Tuesday, May 22, 2007

A Long Time Ago ...

You’ve probably heard that this week is the 30th anniversary of Star Wars, and I happen to be an enormous Star Wars fan.

There’s a Star Wars convention taking place in Los Angeles this week, which is expected to attract 20,000 people or so. Compare that with the last Disneyana convention I attended in 1999, which was a huge success with about 1,500 people, almost exclusively adults. I’m not necessarily drawing a comparison between Disney and Star Wars, but I have observed that Lucasfilm spends a lot of time paying attention to what its fans say and do, particularly on the Internet. Disney, not so much.

Anyway, the Star Wars convention, called Celebration IV, got me thinking about the enormous affinity and passion that Star Wars have for those movies, and it was quite serendipitous for me to run across this news article about the memories of Star Wars fans. I encourage you to take a look at it.

Go ahead.


I’ll wait.


What I noticed were two things: 1) The newspaper wrote this article on its own, soliciting memories from readers; and 2) I don’t remember seeing a public outpouring of emotion like this for Disney. Ever.

Now, to bring it all back to EPCOT Center.

Reading these memories of seeing Star Wars for the first time, I’m reminded of my own first visit to EPCOT Center. It is a memory I recall vividly, one that I had anticipated for years, one that crawled into my teen-aged mind and stayed there for more than two decades, not ever really going away.

EPCOT Center shaped my young mind. It made me curious about my world. It inspired me to pursue the career I have chosen. EPCOT Center really did do all that.

EPCOT Center made me expand my notion of what Disney could be – and, more importantly, what I could be.

My guess is many of you felt the same way. That’s why I find it interesting to compare how Disney has managed its image and its brand and how Lucas has done the same.

With EPCOT, Disney has failed to live up to the words it still has printed in bronze outside the park, words that claim to define what EPCOT is and will be. Inside the park, a guest who hadn’t visited in, say, 20 years would hardly recognize the place. Most of what defined EPCOT conceptually – massive pavilions and rides, explorations of human achievement and possibility, a dearth of Disney characters – have gone, replaced by … well, you know, by lower-case Epcot, one that is just begging to have the word “Disney’s” attached to the front of its name, lest we forget where we are.

Those of us who have challenged Disney for the changes have been met mostly with stone-cold silence, sometimes with defensive derision, frequently with accusations that we don’t really care about EPCOT – if we did, we’d accept anything Disney wanted to do with it.

Now, look at Star Wars. Here’s a “brand” that people still think of fondly and that is still very much alive and vibrant in their minds. Star Wars gains new fans every year, it seems – just ask any 9-year-old boy on your block. Importantly, it keeps the old ones, too, offering them throwbacks to their childhood, encouraging them to maintain their connection with the movies they grew up watching.

There have been significant changes, of course – not all considered good. George Lucas tinkered with his movies in ways that truly angered fans. He has been accused of trying to make too much money off of what he created, and some of those complaints may be valid. Then again, I hold to the notion (which some have accused me of not having) that change is good, if it is beneficial. I don’t happen to feel as passionately as many friends that Han Solo should always shoot first, that he should never meet Jabba the Hutt in the first movie, that there are too many creatures. I recently saw the movie again on the big screen, and those changes certainly stood out to me, but didn’t detract from my overall enjoyment of and love for the movie.

They were cosmetic changes, made by the original creative minds behind the movie, offered as enhancements not substitutions.

EPCOT has changed, but in doing so it has lost its basic identity. That’s why, even though I’m angered by Disney’s decision not to honor its 25th anniversary, I can’t say I completely disagree with the decision, as we’d be paying homage to something that doesn’t really even exist anymore. Little more than its surface structure remains, while the vast majority of its content has been tampered with – not just enhanced and refined.

As people celebrate Star Wars this week, they’re celebrating something that has remained (mostly) constant and true over the years, and very importantly, they have every reason to feel they’re respected and appreciated for their admiration and support, not ridiculed and talked down to. Star Wars has expanded to include many different kinds of fans.

It’s an interesting comparison, since both projects in many ways grew out of the same sort of discontent for our society in the 1960s and 1970s. George Lucas decided to make a movie that would take us all away from the world’s problems, Disney built a place that tried to make sense of them, but both acknowledged that we needed to face our demons and live up to them. They were both hopeful creations, ones that sought to inspire and excite, to stir imaginations.

One has grown distinguished, the other has become scattered. One has changed its soul, the other has remained true. One seems to care about those who care for it, the other doesn’t.

I remember a time when Disney genuinely cared what its guests thought, when it wanted to create experiences like EPCOT Center that defied every notion of what “Disney” meant and sought to create an exciting sense of place and purpose. I remember that time, but with increasing haziness. In many ways, it seems like a long time ago …

Sunday, May 20, 2007

EPCOT's Energy Crisis

Last week, President Bush held a press conference in which he said Americans “expect action” on energy issues. With the cost of gas rising by leaps and bounds, fuel efficiency in cars and trucks under fire, and increasingly hard-to-ignore evidence that global warming is caused by greenhouse gases that can be controlled by changing energy-consumption habits, energy is a top-of-mind issue for many people around the world.

As I listened to Bush, two things came to mind: 1) No matter your party politics, it’s undeniable that we’re on the cusp of a major energy crisis; and 2) These are exactly the type of issues that EPCOT Center tried to bring to the forefront for guests.

Imagine, if you will, had The Walt Disney Company, not Exxon, been in control of what was presented and described in the Universe of Energy for the past 25 years. Imagine if it had been solely the Imagineers, without dictates from a corporate sponsor, who determined how and what to tell guests.

EPCOT was never a place, nor should it be, to incite or provoke arguments. However, as Bush spoke about the need for alternative energy and a decreased reliance on oil, I kept thinking about where I first learned about the exploration of alternative forms of energy. Yes, at EPCOT when I was about 15 years old. I had never given much thought to solar energy or wind power, for instance, but I remember being fascinated by the idea that someone was thinking about them. I recall the huge controversy around nuclear energy (always amusingly, maybe a little disturbingly) dismissed by the Universe of Energy, but I also recall thinking that perhaps it was an option for us in the future.

Of course, the Universe of Energy remained distressingly unchanged for a number of years before Ellen DeGeneres finally came along to give it a much needed dose of life. And then … nothing. It’s now been almost 11 years since Universe of Energy received a major rethinking, and there couldn’t be a more pertinent time.
I know little about it, but it seems clear that the subject of energy has never been more important or more fascinating. Disney has an opportunity, now that ExxonMobil is no longer a sponsor, to determine what content is presented and how. This is a fantastic chance for Disney’s best writers, designers, researchers, filmmakers and artists to tackle a complex, intensely intriguing topic and help shape the way millions of people a year think about it.

Imagine, for a moment, that Disney had not been bound to present an image of the energy situation as filtered through the corporate mindset of Big Oil. Perhaps a decade ago, tens of millions of people a year could have started to learn about hybrid cars or hydrogen-fuel technology. Perhaps 15 years ago, millions of minds could have started getting their heads around what happens when energy-created pollution goes out of control – and how we could, in turn, do our individual part to control it. Perhaps Disney, as it used to do in so many memorable and entertaining educational films, could have used its storytelling prowess to show us that the way we perceive energy use is limited only by our imaginations.

Teaching an audience does not have to be boring. Educating a park guest who would rather just see some more cartoon antics does not have to be a chore (for either the park or the guest!). And, most importantly, getting people to think about the future of the world in which they live doesn’t have to be dull – it can be inspiring and memorable.

That was the promise that EPCOT Center once held. It’s the promise that could again guide EPCOT in the future.

To see how potent a tool EPCOT can be in shaping hearts and minds, Disney need look no further than where even the president acknowledges we’ve made missteps in energy creation and consumption … then imagine a world in which it had taken the guiding principles of EPCOT Center to heart and built upon them, rather than tearing them down.

Thursday, May 03, 2007

A Fresh Start

Many apologies for the long time that has passed since my last significant post; work and personal issues have just been a little overwhelming lately (in a good way). But I couldn’t let more time go by without thanking you for all of the e-mails and comments, and also for the information that several readers have passed on to me.

Brad Rex, who has been the head of EPCOT for a number of years, apparently is stepping down to take a job at a hotel chain. We wish him success. Leading EPCOT into the future is Jim MacPhee, who by all accounts has shown he’s, to quote three individual readers who sent me the news, “a good guy.”

Let’s hope so. EPCOT could use a good guy, ideally one who will no longer try to make EPCOT into something it’s not, who will recognize that there are some really impressive attributes to the theme park. In the spirit of moving ahead with a fresh start, I wanted to offer some random thoughts and suggestions to Jim as he prepares for his new role, ideas that he might want to think about when contemplating what is to become of Disney’s most unique theme park.

Let’s start with what I consider to be the most pressing:

* Don’t succumb to the relentless Pixar-ization of EPCOT. Just because Ratatouille takes place in the culinary world of Paris, for instance, does not mean Bistro de Paris should suddenly become “Ratatouille CafĂ©,” or that the little rat should host a new version of Impressions de France. The beauty of EPCOT is how it is so obviously, clearly, unequivocally Disney … without being Disney-ized. Or, at least, it used to be.

* Explore your playground. EPCOT has an abundance of possibility, sitting there waiting to be discovered. But you won’t do it from the confines of an office. Get out and about in the park, recognize that some of your peers and predecessors throughout the Disney organization have failed or succeeded based on the simple action of walking the park with regularity (or, sadly, not doing that). EPCOT is a place filled with opportunities to discover new things – both for guests and for executives. You’ll never see them if you don’t know every nook and cranny of this massive park.

* Be proud of EPCOT’s different-ness. Conversely, don’t be ashamed of it. EPCOT is unlike any other theme park anywhere in the world. For many years, what gave EPCOT its truly unique personality was that it didn’t rely on characters and cartoons for its appeal. But lately, no one seems willing to give EPCOT its due, and the endless “integration” (though almost always with a slapped-on feel) of cartoon characters has taken over. Insist that EPCOT be excellent of its own accord and revel in the fact that it is most assuredly not The Magic Kingdom or the Disney-MGM Studios. It requires thought and a little effort – both on behalf of guests and the executives and Imagineers who develop it. Don’t let that scare you off; it’s a great challenge!

* Become an EPCOT evangelist. From Burbank to Orlando, from Bob Iger on down, a great many Disney executives simply don’t “get” EPCOT. It defies easy categorization. That’s where you come in. You’ve got to work hard to make “them” see and understand why EPCOT is so unique and therefore so valuable to Disney. This is your chance to proselytize to them, to educate them, to bring them around to the idea that EPCOT can influence Disney – not just vice-versa.

* Study the past. Steep yourself in the remarkable history of the park, understand why it was created; spend time looking over the extraordinary collection of EPCOT literature, concept designs and materials that are in the Walt Disney Archives and at Imagineering. You will be amazed at how EPCOT’s latest changes haven’t even come close to the daring and excitement that infused the park 20 years ago. Odd how we’ve regressed in many ways, isn’t it? EPCOT’s past can inform its future.

* Respond to criticism. That’s not a sly reference to this website, but to the many “fan-critics” of EPCOT. There’s a reason we don’t like what EPCOT has become: Because it should be much more! The readers of this blog have made excellent observations; I hope you will use their insight and feedback in positive ways. Please know we only want to see what’s best for EPCOT. It’s not true that we don’t want EPCOT to change – that’s exactly what we want. But we don’t want it to conform. Like watchful parents over a teenager who is learning how to be independent, we’re seeing EPCOT try to be like everyone else when it needs to spread its wings and grow and become its own unique entity that can flourish and thrive within the broader world of Disney.

* Make the little improvements, not just the big ones. It’s all well and good to create some big new attraction or to renovate a pavilion; though we may not always agree with the changes, we do at least try to appreciate them. But all that money spent is meaningless if the little things don’t keep up. What about those horribly beaten-up signs throughout the park? What about the fact that the post-show area of Universe of Energy is pretty empty? Or that the planters out in front of the “old” Wonders of Life pavilion make it look like a theme-park version of Chernobyl? (Thanks to Kevin Yee of Miceage for writing about many of these small problems, at EPCOT and elsewhere, that increasingly make Disney look cheap and embarrassing.)

* Appreciate the classics. While far too many people at Disney don’t consider them as such, EPCOT has some truly classic attractions. Just as you wouldn’t (I hope, I hope, I hope) mess with Pirates of the Caribbean or The Haunted Mansion too badly, EPCOT’s classics should be regarded as exactly that. Take what happened to Journey Into (Your) Imagination as a warning; view the Nemo-ized version of the Seas dubiously. Just because they respond to the trendy notion of making EPCOT more kid-friendly does not mean that they will stand the test of time.

* Listen to your instinct and to your EPCOT experts within Disney – not just to the guests. A guest will gladly tell you that the Teletubbies should be at EPCOT or that the Madagascar cast should be at Animal Kingdom. A guest will tell you that EPCOT needs more kiddie or thrill rides or more Disney characters. In full vacation mode, a guest will give you just about any observation you want … except, maybe, a thoughtful or well-reasoned one. And why should s/he? This is vacation time, not time for serious contemplation. That’s what you’re paid for! Take that responsibility seriously and really put some thought into what EPCOT should be, not just how it can be shaped to make the marketing and finance folks happy.

* Believe that good enough isn’t good enough. Being “good enough” may work for your competition, but both at EPCOT and at Walt Disney World, that’s not even the bare minimum you need to get by. You need to thrill and excite and move your guests, and that means you’ve got to put thought and effort into every single thing in your parks, from the attractions themselves down to the planters and trash cans. The best thing you could possibly be is highly critical. Do more than please the least-demanding guest – please the most-discerning ones; when you try for that, you’re bound to please everyone, not just some folks.

* Think about that wand. Why do so many of us care so much about that stupid thing? Because it represents everything that’s been wrong about the past 10 years of thinking at EPCOT: It’s tacky, over-the-top and unnecessary. A great many people (not just the “crazy” fans) think Spaceship Earth is one of the most iconic and evocative pieces of architecture ever created – not just at a Disney theme park, but anywhere. Personally, I believe it rivals the astonishing simplicity of the Egyptian pyramids or the sleek elegance of the Eiffel Tower. It is a masterpiece. And it has been topped off with an eyesore. If a guest doesn’t know s/he’s at EPCOT, if the fact that s/he’s in the heart of Walt Disney World isn’t patently obvious, there’s a problem with the guest … not the extraordinary visual symbol at the heart of what was once one of the most wonderful places on earth.

I believe EPCOT can be that again. I hope you do, too.