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.


Anonymous said...

First they can tear down the Hand and rip out the "tombstones" out front

Anonymous said...

Interesting analogy. I find it very intriguing this discussion of cohesiveness. In a way, EPCOT Center took things that were not really cohesive and did a very strong job to almost force things together. To make it cohesive. Like a slightly awkward child, it was unsure of what it was good at, so it made everything it did its own.

However, now, at 25, Epcot is more cohesive in what it presents and does. However, it hasn't accepted this. It lacks the ideas, the markings, the consistency within itself. It is ironic that now a label, logos, etc. would make infinite more sense as to what is done in the front half especially.

Epcot is coming into its own, finding out what works well while saving the best elements of its youth. As my own 25th is cming in two days, I can only smile realizing that this is an odd age where you need to accept your successes and limitations to become the best "you" you can be. Here's to hoping that the best accomplishment and the best changes come together to make the best Epcot Epcot can be.

Jeffrey Pepper said...

Great commentary and insights! Well done.

Rough and Tumble Boy said...

Just finished reading 'Devil in the White City' by Erik Larson. It's the story of the world's fair in Chicago, from initial planning stages to closing day. Great book. Especially the references to how the fair affected Elias Disney, which, in turn, impacted Walt. But what struck me about it (after reading this post) was the fact that when they began to plan, they called in the greatest American architects and landscape architects of the day to define and design an epic, cohesive site plan and style.

For Epcot's 25th, my birthday wish would be to ask today's greatest minds to spend a week or two or three doing the same for Epcot. Although in my heart of hearts, I believe that today's Imagineers already have what it takes to make your birthday wish come true. They just need to be written a very large check. And that's just not gonna happen.

Epcot82 said...

I love the comparison to "Devil in the White City." I, too, thought of EPCOT when I read it ... and began to wonder when and why Disney lost interest in making their park be the most spectacular and fascinating for all time.

Anonymous said...

Bringing together great minds to bring relevance back to Epcot is a great idea -- but what Epcot needs most is a single person with the vision to carry it through: someone who understands the strengths and potential that the original EPCOT Center possessed. Imagineering could certainly carry it through, but the effort needs guidance. There have been too many efforts recently that have missed the mark.

Any, yes, any worthwhile effort is going to require a huge commitment from up top.

Captain Schnemo said...

I agree that some sort of steward is necessary, but, given that any of us Internet yahoos would do a better (and more conscientious) job than the present sack of weasels, I don't agree that a lot of money is necessary.

Much like Hollywood films, the ideas are the "cheap" part. It always annoys me that they'll spend $200M to make a mindless action movie, but they won't pay a half-interested film student 100 bucks just to read the script and point out logical inconsistencies that could easily be fixed with a line of dialog.

I see the same situation at Epcot. They are willing to spend millions to create this or that inanely-themed item, but they won't spend five minutes running the idea past someone who might think about the issue in a larger picture.

Of course I realize that there are all sorts of other political issues going on here, but I'd hold up recent Disneyland fireworks show as an example of something being done right because of the ideas behind it.

Well, also it's apparently incredibly expensive, but the point is that the show would have been a success with half the budget and could have been much worse at double the price tag. It was clear that the creators of that show knew what would touch the audience and they did it right. And that's not the part that cost money.

How many times have you heard about something being done at Epcot (or anywhere in Disney lately) where a several word description would pass a 6-year old's assessment of rationality? "A non-futuristic cartoon dark Future World? ...or Tomorrowland?" "A ride celebrating fossil fuel-burning automobiles...or Future World?" "A California-themed California?"

This isn't rocket science.

It's not a matter of money, it's a matter of simply not giving a damn.

Anonymous said...

Hey, Mr. Iger! Hey, Mr. Lasseter! Hey, Mr. Rasulo! You reading this? Anyone? Anyone?

It's the "year of a million dreams." Grant one of these dreams now and at least take a meeting eith Epcot82, Captain Schnemo or one of the people here who continue to have some great ideas and exhibit true passion for your parks. THAT is a dream worth granting!

Anonymous said...

Captain Schnemo, that's a very interesting comparison to Hollywood films. I'm sure that a lot of poor ideas are passed forward because they have marketing tie-in's or present some sort of "synergy" that the company can profit from -- even it means breaking the rules about consistent theming. (Think princess breakfast in Norway.) I'm also sure there are many who have come up with an excellent idea only to see it get twisted and distorted as it winds it's way through the bureaucratic machinery of the company. From what I understand, a lot of what happens at WDW is directed by marketing, not artistic forces, (or even by common sense so it seems).

Hence that is why I feel that it would take more than a steward to put Epcot right again. Epcot Center was founded as a park of "vision" and I think it is going to take someone with a bit of vision (and a lot of passion) to take it into this century. And it has to be someone outside the bureaucracy who has the power to enable changes. That is why I feel it is going to require a huge commitment from people like Bob Iger because it means rethinking how creative business is done at the parks.

A lot can be argued whether this has any relevance for the everyday person who visits Epcot, but it isn't difficult to understand that an EPCOT with a cohesive and compelling story is a lot easier to understand, and much more appealing, than an Epcot which is a sloppy hyped-up mess of conflicting ideas and shows. I certainly hope that "anonymous" gets his dream. Unfortunately, I don't think that particular dream is on Mr. Rasulo's marketing list.