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.


Bobby said...

Great commentary. When I was young, I visited Epcot and remember being particularly bored. I liked Body Wars and Figment, but that was about it. I didn't understand Epcot as a concept and instead saw it, as you describe, as the "educational park." It was the one we only spent a day at because that's all the entertainment it could sustain. 15 years later, my girlfriend and I made trips to Epcot on three occasions during our weeklong stay in Orlando. She loved Test Track and Turtle Talk with Crush, I loved Mission Space and Soarin'. These are all really well designed attractions and certainly have draw.

However, instead of being just a way to get bodies in the park, they should have been designed to communicate the Epcot message you speak of. Mission Space should be used as a sort of bribe--explore this vision of the future of space exploration technology and get to go on this fun thing in the end. The rides themselves aren't the problem, but rather that they're not employed to support anything more high concept.

The Seas with Finding Nemo could actually be quite powerful. Attract people into the attraction and then use the tease of Nemo to string them along. They need the big attractors to satisfy the suits, but they're not totally incompatible with the ideals of Imagineering. If we're stuck working within the constrains of economic reality, Epcot at lest needs to embrace this as their model to strike a balance.

Mark said...

Great post- and welcome back.

Anonymous said...

I wish someone like you who clearly "gets it" was in charge of Disney parks rather than the short-sighted jackass that's running things now!

-Anonymous epcot cast member that would rather be an EPCOT Center cast member.

Anonymous said...

You know...I have agreed with MOSTLY all of your posts.

Tis one bothers me for some odd reason.

I think EPCOT has changed to Epcot because it needed too...And that the theme is no longer futurism but Discovery.Hence the change from WoM to TT...

Not gonna make excuses for TLS and JII.And the aesthetics of course.

Anonymous said...

Why, I wonder, do you think it "needed to"?

Anonymous said...

I'm sure it would be interesting to some visitors to know how the attractions operate and function at the mechanical level. Understanding the computerized systems and ride mechanisms...a kind of behind the scenes peek.. like how the panels of the geodesic dome (Spaceship Earth) were set in place, or how the centrifuge at Mission: Space works to create G forces, and so on. Educational, fun, thought provoking...


Unknown said...

First off, welcome back. Secondly, I find myself agreeing with you on almost all of your points, again! However, while it was no Kitchen Kaberet, Food Rocks at least stuck to the theme of the pavilion. Once it became outdated (very soon after it opened), I kept sending my suggestions (which were summarily put in file 13, most likely) of new food acts that could be used to update the show. Food Wrapper needed a new outfit to keep up-to-date with the new labeling, of course, and someone else to be modeled on besides Tone Loc. Broccoli Spears should have been singing to "eat your veggies, one more time." In Sink was ready to sing "Bye Bye Bye" to the high sugar/high calorie drinks it washed down the drain. Christina Arugula could have been spot on with "What a Girl Wants," and that what is a girl's daily food pyramid to keep her healthy. And these were just the former Mouseketeer parody suggestions I made.

I enjoyed Soarin' when I visited DCA for the first time (one of the few things I enjoyed about that park). I never quite agreed with the connection forced upon us that it fit well with The Land, but then again, as is the message of your recent blog, why should the suits have been worried about theme at all?

Digital Jedi said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Digital Jedi said...

Your right, as usual. And the changes were never "needed" as one comment suggested. I was one of many children who got the message of the park and loved it. It never needed to compete with the cheap thrills and low ball expectations of the parks that surrounded it. It never needed to stray from it's theme to be updated. It never needed to be any more Disney then it already was. Everything that ever happened to EPCOT was a direct result of faulty management that treats the entirety of Disney as an eleborate gift shop, rather then a work of wonder and imagination. It didn't treat everyone as if they were too stupid to get the message.

Anonymous said...

I first went to Epcot in 1984 as a third grader and was not bored. I was amazed. It was a frightening place but a good sort of frightening. Everything was so different and futuristic. Like being in a movie about the future. It had a feeling I had never experienced and always wanted this feeling again and again. That's when I became a loyal fan of EPCOT. The world showcase was amazing to me as well. Everyone was working from different countries? Wow! How did Disney get all those people here to do that? I now speak 3 languages fluently and have been to over 40 countries and I credit this ALL to the world that EPCOT showed me. I want to have that feeling again in Future world but it goes away a little more every time I go there. Now it's just big balls being thrown at me, closed up restaurants and rides that have charachters that I don't even know. To the old EPCOT, thank you, Danke, shukran.. To the new... Who are you exactly??

David Landon said...

Your commentary is, of course, spot on. It seems to me that there are some very minor things Disney could do to restore some visual and thematic unity to Future World. For one, they could bring back the circular logos for each pavilion, and all the signage could be redone in the same EPCOT font (which looks like something in the Handel Gothic family, I believe). Second (and more importantly), they could beef up the conservation/educational messages. Nemo and friends could be used to educate kids on the effects of human activities on the oceans, Test Track could have a post-show area highlighting advances in the field of zero-emissions vehicles, etc.

The pointy-haired MBAs who run Disney will never spend the money to completely repair the damage of the last 14 years, but they could do a little bit, to at least make it look like they're trying.

Anonymous said...

I never got how the park could be perceived as boring. I discovered it as a child and rediscovered it through my teen years. And when I went back as an adult, I still enjoyed it. When I think about going now (I'm 34), it's the park I most want to go back to. I like Animal Kingdom but I think if anything that would be more "boring" to a thrill seeker (one mountain excepting). And MGM has slipped to the bottom of my list because so many of its attractions are not repeat-viewing friendly and quite honestly it's by far the most "theme-disoriented" park in Disney. MK and EPCOT are still the two I a) want to see first and b) want to spend more of my time at when I'm there.

Are we the minority? Because I just can't grasp how people came to get bored with this park. I'd give anything to go on WoM and Horizons today. Disney should've stuck with their own image and not tried to get back people who like Hulk rollercoasters or some of the other Universal garbage. Half-hearted attempts only drive people away.

Anonymous said...

When I went to EPCOT at 8 it blew my mind. But I do agree with the name change - it is not the city or community EPCOT, and Walt would be furious if he knew what they did with his idea in 1980. While Epcot is the best park in the world, its a pale shadow of what EPCOT the city would have been.

Anonymous said...

It is great to see you posting again.

I know it was just a small part of your post, but I want to make the case that we should wait and see on the new Kim Possible attraction. I had the same initial reaction as you did when I heard about it. It sounded like they were forcing another cartoon into Epcot. Now that I've read a little more, I'm interested to see how it comes out.

It sounds like the experience will use new technology in a way we have never seen before. That alone plays into the Epcot spirit. People will be using cell phone sized devices to directly communicate with the park. We are talking about pressing a button and something cool happening, like making the volcano in Mexico erupt. Using technology to have that kind of effect on your surroundings sounds commendable.

As a child, I was so excited to be able to use the touch screen kiosks they had situated around the park to get information on attractions. I already knew about the attractions, but I really enjoyed watching a screen respond to me touching it. It was so much more advanced than my home television. I can imagine this technology doing the same for kids today. They can't affect volcanoes by pushing buttons on their cell phones. The pure idea of excitement for technology is so important to the principles of Epcot.

I have read that there will be about 7 quests, each taking place in an individual pavilion, each designed to last 45-60 minutes. At the very least, these quests are designed to get people to spend time exploring the world showcase. With any luck, there will be an educational component involved as well.

I have also read that the designers were very conscious not to disturb the current environment or distract people not participating. You will not see Kim's picture anywhere if you aren't playing. The kiosks will be small and discreet.

This isn't directly making any extra money for Disney. There won't be any charge or even a deposit to be a part of the event. This is adding a genuine high technology attraction the park that every visitor will be able to use or ignore at their own discretion.

Even though this uses a TV cartoon character as its central story, is that automatically bad? The mere interjection of characters into Epcot is not intrinsically wrong. The original Journey into Imagination created Figment and Dreamfinder and they fit perfectly into the park as a whole. I don't think using Kim Possible makes the attraction any better or worse for me than if they had used a new character made just for this purpose. I can just imagine some MBA coming up with a character they think could sell merchandise, like Izzy the generally disliked mascot for the '96 Olympics, and having it take away from what is created. If Kim doesn't bother me and might be more enjoyable to someone who has watched her show before, I don't see the harm. I want as many people as possible to enjoy what Epcot is about and if Kim Possible can get more people to explore the world showcase while educating them and without bothering me, this could be something really special.

I think it is at least as important for those of us who understand what Epcot was founded on to be able to make a big noise about new things that Disney does right as it is for us to point out the things that they do wrong. I'm not saying that Kim Possible will be great, but it could be. We should hope that it is great and at least wait and see before we deride it.

Keep up the good work.