Saturday, March 29, 2008

The Myth of Boring

In 25 years, lots of myths and untruths can develop. Here's one whopper:

EPCOT Center was boring.

It just ain't so.

Those of us who were around back in the early 1980s know first-hand that the "Myth of Boring" is overstated and not terribly accurate. But just as there are those who absolutely insist that Walt Disney's frozen, headless body is buried somewhere 'neath the Animation Building at The Walt Disney Studios in Burbank, there are those who are certain beyond any doubt that there was one major problem with EPCOT Center as it existed from 1982 until the mid-1990s -- that it was excruciatingly dull, given over to quickly outdated pontificating about such weighty matters as science and education.

It's the one excuse that's given, over and over, for the near-constant messing with EPCOT that Disney has done, mostly in the past 10 years. So, let's get this straight:

EPCOT Center wasn't boring. EPCOT Center simply became too ambitious for a giant corporation that lives off of "the bottom line."

On Oct. 1, 1982, EPCOT Center opened with seven Future World pavilions and nine World Showcase "countries." From the outset, Disney promised EPCOT would constantly expand. Within several years, Future World added the Universe of Energy and The Living Seas, while World Showcase grew with two new "member nations." New rides and attractions were added to keep people coming back, and attendance grew modestly.

But, here's the thing: the real world grew, too, and much more quickly than anyone had ever envisioned.

That proved problematic to Future World, in particular, because within a decade of the park's debut, the "new" technologies it put on display, the leading-edge research it showcased, became antiquated. And Disney didn't know how to respond.

But the shows themselves? They were rarely less than fascinating. Perhaps the most ponderous was the Universe of Energy, which did, let's be honest, feel a little like a dumbed-down science lesson. Just the other day, I heard on a Live365 radio station the original narration to Universe of Energy, and I was a little surprised at how lumberous it felt. But it was easy to forget that it was accompanied by a ride through a primeval world, filled with sights, sounds and smells that were impossible to find anywhere else. Universe of Energy may have been a slog at times, but its core experience was hardly boring.

World of Motion contained fun Audio-Animatronic tableaux that were genuinely one-of-a-kind and a delight for families, who could spend the entire ride pointing out silly situations in this comedic, satisfying ride. But then you got to the "GM part," and you sensed Disney's storytellers struggling to combine their creatively spot-on tale of how transportation developed with the needs of Disney's corporate partner. Moreover, auto manufacturing was changing so rapidly by the early 1990s (remember the introduction of the Saturn and the fuss it caused?) that World of Motion felt increasingly irrelevant.

Spaceship Earth? Ah, Spaceship Earth. Even with its latest renovations, no experience has ever captured what Disney does quite so well, providing a multi-sensory experience that took difficult concepts and made them relatable.

Horizons -- well, entire websites could (and have) been written about Horizons. While Spaceship Earth still counts as the masterpiece of Disney ride showmanship, Horizons is a very close second in my book. It reminded us of what we aspire to being. How many times have you felt that in a theme park of any sort?

As for The Living Seas, if you don't get a thrill by watching creatures from the silent world below us in their natural habitat, if you can't find excitement by seeing them in ways that were sometimes better than even Sea World could provide, then no cartoon fish is going to make you feel any differently. (To me, the layering of Finding Nemo on to this attraction is tantamount to characters from Prince of Egypt added to the Pyramids to make them more interesting.)

I've only touched on Future World, and not all of the pavilions there.

It's enough, as I write this, to remind me, without any doubt: EPCOT Center wasn't boring.

But it was abandoned.

The theme park needed to be revitalized, updated, added-to and refurbished nearly constantly. It needed money and a creative team dedicated to it, to ensure that its contents could keep up with what turned out to be one of the most technologically revolutionary times in world history. EPCOT Center suffered because of care, and that's why its attendance suffered in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

Park guests may have found it boring, but that's because within 10 years of its debut, the "wonders" it presented were part of our everyday lives. Disney failed to keep EPCOT Center moving forward.

The inelegant solution Disney decided upon was to stop trying.

EPCOT Center gradually began looking and feeling like other theme parks. There was always a bit of a twist, there was always just enough "Epcot" in there to make it marketable as a "discovery park." But its heart was removed, and its spirit dwindled in the process.

I still love Epcot. It remains a theme-park experience like no other on the whole; but parts, too many parts, are increasingly like what I'd find somewhere else. EPCOT Center didn't suffer from that problem. Nothing else was like it, and that was too much for Disney's Ivy League MBAs to deal with; it was a problem they didn't teach in grad school. EPCOT Center needed more attention than any of Disney's parks, and in the School of Bottom-Line Finances, every investment needs to have a return. The only way you can measure a return at a theme park is by examining its attendance and its merchandise revenue. So, they crammed more of the "same stuff" into the stores, built rides and attractions that were marketable to the least discerning consumer, and ... EPCOT became Epcot.

EPCOT Center thrilled in a way nothing else has ever done. The thrills came not from adrenaline rushes or wind in your hair, they came when you got home and you found yourself wondering if perhaps oceanography was a good profession, or telling people at your dinner party how your food got to the table. The thrills came from understanding about yourself, your world and your fellow travelers on Spaceship Earth.

EPCOT Center was forgotten and abandoned by Disney management who failed to maintain and constantly update its vision and its ideas.

You can say a lot of things about EPCOT Center, not all of them glowing. You can say it was outdated, that it was overwhelming, that it was complicated and challenging. You can say it required a sure and unusual touch that Disney never understood, that it was so unlike anything else that people didn't know what to make of it. You can say it didn't develop and grow, that it suffered. You can say all those things and more.

Just don't say it was boring.


Digital Jedi said...

In line with that, not only was EPCOT Center not boring, but it wasn't just old fans remembering things nostalgically, either.

EPCOT wasn't suffering attendance woes, and neither where its attractions, even if you go by available statistics. People would like to point to empty ride cars in Horizons or World of Motion, but the simple fact of the matter is those rides were designed so they didn't get bogged down with guests. High capacity, 15 to 20 minute rides meant fewer people wandering the park all day long, which is evident in today's EPOCT, where your done in Future World before 1 or 2 PM.

When the park first opened, prior to the addition of the first three attractions you mentioned, they used to sell 3-day passes at the gate, because it would take you that long to see everything. Not so today. Most of EPCOT can be whirled through in a day, with enough time to get a good seat for Illuminations. That's one of the real tragedies of EPCOT. Amusement Park, rather then Theme Park, principles have slowly but surely dominated it's original intent.

I agree, EPCOT had some glaring flaws, Universe of Energy's ending being one of them. But the one thing about any of EPCOT's flaws, is that they were easily forgettable. The summation of the theme of the park weighed more heavily in your mind that the time you fell asleep that one time on Universe of Energy. EPCOT's dynamic theme is what you would bring home with you, and rather then quibbling over the old school microprocessor in Horizons. Heck, most of the time, the things that needed updating to match our time would mean a simple dialogue or film edit. It didn't look to me like Imagineering didn't foresee those small changeable areas, and planned accordingly. It's a shame Disney missed the boat on catching those areas where they could have made EPCOT shine again.

Anonymous said...

Excellent point about the possibility of updating things.

If you think about Horizons, for example, the references to the past and future were expensive and elaborate (and wonderful!) set pieces, but the section dedicated to the present was simply a film. That could have been updated relatively inexpensively.

Come to think of it, the Universe of Energy "present" section was also just a film. The "present" section of World of Motion was completely GM-sponsored and therefore should have been cheap to update. And The Land was clearly designed to be easily upgraded.

The closer you look, the smarter those guys appear!

The one thing those futurists failed to predict was the coming Eisner Holocaust...

Anonymous said...

I must disagree with the first poster in the thread - I went to Epcot this January with my entire family, and spent most of the day in Future World alone, and even then still didn't finish everything in that section (didn't do Innoventions, blew right through most of the post-show exhibits in the pavilions, missed a few things in the Land pavilion). We only started venturing into the World Showcase about an hour before our dinner reservations at Restaurant Marrakesh (excellent restaurant, by the way).

Attendance that day was light - it was mid-January, and a misty day. Most of the rides were walk-on or very little waiting time.

Next year I am going to make sure we dedicate two days to Epcot.

What I found most interesting in this blog is that it focuses mostly on Future World, and very little on the World Showcase. Indeed, the World Showcase is, for the most part, pretty timeless.

Rita said...

You said it all in one sentence. "The thrills came from understanding about yourself, your world and your fellow travelers on Spaceship Earth." I wish Disney would wake up and realize they are a huge infuence in the world and the young generation. I guess that would contradict everything the Disney "suits" know about business. If they did take on this responsibility, I think Epcot would be EPCOT again.

Unknown said...

The current Disney MBAs have a history of underestimating the intelligence of the public. Maybe they want to put Barnum's Dictum to the test, but that's not what Disney's corporate identity is all about. Walt had a habit of demanding more of his audience than his competitors did, and the audience rose to the challenge. No, more than that; I think we enjoyed rising to the challenge, sometimes more than we liked what Walt and crew were actually peddling. That's probably why his company still exists, and pretty much all of his competitors have been bought or merged into indistinct blobs that're bleeding cash.

The original idea of Future World, back in Walt's presentation, was to have American corporate labs somewhat open to the public to actually see ingenuity happen in real-time. The corporations are no strangers to this, even now. During the Detroit Auto Show, General Motors brings in some of their test-engineering equipment, an upcoming vehicle or component (that model year - nothing too outrageous, and maybe more impressive because of it). Then real GM Test Center employees use it there on the floor to take usable test data, live in front of an audience. Granted, it's nothing they probably haven't done a hundred times in Milford already, but it's still real, valid data.

The lines for those shows aren't just envied at the Ford or Dodge booths, they're almost an insult. The lines are long enough to go from a second floor in the main hall (which if I recall right, only GM uses, just for the lab-shows), snakes its way through all of GM's brands, and actually intrudes into their rivals' spaces - "Sci/Tech presentations are boring," my left arm! At WoM, it'd be even simpler to show what's going on right NOW (maybe delayed until it's ready for production, if they have to ease concerns over corporate espionage). The component or vehicle tested is the easiest part of the whole piece to move around. The bulky test rigs are the big hassles every year, but in Orlando they're not going anywhere. Just update them as instrumentation advances - which is usually a simple software package nowadays. If GM still sponsors the exhibit then maybe they can actually show what they're cooking up. Or if they're hesitant to do that much, some other car company can probably be convinced to build "corporate goodwill" with a show like that. Not to mention building brand loyalty - more with the kids who'd want to become a scientist or engineer when they grow up, than their parents who're looking to simply buy a car someday!

The truly great thing is, there's enough competition in every field represented in Future World, that Disney could probably auction off the floor space. If they present it right. That'd presuppose that the Disney MBAs actually "get" what EPCOT is all about, of course.

Anonymous said...

First off, thank you for the blog. I check it daily for new updates... I truly enjoy it!

I agree with your comment about "...too many parts, are increasingly like what I'd find somewhere else."

We live in Wisconsin and my wife and used to come down to Disney World every year for awhile... my favorite theme park has always been EPCOT. But, lately, it's getting harder to justify spending the kind of money to travel to DW when it's really just turning into the same thing as half a dozen amusement parks between here and Florida. It's like you've pointed out in before, Disney had soemthing unique... but now, they're morphing into their competition... which is sad.

Erica said...

"EPCOT Center thrilled in a way nothing else has ever done. The thrills came not from adrenaline rushes or wind in your hair, they came when you got home and you found yourself wondering if perhaps oceanography was a good profession, or telling people at your dinner party how your food got to the table. The thrills came from understanding about yourself, your world and your fellow travelers on Spaceship Earth."

That is, by far, the best description of EPCOT Center I have ever read or heard of in my life. That paragraph made me cry a little. I can relate so much.

This entry was one of my favorites that you have written (well, all of them are pretty wonderful). But THIS one, you capture the whole essence of EPCOT Center in one little blog entry.

Thanks so much for reminding me that there are others out there that are able to identify all of the non-boring characteristics of EPCOT Center. Great writer, amazing blog. Keep up the good work! Hopefully TPTB will listen.

Robbio said...

I have to agree with the entry as a whole. EPCOT is by far the best Disney park, and has been a must-visit park for every one of my Disney trips (and I remember every single one of them, all the way back to 1987).

The thing that really bites me is that EPCOT used to stand for something...Innovation, Inspiration, and Intelligence. Now that park is just filled with so much glitz, glam, and mind numbing slop it disgusts me thinking about it, even while writing a response to this blog. While I do enjoy some of the newer RIDES like Mission: Space, Test Track, and Soarin', those RIDES will never compare to those inspiring and memorable attractions (yes attractions, not rides)such as Horizons, The World of Motion, Wonders of Life, and The Living Seas. I actually LEARNED something from those attractions, which is a lot of the reason as to why I still remember them so fresh in my head, as if I was just on them yesterday.

I understand that parks and their attractions have to evolve as the times change, but that doesn't mean you tear down the staples, the absolute core of what a park was all about. Imagine what the World of Motion would be like IF Test Track was PART of the Original attraction? How great would Horizons be IF, Mission: Space was added on, and included as part of the original attraction? Imagine if the whole Finding Nemo theme was added on as a part of The Living Seas? EPCOT had so much potential...and it will always be my park of choice, but it has lost it's lust and allure, and has fallen out of favor as being the park that I'll always remember.