Monday, February 02, 2009

A Letter to Bob Iger and John Lasseter

Dear Mr. Iger and Mr. Lasseter,

It is very clear that The Walt Disney Company has bigger problems at the moment than the creative direction of a 26-year-old theme park, particularly one that has always been difficult for your company to understand. You have to be concerned about the softening ad market, the declining ratings for ABC, the strong competition facing Disney Channel, the impact that the economy is having on retail sales of your consumer products, the details of your contract to build a new theme park in China, and the enormous hassle of rebuilding a flawed theme park from the ground up.

Yes, the problems of EPCOT pale in comparison. And the last-place finish of your studio in 2008, along with the public rejection of Disney-produced animated features, haven't even been mentioned. So, yes, you have your hands full. Good luck with all that.

But here's the thing: EPCOT really is more than just another one of your Disney Parks. In the lineup of parks around the world, it is unique. It stands for something, or at least it did. And that something is much more than "Walt Disney's final dream."

You see, Walt Disney ran a company that was itself quite complex. Back in those days, he had a fully operating studio to be concerned about, his own distribution company, animated features to produce, two weekly television series, a theme park, a merchandising operation, and a full-fledged R&D group called WED Enterprises. He was also, arguably, the most well-known and beloved public figure of his time.

The company you run was built from scratch by him -- by this man. He wasn't a "concept," he wasn't a "brand." He was one of the 20th century's most optimistic visionaries, and within a space of forty years, he moved from struggling to get cartoon shorts made and distributed to concerning himself with nothing less than the fate of humanity.

That seems to have been forgotten these days, though I think, Mr. Lasseter, you have spoken about it quite eloquently in the past. Walt Disney was an actual person, and he carefully crafted an entertainment empire out of nothing.

Today, you manage that empire, and you've been trying to make it grow. But in so doing, you seem to have lost sight of some of the very ideals and ideas that made it grow in the first place. Interestingly, and despite all that came out of their tenure, Michael Eisner and Frank Wells really did seem to understand that. When they "grew" The Walt Disney Company, they did so by focusing sharply on its core operations, by encouraging creativity within the scope of the things Disney already did well. As we all know, that came unraveled in 1995 when Disney purchased Capital Cities/ABC Inc. and became distracted. There was too much to do in too little time.

The predecessor of Eisner and Wells, Ron Miller, isn't often given credit for what he did right, and there were a great many things. He recognized that Disney needed to make different kinds of movies, but still focused on the concept of strong storytelling, so he created Touchstone Pictures, which is now gone. He knew the Disney brand had potential outside of the United States, so he oversaw the development of Tokyo Disneyland. He knew Disney could capture some of the market in the growing cable and home-video businesses. When he left, Disney was well-poised for growth, and under Eisner and Wells it grew at an astonishing rate.

But at the heart of everything was always the idea that Disney understood what "Disney" meant. It wasn't about being a company focused on pleasing kids and tweens. It wasn't a company that could compete on a lot of fronts. So, it would ignore those and focus on what it did well.

It was around this time, though, that Walt Disney's grand passion for building a better tomorrow was sacrificed. And EPCOT has been a major casualty.

So, now that EPCOT Central's slightly skewed (admittedly) version of Disney history is out of the way, let's focus for a moment on EPCOT itself.

EPCOT was, for several years, the culmination of all Disney had learned -- in theme-park development, in R&D, in filmmaking, in guest services, in merchandising, in employee management. Set aside (which is a tough thing to do) that it never really fulfilled Walt Disney's vision of a city of the future -- once he died, it was unlikely anyone could carry his torch for that massive a dream. Let's focus on what EPCOT actually did do.

EPCOT provided something wholly different. By virtue of being within Walt Disney World, it was, in fact, the most "Disney" of creations. But it didn't need to wear this on its sleeve. Even once Mickey and gang were introduced to EPCOT, it remained unlike anything else on earth.

Without making a show of it, EPCOT encapsulated the very definition of "Disney" -- dreams, hope, ambition and progress. And let's not forget this one simple fact: It was successful.

The original incarnation of EPCOT Center has a reputation of having failed ... but it didn't. It followed a very predictable, very normal pattern in its first couple of years: Great attendance in the first year, followed by a decline, which leveled off. Anyone with a few hours and some key data would have seen that EPCOT's attendance declines in 1983 and 1984, fueled in part by difficulty in the overall economy, are the same declines that Disney and other theme parks have traditionally seen.

Where EPCOT failed, though, was that it never changed. It remained static, and was not representative of the world it tried to present. Quickly, people grew tired of it -- why visit a park with such complex, intricate attractions if those attractions never changed? Once life began to change so rapidly, with the ubiquity of personal computers, VHS players, etc., EPCOT seemed to show us a past vision of the future ... not a new one.

And here's the rub: If EPCOT represented the ideals of Walt Disney and the company he founded, once it grew stale, so did Disney. Sure, there were several years of excitement, of explosive growth at Walt Disney World, and EPCOT did reflect that, by opening new attractions, new pavilions, new rides that could distract guests from the ones that didn't change.

But EPCOT was founded on the ideal of constant change. Of reinvention. Of new possibility. Not of "more of the same."

And in the past decade or so, Disney has been exactly that -- more of the same. Where is the excitement? Where is the sense of opportunity? Where is the feeling that the goal isn't simply to grow revenue, it's to constantly innovate as a way to grow revenue?

So, you see, when EPCOT grows stale, so does Disney. Possibly it's the other way around, but I don't think so. Too many hopes, dreams and promises were built into EPCOT, so it's something of a bellwether.

Today's EPCOT reflects what Disney has become: Obsessed with self-promotion, with simple entertainment, with shoving the "brand" into our faces, with capturing the tween market, with appealing to everyone. What did your mother tell you when you were growing up? If you try to please everyone, you'll please no one.

There is much to admire in EPCOT, but most of that comes in the form of reminders of the park that once was, of the extraordinary ambition it represented.

As a longtime shareholder, I'd love to see my stock realize a significant return on my investment. It's been languishing for years.

If you want to know why, don't look at the happy worlds of your now-ubiquitous Magic Kingdoms. Look at the park that is most unlike any of the others. Look at the park that represented the imagination and ideals of Walt Disney and thousands of people who shared his dream. Look at the park that used to point to our future.

EPCOT is Disney. Disney is EPCOT.

It will be interesting to see what the future has in store for both.

Yours truly,

EPCOT Central


Anonymous said...

I pray you sent this off.

Utterly amazing.

Anonymous said...

Man....I am SO GLAD that you are back from "retirement". Your passion and dedication to all things EPCOT is remarkable. I only hope that the people at Disney are reading and embracing all the things that you say. Thank you, thank you, thank you!!!

Spokker said...

Having never been to Epcot I really empathize with what Epcot fans have been through. Trying to think objectively here, I really think Epcot has been hardest hit by the practice of shoehorning in thrill rides and characters regardless of merit while management continues to completely miss the point of the park.

Like always I am pessimistic about sending letters to top Disney brass, but I wish you luck in your activism.

Anonymous said...

If you actually want this letter read, I hope you sent a shorter version.

And I also hope you signed it with your actual name, because if you really signed it "Epcot Central" you might as well of sent it from "Internet nut job" for how well that will be received.

Epcot82 said...

Thanks for the feedback, Anonymous. The letter is a blogpost done in the fashion of an "open letter." It's not intended to be sent, rather to express views. It's a shame Disney regards its most ardent fans as "Internet nut jobs," rather than seeing valid (or even invalid) criticism as an opportunity to improve. My stock portfolio would sure like to see that happen -- as would my heart.

Anonymous said...

You are very unique.

Anonymous said...

The blog owner has mentioned before that he knows that Disney employees (and possibly execs) read this blog, based on the nature of their comments.

Spokker said...

Save Toad.

Anonymous said...

I love this blog. I love all that it says! I have been going to EPCOT Center (I hate that it's just EPCOT) since 1984. I remember wanting to go on Horizons sooo bad. It was more than I expected at the time. But everything was great at the time, especially Journey Into Imagination, the Land, Spaceship Earth ... even the roller coaster building computer in Communicore. I loved going.

But now look. Spaceship Earth's final ending is now an easy out hallmark card. Universe of Energy hasn't updated it's solar cells for over twenty years. Don't get me started on Horizons closing ... Mission space is a ride most people won't go on but once. Test Track is the worst commercial for driving a car. Journey into Imagination ... ALL aspects have been ruined, the 3d movie (yes he was wrong but Captain EO was incredible. they could have redone another movie with another star and not given us the horrible movie now shown), the downstairs ride, and all the fun upstairs. The Land boat ride is fun but has not been updated. Soarin' is a welcome addition, it is fun. the Living seas, a commercial.

But Disney is looking in the wrong direction. They are looking for the quick fix (like what America is doing). They need to made EPCOT a place where dreams of the future are made. And until then, EPCOT will just keep fading away to a 1984 memory.

Anonymous said...

I hope you actually mailed it to them. Wouldnt hurt to send the letter to Imagineering office in Glendale too.