Wednesday, February 07, 2007

How EPCOT Could Change the World

I’m serious about that title. Thanks to the many, many people who have written to me, both inside and outside of The Walt Disney Company, Imagineers and fans alike, I’ve heard some fascinating, passionate, beautiful and funny stories about how EPCOT Center changed their individual lives.

I know that there are many “entertainment purists” out there who believe that Disney’s theme parks should do no more than entertain and amuse guests, and I appreciate those arguments. From the start, Disney positioned itself first and foremost as an entertainment company, and in his dying days even Walt Disney realized that it was going to be difficult, if not impossible, to get American industry and government leaders to buy into his forward-thinking vision of EPCOT, the City.

When the concept of an EPCOT Center theme park got underway, the socio-political climate of the United States was eerily similar to today:

* The U.S. was engaged in an overseas war that had virtually no public support;
* The American president had lost the respect of his citizens;
* The government was mistrusted and, in 1976, underwent a partisan overhaul;
* Environmental (then called “ecological”) issues were top of mind, particularly the damaging effects of industrial and automotive pollution in major American cities;
* Technology began moving at a mind-bogglingly rapid pace;
* Violent behavior was on the rise, leading to high-profile assassinations and assassination attempts;
* The role of entertainment was increasingly questioned for its ill-effects on children.

It may seem like none of this really relates to EPCOT Center ... except that every creative endeavor is a product of its times. The climate that gave rise to EPCOT Center was one in which adults were trying to make sense of the tumultuous period they had just experienced, when they were wondering if the social and political ills that seemed to exist on a global scale had any solutions at all.

EPCOT Center was not intended to make sense of it all, nor to simply educate youngsters. It was a remarkable attempt to spotlight some of the key issues of the day and underscore three important points: 1) Though complicated, they were subjects that could indeed be understood by anyone, at least at their most basic levels; 2) American industry was working to find solutions to the problems of our world; and 3) People around the world are connected by their differences and by their desire to work together to improve our common future.

It wasn’t all hype. All of the publicity and marketing initiatives in the world wouldn’t have mattered if, at its heart, EPCOT Center didn’t send a message that people who lived in the 1970s and 1980s were desperate to hear – a message of hope and understanding and optimism.

As sophisticated as EPCOT Center was when it opened in 1982, its audience quickly grew that much more sophisticated. And is it any wonder? Even as EPCOT Center promised a “wired” world (before we used that term) in which information could be shared at light speed and people could learn about any issue almost instantaneously, Disney failed to do what it took to make sure EPCOT Center kept up. EPCOT told us the world was moving ever more quickly, but EPCOT itself failed to keep pace.

Ultimately, when it came time to re-think EPCOT Center for a new generation (an exercise that, frankly, Disney should have had a team working on constantly, with an appropriate budget to ensure that EPCOT remained at the leading edge of technology and ideas), Disney got lazy.

Just as it’s far easier to move furniture around in your living room than to repaint your entire house, Disney figured if they prettied EPCOT Center up a little, no one would realize that the ideas it was serving up were about 10 years out of date.

As time passed, those ideas got older and older, until many of them seemed downright antiquated. No one could watch the films in the Universe of Energy without thinking about the Exxon Valdez or Chernobyl disasters. No one could visit Horizons and not muse how far we were, at the dawn of the 21st century, from the future that was once envisioned.

And yet ... the subjects were never any less relevant.

Perhaps, dare I say it, never more relevant?

When it’s difficult to make sense of what’s happening in the world, to keep up with developments from Japan, Korea, Washington or Mars, there’s once again a place for an experience that reminds us that our planet and its issues are ripe for us to explore, to debate and learn about.

When more and more surveys tell us that people around the globe are increasingly concerned about the world in which they live, there’s room for them to discover that they don’t have to just accept things as they are – that the future is theirs to make.

EPCOT Center blended its sunny, Disney-style optimism with an implicit believe that people wanted to know more about their world.

Back then, there were only two Disney theme parks in Florida and the choice seemed stark: the cheery cartoon world of The Magic Kingdom or the more serious-minded EPCOT Center.

Now that there are four theme parks, two water parks and myriad entertainment opportunities in Florida, it doesn’t seem far-fetched or unreasonable to examine whether EPCOT could fill an important niche. After all, local science centers around the country are enjoying record attendance – clearly, there’s a need and a desire to learn, and be entertained while doing it. (If those local venues can master this balance, can’t Disney?)

There will always be people who disdain a bit of awareness and insight, who resent being offered anything other than a thrill and laugh around every corner. Those people have plenty to choose from around Walt Disney World.

For the others, those who feel their world is a little confusing, EPCOT could be a place that offers them hope that they can contribute to their own futures.

EPCOT Center was a product of its times. The times don’t seem to have changed that much, and the ideas behind that revolutionary theme park have never been more meaningful.

It’s a shame that cartoon characters are so much “easier.”

EPCOT’s designers and managers have a remarkable opportunity to look at the world today and update EPCOT’s core attractions – and revitalize the park’s efforts to live up to the ideals set forth in its dedication plaque.

The world we live in needs someone to help explain it, even to the smartest and most aware. We need to be reminded that there is much left to discover, much left to accomplish, much left to see – other than high-velocity centrifuges, cartoon “Mexican” ducks and talking turtles.

Our real world is more fantastic, more astounding than anything Disney or Pixar could create, and we are privileged to live in it. That’s the sort of message that resonated 25 years ago in the midst of great tension and unease in society. It’s the sort of message that could resonate again.

Given how many people were inspired by an EPCOT that was more clear on its overall intent, I think that inspiration could return. EPCOT has the opportunity to amaze and excite people, not just thrill them. It has the opportunity to get them to think and reflect, not just laugh and giggle. One person at a time, one experience at a time, EPCOT could again be a most remarkable place that encourages people to dream big and act accordingly.

One person at a time, I believe, EPCOT could change the world. It’s a ridiculously lofty ambition ... but, then again, no one used to dream bigger than Disney.

Used to.


Anonymous said...

Wow, interesting observations- almost like stating the obvious. Maybe the suits at Disney have something really spectacular planned for Epcot in the future. I think they're banking lots of money earned from all the Princess/Pirate initiatives, and will use those profits to overhaul Epcot with innovative cutting-edge technology-based attractions and interactive areas for everyone to enjoy. Sounds like a plan to me. I still believe in an EPCOT Center that could once again be, so let's hope for a bright and shinny "space-age" future....I'm feeling a bit retro today.

Captain Schnemo said...

I don't understand why the "space age" is considered retro. We haven't realized our dreams, so now they're ancient history, or worse -- a mistake?

It's as if they took a few steps down a path, found out it was harder then they thought, gave up...and now they mock those who still feel the original goals are possible.

It's so depressing that Disney has joined the ranks of the impotent cynics. Disney is supposed to lead the way and inspire us, not make fun of those who dare to dream.

Anonymous said...

Did you ever think there was a government conspiracy against Walt Disney? Here's a guy who started off making cartoons and rose to the top of that. Then he made an amuesment park that was worldwide very sucessful. He had the youth of the world behind him through television. Then he was planning to build a future city, EPCOT. What would have happened if EPCOT was a real city and was very sucessful? Do you think the politicians in Washington DC would have liked that? A guy who started off making cartoons has just made all politicians look like fools. Get rid of him! Give him the same cancer injection that was given to Rachel Carson(Silent Spring).

I think there's a bigger topic to blog about here.

Epcot82 said...

Ummmmmm. No.

Anonymous said...

Ditto on the "No." Walt's EPCOT would have showcased American ingenuity, American industrial giants, American neighborhood ideals, and the American consumer lifestyle -- orchestrated by a true-blue midwestern American who lived the American story of success-through-adversity and defined American family entertainment. Every last pol in the Beltway would be falling over each other to show who could applaud the loudest and boost their image by association.

Captain Schnemo said...

More importantly (to politicians), proper EPCOTs would increase the nation's productivity and corporations' profits.

If you're looking for a conspiracy related to Walt's death, you'd have to look toward the tobacco companies...

Anonymous said...

It was a remarkable attempt to spotlight some of the key issues of the day ... and underscore three important points: 1) Though complicated, they were subjects that could indeed be understood by anyone, at least at their most basic levels; 2) American industry was working to find solutions to the problems of our world; and 3) People around the world are connected by their differences and by their desire to work together to improve our common future.

What were the "issues" covered at Epcot?

Epcot82 said...

* The energy crisis (Universe of Energy)

* Farming and the environment (The Land)

* Undersea exploration and the prsopects it held (The Living Seas)

* The "shrinking" world and the need for better understanding and communications (Spaceship Earth)

* Health (The Wonders of Life)

* Transportation and the design of future vehicles, particularly the possibility of pollution-free cars (World of Motion and the TransCenter)

* Computers and their impact on our everyday life (CommuniCore and WorldKey kiosks)

Those are some of the ideas that were explored in EPCOT Center's first 10-12 years, some very successfully, some less so -- but there was certainly thought behind most of the pavilions and exhibits.

Anonymous said...

To the man with a hammer, everything looks like a nail.

Epcot82 said...

Does that refer to Disney or to me? Because I could imagine you meant either one. ;-)

Anonymous said...

The word "issues" has a different connotation today than when EPCOT was conceived and built. For me, the word "topics" better describes the original EPCOT's spotlight target.

We live in a highly politicized, self-critical world. Theme parks are an escape; EPCOT was one for adults. For me, EPCOT's soul was in Horizons. It was a sunny ride through the future, innocent of "issues." No conservation nags, no restraint-and-responsibility heavies. No critics frowing, "Wait! Stop! The future doesn't work!"

Anonymous said...

Epcot should emphasize that the future is what we make it. We can either let it be run by cynicism and self-doubt, or we can fill it with optimism and creative energy. I prefer the latter.

Epcot82 said...

So, too, is the future of The Walt Disney Company what its executives make it. At this rate, it's going to be a strong media company with great broadcast content and also some cute, cuddly, kiddy stuff -- but it no longer looks to become the visionary, far-reaching, groundbreaking creative company that it could have been.

That torch has passed to Apple and Pixar (now, of course, within Disney). Too bad that the torch was held so high, so proudly and so well for so long. I hope I'm wrong.

As an investor, it's a good company. As a dreamer who sees how extraordinary Disney could have been ... not so much.

Anonymous said...

Chin up, Epcot82. Always say always. Imagineering is the heart of the theme parks, and it can be renewed.

From my observation point, I never could blame Pressler or the Parks for being tight-fisted with Imagineering. It looked to me like WDI leadership had become infested with undisciplined money wasters. I have often read opinions in which the failure of Disneyland's new Tomorrowland is blamed on Pressler for not giving Imagineers enough money. But I expect any thinking businessman would act on how risky it was to trust a large budget in the hands of WDI leadership at that time.

Also it appeared that the WDI people who had skills to design and produce efficiently, became excluded, minimized, and then among the first to get the axe. Unskilled but politically adept Imagineers stayed and some became promoted on the executive food chain.

As for WDI, I say nuke the site from orbit -- it's the only way to be sure -- and start over with a heavy emphasis on skills in its creative leadership.

Anonymous said...

And have a hand-picked team especially for EPCOT!

Anonymous said...

You could be a little less drastic than that ... though it would take a true leader (does Iger possess this quality?) to come in, bring the Parks and WDI together and say, "Work together. There's no tail wagging a dog here," then appoint someone to serve as the go-between -- to look at what the parks need strategically and what WDI needs to do creatively, and bring the two sides together. Trouble is, WDI thinks its in a leadership role with theme parks, Parks & Resorts assumes it has the leadership role, and neither side wants to give -- or work together. WDI is a cost center, Parks & Resorts is a revenue center, and each holds the other in contempt.

Basically, someone needs to come in at the Parks level who has the creative vision and the business sense ... and, so far, that person has not stepped to the front of the crowd! That is an area I will absolutely give Eisner credit for; in those days when the parks actually interested him (before he decided to become a media mogul), we saw what amazing things could be accomplished with one leader saying, "We need this," and then getting Parks and WDI to work together to make it happen.

Those decisions weren't dictated by marketing needs or increasing revenue by X percent a year; they were driven by the desire to be the envy of the industry, to ramp up Disney's creative abilities to the fullest. Everyone figured they were crazy things (a studio park when Universal was doing the same thing and even suing Disney over it; new water parks when WDW already had one; R&D on Audio-Animatronics; new ride concepts), but there was a management decision to put Disney's creative abilities front and center. Twenty years later, it would be good to see that kind of vision come back, to have someone say, "I don't give a hoot if it's based on a Pixar movie or not, just give me an amazing ride, show me something that will knock my socks off, then we'll find a place for it in the parks."

This "strategic"/revenue-oriented mentality is for the birds. Strategy only works if you know where you want to go.

Anonymous said...

You could be a little less drastic than that ...

No, you can't, not if you want it to work. The ONLY hope for WDI is to start over. As long as WDI clings to what it is now and has been for the past decade and a half, Eiger or not, it will continue to produce overpriced junk because it won't have addressed the cause of the overpriced junk. The cause wasn't money nor was it strategy. As you say, one doesn't have to "give a hoot whether it's based on a Pixar move or not, just give me an amazing ride ..." and the "strategic/revenue-oriented mentality is for the birds." You're right.

No, the cause for overpriced junk wasn't strategy, it was lack of -- and eventually, contempt for -- skilled talent, and the reason for that lack of talent came from the top. Until that changes, WDI will continue to produce wimpy stuff as surely as a cabinetry shop run by philosophy teachers would produce crappy cabinets.

Anonymous said...

Let me clarify:

The cause for overpriced junk was lack of skilled talent within WDI, and the reason for that lack of talent came from the top of WDI. It seems likely that the Parks were acting in self-defense when they finally took their own direction with regard to attractions.