. This always irks me a bit because I'm getting my MBA in May. Maybe back then they didn't teach MBAs that a competitive advantage is how one sustains and/or grows a company; in the case of the Disney parks, the unique experience of the attractions is its competitive advantage (along with the excellent cast members, etc.). So it boggles my mind that these MBAs cut attractions in ways that detract from the guest experience when the guest experience is the parks' competitive advantage.

Just needed to get that out.


Anonymous said...

My biggest concern about "The Seas With Nemo and Friends" (ugh!) is that while live sea turtles and marine animals flourish in the tank, the attraction that's being touted as the one to see, the one that's drawing all the attention, is a cartoon turtle projected onto a screen with a backdrop that looks like the ocean. Real water, real fish, real animals, real nature (well, in a compact, man-made form) is steps away, but again Disney tells us that its version of reality is better and more fun.

Ah. Understood perfectly. As neat as the actual technology is, they should emphasize the real fish, with the Nemo as a sort of guide to impart information. Just having all those lovely aquariums as framing or pre-show for Crush's show is a huge waste of potential.

Epcot82 said...

The plaque has always been there, but it was changed (sloppily) after the "Center" was supposedly dropped. The telltale sign is the "(c) Disney" at the bottom; until the mid-1980s, this would have read "(c) Walt Disney Productions."

As for the MBA issue ... first, congrats on your degree! I think MBAs have gotten the bad rap, particularly as relates to Disney (but with many, many creative companies) because they, as a rule, value measurable financials over touchy-feely "emotions." Of course, Walt Disney himself was harrassed by MBA mentality, thanks to his brother Roy O. And it was a good thing! When applied correctly, financial discipline helps keep reality in check. When applied badly, it values numbers and measurable statistics over creativity and imagination -- one need look no further than the story today that Disney is considering replacing Tom Sawyer's Island with a "pirates island" to see this kind of thinking at work.

Epcot82 said...

Exactly. How cool would it have been, for instance, to have Crush "pop up" on monitors next to the real aquarium tanks? He could have acted as a guide to what you're seeing. But, instead, kids sit on the floor in front of a screen, watch a nifty bit of digital animation, then leave the pavilion because they think they've seen everything and are programmed by Disney to believe that downtime and self-discovery is a bad thing.

Captain Schnemo said...

Thanks for doing this, epcot82, I was about to Google up this quote in response to those who seem to think that we are all whackjobs holding Epcot up to some imaginary, unattainable, frothy fanboy standard. I hadn't realized it's written right there in the park.

I do think we have to be realistic when it comes to attendance and such. Just because there's a plaque doesn't mean Disney takes it seriously, and despite all our justifiable complaints, you have to consider why Disney would want to listen to us. What's in it for them? Honestly, if they're getting good numbers out of the park, why on Earth would they give a damn what we think?

If we have all these issues with the park, yet continue to return frequently, then Disney has cause to be quite smug about the alleged problems. (Personally, I haven't been to Disney in years simply because of the degradation in quality, but I am quite certain this has had roughly zero impact on WDW and Disney in general.)

When Walt was alive, even he had to fight the bean counters, but ultimately they would relent because he was a visionary force to be harnessed. Maybe they didn't understand Walt, but they knew that what he did produced excellent results, so it was a financially sound decision to let the madman do what he wanted to do.

Without strong leadership, there's really no reason for anyone in a monkey suit to accept that spending money on intangibles is going to produce the kind of results they are interested in.

To me it's a no-brainer that it would be great to make Epcot a park that people made a special trip to visit...that they were actually excited about, as opposed to killing a day there after hitting the Magic Kingdom. To do that, they'd really have to rethink what they're doing in Epcot. It wouldn't necessarily take more money, but it would require them to spend it properly.

On the subject of the Pixarization of the Living Seas...while I find the continued encroachment of Disney "synergy" in Epcot (which is antithetical to the original EPCOT concept) and the invasion of outsourced characters into ever corner of the Disney universe lamentable, there certainly could be a non-horrible way to include a little Nemo action in the Living Seas. There were cute characters explaining things in some of the side areas of the original Seas and there's no reason for Seabase Alpha to be utterly sterile...

...BUT, changing the entire identity of the attraction from "technological wonder of the future" to "even more of your favorite animated characters plus fish" is another crushing loss for the spirit of those words on the plaque.

Oh well.

Epcot82 said...

Why would/should they care? Because Disney fans today serve a critical role -- that of watchdog. We've become the gatekeepers of Disney heritage because -- and this is tremendously sad -- Disney itself doesn't care. We're the ones watching and reminding them where they're going wrong. If they are so supercilious and smug not to want to at least consider, much less accept, what we're saying, then the company is indeed in more dire straits than I ever imagined.

Which, it appears, may indeed be the case.

But that's why I do it, at least, why I bother: Because I care that EPCOT Center's spirit may survive and thrive and that Disney's theme parks may return to their position as wonderful, inspiring destinations for the whole world and for all time, not just for the next eight to 12 fiscal quarters.

Anonymous said...

I do think that Epcot as it is now has lost its way and they havent tried hard enough to make it more like the original and honestly it wouldn't take THAT much more work.

One thing that I thought of the other day is about consider that they have a Sea Pavilion, then a Land Pavilion, and plenty of space between the Land and Imagination to make an Air pavilion, while keeping the same area that Soarin' is located they could have added an entirely new educational pavilion with a lot more things in it.

Disney had already planned to put a movies pavilion in that location in the 80's before they decided to go with the full MGM park.

Captain Schnemo said...

Of course I agree with your sentiment, but I don't think it's realistic to assume that Disney, as a corporation, cares about this particular sort of Disney pride.

Neither does the average Disney guest worry about the things that concern us. If everything were done correctly, they might notice that the park is better in some indescribable way, but in the general case, they'll probably go on Test Track, think "that was kinda fun" and move on to the next thing.

The question is whether or not there is any humanity left within Disney to appeal to. If Lasseter were on our side, for example, things could improve. So far, the jury seems to be out on him. He's done both hopeful and discouraging things.

Without a champion within the corporation, however, I don't see how it would be possible for any of the Cast Members or Imagineers who agree with us to argue their point with any sort of credibility.

Realistically, I think we have to accept that the Disney corporation does not have the respect that they claim to have for the Disney philosophy. Everything that's happened for the past 15 or 20 years seems to lead to that conclusion. A corporation cannot be shamed into doing the right thing without some expectation that it's a good financial move.

It's interesting to identify things that have gone wrong. It's a fun intellectual exercise, like picking apart a movie with a talented director, writer, and cast that somehow just didn't click. But in what way do you think this could inspire change from within?

Disney is not going to respond to outside pressure unless there is an extremely compelling reason. Fan protests are easily ignored, as the vast majority of consumers are not part of the rabid fringe, but one can't argue with pictures of chipping paint. Safety issues are media sexy and terrible press and must be dealt with.

But I just don't understand why a joyless business man would consider us anything other than a bunch of irrelevant wingnuts, regardless of the fact that I personally believe our premise is logically irrefutable and that we are undeniably in the right.

There are many truths that are ignored by the masses for reasons of convenience, capitalism, or simple ignorance. Simply being on the right side of an issue ain't worth jack in this world.

Anonymous said...

I think the heart transplant analogy can be linked to a more tangible asset of Epcot -- that of the loss of Earth Station and Communicore to be replaced by Innoventions. With that simple change, guests lost their important orientation on what Epcot is supposed to be about.

Without Earth Station to back it up, Spaceship Earth became a ride about communication instead of the important keynote introduction to the park. One no longer has Communicore's exhibits to introduce and support the themes of the pavilions. Sure, Communicore wasn't perfect, but instead of strenghtening its concept, Innoventions has turned the "heart" of Epcot into an introverted set of disjointed flashy corporate displays. Guests now enter the park, lost, with no guidance to their experience. They expect another Magic Kingdom, come away disaffected, and marketing then trys to fashion the park more to their expectations.

The key to saving Epcot is going to be the reestablishment of the central theme and the guiding elements that allowed guests to understand what the park is about -- a complete reworking of the entry sequence and theme center. I would even go so far as to redirect the emphasis away from technology and more towards a theme of human achievement and what each of our potential is in shaping our future. Epcot is not the future, but what our future can become.

As has been so eloquently said in this blog, Epcot is like no other park in the world. The same aspirations that made it such a unique creation to begin with should now be used to insure it's continued dedication to the ideals written on that plaque.

Anonymous said...

Captain Schnemo, the persuasion you are looking for is very evident: the success of Disneyland's 50th Anniversary. With a rededication to the ideals of the park, under the careful guidance of a talented park president, they were able to create a huge success out of what many were lamenting would be a lackluster failure.

And it couldn't have been any more convenient that a near-empty DCA sits across the Esplanade to demonstrate the results of their business practice under Eisner and Pressler.

Epcot82 said...

I agree with all of these sentiments, but the worst thing would be to have no one keeping an eye on Disney. If they're not going to do it from the inside, it's important that those on the outside do it.

Captain Scnhemo, I do agree with what you're saying. My response would be that if Disney truly wants to create long-term equity in its parks, make them successful not just for the short term but the long haul, it will recognize that it needs to accept that what makes its parks different than any others is not the characters. Show a kid Mickey and he loves him; show a kid Nemo and he goes nuts; show a kid Spider-Man, Superman or Batman and he does the same. Characters are one thing ... it's the very core, basic philosophy of the parks, as conceived by Walt Disney, that made them so remarkably and demonstrably different than any other.

If Disney can begin to recognize that -- that the parks are not just for instant gratification, but for providing an extraordinary experience unlike any other, and that Epcot is unique even among those rare experiences -- it will begin unraveling the mystery of why the parks work and how they can be improved and thrive for decades to come.

At the rate they're going now, though, as soon as kids forget about Pixar movies or currently faddish Disney characters (can't happen? Did we learn nothing from the Feature Animation debacle of the late 1990s?!), the parks will lose popularity and Disney will be wondering why.

Captain Schnemo said...

The Disneyland story is very encouraging, but it's not exactly the same thing. First of all, the "original" Disneyland was a huge success. As much as we love Epcot, I'm not sure that the "original" version was as successful as it could have been, relative to the cost of the park itself. (Honestly, I'm ignorant of the numbers, but that's something I'd like to look into.)

Also the Disneyland traditions are embedded in pop culture and actually are something the average guest notices. If there's a recognizable "Epcot feeling", it might be more along the lines of The Simpsons' treatment.

Additionally, I believe the market for Disneyland is more focussed on local guests who are more steeped in Disney tradition than WDW, which is more of an international destination. I could be overstating the importance of this one, however, I don't really know much about the numbers here.

Many of the changes at Disneyland seem to be issues of basic service, maintenance and treatment of guests. I think these ideals are far more likely to be (re)imported to Epcot than putting the Future back in Future World, which can only happen as a result of large cash infusions.

I'm not looking to be a contrarian, but I do think it might be time to consider the situation in a more realistic manner.

epcot82 said, "If they're not going to do it from the inside, it's important that those on the outside do it."

I absolutely agree, but I'm tired of simply documenting the decline of the park. I'm really interested in what can be done to effect actual change. Frankly, I'm not sure that it's possible, but if it's going to happen, it could begin in a forum such as this, with a lot of bright minds considering the issue and the outside chance that someone with some power within the Disney corporation could read it.

The thing is, Disney has set the bar so high, and WDW has so much inertia that things can get significantly worse (in terms of things we care about) and profits will still continue to increase for the forseeable future.

The MK is still the anchor and as long as that castle is still standing, it's going to have tremendous drawing power.

I also really have to emphasize the extent to which the average guest does not care about the stuff that sets us off. I personally consider the on-property McDonald's to be an outrage and an abomination, but the average guest couldn't care less.

When I used to go to the parks with casual Disney fans and I'd point out this or that, they'd usually agree with me, but it's not a thing that they would notice on their own and, more relevantly, it would have no impact whatsoever on whether or not they decided to return or how much money they chose to spend.

It takes a lot of thought (although no more money) to create entertainment that appeals to both the snobs (and I mean that in the nicest possible way) and the lowest common denominator. It can be done, and it has been done before, but it doesn't have to be done to generate ginormous profits.

Anonymous said...

The Disneyland story is very encouraging, but it's not exactly the same thing. First of all, the "original" Disneyland was a huge success. As much as we love Epcot, I'm not sure that the "original" version was as successful as it could have been, relative to the cost of the park itself. (Honestly, I'm ignorant of the numbers, but that's something I'd like to look into.)

While I agree, I know epcot82 has posted before about the general idea that people didn't leave the original Epcot disappointed, sure it may not have any thrill rides but I dont recall people hating it as much as, say, DCA has recently WITH thrill rides. Epcot always had relatively good attendance. Now is that because of World Showcase and not Future World? I dont know.

One thing though, is from 1983 thru 1995, the only addition to Future World was the Wonders of Life, and as far as I remember, no updates were made to the older rides to keep them more up to date, unless Spaceship Earth had one before then.

So as Disney often does, they don't give an existing ride a chance, instead they keep it in disrepair until it is no longer interesting or good enough to be an attraction. Then they tear it out for something "new".

Whats left after they add these "new" attractions is thrill replacing education, not that they couldn't work hand in hand because I fully believe they could if given the chance. We did see that in Wonders of was a full pavilion with a thrill ride in Body Wars, but with many other quality interactive and educational shows and elements.

I will say that I am not against Innoventions as a concept, but it started out well and has gone downhill since. Epcot was founded on sponsor companies providing their own additions, and I dont think its a bad thing having them to show future technology...ironically its one of the few "futuristic" things left in Epcot now.

Epcot82 said...

The idea that EPCOT Center wasn't originally as successful as it could have been follows a common theme with Disney -- however, historically, the company has been willing to "wait it out." Only in the past two leadership regimes has financial success become so important that it outweighs creative success.

Fantasia, Pinocchio, Alice in Wonderland, the Silly Symphonies and Pollyanna are just some of the projects that were considered failures at the time of release.

Had current management been in charge, no doubt these projects would never have seen the light of theaters, would have been dumped directly to video, and would have been chopped up beyond recognition to make them more "attractive" to audiences.

Sometimes, what is considered a failure on first blush is later recognized as a major accomplishment. I believe EPCOT Center falls into that category; sadly, Disney has mangled it to the point that the original, "unsuccessful" EPCOT Center has been butchered almost beyond recognition ... though, like that broom in the "Sorcerer's Apprentice" sequence of the woefully unsuccessful Fantasia, bits of it refuse to die and sometimes miraculously manage to spring to life (witness: The Land).

Captain Schnemo said...

I certainly agree that the lack of maintenance at Epcot is a complicating factor when determining its popularity. If you insist on providing the guests with broken down animatronics and glorified Circuit City outlets, that's really not a valid test of the concept.

I really do have to check out the numbers, though. I have a sneaky suspicion that attendance has been highest during what we consider to be the darkest days. No real point speculating on those issues until I have some facts, though.

I'm not sure I really buy that the concept of Epcot needed to be "grown into". I think Disney certainly could do a better job of advertising Epcot. Expectations factor into guest opinions quite a lot. If you took your hyperactive kids to the MK on one day and Epcot the next, I can certainly see how they'd be disappointed. Of course, a hard sell on the "educational" aspect of the park would probably prevent people from going there in the first place.

I think it would help if Disney stopped appearing embarrassed of Epcot in the first place. That's part of why I hate the Ellen show so much. It's saying to the audience "Ha ha, yeah, we don't get all this wacky science stuff either...and who would want to anyway? Thinking hurts!".

Anyway, I mostly posted to add this to the birthday discussion.

Scott said...

"I will say that I am not against Innoventions as a concept, but it started out well and has gone downhill since. Epcot was founded on sponsor companies providing their own additions, and I dont think its a bad thing having them to show future technology...ironically its one of the few "futuristic" things left in Epcot now."

The exhibits in Communicore/Innoventions have always been sponsored. The difference is now we have an area full of Playstation 2 consoles to play games on and other such unoriginal exhibits. One of the original Communicore exhibits was a robotic arm that could draw a picture of you. I can play PS2 any day; how many places can I get my portrait done by a robotic arm? (And no, the kiosks in the malls don't count because it's just a computer and a printer.)

Anonymous said...

I understand, and yes, the lack of those things do make it not seem as unique, however, besides the PS2 games and other things which are already in the market, I dont think its a bad thing to have demonstrations of products we will actually use in the future.

In other words, a robot drawing a picture of you is cool, but its not practical as something that will help in everyday life.

Anonymous said...

Having a robot draw your picture might not be something that is practical in everyday life, but it certainly is something that fires the imagination.