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.


Epcot82 said...

Readers, I am sorry that someone decided to post a commercial statement here, and that they were too cowardly to associate an e-mail address with the comment. My apologies.

Brian said...

...but this isn't how Epcot works. All of the best stories at Epcot have always been sponsor-driven; the more money the sponsor had the better the story was. And getting someone like Exxon to sponsor a message about alternative energy is going to be difficult when the oil companies are experiencing record profits on sales of gasoline.

You're almost looking for some sort of non-profit, non-sponsor-driven educational facility--like a "living PBS." But that's not what Epcot is nor was it ever like that. Epcot is a showplace for ideas from companies around the world, like every World's Fair and Expo that preceded it.

I do think what you're asking is possible. I believe there are small startups (maybe like the one that spammed you above?) who are probably already in existence who have some answers to our dependence on oil; getting their name on a pavilion at Epcot would be a great way for them to garner some publicity. It'll only be a matter of time before they have the deep pockets of a company like ExxonMobil. Then they can tell the story the way they want to.

(Yes, I agree that nuclear energy solves a lot more problems than it creates; in the current incarnation of UoE Bill Nye glosses over it as "controversial." That does sort of piss me off; I'm sure he had to grit his teeth when he delivered the line because he knew what was being held back.)

(visit my pet project at :)

Virtual Toad said...

Brian said: "Epcot is a showplace for ideas from companies around the world, like every World's Fair and Expo that preceded it."

That's been true in the past, and it's one of the reasons EPCOT (arguably) worked so well in the beginning. But things have changed. Siemens *is* sponsoring Spaceship Earth, but GE left Horizons, Exxon abandoned UoE, and United Technologies pulled out of the Living Seas.

In the wake of so many major sponsors leaving, Disney is left to decide on its own what to do with the pavilions. Should they become more "Disney-like" (read: cartoonish), as has happened with The Seas with Nemo and Friends? Or, as epcot82 has suggested, can Disney take the reins and create thoughtful, educational and inspirational attractions without corporations guiding the content? Is this something modern-day Disney is even interested in doing?

The sponsorship exodus could be why we've been left with such a confusing Future World over the last several years. But, moving forward, if Disney realizes the value in a more serious EPCOT, if they go back to their original playbook, the sky really is the limit.

A well-thought-out Universe of Energy *without* interference from Big Oil could be a truly moving and-- given the current energy situation-- a truly *vital* experience. Walt Disney wanted to inspire dreams of the future, to change the world, and a new UoE pavilion created with that spirit in mind could help fulfill EPCOT's promise by doing just that.

There's no doubt we could all use some optimistic thinking about the future right about now. Is this something the Disney beancounters can quantify as a "market demand?" I don't know. But if the whole aim of Disney Parks is to make money by making people feel good, then I really do think a more "serious" EPCOT that makes people feel good about the future is a viable enterprise that has enourmous social value as well.

JStone423 said...

a) If solely WDI was in charge of UoE, I think we would have seen more than just dinosaurs and movies, don't you?

b) Remember GE's exhibit at the 1964 World's Fair that talked about "safe" and "clean" nuclear engery? Classic.

I would love to see an update of UoE (God knows it's time), however, I am a little gun shy as to if they were to update it know, what Pixar character would be shoved in there.
Maybe UofE could stay under its rock until the Blizzard of Pixar rolls through.

Brian said...

Nothing big happens in Epcot without heavy sponsorship. :)

Not trying to be a downer, but... UoE won't get magically rebuilt with an unbiased view of the future of energy without any sponsorship.

Given Disney's track record with Epcot, I'm surprised it is still in operation - the maintenance costs on UoE must be insane!

It's possible that they're _working_ on getting new sponsorship for it (BP maybe? they seem to be the most progressive-looking big oil company, at least on the surface) which is why it's still in operation.

For comparison, I suspect Horizons wasn't very "marketable" to another sponsor once GE pulled out.

Anonymous said...

It may be time for a serious re-evaluation of whether sponors are needed and even helpful for EPCOT. When EPCOT was conceived, Disney was not the global media powerhouse it has become. Certainly its deep pockets AND its influence make it possible for Disney to "go it alone" at EPCOT?

As pointed out by others, if Living Seas can work without a sponsor, why couldn't other pavilions, certainly ones that cover topics as important as health and energy?

It is silly for Disney to imply that an EPCOT pavilion MUST have a sponsor. It is not so silly to contemplate the major global influence Disney has become and to conceive of an EPCOT in which Disney designed the messaging and didn't leave it up to another company.

Solely on the financial level, however, for Disney or anyone to hint that EPCOT's pavilions are too expensive for the company to run them on its own is borderline insulting. The tens of millions of dollars it takes to run a pavilion are more than offset by the near-record profits in the theme-park division and the company overall.

Brian said...

EPCOT was originally designed to be a showplace for commerical ideas.

This point was hammered home by Marty Sklar himself last week when I saw him speak at the EMP here in Seattle - "Disney saw himself as a go-between between big faceless corporations and the general public." He went on to say that Disney could, more than anyone else, articulate corporate stories in a way that made the companies more friendly and approchable.

EPCOT was designed from the ground up to be sponsored by corporations- to show off their wares & technologies. It takes truly big money and branding to do this, even with Disney's humongous cash piles.

What you guys are looking for is _not_ EPCOT - it's a publically-owned educational park of the future. :)

This is not to say that that's not possible...

(darn, I should put this on my blog)

Anonymous said...

Very well written and exactly the fresh start you spoke of in your last post. Thank you. I was the "Anonymous" who gave you a hard time on you last post. (I only posted once by the way...)
Thank you for really doing a beautiful job.

Captain Schnemo said...

You can't present even the weakest analysis of the future without addressing the energy issue. My diappointment in the missed opportunity of Universe of Energy is up there with the sense of loss scientists felt when Reagan removed the solar panels Carter put on the White House, slashed funding for R&D, and told Americans to drink up...the oil is tasty and plentiful! We could have solved these problems 25 years ago. Oh well.

Epcot can still be a place where businesses hawk their wares (although there's no reason that needs to continue to be so...most attractions in other parks are somehow built despite the lack of sponsorship), but putting an oil company in charge of a futuristic energy pavilion is ludicrous and counterproductive.

There was some hope along these lines in the past, what with the electric car in Innoventions (or was it still Communicore?) and the Lean Machine at World of Motion.

Then again, World of Motion was similarly corrupted by the sponsor, most clearly demonstrated by the short film that explained that anyone who tries to look beyond the internal combustion engine is a lunatic.

Epcot82 said...

And now consider where we are today. Toyota is about to make a hydrogen-powered vehicle, while it sold 300,000 Prius hybrids last year. California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger is encouraging his state to adopt solar power. Leading presidential front-runners are embracing the view that we have to make drastic changes in the way we drive, consume energy and think about our future.

And yet Disney does little to promote understanding and responsibility for our future at EPCOT, they just add more fun characters. If ever there were a major action Disney could take to showcase the kind of commitment to the future that Walt Disney espoused, it's here. And nothing's being done ... at least, not yet. Hopefully that wlil change.

Anonymous said...

Now if they combined The Universe of Energy with a new World Showcase Saudi Arabia exibit, it just might work. Have an animatronic Saudi Royal family tell everyone in America how they are going to control our economy through the price of oil.
A Venezuela pavilon could also have Great Moments with Hugo Chavez. He can tell everyone how he hates America, but will sell us all the oil we need.

Anonymous said...

Because that's what I want to see when I am on vacation. An alarming recap of our energy crisis.

Anonymous said...

Tomorrow's Child, I think the ideal scenario would be more the other way around. One embarks on their vacation with the troubles of the world still on their shoulders, but at Epcot one learns that there are promising solutions to these problems -- and each of us can truly make a difference. The enabling factor of these types of educational and entertaining presentations is much more powerful than looking for a lost clown fish. Instead of indulging in escapist entertainment and dreading the return to the "real world", (and believe me, I think that escapist entertainment has it's place in this world), one returns home with new ideas, feeling enabled and optimistic.

Our relationship with corporations is a more troublesome issue. The public has been betrayed too often by corporate negligence, or outright misconduct. Despite the best intentions of a corporation that says it's working for the greater good, the public has realized that what it really comes down to is making the fast buck. Profit always seems to win out over the greater good.

With that said, it has been demonstrated over and over again in history that many of the the greatest advances in our society have been driven by capitalist endeavors. Walt Disney was correct that our future lies in many of these companies. Perhaps if anything, the role of Future World is to help us feel better about our relationship with corporate America, (now expanded to global proportions). An incredible show like Horizons went a long way to make all but a few feel warm and fuzzy towards even a large industrial conglomerate like GE.

Epcot82 said...

Thank you, Dean. You said it better than I could! There are ways -- many, many ways -- to "teach" and inform and entertain at the same time without it being boring or imposing. Hopefully there are Imagineers who still believe that, too, and are up for the challenge.

All you need to do is go to a Museum of Science and Industry in just about any major city to see it being done wonderfully -- in ways EPCOT Center might have done years ago. It can be done. It can be fantastic!

Anonymous said...

What I see as the central question here is does Epcot want to do the work to allow it’s theme (optimistic, futurism, edutainment) OFE to permeate future world.

Let’s examine UOE. Most of the pavilion is a gigantic moving theater with very large animatronic dinosaurs. The architecture, ride mechanism, art, animatronics and special effects are all just a medium to entertain and the overwhelming portion of cost goes here.

Because this is Epcot I think they need to address energy in the pavilion after the ride and what bothers me is I don’t think it would take much money to do so in an interactive way. The toddlers and teens can walk on by, and those that care can touch a cross-section of a windmill, rotate a small solar panel, or breathe the exhaust from a hydrogen engine.

My point is a branding point. If the ride-theater is the bulk of the cost and you change the movie to the Toy Story Dinosaur saying “I wonder what real dinosaurs were like” then suddenly this pavilion belongs in Disney’s California Adventure accept for the solar panels on the roof.

WDI may entertain how they wish, but if they don’t do the work to add OFE then they cheapen and weaken the Epcot brand.

One more example: Soaring. The ride mechanism and the feeling of flight cost the most and sells the tickets but imagine all the places you could fly over and what it would mean to the attraction. Fly over Teletubies and it is a ride for infants, Fly over Darfur and Iraq and it is a political statement, fly over Hollywood and the ride belongs in MGM studios, fly over savanna’s and it belongs in animal kingdom, fly with the X-men and it belongs in universal studios. Fly over several beautiful scenes of nature in a pavilion called The Land and now you have an Epcot attraction.

Anonymous said...

I have heard from an inside source that there are current plans to reinvent UoE into a large-cale 'Peter Pan's Flight' attraction.

Can you imagine.

Anonymous said...

For those who have asked for it:

He's the new head of EPCOT. Send him your thoughts and comments!

Anonymous said...

On the day in late October of 1980 that the UOE plans were release it was all about the sponsor and how to make the UOE match the sponsors objective. For the sake of publicity Exxon supplied the solar panels from their Solar Power Division. GM supplied the wayside and on board computer systems from their Automatic Guided Vehicles Division. A nice sponsor lounge on the second floor to be used by Exxon as needed. Imagine the changes needed to UEO if an energy related sponsor that has nothing to do with oil coming in and trying fit a show to their own needs. I think they would rather start over with a new pavilion.