Thursday, January 24, 2008

Every Post Critical Or Trenchant?

In the two years since EPCOT Central opened its doors, finding critics of the site hasn't been difficult. The comments tend to be similar: There's too much whining, too much complaining, too much vitriol and not enough optimism here at EPCOT Central. The consensus of these folks (themselves critical, of course) is that now that Eisner and Pressler are gone, the criticism of The Walt Disney Company should stop, and that its financial success means its creativity has been restored.

I beg to differ.

Let me get this straight: EPCOT Central does not want EPCOT to become a museum. EPCOT absolutely must continue changing, growing and evolving.

Also this: There's nothing wrong with a little dissension. Frankly, among its managers, directors, vice presidents, senior vice presidents, executive vice presidents and senior executive vice presidents, Disney could use a bit more of it.

Criticism has its place. And there is no place about which it's easier to be critical than EPCOT. What started and grew as a grand experiment (that word is even in its name!) has become a place where creativity and imagination are on scant display. What began as an effort to change the theme-park paradigm has become a place that models itself after other, lesser, parks.
And that's why criticism is important.

The Seas With Nemo and Friends may be fine. Gran Fiesta over at Mexico may well be fully entertaining. Disney Princess dining at Akershus may be the height of wonderment for a 5-year-old girl.

But they're not EPCOT.

I've used this comparison before, but I'll trot it out again: As a student, even through my grad-school years, I received B's and C's where other students received A's and B's. It seemed patently unfair, but the teachers and professors always gave the same explanation. "This is very good work," they'd say. "And for another student, it would deserve an A. But I've seen that you can do better. So, comparing yourself only to you, you deserve a B." Or, worse, a C. Average. For me.

They were right. But still I persisted in coasting by, content with my B's and C's because I'd still get the occasional A, and as long as my GPA was above 3.3 or so, I was happy. It was enough.
Only now, years later, have I learned how I cheated myself.

EPCOT gets low marks from me (frankly, a few D-minuses are in there, though Disney's general quality still rescues these efforts from failing completely). That's because The Walt Disney Company generates too much revenue, is too flush with cash for capital investment, to warrant giving EPCOT stellar grades. Disney is capable of far too much to allow a mediocre product like EPCOT to continue struggling.

Granted, there are far more pressing issues for Disney theme-park management. The disasters of Disney's California Adventure, Hong Kong Disneyland and The Walt Disney Studios Paris rightfully need to be addressed, and fast.

The bigger concern is why EPCOT ever fell so far so fast and how its unhappy model can be prevented in the future.

But people didn't want "EPCOT Center" -- that's an excuse I hear often. They were bored by it. EPCOT was too different. Sorry, but history is too strewn with examples of popular art that wasn't accepted at the time, but grew into classics, landmarks and masterpieces for me to accept that excuse.

Disney is a company that needs to make money. It's a for-profit company. It needs to grow revenue and income. Those are also common explanations. To that, I counter that only by offering something truly revolutionary, truly out of the ordinary, can a company grow for the long term. Walt Disney knew that, that's why he was never content to continue doing what had made him successful. An artistically driven company like Disney has to take risks, and if that turns the stomach of its top managers, why did they get into this game in the first place.

Disney is filled these days with people who got into it for one key reason: to make money for themselves. That's not a bad motivator, I have no qualm with that. But they wanted to make money fast, to do it the easy way. With projects like ABC's flagging ratings, the theme-park design fiascoes and the death of traditional animation, they're learning the lesson the hard way. It's not about the quick buck, it's about the long haul. It's about doing what's right.

But we're left with the outcome of their decisions. We're left, at EPCOT, with a vision so diluted as to be hardly recognizable.

Even when things are going well, I'll be the last person to recommend taking the easy route. As a television anchor once told me, "We're not paid to do what we do when things are going well, we're paid to do what we do when things are going down the toilet."

Now's the time for Disney to stand up for EPCOT, to admit mistakes, to take a good hard look at whether singing ducks, funny fish and marginal cartoon characters belong in a park that was explicitly designed as the one place in Disney's kingdom that would not have those things. Now is the time to really consider EPCOT's vision -- and to decide whether current Disney management wants to follow through with it.

EPCOT is a commitment made by Disney artists, designers and executives long, long ago. Should today's managers be questioning what was handed to them, or cultivating it as best they can? If they don't like what they've got, there are plenty of other places they can go that won't saddle them with these difficult creative problems.

EPCOT is too good, too valuable to Disney (and the world), too grand a notion in my mind to not hold it to a higher standard. But higher standards, well, they suck. They mean you're not graded on the curve, you're graded according to what you've shown you are capable of achieving. And for what they're being paid, Disney's executives should be capable of achieving much, much more.

And criticism has its place. As grandiose as it sounds, criticism is the foundation upon which our country and everything about it was built. It is right to be critical, and it is equally right for any reader of this blog to disagree with my criticisms.

I'm just one voice -- but one voice who has seen, for many years, how Disney operates, has seen Disney move from being a genuinely exciting, inspiring place to an organization that is simply trying to churn a buck and will strip-mine every property it has in order to do that.
As a shareholder and as a fan, I don't want to see that happen.

EPCOT Center had a vision.

I believe it can have one again.


Anonymous said...

You know, there's a crazy and completely unfeasible resolution to this problem: take EPCOT Center off of Disney's hands.

If a private consortium wanted to buy the place and remake it to those higher standards we know EPCOT can reach, yet still keep the Monorail connection, I think it'd be a better place.

Anonymous said...

Don't let Tom Staggs hear this. If the price was right and it wouldn't raise too many eyebrows, he'd sell anything he could.

Lately, that has included the land that Walt Disney fought so long and went to such great efforts to acquire. Those kinds of sacrifices and the intent behind them (to prevent anyone else from building on Disney property) mean nothing these days.

1983horizons1 said...

Thank you for bashing some of the most annoying arguements against EPCOT Center; how it was boring, how Disney needs to make profit, how the stuff there is still "fun" anwyay (even though it's not EPCOT).

If EPCOT Center had held true to it's original purposes, and things had been upated in a mindful manner, I believe that EPCOT Center really would have become the "eighth wonder of the world". Instead all we have now is another amusement park.

I agree with some of the comments on this page. Disney is not capabel of using epcot to its full potential. The EPCOT Center concept probably could have helped the world. It would have accelerated us into a new era of cultural awareness.

We all share this one planet and by globally working together in unity can we make it a better place. This message is too important to be trusted in the hands of Disney now a days.

Anonymous said...

There's a big difference between constructive criticism, and negative criticism and most people have difficulty understanding that. On this website I have always seen positive, constructive comments about the direction EPCOT could be taking.

The best thing to have come from the "meager" 25th Anniversary tribute that Disney put together is the retrospective. It demonstrates the excitement and vitality that surrounded the opening of the park and it's initial years of operation. If that same excitement could be tapped into today, it would make a world of difference in people's perceptions of the place. And I'm not talking about the artificial hype that is associated with much of the marketing that we currently see from Disney. If Epcot is ever to capture our imaginations again, the effort needs to be genuine.

I don't think that I would mind a show such as the Three Caballeros in the Mexico pavilion if it were genuine to Mexico. But the tie-in to an old Disney property just seems like they are milking the cash cow dry. Likewise with Nemo in the Living Seas. There are some scenes in the Finding Nemo movie where Pixar goes beyond the cartoon genre and into the realm of serious art. I understand that the ride was probably designed long before the Pixar-Disney merger, but I still see it as a missed opportunity to showcase that Pixar can do some serious and entertaining artistic work. Yet what we ended up with was the most basic and simplistic retelling of the story.

Anonymous said...

I do love the Garden Grill rotating restaurant at The Land where a multilevel waterfall flows behind along with the dark ride and the animated environment with nice village houses. I would imagine a kind of intriguing and mysterious cave behind as a natural and interactive playground, yet that don't exist, whereas the deep complex and beautiful architecture is what feeds my imagination. Nemo simply burns it making it simplistic and angry. Lacking of inspiration to persistent starvation of thrills and superficial impression rather than a genuine enthusiasm to the feel of the place, now threatened not having its core energy in mind and supervision as it used to be for decades.

Anonymous said...

It's paradoxical, I suppose, that those who enjoy and admire Disney's creative output are often the harshest critics of the company that produces them.  Looking at things critically, however, is not necessarily the same thing as being critical.  People love all things Disney because of the fanatical attention to detail, the consistent level of near perfection, and the deep rooted memories associated with Disney music, movies, stories, parks, and characters.  When Disney fans critically evaluate products, films, and theme park attractions, most do so through a well-informed, concerned, thoughtful lens, not out of spite or meanness.

Nonetheless, sometimes Disney fans do focus on the negative.  I am personally guilty of this offense.  I find it nearly impossible to enjoy the Disney-MGM Studios with that awful hat at the end Hollywood Blvd., and every time I visit the Magic Kingdom, my heart aches for the leafy oasis that once was the Hub.  The parks are not museums, of course, and it’s true that they will never be complete “as long as there is imagination in the world,” but there’s a need to preserve the beauty, the dignity, and the grandeur found only at Disney parks.

Despite my concerns, I am happy to note that there is much good to be found in today’s Walt Disney Company.  At Walt Disney World, Mickey’s Philharmagic, Expedition Everest are innovative, enjoyable, and memorable attractions. The enhancements to favorites like the Haunted Mansion, It’s a Small World, and the American Adventure also come to mind.  The six disc set of Disneyland music, the restoration of classic Disney films released on DVD, and the always reliable Walt Disney Classics Collection help bring a little of that Disney spirit into our daily lives.  And there is much to anticipate in Disney’s future:  the renovation of Disney’s California Adventure, the return of hand-drawn feature animation, and the gems sure to be found in this year’s set of Disney Treasures. 
It is important - no, vital - that Disney fans acknowledge, in writing, ways in which the company continues to “exceed guest expectations.”

It is my hope that well-intentioned, articulate, and sincere essays like those found on EPCOT Central continue to appear on web sites.  It’s disconcerting to hear fellow Disney enthusiasts say things like, “Well, it isn’t as bad as I feared” when referring to the California Adventure or “It’s awful, but at least they kept the song” after viewing the revised “O Canada.”  Settling for mediocrity is not an option for a company founded by the Walt and Roy Disney, two men dedicated to imagination, quality, sincerity, and heart.  We need to continue to remind the Walt Disney Company that theme park guests, movie patrons, shareholders, vacation club members, and children of all ages believe in the Disney Company.  It’s not slick, trite, insincere marketing campaigns that bring people to Disney:  it’s the magic.  The Disney faithful ask that the time honored - and highly successful - tradition of quality and heart be preserved at Disney parks, nurturing and inspiring new generations of “dreamers and doers” who will someday produce new “magic.”  Now that’s a dream worthy of a million years.