Thursday, January 25, 2007

A Memo to Brad Rex

Date: January 25, 2007
To: Brad Rex, Vice President, Epcot
From: Epcot82 (

Re: EPCOT Center and Epcot

I understand you have been in charge of Epcot for quite a while. We’ve never met, but I know a lot about Disney, particularly on the corporate side, and I realize, more than anything, you’re doing the best you possibly can within a difficult organization.

I’m not here to blast you or say you’re doing a crappy job or endlessly criticize your decisions.

By now, perhaps you’ve read some of the responses to the blogpost I wrote called “I (Heart) Epcot.” It’s gotten a tremendous response; for every comment you see here, I’ve gotten two e-mails from others who have said they didn’t want to post their comments. Some of these are from Disney employees who, despite the anonymity offered by, are worried that somehow even their support of Epcot and Disney theme parks will be traced back to them. That fear speaks volumes about the organization. I’m not sure how you can encourage feedback from Epcot cast members when many people at Disney (both in California and Florida) are fearful even of an anonymous system!
That’s beside the point, of course. The point of this blog is to discuss what is great – and nearly great – about Epcot. (For the sake of argument, I’ll use the lower-case moniker, though EPCOT Center, as nebulous as the name might have been, was more grand and evocative of something enormous and vaguely mysterious.)

Epcot is a grand and glorious place. It has never been, and probably never will be, duplicated in the world. It is so far outside of what we consider “Disney” that for many of us it has come to define “Disney” – trying for something new and exciting, pushing the boundaries of what is possible.

Throughout this site, you’ll find a lot of criticism. Perhaps you’ll understand how sincere that criticism is. Perhaps you were like me as a kid: You didn’t try too hard at school, you always managed to get Bs, perhaps an A here and there, sometimes a C (or worse), but overall, you did fine. It probably wasn’t enough for your parents. They didn’t understand why you would settle, and you didn’t understand why they cared. It was, after all, your life – and you were correct in that assumption.

But when you see someone who is capable of so much not living up to full potential, it hurts; you know that there’s a chance for greatness with a little effort.

So it is with Epcot.

Many of the readers of EPCOT Central, I’ve learned, had similar experiences to me growing up. On TV, in books, at the movies, Disney was a constant in our young lives. And then, 1982 happened. EPCOT Center burst on to the scene, and when we got our first tastes of it, we learned something incredible: The world was bigger than we imagined. “Disney” was safe and simple, its characters taught us little lessons and encouraged us to be imaginative. But Epcot was something completely different; here was Disney telling us that we lived in a big, messy, complex world that was filled with people different than us and things we didn’t understand.

EPCOT Center tried (and succeeded more often than it failed, I think) to show us that our world could make sense, that there were a lot of difficult things in it, but if we broke those things down into their simplest parts, we could understand them, just as we could begin to understand how they all related to each other.

There was a world around you that contained complex issues and subjects, but not only could they be understandable and even interesting, if we simply crossed a bridge we could find people in other parts of the world who were also dealing with the same issues, and we could learn about them and have fun together.

Yes, Epcot attempted to do a lot, perhaps too much. But there’s much more to be said for trying and sometimes failing than not really trying at all.

Over the years, though, Epcot seems to have grown weary of trying. Make no doubt, it is an effort – one that isn’t easily explained or illustrated by the basic principles of entertainment marketing. Epcot sits so far outside the boundaries of what is “normal” for a theme park, it is much easier to throw in the towel and make it like everything else.

Giving up on Epcot may even have seemed to be profitable in the short term. Anytime a theme park adds an exciting new thrill ride or finds a marketing hook, there can be a substantial uptick in attendance, and I’m fully aware that you’re judged not against qualitative metrics but against quantitative, numerical ones.

But giving up is always disappointing to everyone, particularly when it closes the door on ambition.

Epcot was once filled with ambition … but it has become lazy.

I don’t blame anyone for taking the easy way out with Epcot, but look at what goes missing: Inspiring a new generation of guests the way millions of people were inspired by the earlier incarnations of Epcot.

Epcot has become flashy, fun and a bit simplistic; it emphasizes immediate thrills over lasting satisfaction. To draw a real-world correlation, you probably dated people like that: they wanted nothing but fun and excitement all the time, and they weren’t particularly deep. These aren’t the people we marry and have a lasting relationship with. After a while, that insistence on having fun becomes exhausting and a little boring. Sure, a bit of it is fun, but whether we admit it to ourselves or not, we crave more than that.

At Walt Disney World, pure fun and thrills are everywhere. Don’t like a bit more substance on vacation? You could go a week without setting foot in Epcot and come away satisfied and happy. But if you do want more – which so many of us do – what’s wrong with providing that? It doesn’t mean you want a boring, mundane, stuffy museum, it just means you want stimulation of another sort.

Epcot provided that. It was, to repeat myself, glorious.

Next time you walk around Epcot, take a good hard look at what it’s become. Perhaps it’s just having a midlife crisis, desperate to be as flashy and showy as those around it.

Epcot doesn’t need to be anything more than it was. It was perfect like that: always growing and becoming something subtly different with each visit, but with a clear sense of purpose and confidence of its mission.

You’re in charge of a wonderful, fantastic place. I hope you know that … and that you will want, for yourself and the park, a legacy of change, of improvement, of lasting impact and genuine achievement.

Next time you’re there, I hope you’ll look at that dedication plaque outside the park’s gates, then look up at Spaceship Earth and remind yourself of what Epcot is … and how much more it could be.

Maybe the readers of this blog and I have become bothersome in our insistence on improving Epcot, but know we want that because Epcot was meant to be unlike any other place in the world. Don’t let it become just another theme park. Let it be Epcot. Let it be amazing.

I wish you all the best for a successful, inspiring 25th anniversary, one filled with hope, excitement ... and vision.

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

I ♥ EPCOT. Honest.

The photograph above is a perfect example of why. I’ve traveled to many points of the globe, and there are few memories more lovely to me than standing on the edge of World Showcase Lagoon at night, after Illuminations has ended and the crowds are leaving. The view is magnificent, there is blessed isolation (even amid many people) – it’s serene and beautiful. Click on the picture for a larger-sized version.

It’s just one of the many reasons I love EPCOT Center (yes, I know that’s no longer the official name).

Several people have subtly accused me recently of concurrently bashing EPCOT and caring too much. For the record, I don’t want to do the former and I could never do the latter.

What I don’t like is that the people in charge of EPCOT and of Disney’s Theme Parks & Resorts division don’t seem to care very much at all. They want EPCOT – all of the parks, really – to be easily marketable, to be almost interchangeable. That’s why you’ll now find Nemo at Disneyland, Disney’s Animal Kingdom and EPCOT. It’s why Mickey Mouse is at every park … lest anyone forget that they’re at a “Disney park.”

In this way of thinking, “Disney Parks” are all the same. The joyful individuality they used to have is stripped away; walking through Disney-MGM Studios you’re reminded less and less of the glamour of Hollywood and more and more of the ubiquity of Disney. Likewise, EPCOT has lost its grand themes and has become about buying more Mickey merchandise (even the shops of World Showcase have taken on a sameness).

That’s what I don’t like.

What I do like? Ahhhhhh … that list is almost too long to detail, though I did take a stab at it several months back.

I love that EPCOT was designed to celebrate the best in mankind’s nature, and still does that to a certain degree. The ingenuity of humans is on display, and that makes me happy.

I love wandering around EPCOT and just … looking. At nothing in particular, just taking in the feeling of being there, the festive environment of World Showcase and the implicit majesty of Spaceship Earth hovering above everything, almost everywhere you go.

I love Illuminations: Reflections of Earth, which is still perhaps the single best attraction of any sort Disney has ever created (and, yes, I know that’s saying a lot, but I love it that much).

I love the moment the curtain rises in the Universe of Energy and you begin moving forward into the world of the dinosaurs; no matter how cheesy and silly the attraction has become, that moment still holds power.

I love rising into Spaceship Earth, despite the jerky, lurching feel that the attraction has taken on. I love hearing Jeremy Irons’ voice intoning, “Like a grand and miraculous spaceship, our planet has sailed through the universe of time.” Wow. Gets me every time!

I love staring at the artificial reef in the Living Seas (oops, the Seas) pavilion; yeah, Sea World is great, but there’s something about this place, about watching the silent little oceanic dramas playing out in front of you, that is really spectacular.

I love Ice Station Cool, though I love it a little less without the igloo (which is strange, because that comment absolutely contradicts everything I generally say and feel about what Disney has done to the old Communicore); it’s one of the most unexpected, meaningless little throwaway, commercially driven attractions, but I still get a sense of discovery about the way other people live when I go in there – oddly, it kind of (as Foxxfur commented) conveys the spirit of EPCOT.

I love the Fountain of Nations, whether it’s performing or not; it’s a bold visual feature, and it just “works.”

I love the “upside-down” and leaping fountains in front of the Imagination pavilion; how fun are they? They’re one of the few holdovers from 1982 that haven’t changed at all, and they don’t need to.

I love Listen to the Land. I imagined that I would hate it when they took away the cast members, but I have to admit it works well now, and it’s genuinely compelling and insightful. Even the interior films and limited-motion animatronic figures seem to have thought and care put into their creation.

I love the “splashdown” moment in Maelstrom, when you suddenly feel as if you’ve been transported to the North Sea. That one moment and the entry into the Norwegian fishing village are two perfect little “show” moments that absolutely transport you to another time and place. (For that matter, I still love the Norway travelogue that plays after the ride, no matter how impossibly and unbelievably dated it has become; Norway seems like a fascinating place.)

I love that EPCOT is there to discover at your own pace. If you’re in the vast majority of guests who just care about getting a ride fix and moving on, you’ll get your fill at EPCOT. If, however, you like to move at your own pace, you could (even still) spend three or four days solely at EPCOT and not discover everything there is to see and learn.

Much of EPCOT still works. It’s the parts of EPCOT that are so clearly “malfunctioning” that get me angry and agitated, simply because so much of EPCOT works so well, these problem areas seem that much worse.

EPCOT is still a wonderful place. It has a spirit, and try as they might, they can never quite take that away. The planning, design and execution of EPCOT Center was so strong, a lot of it still shines through, even 25 years later. Try as they might, they can’t take it away completely.

I wish they would quit trying.


What do you love about EPCOT? I'd really like to know! I hope you'll post a comment and share your thoughts, especially you Disney folks (and I know you're out there). Don't worry, when you choose "Anonymous," you really do remain anonymous ... no one will know it's you. (Even me!)

Sunday, January 21, 2007

Fossilizing Disney

“Anonymous” wrote an impassioned and lengthy response to my post called “A Horrible Decision.” In part, it read (and you can read the whole thing here):

“I guess where you and I differ is that you want to mummify Disney where I am excited to see it develop. “How can you possibly call POT "mediocre"? Millions of people around the world beg to differ with you. … And you are just plain wrong on the Disney Channel. The truth is this - the "Vault Disney" strategy which the Channel so dutifully embraced through most of the 80's and 90's was an abject failure. … You continually say that you know Disney better than Disney's own executives. But I don't think you do. As important as the "core fans" are, they don't own Disney. Disney has to innovate and evolve, not just because that's what's required of it to remain vital as a business, but because that is what is in its DNA. … There were many people back in the 30's who would have liked Walt to stick to his kniting(sic and keep making more Mickey serials. Snow White was called "Walt's Folly,” but in the end he was right to push forward.

“You would fossilize the company and turn it into a museum and I am here to tell you that its that kind of thinking that is the reason Epcot is in the state it is today. … Sure, there are things you can still complain about, but give Bob Iger a break. He has been on the job only 16 months now ... (I)t is really disappointing that you cannot give Disney any credit for what has been a spectacular year and a great turnaround and that you constantly poo poo anything new or fresh or innovative coming out of Disney. I think for you complaining about Disney has become your favorite sport …

“The difference between you and me is that the public actually agrees with me.”

It’s a viewpoint that deserves a response – at least partly because “Anonymous” has misinterpreted my stance, or I have not done a particularly good job at making it.

I absolutely do not want to “fossilize” Disney or turn it into a museum. Such a thought is anathema. Indeed, the references “Anonymous” makes to Walt Disney are ones I would use to show why “fossilizing” is exactly the wrong thing to do.

The reader is right that Disney “has to innovate and evolve,” and that such pursuits are “in its DNA.” So why, I wonder, has the company spent so much time going against its nature? Where is today’s “folly”? Disney is doing nothing but playing it safe, creating entertainments that are harmless enough but hardly memorable.

I stick to my belief that Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest was mediocre. The first movie was brilliant: Engaging, fun and original, despite being an adaptation. (Let’s not forget it also was a movie no one expected to succeed; coming off of The Country Bears, the concept of a movie based on a theme-park attraction was laughable and even Disney, which barely licensed the movies or got promotional partners on board, doubted its prospects.) But instead of moving on, Disney’s resident marketing geniuses decided to sail forth with a sequel … no, two … wait, three! That’s absolutely the way today’s entertainment industry works. But remember when your mother used to ask, “If everyone jumped off the Golden Gate Bridge, would you?” The lackluster Pirates 2 was Disney’s attempt to be like everyone else, instead of following the “Walt model” of taking some extraordinary profits and doing something even more extraordinary with them.

As for the Disney Channel, once again I can’t fault the logic “Anonymous” uses. Everyone wants to reach the ‘tween market, and if everyone wants to do it, it must be right, right? Nevermind that in Disney’s case, anecdotal evidence holds that pre-teen girls don’t watch Hannah Montana or High School Musical because they’re on the Disney Channel, they watch the Disney Channel because that’s where Hannah Montana and High School Musical are.

Disney covets this audience because everyone else does, and they can tell advertisers that Disney Channel reels ‘em in. What’s suspect is not only whether the kids care any more about Disney because of the shows, but also whether the kids are the “core” Disney audience, anyway.

We could debate endlessly about this “core” audience, but two things are of relevance to this particular blog and its readers: 1) If the thousands of 20-, 30- and 40-somethings who read this and other Disney blogsites are to be believed, they care passionately about Disney in a way that the fickle teen audience simply can’t; and 2) Disney’s zeal to capture that young audience has absolutely come at the expense of these most loyal fans.

Most companies would kill to have a fan base as active (particularly financially) as these “adult” Disney fans, and would do anything to ensure their satisfaction. By and large, Disney ignores them. I’ll go one step further: In many cases, Disney actively disdains them, actually criticizing them for their comments and observations and going out of its way (as in this year’s shareholder’s meeting) to ensure that they cannot participate in the management of the company that they own by virtue of those stock shares.

If Steve Jobs, now Disney’s largest single shareholder, had allowed Apple to disregard its most active users in this way, do you think the company would have experienced the rebound it did? Disney will gladly take $10,000 or $20,000 out of your pocket to sell you a timeshare (disclosure: I’ve never done that), just don’t expect any sort of special consideration for that move.

Certainly Disney could make small moves to make this constituency a little happier? (And judging by the way writers at sites such as Mouseplanet and Miceage write about Disney, they’re increasingly discontent with the company’s direction.) I would be the last person to advocate the “Vault Disney” concept to the exclusion of all else; but when there are five Discovery Channels, 11 HBOs and a bazillion Showtimes, couldn’t there be two Disney Channels? (Maybe three, if that EPCOT Channel could get underway!)

Fossilizing Disney is the last thing I’d advocate. A creative Disney? That’s something I’d like to see – one that doesn’t pre-package and pre-define the name “Disney” to mean pabulum for kids and pre-teens.

The 1970s and early 1980s have long been considered the leanest years for Disney. But, wait a second. If that Disney acted like today’s Disney, we’d still be riding theme-park attractions based on The Black Hole, The $1,000,000 Duck, The Fox and the Hound and The North Avenue Irregulars. But when it came to the theme parks, particularly, we got “Space Mountain,” “Big Thunder Mountain Railroad,” “America Sings,” “Mission to Mars,” Tokyo Disneyland and, of course, EPCOT Center. None of them (well, with the exception of the Tokyo park) were based on Disney movies, none of them were simple film-based attractions, all of them were complex, multi-sensory experiences that expanded the definition of “Disney” and showcased why no one could build a theme park the way Disney could.

Compared with them, “Monsters Inc.: Mike & Sully to the Rescue,” “Stitch’s Great Escape,” “Primeval Whirl” and “Sounds Dangerous” seem like third-rate efforts, at best – and this is putting them up against attractions created when Disney was supposedly at its most moribund and least creative.

That’s the Disney I want … one that doesn’t let anyone on the outside define what it is, one that doesn’t look to focus groups and exit surveys to figure out what it’s doing wrong and right, but decides on its own. I want Disney to become the company that excites and thrills me with something new and unexpected, not that meets my most scaled-down expectations by delivering yet another mediocre theme-park attraction based on a recent movie – or a mediocre movie based on a classic theme-park ride.

After 16 months of enduring more of the same from Disney, especially with its callous disregard for EPCOT’s creative spirit, I do not give Mr. Iger a break, any more than I or any other executive would get a break if we got paid $16 million but didn’t exceed every expectation that the company’s owners had for us. I’ve known many an executive, at Disney and elsewhere in the entertainment world, who was fired for performance less lackluster than Iger’s.

I’m not stupid – as an investment, Disney has been a good one in the past two years. (That said, I’m still waiting to make a profit on shares I purchased in 2000.) On that front, Disney has delivered. As a short-term investment, it’s been great. But for the long term? I have my serious doubts. It’s creating entertainment that is about as good as what it turned out in the late 1960s through the early 1980s, though it is marketing it much better. But well-marketed pabulum is still drivel.

Sure, the public likes it. If that’s all the justification you need, then you’ll get exactly the company you deserve.

I want Disney to be more than it is. I want it to look closely at itself and learn what once made it great – genuinely great. I want it to lead, to forge a new path, not simply to follow the grooves in the ground that were created by everyone else it’s following.

EPCOT is, for my money, the most visible symbol of today’s Disney: It’s financially successful, it’s becoming more and more like its competitors, and it’s a far cry from what it was just 10 years ago. I don’t want that EPCOT back and fossilized. I just want its spirit to be rekindled. I want EPCOT to amaze me. I want Disney to inspire me.

Anything less is a waste.

Saturday, January 20, 2007

The Truth About EPCOT

Over at FoxxFur’s “Passport to Dreams” blog, the author presents a fascinating, dead-on view of the groundbreaking design and near-complete aesthetic success that was EPCOT Center and the confused hodge-podge of thrills, spills and “theme-park” mentality that Epcot has become.

It would be disingenuous of me to try to elaborate on what FoxxFur writes so well. Kudos to this terrific blogger! The writing has, however, certainly made me think more about EPCOT/Epcot.

EPCOT Center may have failed on some counts (its earnestness, its endless optimism, its simplicity), but it succeeded on so many more. Only in hindsight can we see exactly what went wrong with its transition to Epcot in the mid-1990s. But that hindsight is only useful if Disney can and will commit itself to correcting its mistakes.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it endlessly until some action is taken (or until something forces me to shut up): When it “fixed” a mostly unbroken EPCOT Center, Disney closed the door on its own four decades of progress and innovation. By throwing in the towel on an admittedly difficult and expensive project, Disney didn’t just acknowledge its own defeat – it actually gave up, willingly, a leadership position in the entertainment industry. As recently happened with animation, Disney become a competitor in a field it dominated for decades. The company's inability to uphold its own visionary undertaking signified that the company could not be as creatively vibrant and forward-thinking as it had been even a few years before.

Ironically enough, conventional wisdom holds that Disney in the mid-1970s was creatively bankrupt. If you go strictly by Herbie Goes Bananas, The Last Flight of Noah's Ark and Condorman, that may have been true. But this was also the era that turned out such theme-park creations as Space Mountain, Big Thunder Mountain, Disneyland’s Fantasyland, Tokyo Disneyland … and EPCOT Center.

In the mid- to late 1970s, virtually every bit of Walt Disney Imagineering’s efforts went into EPCOT Center; not just WDI's, really, but Disney's. EPCOT was a company-wide commitment on a level that could hardly be imagined today. It was an attempt to continue Walt Disney’s rather extraordinary, unexpected fascination with the applications of new technology, to continue a course that Walt had set. To the outside world, it may have seemed decidedly “un-Disney” – yet in spirit and conception, EPCOT was more in keeping with the Walt's spirit of innovation and exploration than any theme park the company has built in the past 30 years.

The last decade or so, however, has seen Disney inundated with entertainment-industry executives, business-school graduates and marketing “experts” who believe they know Disney better than anyone … even if, well, they don’t. (Few really understand or care to understand the incredible contributions that Walt and Roy O. Disney made not just to their company but to American business.)

Most Disney fans I know -- who are excoriated by executives in Burbank, Anaheim and Lake Buena Vista -- have more inherent understanding of the basic ideals and ambitions that led to Disney's 1920s-to-1980s creative success than the current crop of Disney management (many of whom I also know). Yet these are the executives who were called on to “fix” the “problems” of EPCOT, and their actions led to mistake piled upon mistake.

As in any politically driven organization (which today’s Disney unfortunately has become, first and foremost), each successive regime thinks it has the answer, and all too often their solutions only make past mistakes worse. There is no progress, only a general confusion that comes whenever creative ambition is replaced with financially driven goals, when one hasty decision is made to counteract an earlier bad call.

What every “generation” of Disney’s theme-park management has failed to acknowledge about EPCOT is a simple truth: EPCOT wasn’t broken in the first place.

It was inarguably neglected and in need of care and understanding; it most certainly suffered from a lack of inspiration. But its basic foundation was solid. The only “damage” the park had sustained was cosmetic.

Yet a new regime of Disney management believed some drastic action needed to be taken. Now, 10 years after the efforts began to turn EPCOT into something it was never intended to be, Disney has completely lost sight of what the park had already become. In their zeal to change EPCOT simply for the sake of changing it, no one stopped to consider that everything that made EPCOT different and challenging (for guests as well as management) were exactly the things that made it unique, remarkable and eminently marketable.

EPCOT Center used to serve as a living symbol of why Disney was unlike any company on the planet.

Now, it has become an icon for how much the “Disney brand” is like every other. There’s little innovative or genuinely exciting about it, only amusing and generally entertaining.

The truth about EPCOT is, it could be so much more. Its revitalization could symbolize a new renaissance for Disney's creativity and innovation.

But perhaps the hardest truth about EPCOT is, Disney doesn't really seem to care.

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

A Horrible Decision

While I have never used this blog to discuss Walt Disney Company "politics" except as they relate to Epcot, I have to make an exception this once. It's a situation that once again showcases how little regard Disney's management has for the extraordinary business founded by the man whose statue is pictured to the left.

(As an aside, if you want to learn just how bold and extraordinary the creation of The Walt Disney Company actually was and what a profound impact it had on the world, I urge you to read Walt Disney: The Triumph of the American Imagination by Neal Gabler. It's truly revelatory for those who think of Disney simply as a "dream factory" and/or the modern, commercially driven incarnation it has become.)

I'm distressed by the news, announced a few days ago, that the 2007 Annual Shareholder's Meeting will be taking place not at Walt Disney World in Florida; in Anaheim, Calif.; in Burbank or New York -- none of the logical places that would be associated with Disney -- but in New Orleans, La.

Citing the "devastating effects of Hurricane Katrina," Disney is shamelessly using a national tragedy for its own political purposes. While the company outsources and downsizes Walt Disney World and Disneyland to within an inch of their lives, they compensate Disney President Bob Iger with a $15-million payday. Although the company employs tens of thousands of people in Burbank, Orlando and Anaheim, it won't allow them to participate in the company's annual meeting unless they go to great personal expense -- thereby disallowing any valid or pressing criticism of management.

This is a page straight out of Eisner's playbook and, frankly, it stinks. Exploiting the people of New Orleans simply to avoid active participation by smaller shareholders and the sometimes embarrassing scrutiny that they bring with them is a horrible maneuver for Disney to take.

Disney had a great year financially and a pretty lousy one creatively. From the perspective of the parks, Disney continues to chip away at the one business it clearly "owned" just a decade ago. Exactly as competition forced Disney to concede its crown in the animation business, it is threatening to do so in theme parks.

Perhaps that will lead to Disney being a financially successful media conglomerate, but it won't change the fact that Disney's management should be answering some tough questions about the state of its theme-park business ... not running from them.

Saturday, January 13, 2007

Wandlessly Wonderful

Is it too much to hope? First, when I vacationed at Walt Disney World in September, I noticed the t-shirt above in several shops. It doesn't take much to notice what is missing from Spaceship Earth.

This weekend, I decided to watch the latest Walt Disney World vacation video while doing chores. Throughout, Spaceship Earth is conspicuously missing the wand. Sure, there are some shots taken in the past few years in which the wand is clearly there. On the other hand, Disney seems to have gone out of its way to find and utilize pre-wand shots of Spaceship Earth whenever Epcot is mentioned -- in fact, the opening shot of the Epcot section is a closeup of Spaceship Earth in all its wandless, geodesic majesty.

Maybe I'm just jumping to conclusions, but it seems that Disney is at long last preparing for a time in the (hopefully) not-too-distant future in which theme-park management comes to its senses and removes the giant eyesore, restoring Spaceship Earth to the clean, sleek, stunning design that was always intended.

If so, Disney's "Year of a Million Dreams" only has 999,999 left to go in my book! Heck, I'll even count it worthy of 100,000 or so dreams!

Friday, January 12, 2007

A Brand-New Idea for EPCOT

All right, all right, I admit it right up front. I'm not going to literally offer a brand-new idea, since I’ve weighed in on this subject before. But last week’s massive, brilliant media blitz by Apple made me think again about the incredibly lunkheaded “branding” decisions Disney has made in the past decade or so, particularly as they relate to EPCOT.

For a company as seemingly obsessed with “branding” as Disney … what gives?

Cinderella Castle has about as much to do with EPCOT (or Disney-MGM Studios or Animal Kingdom, for that matter) as the Grand Canyon has to do with Miami. You don’t hear anyone reasoning that since they’re both part of the U.S., they can be interchangeable. Yet, there’s the castle on every bit of “Disney Parks” merchandise – including that sold at EPCOT.

It’s rather extraordinary to me to think that a company as allegedly “brand”-driven as Disney (I put that word in quotes since it is so overused and, as Roy E. Disney once said, “Brands are for cattle”) has completely overlooked and subordinated the EPCOT name. By stripping it of the power it had for the first half of its life – removing the word “Center” and officially making it a “lower-case” name – Disney made a strong statement that it didn’t much care what “EPCOT” meant.

If I were the folks in charge of today’s Epcot, I’d be making damn sure that every executive at Disney recognized the underutilized, forgotten value of the brand.

For the average person, today’s world is increasingly shaped by two things: the fast-changing world of technology and the events and actions of our fellow humans on other parts of the globe. We have a never-ending need to understand the ramifications of the technology we have around us at every moment, from exploration of the heavens, the seas and our bodies, to its practical applications in communications, transportation and what we eat, to how it allows us to tap into our creative minds in ways our ancestors couldn’t imagine.

Wait a second – space, oceans, bodies, communication, transportation, food and imagination … why do those important subjects seem so familiar to EPCOT junkies?

On the other hand, we are realizing that the way people live in far-off nations affects us here in the U.S. and vice-versa. More and more, we are realizing how inextricably connected we all are, how we need to understand and appreciate other cultures.

Huh? Learning about and appreciating other nations … gosh, that rings a bell.

Yes, indeed, exploration of the subjects that so many people in today's world hunger to know more about was the very reason EPCOT Center was created in the first place. Twenty-five years ago, we were given a remarkable gift, a place we could go to learn about our world, and just as our global society is finally at the point where they can appreciate it, Disney is turning Epcot into a place that increasingly resembles every other “amusement park” in the world.

But what does any of that have to do with EPCOT as a brand? Plenty. Just as Apple is realizing that the more “categories” it can control, the more people associate it with something they can’t live without; just as Google is realizing the more information categories it can reign over, the more people will think of it as indispensable; there’s a huge opportunity for the word “EPCOT” to come to mean “the way we make sense of our world.”

EPCOT-branded magazines, EPCOT-branded TV shows, EPCOT-branded accessories, travel gear, toys and apparel all would be welcome and logical ways to capitalize on the unique qualities of the theme park and the themes and concepts behind it. And, hey, they also might make a lot of money for Disney and propel the company into a whole new direction – one that ultimately can come to have a hold on more than just 9-year-old kids and tweens who like Hannah Montana.

Disney, to paraphrase Walt Whitman, is huge, it contains multitudes. ABC and ESPN learned that, Disney Channel learned that, Walt Disney Pictures learned that.

Theme parks, alas, have not. Instead of creating different, unique identities for each location, theme-park executives have been trying to shoehorn all of these different experiences into one “brand” name – even going so far as to overload EPCOT stores (as an example) with bland, boring “Disney Parks” merchandise that can be found in every other park in the world.

Why would Disney care so little about a brand name that could be so strong? Why would it shove EPCOT over to the corner instead of recognizing it as a potentially lucrative “new” business, one that could grow, change and expand into almost every area of our lives? Why would it not recognize the enormous potential of this one word – a “new” brand that it has been sitting on for 25 years?

In this milestone year, perhaps it’s time for Disney to understand just how special EPCOT – the name and the theme park – really is … and how a little attention to that one word could reap enormous benefits far into the future.

Monday, January 08, 2007

Turning 25

The 21st century, Disney told us back then, began on Oct. 1, 1982.

They were right.

For many years, EPCOT Center, that $1 billion gamble, really did give us a glimpse into our future. Touch-screens, video conference calls, fiber-optic lighting and communication, interactive videogames, mainframe and personal computers, advanced Audio-Animatronic engineering, novel transportation systems, and stylized architecture and landscaping were among the innovations guests in the 1980s experienced long before they were mainstays in our lives.

These technological applications were as much a part of the EPCOT Center experience as the rides and attractions themselves, and it was always an incredible experience to visit EPCOT and make lunch reservations by video camera or touch a screen (without buttons!) to get information about the park.

EPCOT used to have everything a kid could want. But as it faces its 25th birthday, the question is: What does it need now?

One of the greatest ironies to me is that a theme park that was meant to celebrate technological innovation and the spirit of togetherness that new advances would bring to our world is neither technologically innovative nor particularly cohesive. It’s as if the “lower-case” Epcot has forgotten what it was meant to be in the first place.

That’s not uncommon for a 25-year-old; how many of us wondered a few years after college if we were really all we could be?

For its 25th birthday, I’m hoping Epcot’s management will infuse it with a renewed sense of self. While it may be that current management’s “definition” of Epcot has changed, it is clear from a simple walk around the park that the spirit of EPCOT Center can never be completely eradicated, and that simply redefining the park and its purpose cannot change the fact that “EPCOT vs. Epcot” has left this once-great theme park with a severe identity crisis.

Again, is that particularly unusual to have at 25? Not at all. A quarter of a century is the perfect opportunity to look back on the waning days of youth and be reminded of the promise and potential that was there in childhood. It’s the time to remember those grand, almost forgotten, ambitions, and perhaps rekindle the spark of excitement that is close to being extinguished.

In its childhood, EPCOT Center was bold, brash, intelligent, energetic and spirited. Now that it’s a young adult, though, it’s chasing thrills, rarely looking toward the future and focused solely on pleasing everyone it meets. Far too often, it insists on being like everyone else.

For its 25th birthday, the best present EPCOT could receive is a serious, thorough review of its purpose and its aspirations by people who care about it and want to see it thrive. It may very well be that EPCOT’s current management – its college pals, if you will – are not the best to conduct such a review.

Turning 25 is a momentous occasion. It’s the time to put aside the frivolities of young “adulthood” and to become productive and self aware, to recognize that being like everyone else is not what will propel you through the next 50, 60, 70 years or more – the only thing that will make you truly successful is to find your own identity and to embrace it fully and proudly.

It’s hard for me to believe that EPCOT’s true nature and spirit revolves around thrill rides, cartoon characters, cheap merchandise and dilapidated attractions. The spirit of EPCOT is one of excitement, innovation, discovery and creativity. It’s there somewhere, and like so many other 25-year-olds, EPCOT simply needs some guidance, some encouragement and some tender, loving care.

So, here’s an early happy birthday wish to EPCOT: I hope you get everything you want and need for this milestone celebration.