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 …


Anonymous said...

I don't have any vivid memories of the place, but I do know that Journey Into Imagination really shaped me as a person, and probably is responsible for the overactive imagination I have now.
EPCOT was always my favourite park of the three when I was a kid, and probably because of that ride alone.

Kevin Carter said...

"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."

You must not follow Star Wars geeks very much. If our desire is to follow Lucas's way of PR then no thank you. The rabid star wars fans love the original trilogy but they almost destroyed Lucas over the new trilogy. He went commercial over telling a great story and the fans bit him over it.

I'd say that if anything the comparison is more like both parties screwing up their original vision over one keeping this wonderful legacy while the other destroyed theirs.

Anonymous said...

I would echo what kcnole said. I think it is quite a stretch to suggest that Star Wars "remained true" to its soul. Also, it is quite difficult to compare fairly a living, breathing, growing entity like a theme park, to a relatively static product like a film. Yes, Lucas made updates and changes, but it is quite a different medium than EPCOT. Not a lot of regular maintenance is required to keep people fond of something that everyone owns on DVD.

Also, don't underestimate the fact that the original creative genius behind Star Wars is still alive and driving the vision. It's tough to compare that since we really can't predict what EPCOT would be today if Walt was still the one steering the ship.

Anonymous said...

While I'm not a Star Wars "geek", I do appreciate the new trilogy as it relates to the originals. I also enjoy the action scenes, cinematography, and the technological advances. The same can't be said for Epcot as it stands today. The majority of the park has remained stagnant. With the exception of few new attractions and decorations, the upgrades/updates haven't kept with the times. I still love the architecture of both Future World and World Showcase, but somehow the present story line doesn't fit the original.

Anonymous said...

Disney has lost it and so has George Lucas!

Anonymous said...

Now lets think about Epcot if in Fact Walt was here today.

Lucas' dreamed up Star Wars. Yes he had alot of help, but ultimately it was all him. He made an amazing first three movies (Empire Strikes Back is truely a work of art). But who here liked Episode one? Come on Jar Jar Binks, it gives me the willies to even type his name. Lucas made some bad choices, sacrificing story for Fart and poop Jokes (both in Episode one). Now this can be written off that Lucas was making the Second Trillogy in a different time, with a different culture. And what would the second Trillogy looked like if it was made by the 1970-1980’s Lucas? Darker, heavier, less Jar Jarier? Plus, I do not think Lucas had someone saying "You cannot do that." Like the Disney accounteneers do with the current state of Epcot. Lucas was in total control.

Really what would Epcot be today, if Walt was the one that ultimately had the final say on everything? Much different? I still think we would have seen Mission Space, but with a better story deeper story.

Ultimately, Epcot and Star Wars ended up the same. Initally the idea was Amazing and Well executed. When it came time to expand on this idea that was when the vision was lost.

But still both of them hold a warm spot in my heart.

I too am saddened that there is No Epcot Celebration 25. Was it because the Year of a Milion Dreams idea would be overshadowed? Was Epcot not ready, with one Pavilion not being used (WoL) and still some being redone (SSE). Maybe they need a new Soarin’ movie before they celebrate? We will never know? But lets all do this, lets look to Epcot’s 30th anniversary. Lets make sure that the Guys in Orlando that we want Epcot to be celebrated.

May the Force be with you.

Paul Levinson said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Paul Levinson said...

Delighted with this celebration - the most important series of movies ever made ... Ten Reasons to Like the Clones

matagin said...

Hi there! Love you blog and have found it very insightful. I am going to EPCOT this weekend and spending a full day there to take it all in. It has been years since I was there. I did go when I was a pre-teen back in 1984 and just loved it. I really want to take it all in this weekend and make sure that I really focus on the areas that still have some of the original EPCOT still intact. I will be taking lots of high quality photos with my Canon Rebel XT. I recently purchased the original hardback souvenir books from Ebay (the awesome 239 page tome with incredible paintings and photos and the smaller condensed version too). The original vision of EPCOT is very inspiring. Have you listened to the Meandering Mouse podcast? The host talks about some of the original parts of EPCOT. Start with the one on Horizons. It is very good. I will post a report of my visit when I return. Take care!

Anonymous said...

Just a quick point, Epcot the theme park was not Walt’s idea. He wanted a real city. A laboratory to apply design and planning to overcome the problems of cities and societies. He wanted to fill this city with scientists and for the biggest corporations to use this city to test and develop their plans for the future. Only Walt could dream so big.

When Walt died his company felt they couldn’t pull it off (perhaps their financiers pulled the plug) so they settled for what they thought they could do. Develop a theme park on a world’s fair model, considering they ran the best theme park in the world and they had developed many of the best world’s fair attractions.

I loved Epcot on day 1 and still enjoy it to this day, but let’s remember Walt had something completely different in mind. Perhaps it would have been something for the history books (EPCOT as the Rome of its era) or, perhaps it would have bankrupted the Disney Company. I guess we will never know.

Anonymous said...

And just to add to the previous post--yes, EPCOT Center is quite different from what Walt imagined EPCOT to be, but I don't feel it's entirely accurate to phrase it as "WDI decided to turn Walt's idea into a theme park". We've come to know it as a theme park, yes (and it's certainly just a theme park today) but at its conception EPCOT Center was meant to be that living, breathing place where technological breakthroughs were made, not merely showcased with special effects along an Omnimover track. Whether that was ever quite the reality, even in 1982, is debatable, but I think that's certainly how it was envisioned--as a functioning center that tourists happened to visit, not one that was built exclusively for them. It's not a city, no, but it wasn't really all that different from Walt's vision.

There's a video floating around featuring 1982 interviews with the original creators of EPCOT Center (more specifically Spaceship Earth)--watch it if you can, because it's hard not to be moved by how strongly they believe that they're creating a working "future world", not just a park with a futuristic theme.

Anonymous said...

At the risk of a flame war……….

Yes stuff was supposed to be developed and made, and tourists were supposed to visit WHEN IT WAS A CITY. You can’t be serious that almost any advancement (beyond some data from the land) was going to be developed in the space provided in the park.

Few companies in the world did more R&D than the original sponsors of Epcot. In 1982 how many acres and employees were used in R&D by Bell Labs in other states? How many of their Nobel Prize winners were working full time in a closet behind the ball at Epcot? I bet the average community college had more experiments going on in 1982 than were being conducted in Epcot.

Showcase - yes. R&D lab - not really.

Anonymous said...

No flame wars--your post is totally valid, so I'll try to explain myself better (and still, a lot of it will be opinion--it's just my interpretation of what I've read and heard from the park's original creators, which isn't exactly everything there is to know about the park's history).

No, EPCOT Center never was a true research and development lab, but I guess the point I was trying to make is that it wasn't entirely envisioned as "just a theme park" either, like so many defenders of Walt's EPCOT make it out to be. Clearly the park space was not designed for true laboratories (although my post does make it sound like I'm claiming that, and thanks for calling me on it)...I think what I meant was that EPCOT Center was not just built as a large-scale Tomorrowland. It was a place where innovation was really alive and present in every detail, and where the future was not just meant to be a concept that was "showcased" to guests with slick films and AAs. For instance, buildings like Spaceship Earth and Universe of Energy were not just warehouses that held future-themed rides--they were revolutionary architectural feats in and of themselves, even if all that innovation wasn't immediately visible to guests.

When I mentioned that "technological breakthroughs" were to be made at EPCOT Center, I didn't quite mean R&D as you said (obviously that was going on in earnest at countless other labs around the world)...I just wanted to emphasize that it was not envisioned as merely a fake, glossy "themed park" about the future, but as a legitimate center that was the future. In that sense, I still firmly believe that the idea for EPCOT Center was not terribly different from Walt's--it was just not a city.

As we all know, Epcot today is nothing more than a "themed park". Heck, it's even clear from the early days that the idea of a totally fuctioning "future world" was not fully realized (take Horizons, which, beautiful attraction thought it was, was clearly just a "showcase"-type ride in a pretty typical building). But I think it's important to remember (as this blog does) that the original vision for EPCOT Center was nothing like the lackluster park we see today and therefore shouldn't be blasted as some sort of "cop-out" or violation of Walt's dream. I think that, at its core, it was a rather brilliant and much more feasible derivation of Walt's dream; such a shame there's no evidence of that left today.

Anonymous said...

I've studied the city plan for EPCOT extensively and have seen the concepts of an EPCOT theme park.

The theme park element really went through many variations, that picture on this blog is one of those many, and that's even a late one compared to some others.

What EPCOT the city was supposed to be was a working community with cast members as residents and peoplemover transportation to go throughout the city. The downtown area was to be a world showcase of sorts, so that's how the idea of that came about.

Also, there was a separate portion of the city plan that was to be the industrial center, where the top American companies would be building the lastest concepts for the city. I think when they decided upon turning the idea into a theme park, they wanted to have something similar, a research park, although that also grew into more of a technology showcase for the many sponsors.

Captain Schnemo said...

The original park did have a number of elements that showed off futuristic technology and not just the bits for show, such as those at The Land. The touch screen kiosks, the video phones used to make restaurant reservations after Spaceship Earth, the solar panels on Universe of Energy, etc. were all integrated into the park itself. They weren't attractions in their own right, but they really gave you a sense that this was different from just a park full of rides. Actual research was also done both at The Land and The Living Seas.

Sure, all that pales in comparison to Walt's original vision, but it was something that survived in a small way, and is virtually absent now.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the clarification sdav. Honestly if I had to put a bet on the table, I bet Walt’s original Epcot dream would have bankrupted his company. I don’t consider Epcot version 1982 to be lesser version of Walt’s plan, I consider it to be a great creative success, but one that Disney hasn’t always seemed to know how to update.

Anonymous said...

Gee... the folks at Disney originally envisioned a movie pavilion at Epcot. Later, the idea was turned into Disney-MGM Studios, a working movie and animation studio. The magic of Hollywood in its heydey was to be presented with present-day real world magic. That vision lost its luster, when the promise of "Hollywood East" died. The final straw... the shuttering of Disney Feature Animation Florida. Today, the studio is "just a theme park." But at least it has a Star Wars themed attraction. Why don't you do an entire blog on that park too. Wait... there could be others, too. Disney is only true to what makes money... not your nostalgic memories of a park that would never work today.

theatreman said...

Testing to see if I get in first.

Anonymous said...

Okay I’ll bite. You are correct, “the great movie ride” was to be added to Epcot and eventually became the centerpiece for it’s own park. Of course it has little to nothing to do with Epcot, but that probably didn’t bother many Disney Execs.

I’m just guessing here, but if you named yourself tommorows child, its probably not out of an affinity for second rate corporate music. (disclaimer I own the park album, love and listen to this song). I’ll bet it’s that the optomistic futurism of Epcot meant something to you.

I think you raise a great point about MGM and overall theming. That question is why do people pay $67 for a day’s ticket. Over time it became clear that “they film the new mickey mouse club in a soundstage in the park” and “they do real animation here, not in an office park” were not big draws. Like Epcot other attractions are left to age, and a corporate commitment to having all attractions build on a theme (wonder of hollywood) has waned, lessening the power of the theme.

All the parks exist to make money. Not because “Disney likes Animals“ (AK), or any other altruistic motive. I would simply argue that if Disney followed the Epcot spirit they would make the park much more enjoyable and therefore more profitable.

Captain Schnemo said...

tc: Why don't you do an entire blog on that park too.

I think the short answer is that MGM's theme has always been lame.

Geoffrey said...

I personally enjoy MGM but for different reasons than I enjoyed EPCOT. I do agree howver that Epcot has changed and not for the better it HAS gotten away from its original concepts it has become something that it never was...Cartoonish

I think Epcot and Disney as a whole needs to start listening instead of alieanating its fanbase?

Anonymous said...

For those who have asked for it:


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

Anonymous said...

I sure hope he gets this right stick to the foundation and you cant go wrong. I'll send him my thoughts on the matter.