Friday, October 31, 2008

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Top 10 Changes (A Wish List)

It was an illuminating experience to recently scour the 'net and see what's been written about EPCOT Central. There are, it seems, still many people (Disney employees is always a good guess) who insist that EPCOT Central and EPCOT fans would like to see Disney, its theme parks and EPCOT in particular stay rooted in the past!

Untrue. The root of that belief is likely in the idea that what we'd love to see is EPCOT return to the concepts and theme that made it such an unprecedented and amazing park in the first place.

So, here's an off-the-cuff list of the Top 10 Changes EPCOT Central would love to see at EPCOT -- presented with a hope that you'll share your own additions, and that EPCOT will continue moving forward into a brighter, more exciting future.

10) Train the Cast
While many cast members are absolutely wonderful at their jobs, it's far too easy and common to encounter cast members who are either a bit too socially oriented (ignoring guests for the sake of chatting with each other) or really have no idea what they're doing there, which is unfortunately particularly true of World Showcase cast members. This is not meant to criticize those cast members who are fantastic at their jobs! Rather, it's particularly important at EPCOT because every cast member has a chance to communicate, both through action and through conversations with guests, the basic theme and concept of EPCOT.

9) Bring Back the Buses
Watching an old (yes, "back to the past" -- oh, how awful!) video feature on EPCOT Center, it was terrific fun to see the old double-decker buses that Disney used to offer as transportation -- one of the reasons the walkways around World Showcase are so fantastically wide. Considering how many guets use ECVs and other assistance given the sheer scale of World Showcase, and seeing the ambience and charm they brought to the area, it would be great to see Disney bring these back both as "color" and as transportation alternatives (just like on Main Street -- or, wait, do they offer the "omnibuses" anymore?!).

8) Spruce Up Space
For anyone who rides the attraction, the very, very long exit area of Mission: Space has to be an enormous letdown. Everything about the entry queue is detailed, dramatic and mood-setting. And then, after the ride, there's a long hallway with white walls and what seem more like hospital stripes than theming. Would it be so difficult to add some dramatic lighting and perhaps a large-scale mural to the exit area ... anything to prevent this area from being so unrelievedly boring? It's as if Disney's saying, "That's it, show's over, move along." (And speaking of the exit to Mission: Space, has there ever been a full house at the Advanced Training Lab? The poor cast members there are sometimes reduced to carnival barkers begging people to take part.)

7) Reinvigorate the Restaurants
EPCOT Center used to have, hands down, some of the best dining experiences in Walt Disney World -- perhaps in Central Florida. But recent changes have resuilted in the Coral Reef Room serving only a few fish entrees; the original Alfredo's being converted into a rather standard-fare Italian restaurant; and a general lowering of standards that's likely good for Disney's bottom line but results in one less reason for guests to come back over and over. A great meal with food you don't usually get at home used to be a terrific motivator to visit EPCOT after a full day at another park, but EPCOT's dining choices are less and less appealing lately.

6) Expand World Showcase
A recent EPCOT Central reader argued that World Showcase should stay as it is, with the focus being on upgrading the pavilions already there. That would be fantastic, and would certainly result in more reason to visit EPCOT -- so, in a way, it's easy to endorse that point of view. And since there were some really stellar concepts back in the '80s that never came to pass (the original drawing of the Rhine River Cruise is still perpetually haunting and compelling!), EPCOT would do well to acknowledge that we know more about the world and have more opportunity to travel since 1982. And so do guests from other countries. So, perhaps it's time to aggressively court the tourism boards and major corporations of Brazil (a huge driver of Disney business), Spain, Russia or India? If Disney's worried about not recouping a major investment in World Showcase, consider this: An addition offers the opportunity to market a new attraction no one can emulate -- Universal, Sea World and Busch Gardens have no thematic ability to offer a pavilion that opens a new window on the world for many guests. This is unique to Disney, and it's eminently marketable.

5) Restore the Fountain of Nations
The Fountain of Nations is one of EPCOT's small wonders, offering a show many guests don't even realize is part of the entertainment ... until they watch it with great wonder. In 1994, a show called "Splashtacular" was performed on the south side of the fountain, and a stage was built to accommodate it. Now, that stage is in a sad state of disrepair, while the fountain itself (during three recent visits) had misaligned nozzles and some sections that didn't work. The Fountain is an integral, wonderful part of EPCOT Center and Future World -- it would be great to see it restored.

4) Plan for Change
One of EPCOT Center's key design downfalls was that it required rather significant capital investments every few years to keep it up to date. But less than two years after it opened, a new Disney regime came in and -- giving them huge credit and praise -- turned attention to othe areas of Walt Disney World, investing in the once-brilliant Disney-MGM Studios, building some magnificently themed resorts, and improving the overall infrastructure. EPCOT Center briefly received some TLC, with the opening of the Morocco and Norway pavilions as well as the addition of the Wonders of Life pavilion. But after a while, Disney seemed to lose interest and didn't upgrade the major pavilions on a regular basis -- both giving guests fewer reasons to return, and letting them become woefully outdated. As Disney (hopefully) improves and invests in Future World pavilions, it must be careful to ensure that they keep up with rapidly changing technology and reflect changes in the world around us. The easy, unpleasant way to do this is create an attraction with little basis in reality, such as Mission: Space or The Seas With Nemo and Friends. They're both decent attractions, but have little place in Future World. (Mission: Space could have been part of a brilliant overhaul to Tomorrowland, and Nemo would have been a natural for Fantasyland). The harder way is more rewarding for everyone: A thoughtful upgrade like Spaceship Earth, which adds some fun, new elements (some of us really do like the on-screen fun on the descent!), and tries very hard, mostly successfully, to reflect what we know of the world. In two or three years, a couple of million dollars in one or two new scenes along with new narration will create a vibrant new version of the ride -- at a tiny fraction of the cost of a brand-new pavilion. Careful re-thinking of Future World attractions can go a long way toward keeping them fresh.

3) Create Unique Merchandise
Virtually every retail location at EPCOT, as well as much of Walt Disney World, seems to have decided to stock the same merchandise. In 1999, when Centorium became Mouse Gear, its products also became Mouse-oriented. Now, too many stores stock too many of the same items. Even World Showcase has become more Disney-oriented, with fewer and fewer "homegrown" options. Shopping at EPCOT should be unlike anyplace in the World. As an example, take a look at a store like Mombassa Traders at Animal Kingdom, which offers wonderful, eclectic items. I'm all for Mickey t-shirts and Disney memorabilia -- but does EPCOT have to be just like everywhere else?

2) Bring Back Akershus
This almost made the No. 1 spot -- it seems that vital. Here's a thought: Give us back the unusual, tasty, charming restaurant for all guests that used to exist at Akershus prior to the Great Princess Invasion and -- a serious proposal here -- turn the Odyssey restaurant into the Princess Odyssey. It's a huge, underused facility that has no real theme and doesn't seem to fit in to the rest of EPCOT. It's a big chunk of real estate that should be "monetized." Make that EPCOT's big Princess dining location, and restore the sense of national culture and authenticity to Restaurant Akershus. It's a win-win for everyone!

1) Do Something Absolutely Extraordinary
What does this mean? Not a clue. But someone at Imagineering does. Give us an EPCOT game-changer, something that is so exciting and different and unexpected that it brings a new infusion of life, a renewed sense of purpose and a restored meaning of theme to EPCOT. Wow us. Amaze us. Prove all of us naysayers wrong and show us that Disney is still the most exciting, imaginative, innovative, forward-thinking, creative, brilliant designers of theme-park entertainment anywhere. Remind the world what EPCOT means. Do something that really blows us away. There's enormous room to grow at EPCOT ... both literally and figuratively.

Show us what it means to be inspired by the world in which we live.

It's an amazing place. Remind us of that.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

The Best Laid Plans

Way back in 1786, when this country was just being born, Scottish poet Robert Burns wrote:

"The best laid schemes o' mice an' men /
Gang aft a-gley, /
An' lea'e us nought but grief an' pain, /
For promised joy."

Or, better known to us, "The best laid plans of mice and men often go awry."

In the case of EPCOT Center, we know who the mouse is, and we know who the men (and women) were, and still we're left with some sadness over the promised joy that never came.

Here's a look at a commemorative 1982 booklet that previews EPCOT Center and ends with a promise of much more to come.

We know the endgame here. Horizons is only a fondly held memory, replaced with a thrill ride that, anecdotally, at least, more than half of EPCOT's visitors won't even attempt to experience. The Living Seas, which only mildly fulfilled its original vision, has been turned into a Fantasyland dark ride with an aquarium now seemingly haphazardly attached. (Or is it the other way around?)

The Morocco pavilion may be one of the most exquisite, but it is also one of the most ignored and overlooked by guests (again, that's anecdotal). Those who do venture into its "back areas" and the prayer room often find they are overwhelmed by its beauty and detail. But for the most part, it's wasted space waiting for something grand to happen there, as it has waited for two decades.

Spain and Israel never came to fruition, and though they've never been directly addressed by Disney management or Imagineers (to my knowledge), they likely were a victim of the September 1984 regime change, hardball negotiations by capital-infusion-averse Disney, and the political climate of the 1980s and 1990s.

Equatorial Africa always seemed a bit of a stretch to me, more confirming that geographically illiterate guests (of which there are many, and sadly mostly Americans) would be led to believe "Africa" is a country. Ultimately, it morphed into Animal Kingdom, which has been a terrific addition to Walt Disney World -- and, with the continuing slump of EPCOT, is probably my favorite park to visit, as it gets more beautiful with every year (except the Dino Land area).

It's just sad to see how much enthusiasm there originally was for EPCOT Center, how much the park really did seem poised for growth that upheld and expanded its core theme.

Today, there's little "theme" left in what was once the ultimate "theme park," and many of us are left, it's true (yes, critics of EPCOT Central, come to the fore!), wondering what would have happened had those plans of mice and men actually come to pass.

Friday, October 24, 2008

No Words Necessary

Hope you have or had a very nice weekend. Thank you for reading EPCOT Central!

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Do These Subjects Sound Familiar?

If you saw or read anything of this year's three presidential debates, or if you've even remotely paid attention to the latest news, you know that there are four issues that loom large in the minds of virtually every American today:

Energy, transportation, the environment and health.

How are we going to fulfill our gigantic and growing energy needs as the country speeds towards 400 million people, and how will we simultaneously manipulate and protect our global environment to do it?

Even if we can figure out solutions to those problems, how do we cope with a society (not just an American society, but a global one, really) that needs clean, efficient, forward-thinking transportation?

And how do we make sure we become healthier, stay healthy and afford health care?

Now, if you've been a regular reader of EPCOT Central, you may recall that Al Gore's Oscar-winning, 2006 documentary "An Inconvenient Truth" provided the inspiration for an article called "A Convenient Theme?" EPCOT Central posed the possibility that all Imagineers and theme-park MBAs needed to revitalize EPCOT was to look closely at the movie.

Some wildly derided the proposition. Others found it intriguing.

Perhaps now is a good time to revisit the concept. Because in the last two years, it has become increasingly clear just how prescient, how necessary, EPCOT Center actually was.

We've learned, or perhaps we are learning, that just because something is "boring" does not mean it is not important. That just because "education" involved not only means we shouldn't dismiss it out of hand -- but we can't. We're learning that ignoring the vital issues only leads to ignorance and a lack of certainty over how to address them.

Consider, then, EPCOT Center's original mission. It still stands outside the park for all to see: "May it instill a new sense of belief and pride in man's ability to shape a world that offers hope to people everywhere." Politics aside, it doesn't seem like we've really gone a long way toward that goal in the past 26 years. EPCOT Central has often quoted the tagline to "That's Entertainment!" and it seems appropriate to do it again: Boy, do we need it now.

EPCOT Center focused, originally, on five key areas of understanding: communication, energy, transportation, imagination and our environment. A few years after opening, health and the seas were added. The park wanted to enlighten guests about the challenges facing the future in these critical areas.

If the park failed to find exactly the right balance of education and entertainment, if it failed to get it just right in the first decade, it deserved an "A" for effort.

Now, more than a quarter of a century later, we're discovering that the global community, and particularly Americans, need to be informed about the potential and the pitfalls, the challenges and the opportunities, the successes and the failures, of these intensely important subjects. And as the third presidential debate made clear, both sides of American politics agree that we have failed to do that as a society. Our children and teenagers aren't aware, and they are growing up to be ill-informed adults who are asked and required to make vital decisions about our future.

The need to find alternative and safe energy sources, to protect and manipulate our environment, to provide reliable and clean transportation, and to safeguard the health of our people -- those are the very subjects that EPCOT Center explored.

And, sadly, they're the ones that Epcot has most tinkered with.

The park, much like society in general, has become fixated on entertaining and distracting its guests, rather than enlightening them.

All right, a healthy percentage of you are thinking, "I don't want education on my vacation!" Fine. Bypass EPCOT. Don't visit. Don't challenge yourself. Don't expose yourself to new ideas. It's all right. You can find all the Mickey-themed entertainment you need at three theme parks, two water parks, etc., etc., and you'll have a great vacation.

But if it's marketed right, a revitalized EPCOT could be proud of informing a large number of people of the challenges we're facing in these critical areas. Attractions like the "EPCOT Poll," ahead of its time in 1982, could be fed to the ravenously hungry online media and instantly reported. Attractions could be redesigned so they can be easily and frequently updated to reflect new information and ideas.

All it would take is commitment.

Imagine the marketing possibilities for The Walt Disney Company -- which would not only have a fully re-imagined theme park, but the ability to showcase its commitment to our future.

Best of all, unlike the massive (and crazy?) billion-dollar overhaul of Disney's California Adventure, the infrastructure is already there. The show buildings are there. The layout is there. The opportunity is there.

And EPCOT Center, as originally conceived, was always excited about opportunity.

Epcot could become EPCOT again, and show that our world can indeed be a better place.

Monday, October 13, 2008

The Sponsor Subterfuge

In 1979, Walt Disney Productions reported income of $114 million on revenue of $797 million. Although the company made less than that in the fiscal year, it was also spending about $1 billion to build EPCOT Center, the grand effort to rescue Walt Disney's last dream.

At Walt Disney World, its operations, including hotels, recreation, admissions, merchandise and food were bringing in about $370 milion a year, with attendance of about 14 million people. There was only one theme park, The Magic Kingdom, and operating expenses were high. Costs for EPCOT Center, which were originally estimated to be several hundred million dollars, were ballooning.

It made sense, then, that EPCOT Center would take a very successful page out of Walt Disney's creation of Disneyland. Remember, back in 1953-55, Disneyland cost more to build than Disney's company had. So, it sold sponsorships. In return for exposure in what was promising to be one of the biggest tourist attractions ever, companies would cover many of the costs for their ride, show or attraction. In addition, they could have some sway over the content of the attraction. It was a brilliant concept, one that was borne out of desperation but grew into something of a cottage industry. Today, Disney is hardly alone in having a "Corporate Alliances" department, one that primarily ensures that companies like Coca-Cola and Siemens are happy with what they're getting for their money -- and if they're not, to find someone who will be.

If it was an exciting, new and lucrative business a half-century ago, today it's much more difficult. Marketing has become ubiquitous (come on, there are even marketing messages on bananas, for crying out loud!), and it's increasingly difficult to persuade a large corporation to pony up tens, if not hundreds, of millions of dollars to fund a theme-park attraction.

The benefits are obvious. Consumers get to interact with your brand, they see you as a leader, they trust your name, they associate you with something they enjoy.

But 50, 20, even 15 years ago, it wasn't commonplace for consumers to willingly wear t-shirts with your brand name, to spend hours at your online site, to target your message so directly to exactly the consumer you want. You can spend $30 million on a Super Bowl ad that reaches a certain demographic, directing them to your website (where you completely control your message), which prompts them to spend five days playing a "viral" online game that ceaselessly conveys your specific marketing objective.

Or, you can pour $100 million over 10 years into a theme-park ride that reaches a certain percentage of 12 million annual guests, half of whom probably aren't "geo-targeted" to your specifications (that is, they don't live in the country or region in which you do most of your business), and are a mix of demographic targets -- men, women, children, senior citizens, Americans, Brazilians, solvent, insolvent, educated, uneducated, professional, blue collar ... well, it's hard to tell. Plus, the overriding message they're receiving is, increasingly, about Disney, not about you. No longer does Disney want to give over a 20-minute experience to the virtues of Exxon, MetLife or AT&T -- it continues to infuse its own messaging into the experience. "Buy more Disney. Buy more Disney now."

Well, then, it's easy to see why it's not easy to get a sponsor.

And here's the question: Does it matter?

Twenty-six years after EPCOT Center opened its gates, worrying a financially wobbly company and partly leading to the end of many careers, Disney has annual income of $3.3 billion. The Parks & Resorts division generated revenue of $6.4 billion, and had income of slightly less than one billion dollars -- $946 million. That's a far cry from the weak, desperate company that opened EPCOT Center.

In 1982, when EPCOT Center opened, there was no way Disney could afford to shoulder the costs on its own. It absolutely needed the involvement of major corporations, and the beauty is that the park's original design quite literally depended on that involvement. Those companies, once the pinnacle of American industry (AT&T, GM, Exxon, GE, United Technologies, Nestle), are in most cases shells of their former selves. They have grown, or shrunk, changed, merged and morphed so many times that in many cases it's not even easy to really know what they do anymore. Kind of like Disney itself.

But the concept was clear: Those major American corporations would have the opportunity to show the world the virtues of American ingenuity and innovation, and would shine a light down a path toward a better tomorrow.

Obviously, EPCOT Center has changed.

It's not clear, really, exactly what Epcot means to be, but one thing is clear:

The place is falling apart.

OK, maybe that's a tiny exaggeration, but have you noticed the weather-beaten wooden slats that form a rarely (ever?) used stage at the south end of the Fountain of Nations? Or the almost-creaking Audio-Animatronic figures in the Universe of Energy? Of course, you've seen the (literal) shell of a building that used to be the Wonders of Life, and hopefully you've very recently read about the 20-year-old film in the run-down theater at the end of Maelstrom in the Norway pavilion?

The commonly used excuse that Disney lobs out is that these attractions (save Fountain of Nations, which perhaps could use one) now lack sponsors. And lacking sponsors, it is difficult or impossible to maintain the attractions and improve them.

I don't buy it, not for a second.

In 1955, 1971 and 1982, sponsors were critical to getting theme parks built. Disney couldn't afford it.

But today, we're talking about the same company that spent $19 billion to buy Capital Cities/ABC Inc. -- and that was 13 years ago.

We're talking about the same company that spent tens of millions of its money (in conjunction with Walden Media) and then lost it on Prince Caspian.

We're talking about the same company that is probably still trying to realize a return on its $3 billion investment in Fox Family (now ABC Family).

We're talking about the same company that is pouring $1 billion into the failed Disney's California Adventure, hoping it will make a silk purse out of a sow's ear.

You're telling me that a company that realized profit of nearly $1 billion in its theme parks division alone can't afford to make an investment of $400 million or so into the only Epcot in the world?

Of course, Disney can say that Epcot doesn't really need help -- plenty of people visit it just like it is.

But consider this: For the full year in fiscal 1982, Walt Disney Productions reported that attendance at Walt Disney World was 12,560,000 people. One year later, attendance soared to 22,712,000. (Back then, Disney used to report Florida and California attendance figures. What a lovely concept!) That means EPCOT Center brought in 10,152,000 visitors in its first year.

Last year, Epcot's attendance was estimated at 10.9 million. That's an increase of 7% over its attendance 25 years earlier.

On one hand, the argument can easily be made that if attendance has essentially held steady all these years, people must be satisfied.

On the other -- there's no real reason to go to Epcot. The technology isn't particularly exciting, the rides aren't particularly interesting, there's no comprehensible "theme," and other than drinking your way around the world, well, what else is there, really?

Here's what I'd argue: EPCOT needs a massive infusion of innovation, creativity, futurism, global awareness and compelling content. And Disney will have to fund it.

But, Disney says, we can't do anything without sponsors.

Wrong. Twenty-five years ago, that was true.

But a lot has changed in a quarter of a century, and it's time for Disney to suck it up and start taking responsibility for this extraordinary, neglected theme park.

Sponsors or not.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

No Love for Norway!

It's been more than two years since EPCOT Central examined the sad state of the Norwegian pavilion at EPCOT's World Showcase.

Now, Norwegian newspaper Aftenposten has caught wind of the travesty that Disney has made of this country's representation. It quotes a Norway pavilion cast member as saying, "Frankly, I’m embarrassed when I show this outdated film to tourists."

Not surprisingly, Disney proves once again how it is embarrassingly out of touch with actual guest reaction. Disney spokesperson Kim Prunty insists to Aftenposten, "The film is only one of many ways of showing Norwegian culture to our guests, who are generally very happy with what they see at the pavilion."

Has she seen the film? That is, if it's even running.

The theater in which it plays looks like it's Scotch-taped together in places, and the badly scratched 70mm film plays like a time capsule from 1988, barely even hinting at the massive progress that Norway has made in the last 20 years.

Or maybe she's referring to the Norwegian musical group Spelmanns Gledje, which performs at the Norw-- oops, that's right. Disney eliminated that entertainment option a few weeks ago as part of a cost-cutting move.

Maybe Kim's talking about the authentic Norwegian buffet you can find at Akersh-- oh, wait, no, that's now the "Akershus Royal Banquet Hall," which offers such Norwegian delicacies as pasta, hot dogs and cheese ravioli. (Granted, there are apparently still some very basic Norwegian offerings on the menu, but I've yet to hear of childless adults who have attempted to dine there recently.)

Visitors to the Norway pavilion would never know that it is one of the most developed, advanced, peaceful, prosperous and, frankly, beautiful nations in the entire world. If you're at all interested in a basic primer on Norway, check out the well-researched Wikipedia entry on the country.

But whatever you do, don't go to EPCOT. You might find some lovely desserts and a C-ticket attraction (which should be so much better). You'll also find incongruous Disney princesses and you'll have to navigate a sea of strollers, harried parents and screaming children, since the extraordinary Akershus restaurant was converted into all Disney-princess dining a few years back.

There's some blame to be held by the Norwegian government itself. From what I've been told, the government decided not to renew its sponsorship -- which is rather odd, considering how wealthy and prosperous the country is. Given the millions of people who visit the pavilion each year, an investment would almost certainly realize a good return by leading to tourism.

Then again, it's quite possible Disney didn't want the Norwegian sponsorship renewed. If it had been, Disney might actually have to perform maintenance and upkeep on Maelstrom, its barren exit and the rarely changed (but quite good) exhibit inside the stave church -- and they might need to get rid of Middle Eastern Jasmine, French Belle and Cinderella, and German Snow White congregating inside the replica of Norway's oldest fortress.

Norway is an extraordinary country. For fun, here are a couple of pictures I took along the Sognefjord last year. (Yes -- the fascination I had with Norway thanks to visiting the EPCOT pavilion did indeed result in a trip there!)

Norway deserves so much better than it's getting at EPCOT, and it's nice to see that, finally, someone else has noticed.

Thursday, October 09, 2008

Try to Imagine

"Whatsoever Ezra does not know and sanction, that thing is
heresy, worthless for knowing and wicked to consider. ... Such is our
comfortable position and sure faith. Would he not betray himself an alien cynic
who should otherwise portray Main Street, or distress the citizens by
speculating whether there may not be other faiths?"

-- Sinclair Lewis, "Main Street" (1920)

I ran across something rather ... unexpected today.

It's a rather magnanimous, roundabout denunciation of the magnificently haunting and dramatic "pre-show" film that opened The Living Seas. The one that began with the words that, to me, define everything The Walt Disney Company used to be about: “Try to imagine.”

And it opened my eyes to one possible, and possibly rather upsetting, reason for the change in EPCOT from serious examination of the world in which we live to lighthearted fun.

It’s a possibility I had never considered before.

Try to imagine ... that a number of ultra-conservatives who believe in the concept of “intelligent design” (a concept that didn’t really exist until the late 1980s) put forth the view that the scientific theories presented in The Living Seas were at odds with their religious beliefs. And try to imagine that their concerns were brought to Brad Rex, who was vice president of Epcot, and who made no secret of his religious faith and had no problem talking about it openly and publicly.

Now, please understand, I am not opposed to any belief system that is different than mine, with one provision: It should not be forced upon me, nor should it be used in a way that positions itself as superior to anyone else’s. I believe in exposing people to different faiths, different beliefs, different ideas.

That’s why science, to me, has always been so fascinating: It attempts to prove theories using facts, and rarely, if ever, sets forth the notion that its ideas are absolutely inarguable and unwavering; it’s why, for instance, the theories of evolution and relativity remain, to this day, “theories.” If they cannot be proven to any degree that is entirely infallible, they must remain theories.

So I never, ever imagined that anyone would take exception to some basic education, some awareness they might not have had before. Indeed, one of the reasons I lament the passing of The Living Seas was because it presented its offerings so simply, without fanfare – the seas that surround us were shown only to be extraordinary wonders we have barely begun to understand.
And then I read that blog entry.

And I got to wondering. Is it possible that Disney bowed to the wishes of a rather vocal group of ultra-conservative evangelicals and “Nemo-ized” The Living Seas, made it into a happy, un-threatening place, all because a group of people felt that the science on view in the pavilion was antithetical to their religious views?

It’s certainly possible – and possibilities are hard to discount.

Holding this view as plausible, it explains why discussion of man’s role in nature (in “Symbiosis”) was replaced with cute, cuddly “Lion King” characters. The effect of an animated warthog on nature is much less difficult for conservative groups to explain to children than, say, a factory’s impact on the environment.

It explains why, despite the appearance of one of the most visible gay-rights advocates in the country (the world, perhaps), “Ellen’s Energy Adventure” is much less threatening than an exploration of how man’s dependence on fossil fuels is depleting our earth’s resources. (The Big Bang and dinosaurs are still represented, but might they be on the chopping block in future incarnations?)

Perhaps I am too concerned, drawing too many tenuous connections.

But I have to wonder, given the role of faith in life of the executive who was in charge of Epcot, the rather interesting viewpoint expressed by Randall Niles, and the relative inanity (and harmlessness) of The Seas With Nemo and Friends ... is it possible?

Almost by definition, science exists to challenge our notions of the world in which we live. Challenge, it appears, is becoming a scarce commodity – and it’s quite possible that we are paying the price for demanding a world in which tough answers aren’t sought. (I won’t dwell on this idea, except to say I can’t believe that “easy credit” and “easy answers” aren’t related in at least the smallest of ways.) Science is challenging, it is difficult, it can even be confrontational if your own world view conflicts with it – just as it was for those who for centuries insisted the world was flat and the earth was at the center of the universe.

To hear that we are one small sphere amid “a hundred thousand million suns” does indeed fly in the face of any conservative views.

But I wouldn't expect hard science if I were a guest to The Holy Land Experience in Orlando, I likewise don’t expect religious views, or their influence, to factor in to a visit to EPCOT.

Perhaps they didn’t. That's very possible.

And yet ... perhaps they did.

Try to imagine.

One well-placed letter, one influential guest complaining about EPCOT’s lack of “inclusiveness.” One guest threatening a boycott – or, worse, suggesting that his or her family might not buy the new Disney DVD because their sensibilities were disturbed by a dramatic, memorable recitation of the science of the creation of our little planet.

Try to imagine.

Monday, October 06, 2008

In Walt's Words

"In EPCOT, there will be no slum areas because we won't let them develop."

If Your Heart's Not in the Dream

There’s no doubt that The Walt Disney Company is a remarkable force in marketing. In the entertainment industry, Disney is respected (though perhaps less admired these days) for its marketing expertise. Disney’s management likes to call it “branding.” In the simplest form, it’s why we get names like “Disney’s Contemporary Resort” or “Disney’s Animal Kingdom,” when in decades past the shorter form would suffice.

Disney has virtually made a science out of the art form of marketing. Through highly paid consultants and outside agencies, through focus groups and incessant testing, Disney has learned its business well.

And yet, Disney’s relentless, inexhaustible marketing machine also has removed any trace of real personality from its products. As Disney Consumer Products head Andy Mooney told the Los Angeles Times a few months ago, the new “Tinker Bell” movie wasn’t made for entertainment value. It was made to make money. Mooney said, “We were fundamentally missing an opportunity in terms of getting Tinker Bell out there as a character. There’s clearly latent demand.”

That’s how Disney thinks: Consumer demand drives creative decisions, not the other way around. And from a long-term value standpoint, the problem is, “the other way around” is exactly how The Walt Disney Company became so successful in the first place.
And all of that, in a roundabout way, brings us to EPCOT.

EPCOT Center wasn’t created because consumers demanded a more adult-oriented theme park dedicated to exploring future technologies and world cultures. If you had asked 100 adults in 1976 if they thought such a place was needed, or even interesting, you likely would have been met with 100 blank stares.

Focus groups weren’t asked if EPCOT Center would make them feel better about Disney or drive their interest in visiting a Disney Park.

EPCOT Center didn’t fill a gaping void in Disney’s theme-park catalog, wasn’t designed to appeal to the company’s “core consumer.”

EPCOT Center was created because it was a great idea that hadn’t been tried.

EPCOT Center was built on a vision. (Yes, you could argue it was a flawed one) It was conceived by creative artists who might have had a limited reach, as opposed to Walt Disney’s, but who were at least aspiring to something new and different.

The consumer proposition came later, as the project was handed off to marketers and merchandisers and publicists, who had the task (enviable, in my book, unenviable to some) of introducing and explaining this entirely new idea to the public.

The idea came first. The selling of the idea came afterward.

The dream was the most important thing.

Twenty-six years later, EPCOT does not fit any sort of “core message” that Jay Rasulo and his marketing team at Disney Parks have devised for the theme parks. That’s a problem. Because while Disney has the collective brain and skillset of thousands of very smart marketing executives, there’s one thing it doesn’t have: a collective heart.

Unfortunately, that’s the very thing that EPCOT and, increasingly “Disney Parks” in general, needs.

Until they can make it into “Disney’s Epcot,” this marketing group, for all of its expertise in other areas, simply can’t sell the thing.

So, instead of trying to understand what they don’t understand (as Pocahontas might say, of learning “things they never knew they never knew”), they’ll keep adding Pixar characters and Disney characters and princesses and kid-oriented activities and cartoons and “magic” to the place until only the architecture sets it apart. And although there will be no good way to explain that giant golf ball, those sleek buildings, the massive pavilions, the unusual layout, and all those weird “country places,” it won’t matter.

It will be “Disney,” as that word has come to be defined. Then they can sell it.

The Disney of today manufactures and markets filmed-entertainment products like Beverly Hills Chihuahua and ever more Pirates of the Caribbean soon-to-be-DVDs, but would not be able to take the bold creative steps that led to, say, Fantasia, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, Mary Poppins or The Wonderful World of Disney ... much less Disneyland or EPCOT Center.

In all of those instances, the idea came first. The idea drove the business. And though he is, unfortunately, not recognized for the towering achievements he made to American Industry, Walt Disney’s concept of putting the idea first created a company unlike any other.

Despite his accomplishments, Walt Disney knew he was corny, reveled in it. So it made sense that he would approve of a lyric like, “If your heart is in your dream / No request is too extreme.”

Those who have inherited what Walt Disney built aren’t corny. They want to be hip, cool players in today’s Hollywood. They don’t, as a rule, seem to really understand or appreciate the sentiment behind those lyrics. The idea is secondary; the ability to market the idea comes first.

So they can’t quite understand what happens when your heart’s not in your dreams.

They need look no further than EPCOT.

A few weeks back, a Walt Disney World executive and I were talking about the woes that have befallen my favorite theme park. I reminded him of its origins, its concept, its message, and wondered to him why Disney didn’t try to rebuild that concept.

He smiled at me and said, “Wow, you really believe that stuff, don’t you?”

It made me doubt whether he even knows the lyrics to When You Wish Upon a Star. Or maybe, after 22 years of “Disney marketing,” he’s simply forgotten.

Friday, October 03, 2008

Expunging the Park Completely Of Theme


That is, poor Epcot.

Back in 1994, 12 years after it opened, Disney lower-cased the place, and even though it's been known as "Epcot" longer than it was ever known as "EPCOT Center" (14 years vs. 12 years), the lower-casing has failed to have any effect -- except, perhaps, of eliminating any trace of the unifying vision or theme that used to set it apart.

To many, no doubt to most Disney execs who read this, it is ridiculous to continue carping about a change that took place 14 years ago. It's a little like those Star Wars fans who say that it's all been downhill since The Empire Strikes Back. They don't get that Empire is the exception, and that the Star Wars movies they dislike really are the ones that best represent George Lucas's vision. So, they rant and rave and say what a lousy guy that George is. The EPCOT/Epcot conundrum is a bit different, though.

While EPCOT Center clearly did not represent Walt Disney's vision for his great Community of Tomorrow, it was deeply influenced by Disney's dreams. The Community would have included an expansive area in which American companies could show off the best of their current and leading-edge technology (Future World), as well as an internationally themed shopping area that would take guests on a trip around the world without leaving Florida (World Showcase). Those two ideas were central to Walt Disney's concept, and they survived, they were the starting place for what became EPCOT Center.

So, in many ways, EPCOT Center was closer to realizing Walt's ambitions than most people give it credit for. True, there are no residents -- but virtually every other part of Walt's EPCOT actually did get realized, in the grand concept and design of Walt Disney World. Transporation, business centers (albeit with a bias toward retail), hotels and resorts, recreation ... it's all there, though not nearly as ambitiously realized as Walt had hoped and dreamed.

But EPCOT Center maintained one massively important concept, one that was vital to understanding everything Walt Disney was trying to achieve: It brought together corporate giants who were leaders in their industries and offered them a chance to show to the public what they were doing to create a better future. Although EPCOT was never built, exactly, EPCOT Center was, and its very name explained its existence:

The Center of the Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow. The Center of the grand concept. The Center of it all.

EPCOT Center was (and, in word, at least, remains) dedicated to the same concepts Walt Disney wanted to explore further: How to inspire hope and ambition in young people, how to instill pride and optimism in adults, how to make the world better, how to communicate, cooperate and dream.

EPCOT Center, then, was more than a "theme park," it was the world's first (and only) "concept park."

If it wasn't a perfect realization of that concept, it was astonishingly close.

The very idea of EPCOT Center was communicated brilliantly through park guide maps (which used to be much more extensive than the fold-out brochures of today) as well as through technology like the now-defunct WorldKey system. EPCOT Center spent time trying to impart its concept to guests, and even if all they took away from it was, "it's the educational park," that's more than most people ever take away from any "theme" park. (Ask someone what the "theme" of a Six Flags park is -- yes, they bill themselves as "theme" parks.) In its own modest way, that was a major success.

But it went further than that. EPCOT Center's theme was infused into everything it offered and presented. The signs, attractions, restaurants and shops of Future World constantly served up reminders that guests were meant to be experiencing the future ... while World Showcase could not have been more successful in carrying out its international theme. Every ride and show EPCOT Center presented was acutely aware of the concept of the park.

But then something happened. Instead of updating, revising and rethinking each attraction as it grew outdated (a flaw that was absolutely inherent in EPCOT Center's basic concept, and completely unavoidable), Disney's eternal, damaging tug-of-war between Imagineering and Theme Park operations took its toll. The idea that EPCOT was largely outdated and antiquated (which was true enough) was interpreted to mean the park needed a drastic re-thinking.

The fact that Future World's attractions were serious in nature and educational in approach was seen as a flaw. When compared with other theme parks in the Central Florida region, which were competing for the mighty dollar of Disney guests, EPCOT Center seemed "boring." It needed a massive overhaul. It needed humor and relevance. It needed modernization to bring it into the '90s. It needed thrill rides and adventure. It needed to be more like other theme parks.

And that redesign was its undoing. Because at its very core, right down deep in its "theme park DNA," EPCOT Center was "genetically" incapable of being like other theme parks. But damn it all, Disney's largely MBA-educated management was going to try.

Out went a Universe of Energy and in (before she was "out") came Ellen DeGeneres and Bill Nye (who?) the Science Guy. Out went Horizons and in came ... well, for many years, absolutely nothing. Out went World of Motion, in came Test Track and a lot of scaffolding and traffic signs. Out went the extraordinary pre-show to The Living Seas and in came little Nemo. Out went the Wonders of Life, and in came ... oops, nothing. Out went Kitchen Kabaret, in came ... Food Rocks?

And if you are feeling all of that seems somehow frenetic and non-sensical, it kind of was. Because when they threw out the name "EPCOT Center," they threw out the very concept of what EPCOT was -- and they forgot to put anything in its place.

For a while, they tried to show how "timely" Epcot was by putting the year after its name: Epcot '94. Epcot '95. Then they called Epcot the "discovery park" -- which was fine except there wasn't really anything to discover there, and it more or less left out what World Showcase was all about. They brought in lots of Disney characters, because EPCOT didn't feel "Disney" enough, but they failed to realize that EPCOT itself was Disney; characters were almost redundant, like painting the White House red and blue, as well, to emphasize the point. Disney invented EPCOT, so it was, by definition, Disney by nature.

But it's ideas like these that Disney has failed to grasp as it has continued to tinker with Epcot.

Today, Test Track is just a cool ride in a car. (In my last visit to Epcot, the pre-show boarding area wasn't functioning, and guests didn't even seem to realize or notice; it's not integral to understanding the show.) The Seas is an excuse to see Nemo. Mission: Space is a semi-unique thrill ride. Imagination struggles to be about anything, since Disney doesn't seem to care much anymore about either Figment or "Honey I Shrunk the Audience." The stores all sell the same Disney junk you can get at several dozen other stores throughout Walt Disney World. The restaurants sell the same mundane food. Disney Vacation Club kiosks are randomly scattered through the park, reminding guests that all of this is really just about selling you on more Disney.

It's all now seemingly randomly placed, randomly designed, randomly developed. The institutional-white walls that form the "exit" of Mission: Space could be at any Six Flags park. The clamshells guests ride in to experience "The Seas With Nemo and Friends" could have been plucked from Fantasyland.

Even over in World Showcase, which used to seem like a portion of the park that could never really lose its theme, "Kim Possible" is soon to take over (a now-canceled Disney cartoon), and Jasmine and Belle spend their days in Norway. It all, frankly, feels a bit like a mall.

It's beyond sad for me to really contemplate what Epcot has become. When it was "boring," at least it had an identity, it was proudly all of a piece. It was literally a theme park, one that carried out a unified theme beautifully.

Today, it's a "Disney Park" through and through, with all the mediocrity implied by that mundane, joyless moniker. "Disney Parks" need to be able to communicate an instant message -- one of laughing children, happy cartoon characters and beatiful princesses, one of cartoon-style adventure and innocent fun.

EPCOT Center didn't necessarily offer those things, and yet it was a Disney Park. It was a quintessentially Disney Park, before that became a "brand" -- one whose ambition and concept were as daring as Walt himself was, in his folksy, seemingly innocent way.

EPCOT Center was the Disney park, with a theme unlike any other, the ultimate realization of everything that a Disney-designed and Disney-built theme park could be, combining technological prowess with storytelling and an optimistic vision of a future that, this time around, wasn't fake. It was a storybook ending in the real world, one we could all work together to achieve.

Today, Epcot really has no theme. It stands without a unifying concept, without any real direction or ambition. Sadly, I think, it has become exactly what Disney's highly paid, "creative" executives want it to be:

Epcot is just one in a global chain of Disney Parks.

And one way or another, they need it to start acting like the rest of them.

Wednesday, October 01, 2008

A World We Long(ed) to Share

Thank you to everyone who has welcomed back EPCOT Central. I was sorry to be away so long, but after a couple of months, it got to the point that it seemed best just to give the site a long, long rest. Yes, I expected it to be permanent, but with every trip to Walt Disney World, my enthusiasm for EPCOT – what it was, what it is, what it promised and what it can be – just grows. I was fortunate (since I don’t live in Florida) to visit three times since EPCOT Central’s last post, and the thoughts just continued to build. At the moment, I’m going to postpone continuing my “Ten Steps to a Better EPCOT,” though I will, at some point, finish those out. For all of you who express enthusiasm for my writing and ideas, thank you. And, as a “re-dedication” of EPCOT Central ...

To all who come to this place of thought, expression, ideas and dreams, welcome. EPCOT Central is yours. I hope you will continue to speak your mind here, and to share in the dream that Disney will someday regain its appreciation of this most unique, daring theme park.

As daring as EPCOT Center was when it opened, 25 years ago, it dared even further with the opening of Horizons. The massive, single-ride pavilion, originally sponsored by GE, made a declaration that, sadly, The Walt Disney Company would prove itself unable or unwilling to realize: “If we can dream it, then we can do it.”

It’s unlikely that, in January 1999, executives at Disney realized just how wrong they would be in assuming that Horizons was antiquated and needed to be replaced. Certainly, they could never have anticipated the outpouring of emotion and nostalgia that so many feel for the attraction.

In many ways, Horizons represented the pinnacle of Walt Disney Imagineering. It boasted a large number of Audio-Animatronics figures, a theme-park innovation that no other company (sadly, including today’s Disney) was ever able to replicated. It offered guests an immersive experience that transported them out of their worlds and, briefly, into another. It improved on an existing ride system and increased capacity, so that while by today’s standards its hourly intake was relatively low (I’ve read about 700 an hour), there was rarely a wait, and the experience felt seamless to most guests. It blended humor, music, nostalgia, optimism, futurism, hope and even smells into a ride unlike any other, before or since.

Its unique “immersion” into “the promise of brighter days” may have left some guests cold, no doubt, but for many others, it offered the glimpse of a world in which, true, we might not all actually wear jumpsuits, but in which we had a chance to know and understand more about our life. It told us we had choices, and each was rife with possibility.

Horizons was markedly un-ironic, and it could not exist in a company that seems to believe post-modern irony is what makes its guests chuckle. No, it wasn’t markedly un-ironic – it was gloriously un-ironic.

Allegedly, Horizons fell victim to a sinkhole that mysteriously appeared a few years after GE failed to renew its sponsorship. How GE, or any other company, was supposed to re-invest in a concept that Disney itself appeared to have lost faith in is something I can’t explain. The “official version” aside (sinkhole, no sponsorship, guest surveys), it’s hard to accept any reason for Horizon’s fate than this: Disney didn’t believe in its basic message. No one understood it, and as Horizons lost its lease on life, so did EPCOT Center’s original theme.

I like to believe that the (Disney) world will be a better place someday. Soon, I hope. Because instead of new horizons, it’s increasingly showing us very limited horizons that look awfully like the world we live in now, filled with glitz and flash, but little substance, and, frankly, very little hope or optimism.