Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Making the Priorities Clear

That's what Disney has done.

Is current management leaves little doubt as to where it wants to invest its money, and unfortunately, it's not at EPCOT.

Shares of The Walt Disney Company rose more than 4% in Tuesday's trading (March 18), closing at $31.72, and giving DIS a market cap of more than $59 billion. Its total revenue for the year ending Sept. 29 was $35 billion, with gross profit of nearly seven billion dollars. Profit.

And yet ...

Fully one-fourth of of EPCOT's once-glorious Future World sits nearly or completely abandoned.

A relatively simple item like the video globe used in Illuminations, which Disney itself touts as a "timeless classic," is left to go to rot.

With no financial "backing" from major corporations or governments, Disney simply absolves itself of creative responsibility at entire EPCOT pavilions.

It uses trees in cheap, plastic "pots" as visual barriers for areas under renovation.
And yet ...

Even as one of Disney's most precious assets seems to go to pieces, the company is funding entirely new businesses like "Adventures by Disney" and acquiring existing businesses at sky-high prices. It just can't spend the money to properly run pavilions in a theme park.

It spends literally billions to "fix" poorly performing theme parks that have already proven failures. It just has no money for genuine improvements and upkeep at EPCOT.

With little regard for history or tradition, it "updates" classics like Tom Sawyer's Island and it's a small world to be more "relevant," at astronomical prices. It just can't spare with some pocket change to keep EPCOT up with our ever-changing world.

Disney's priorities are puzzling, to say the least, especially considering that in EPCOT it has a genuine rarity: A wholly unique product that no competitor could come close to replicating. It has an entire brand waiting to be exploited, with only a little creativity and effort. It watches as EPCOT's attendance continues to rise, apparently assuming that increased visits mean there's little need to make improvements.

Granted, Disney has put some effort into EPCOT, there's no denying that. The addition of Soarin', the renovation of Spaceship Earth, even the questionable "updates" of The Living Seas, the Mexico pavilion and the Canada pavilion are impossible to overlook. Whether they "work" creatively, Disney has exerted effort.

Still ... at what price? Is it worth a couple of thousand extra kids in the park to see Nemo (if they missed him at the other theme parks or in the resorts -- though it's impossible to see how they could) when EPCOT seems so vividly to be an afterthought for Disney's theme park wizards, who genuinely have no idea what to do with the place.

Take a walk around EPCOT and Disney's wacky priorities come into sharp focus.

As you cross Innoventions Plaza, look up at the sign over what used to be called Innoventions West and see how carelessly the word "West" has been pried away. Examine other in-park signage and marvel at how Disney's sign shop can't even match fonts or colors. Look at the Wonders of Life pavilion and wonder at the lack of its so-called life.

Take a ride on the Universe of Energy and wonder why, 12 years after its last upgrade, it's so horribly out of date about the world we live in (much less the "Jeopardy!" we watch). Stop for a moment outside Mission: Space and look at all of the people just sitting there, waiting for the other members of their groups to come out of the ride, their groups split up precisely in the way Walt Disney wanted to avoid when creating his theme parks.

Walk past the too-numerous Disney Vacation Club sales kiosks that are so out of place in Disney's theme parks, and notice what expensive space-wasters they are, there for no other reason than to shill timeshares.

Yes, yes, yes, folks, I know ... these laments don't seem to change.

But, then, neither does Disney's attitude toward EPCOT.

Last year, EPCOT was the sixth most visited theme park in the world. So, why doesn't Disney care? Is it a cavalier attitude -- that if it's doing that well, it must be doing something right? Is it a dismissive attitude -- that if it's doing that well, it must not need attention?

This summer, Disney will spend literally hundreds of millions of dollars lavishing attention on movies like Wall*E and Prince Caspian. In the end, the profit margin on those efforts will be miniscule. It's even debatable how long they will be meaningful assets for Disney.

And yet ... there's an under-exploited, barely recognized asset like EPCOT just sitting there, still managing to rake in the bucks and bring in the guests year after year after year -- 25 years and counting. Talk about a perpetual asset! Talk about long-term potential!

Talk about a waste.

Maybe I just came back from this last visit to EPCOT too disillusioned. But I find it harder and harder to have any faith in the real, genuine long-term growth prospect of The Walt Disney Company when I see its management dismissing the potential -- the genuine, inarguable potential -- of the proper care and management of a theme-park jewel like this, tarnished as it has become.

Soon, I promise, I will have unabashedly positive, good things to say about some of the things I saw and experienced at EPCOT. For now, I'm still a little shocked at how Disney regards our future and our world.


Anonymous said...

I think you are totally of base.

For one, how many more updates has EP gotten than AK, MK, and DS in the past 3-4 years? The problems you bring up are for all of their parks, DL and DCA included.

The M:S point is a little off as well. Do you really think they ought to close the ride? Or redesign it past team orange and green, a headliner attraction that cost millions to make, and is one of the top thrill rides in all of Orlando?

From Disney's point of view, it is completely understandable that they are focusing on parks and assets that need help before changing current parks that are doing well.

The only thing I would add/change would be for another country to be added, or at least the African outpost area to be expanded. That to me is the elephant in the room.

Anonymous said...

I don't think its fair to equate all the money spent as one big bucket. Spending on movies is different from spending on theme parks. They are separate businesses with separate budgets, run by separate people. Yes, Bob Iger is the leader of the whole thing, but I doubt he has the time and energy to dictate which movies get made and which exhibits get upgraded + making all the other decisions for all the other parts of the business.

Anonymous said...

Mission: Space was a bad concept. I do like the ride, but it was the wrong idea. They wanted to attract teens, and they did succeed making a ride that appealed to them, to the exclusion of others. It's true that if you walk around the exit area of Mission: Space you see entire families just sitting there, waiting for one or two people in their party to finish up. Isn't that what ISN'T suppose to happen at a Disney theme park?

Anonymous said...

For $27 million a year, he should.

Anonymous said...

I think you're right on. Disney has come a long way since 1982. Business ventures have brought in more money but also dillutated the attention away from the theme park assets. The problem is that attendance numbers are high, and its going to be hard to convince anyone that a park is dying when its making so much money.

The problem with Epcot has always been this sponsorship rule they've created with the pavilions. As a means to make Disney not have to fund anything in Future World, they've basically said that only sponsored pavilions will remain open. It was a stupid idea from the beginning because it is totally counter to what Disney's corporate culture believes in...total control. Disney never licenses anything, because they own what they put through their marketing machine.

Instead of being upset, I'm kind of happy about it. Its the empire showing its first signs of weakness. Sit back, eventually someone will do this better than Disney.

Epcot82 said...

Well, they DO license all of their characters and properties for consumer products, but I see what you mean.

It seems to me that the only way to get EPCOT Center created in the late '70s and early '80s was to rely on sponsors. As it was, Disney invested nearly a billion dollars into EPCOT Center, and the company was financially hurting at the time.

Times have changed. Disney has the financial werewithal to support EPCOT and turn it into their theme-park crown jewel. But at the moment, it's feels like it's descending further and further into least-common-denominator, Six Flags territory, and that's scary.

Anonymous said...

Although I don't agree/disagree with your financial points, I concur with the rest.

Wonders of Life is the worst. I can understand letting it sit there until its' feasible to replace it, but it's probably going to stay there for a while. It's very awkward to walk in that place and notice that it *used* to be something. It's sad when you enter a Disney park and walk into something you realize is not complete and going to be abandoned. Vacant buildings left for people to walk around in are not something that have a place in Disney parks.

UoE has so much potential that it's sad to ride. The possibility of new fuel sources is a very hot topic and one that should be not be kept out of public view. Why can't Disney be a driving force in educating people whats out there as an alternative to oil.

JiIwF is a travesty that everyone realizes.

Lastly, Innoventions is a joke. It's awkward set up and cluster of lame exhibits make it very unappealing. No doubt Disney can retheme it and make it more appealing visually. It could also be the centerpiece of the new ideas of tomorrow. Disney should take a chance and promote EPCOT as the place to see the newest and most exciting advances that no one else but Disney can present. Innoventions can house some amazing things. However, comedy shows about Velcro is not one of them.

Anonymous said...

The trees are in place beacuse that's were the garden festival setup is. And Is always what they do around garden festival time. not trying to dissude your points. just telling why those are there. I'd much prefer the garden areas with trees instead of the blue walls.


Anonymous said...

They could get nice temporary planters. My MOM would get nice temporary planters if she were doing something like this! I mean, come on, a couple of hundred bucks at Home Depot?? Disney's getting so lax it's scary.

David Landon said...

I agree that Universe of Energy badly needs an update, but as long as the sponsor is Exxon-Mobil, the message will always be "sure there are a lot of alternative energy sources, but the best one is still fossil fuels purchased from the Exxon-Mobil corporation".

Has anyone else noticed that Disney's neglect of EPCOT seems to be directly proportional to the decline in overall optimism about the future? Back in the '80s and even early '90s it looked like technology and democracy really were making the world a better place, and the future Horizons promised looked achievable. EPCOT Center was a pretty happening place in those days. However, as the world situation worsened, and it became obvious that technology and democracy were no panacea, EPCOT's optimistic message seemed more and more like wishful thinking. Disney 's pointy-haired bosses lost their enthusiasm for the park, and stopped spending money on it.

Anonymous said...

Lots of good points, however, I will continue to argue about The Living Seas redo. My favorite park has been Epcot since it opened and my favorite rides have been the classics including Horizons, however, it amazes me when people look through rose colored glasses and don't see the fact that The Living Seas was clearly boring to many vistors.

My children enjoy the new pavilion quite clearly, however, I will note that the although the Nemo ride is a huge improvement over the Sea Cabs, the fact that it is no more than a re-telling of the film is simply lacking. I also wish that Crush actually taught the kids a tad bid about the ocean besides just saying 'Dude' to the kids.

The spirit of optimism is lacking from the park, that's my main gripe. It's a problem with our society, we have so much high tech that people just don't get wowed like they used to. A lack of excitement for the future, however, many of us believed that attractions from the Universe of Energy to The Living Seas were simply akin to boring high school films out of the 50s & 60s. The optimistic, creative, audio-animatronic driven Epcot is what I miss, not films at Epcot with a droning on voice over.

Anonymous said...

"it amazes me when people look through rose colored glasses and don't see the fact that The Living Seas was clearly boring to many vistors."

It was also clearly NOT boring to many visitors, myself and my family included. I find talking fish and cartoon birds more boring, since they are everywhere at Disney, but real sea animals and a sense of adventure and learning is in much more short supply.

One man's trash...

Greg Bevier said...

I agree with the idea that the future doesn't have a lot of promise. What's really sad is that technology is everywhere, but it isn't being used to its real potential.

Horizons talked about "Desert Reclamation" and "Space Colonies" and "Floating Cities" and all the wonderful alternative resources we were developing to the benefit of mankind. But now we see that many of the advances are being held back and that technology is really being used to the benefit wealthy corporations and their continued march toward high profits at the expense of the "little man." And meanwhile the little man mindlessly wastes technology on things like MySpace, Scrabulous, and porn.

David Landon said...

While I'm not thrilled with the Living Seas rehab, I can't manage to be upset because the Imagineers' original concept never made it past the planning stage. The sponsor (I forget just who it was) didn't want to pony up the cash for it, if I recall.

What really makes me sad is the Imagination pavilion. The ride is surprisingly sparse and empty. It's like they just filled it up with leftover stuff from some Imagineer's garage. The ImageWorks is pretty joyless and empty, too. The whole place just screams "cheap". The Disney corporation vacuums up money like a Dustbuster in a litter box, there's really no excuse not to pony up the cash to turn EPCOT back into a first-class place.

Anonymous said...

To your point, Georgekirk, and regarding the comments earlier about how it's not right to think of all of Disney's money as coming out of one "big bucket" -- well, actually, that's exactly what happens. That's the whole point of Disney's corporate finance group in Burbank, led by Tom Staggs. They allocate Disney's money each year, and their decisions are approved by the board of directors. All of the profit goes BACK in one "big bucket" and then it's divided up. So, EPCOT Central's ideas that Disney should be criticized for how little it spends at theme parks (relatively, and particularly on guest-facing expenditures) versus how much it spends on its film and network sides -- well, that argument is actually more correct that some people might think. And ultimately it's folks like Bob Iger, Jay Rasulo and Tom Staggs who are paid the (too)big bucks to make exactly those kinds of difficult decisions.

Disney CAN pay more to maintain, improve and expand its parks. It just won't.

Unknown said...

If you don't see the future as optimistic, Disney has no profit in making a park that shows it as such, 'cause there's no point in your going. For what it's worth, a lot of the "Fall of Optimism" happened long before Epcot opened its doors (compare Epcot the park, even EPCOT Center, with EPCOT, the City from the '60s...and compare that as detuned from the Futurama "World of 1960" from the 1939 World's Fair in NYC).

If you want a theme park that says "We Can" instead of "Ohhhh, we can't," then build it yourself. It'll help to take a tack of "we HAVE, and this is what we're going to, next!" Obviously it won't be a bricks and mortar visitor park, but thanks to the Internet you can (see there's that "can" word again) use it to make one in the "virtual" world. Many people already have--and our host has graciously thrown the gates to his version open, for free (and for that, I thank you, sir!). A lot of EPCOT Central is about pushing to make the physical one better--a laudable goal, 'cause you see, he's doing something to fix what he (and I think all the rest of us) see as a problem. Don't give us this "ohhhh, those stupid lousy proles only use the Intarwebz for Myspace and pr0n," that's a cop-out. A lazy cop-out. You're better than that, you're here lamenting over lost optimism--which means you at least know what it is and what made it good! Stop lamenting and start doing.

There's a video of an older version of Horizons floating around out there. The only change I could find was what they said going into the Omnisphere. It was (changes, all of which were additions, are in italics),

"It takes hard work--a lot of hard work. But if we can dream it, we can do it!"

The web is yours. Go. Build. Put in the hard work. I'm going directly after this post to make a tribute post of my own (at one of those dreaded social-networking sites, "oh noes"). Epcot82 may see some influence of his, and others who've written in defense of the classic EPCOT Center, in what I come up with if he ever finds it; please accept that as a positive impression you've made. But to the rest of these naysaying commenters, stop whining about what's not being done for you and go fix it yourself!

Epcot82 said...

Richard, you're right ... but that message needs to be upheld by the entertainment we consume, too. People need to know that positive change is possible, and EPCOT used to tell them that. Maybe not overnight, maybe not in our lifetime, but it's possible. And there's more to life than pure, dumb entertainment.

But those messages are hard to find anymore.

Please share your website/blog link. I'd love to see it and I'm sure others would, too!