Friday, December 28, 2007

Eight for Oh-Eight

As we head out of 2007 and into 2008, EPCOT Center’s 25th anniversary is only a memory ... but not the feelings it stirred. Although I wasn’t there, I’ve seen photos and obtained some of the merchandise. For one fine day, Disney was willing to acknowledge that the fast-paced, frenetic, identity-challenged theme park that has become Epcot had a past. And a great one, at that.

But it’s not time for looking back, it’s time for looking ahead. In that spirit, here are eight suggestions for EPCOT in the New Year, four for Future World, four for World Showcase:


8) De-clutter
There are few places in the world (both capitalized and not) that are quite as lovely as World Showcase on a warm evening just before Illuminations. If, that is, you’re facing the water. Look behind you, and you’re likely to see cast members acting like carnival barkers, hawking needless, and needlessly expensive, doo-dads like glo-sticks, light-up necklaces and your basic sideshow junk. This is exactly the sort of experience that is not supposed to happen at a Disney theme park. Clean up those walkways and let your guests bask in the spirit and atmosphere of World Showcase at night.

7) Cut it Short
Let’s be honest: Martin Short’s appearance in the revised O Canada film is pathetically unfunny and out of place. Even assuming 40 percent of the audience knows who the actor is, having Short “host” this experience is completely out of keeping with the concept of the pavilion’s feature attraction. It’s OK to admit mistakes. In fact, it’s a good thing. A couple of weeks in the cutting room would do wonders to this movie, updating the CircleVision/travelogue experience, while eliminating the superfluous appearances of a “Canadian celebrity.” Many people have said they “don’t mind” the new O Canada, but I’ve yet to hear from anyone who loves it. Canada deserves better than this, and has much spectacle to offer ... as anyone who saw the previous version can tell you.

6) Show us OUR world
No one likes looking at pictures of themselves 25 years ago; fewer still like seeing pictures of other people as they were “back then.” So why do Impressions de France and the wonderful (and sadly neglected) film in the Norway pavilion look so dated? I’d like to believe Norwegians have advanced beyond monochrome computer display terminals and big 1980s hair. Or that the Monaco Grand Prix has developed a little beyond what we see in Impressions. These are lovely movies, but they don’t showcase the world as we know it today. If you can spend millions to develop a Kim Possible interactive “adventure,” can’t you spend a little bit of money to properly present the home countries of tens of millions of people?

5) Put princesses in proper perspective
I know, I know, I know ... I don’t have kids, so I can’t possibly know what it is like to have a screaming six-year-old girl tell me over and over how bored she is. More than anything, that makes me wonder why a six-year-old who clearly isn’t ready to appreciate a place like EPCOT is doing there in the first place. OK, there, I’ve said it. But more than that, what about the rest of us? What about those millions of visitors a year who come without kids, who are actually excited by the prospect of visiting different pavilions in EPCOT and, particularly, dining on meals they couldn’t get at home? To put a fine point on it: Please bring back the former incarnation of Akershus. If you absolutely need to do a princess meal there, do it once a day, but there are many people who don’t really like what Akershus has become and who miss their old favorite restaurant. With its authentic Norwegian food (which really is quite a unique cuisine), Akershus offered something few people can ever find outside of Norway itself. It was a grand place. Now (even for some parents I know – admit it, you’re out there) it has become virtually insufferable. There are plenty of other princess opportunities; you can’t say that about Norwegian restaurants.


4) Get a Life
The Walt Disney Company has revenues on the order of $30 billion a year. It’s worth $65 billion. It’s impossible for me to believe, even with a basic understanding of the economics of the situation, that The Walt Disney Company cannot re-open and maintain the Wonders of Life pavilion at EPCOT without a sponsor. Around the world, people have never been as curious, concerned and intrigued about their bodies, and the science that is helping to improve and maintain them, than they are now. The Wonders of Life needed a massive overhaul, there’s no doubt about it. But closure wasn’t quite the overhaul anyone had in mind. Now, there’s a “Closed for Business” sign in a window at EPCOT, and it is unattractive, embarrassing and completely unnecessary. With the imagination and money Disney has at its disposal, something can surely be done here in 2008.

3) Innovent
Is that even a verb? If “Innoventions” is a noun, then I guess it is. But something needs to be done about Innoventions. Maybe it should be turned back into CommuniCore? Maybe it needs to be gutted? Maybe Disney needs to assign a staff of two or three people to focus only, and completely, on Innoventions, and the rest of the massive structures that form “Innoventions plaza”? From Day 1, these have been admittedly overlooked. But architecturally, they serve an important purpose, of separating the two sides of Future World, of not overwhelming visitors by giving them vistas of massive pavilions, of visually linking the two halves of EPCOT with a straight shot down to the American Adventure pavilion. They work as architecture ... it’s what’s inside of them that’s the problem. I’ve probably got more “new” technology in my home than is represented in much of Innoventions. It needs some help. Badly. (Oh, and please don’t just throw Pixar or Disney cartoon characters into it!)

2) De-clutter
Yeah, you need to do it here, too. First up, those Ballzac stations. Please, please get rid of them. Like those glow-y things over at World Showcase, no one needs them, they add nothing to the EPCOT experience and, in this particular case, they’re borderline dangerous. Ever had to duck to avoid a mis-thrown or un-caught Ballzac? Ugh. Second, and more to the point, make good on the rumor to tear down the purple circus-tent poles that prevent a good view of Spaceship Earth from anywhere in Innoventions Plaza. They’re unsightly, they don’t actually create much shade (or cool things down) and they ruin a marvelous landmark. Let’s hope those rumors are true!

1) Energize
The Universe of Energy pavilion is in desperate need of work. What we’re talking about, essentially, are a few really creative, exciting, vibrant films (and maybe the return of the Radok blocks, while you’re at it?). I don’t know a lot about theme-park production, but I know a bit about the entertainment industry, and I’d find it hard to believe that between Walt Disney Animation Studios, Pixar and Imagineering, you couldn’t create something incredible for the Universe of Energy. I like Ellen. Really. I watch her show whenever I can. But she never really fit into this pavilion, and now that she’s still paired with Bill Nye and a 15-year-old version of Jeopardy!, it all feels so terribly outdated. Perhaps no single topic is as valid, as necessary, as exciting and as potentially fascinating as the future of our world’s energy needs. There’s a minor miracle of an attraction waiting to happen here, one that could very well define a new style of Disney theme-park attraction – combining the ride vehicle, Audio-Animatronics, 3-D, computer-generated imagery, live performers, music, interactivity and education. It could be mind-blowing.

Hey, it could happen!

Whatever the case, here’s hoping that the positive steps that have been taken at EPCOT will continue into the future ... and that this becomes the year Disney understands that EPCOT is a brand unto itself, it has a meaning, it is a place that matters. It doesn’t need a lot of cartoon overlays and meaningless thrill rides. EPCOT is something special.

Happy New Year, EPCOT ... and EPCOT lovers!

Thursday, December 13, 2007

The Future, the Past and Constant Change

I'm back. I'll be honest about the fact that I've not been keeping up with the blog, and I'm sorry for those of you who come back here regularly looking for a new post. In part, it's because after the deconstruction of the wand and the passing of the 25th anniversary of EPCOT, there hasn't been a whole lot to talk about. But mostly, it's because, not living in Florida, I haven't been to EPCOT recently.

Yes, I've seen the pictures of those truly horrid, unnecessary and ugly "security" gates at EPCOT. (Honestly, while I realize WDW is an attractive target, in the past six years, has anything truly warranted this kind of person-to-person, put-borders-around-the-park security, or is this just our national paranoia and Disney's "risk management" group working hand in hand? Those gates just remind us that Disney wants to control our every move, and no longer in subtle, elegantly designed ways.

I'm as eager for you to experience the newly refurbished Spaceship Earth, and while I try to be optimistic, I can't help but already be disappointed by the Orlando Sentinel's report that the communication theme has been dropped for a generic "inspiration and innovation" concept. This means that, almost completely, the original design for EPCOT has been wiped away -- no longer do each of the pavilions represent a key aspect of human nature or our environment that we must learn and study to become responsible "passengers" on Spaceship Earth; now, all EPCOT is saying is we need to be inspired and have a lot of fun. That subtle distinction will be lost on nearly everyone who visits. But for those of us who grew up studying and admiring EPCOT Center, mesmerized by what it tried to do and how it worked, there's a massive disappointment that Imagineers and John Lasseter didn't try harder to make Spaceship Earth the first return to EPCOT's ideals, rather than the latest departure.

Many of you will once again send me notes and post comments that I'm simply a thick-skulled purist who doesn't want anything to change. That actually couldn't be further from the truth. Like many, I'm both fascinated by and skeptical of change. I want the world, my own life, and even theme parks to always be changing, growing and improving. But the latter word is the key. If change is simply made for its own sake, or to give up on a formidable challenge, then it's not laudable. It's just change. EPCOT is continuing, it appears, to just change.

So, who cares?

Well, click on the YouTube video at the top of this post. You may have seen it recently; I just discovered it, and it reminded me today of why yesterday's vision of the future was so compelling, so optimistic ... and so exciting.

This is the sort of opportunity that Walt Disney imagined "The Future" held for all of us. I was entranced by this video clip, which is absolutely genuine, produced by Philco and starring a young Wink Martindale. It shares the same clear-cut view of "The Future" that infused everything EPCOT did from 1982 to about 1997. Our lives were going to be better, we should rest assured that the world would be a fantastic place ... and it would just keep on getting more and more incredible, opening up to us new opportunities, new possibilties.

The most astounding part is how much this video got right. Likewise, EPCOT got a tremendous amount right, too, from fiber optics to touch screens; from globalization to our need to search for alternate energy sources to the potential of The Living Seas. It showed us that we needed to understand our bodies and minds, and even offered us glimpses of what new technology would do for us. Just like this educational film, EPCOT didn't proceed from a place of skepticism (as I acknowledge I do more and more as I age) or commercialism. Yes, of course, this film was produced by a corporation, I realize that. But it promised us wonderful things ... and it was right.

We believed we could do anything in the 1960s and 1970s. We believed there truly were possibilities, that technology, science and exploration would continue fueling our progress. And look what happened.

It makes me sad to contemplate where we'll be in 41 more years.

And it makes me sad to see EPCOT's grand vision and design fading away even further. I sure wish EPCOT Center could make a return. To quote That's Entertainment ...

Boy, do we need it now.