Tuesday, March 31, 2009


Unfortunately, the tumultuous economy and recent cutbacks you've been reading about have hit EPCOT Central, and those issues have caused new blogposts to be published less frequently. Thanks for your patience ... as well as your notes of concern about the frequency of postings.)


Word has begun filtering out recently -- EPCOT Central has heard this rumor from several different sources -- that a major change is being considered for Epcot's World Showcase.

Instead of cast members in each pavilion wearing costumes that represent historical attire that's associated with each country, Imagineering and Disney Parks & Resorts is mulling over the idea of having all cast members in World Showcase wear a standardized costume.

Sadly, though this post is being published just before the calendar changes to April 1, this does not appear to be an April Fool's joke, but rather a serious attempt to cut costs by easing the burden that the Wardrobe department faces at Epcot.

If the change happens, it's hard to imagine even the most ardent supporter of the "Disney's-just-a-business" view having good things to say about this. Even the Mexican restaurant down the street has "traditional" (perhaps stereotypically so) costumes for its waiters and waitresses. Surely Disney can keep up this effort to add to the character, charm and flavor of World Showcase?

The blandness of the "Disney Parks" name may now be visually represented by bland costumes that eliminate the global flavor and feel of World Showcase. Allegedly, Disney believes that guests don't really care about such things, and that a standardized, modern-dress "costume" would somehow make cast members more relatable.

World Showcase should represent the unique attributes of each nation that is represented there. While an update or design modifcation to the costumes in each country certainly would be welcome, sending the message that everyone in the world dresses like a Gap ad is hardly a creative, innovative or appealing solution. (And as the 1970s rendering of the German pavilion that accompanies this post shows, native costumes have been an integral component of World Showcase from the inception of EPCOT Center.)

Let's hope this rumor remains only a rumor, and that the friendly and appealing cast members throughout World Showcase remain a personable as well as visual representative of their countries' unique culture, traditions and history.

Monday, March 16, 2009

In Response to Anonymous

Typically, EPCOT Central doesn't publicly call out responses to posts, though every single one is read (multiple times, usually) and appreciated. However, this one is worthy of making an exception. In response to EPCOT Central's "Marketing EPCOT" entry, a user who chose to remain "Anonymous" wrote, in part:

"Almost all of your posts write about how to re-brand the park and deal with marketing and management. You never consider the internal structure might be flawed. Unlike a Disneyland style park, Epcot is basically a showcase for corporate America. Its in bed with various sponsors to fund the park's operation costs. No other park has a sponsor for every attraction. ..." (Followed by a great deal of valid complaint and comment on EPCOT's sponsorship structure. The entire response won't be quoted, but you can read it here.)

Further, Anonymous claimed that thh suggestion to "re-structure the park back to its original intent is bad. You make no effort to suggest how Epcot (or EPCOT CENTER, whatever) would be able to compliment the rest of Disney's offerings. Its like putting a book in a stack of video games and letting the public chose their form of entertainment. ... What's even more ridiculous is that you're asking them to re-brand Epcot for a niche audience. With that much land invested into the concept, I doubt they'll be gearing towards a niche anytime soon. ... This is why when the company tries to synergize you get things like Kim Possible and Donald Duck...its the only content they have. The parks are extensions of a brand, not the reverse. How do you expect them to manage an entire theme park around a concept when they can't even develop smaller investments (TV or consumer products franchises) around the education/discover concept?"

It genuinely seems to me worth opening up a discussion among all EPCOT Central readers about the subjects Anonymous raises. Partly, this is because Anonymous raises some arguments that I think are probably shared within The Walt Disney Company and, unfortunately, fail to grasp some of the basic truths about EPCOT Center, Disney's theme-park business and the potential of The Walt Disney Company as a whole to become better. And given that Disney is firing many of its employees, charging fans $75 to receive marketing material, just announced that it is halting Hong Kong expansion, and has lost more than $30 billion in market-cap value in recent years, there's obviously a lot of room for improvement.

Two and a half years ago, EPCOT Central asserted that "as goes EPCOT, so goes Disney," and so far, there's been little evidence to the contrary.

So, first, let's get one important fact out of the way -- indeed, almost every major attraction at Disneyland-style parks have (or have had) corporate sponsors. It's not difficult to find a list. They include AT&T, Energizer, Kodak, FedEx, Mattel, NIPPON Oil, TOMY, Dai-Chi Mutual Life Insurance, Fujifilm, RCA, Esso and many others. These are only the attractions at Disneyland-style parks. From the outset, from the very conception of Disneyland, sponsorship has been a key element.

Of course, many major attractions -- such as The Haunted Mansion, Matterhorn Bobsleds, Pirates of the Caribbean, the Indiana Jones Adventure, the Twilight Zone Tower of Terror and others -- operate without any sponsorship at all. Either sponsorships have lapsed, the rides were conceived to be sponsor-free, or there simply was no sponsor interest. Certainly not every major attraction requires a sponsor, and there's no reason that should not be the case at EPCOT.

EPCOT Center was unlike any other Disney theme park from the start. The reason sponsors were sought was not solely to underwrite costs, but because the unusual "pavilion" concept allowed EPCOT's attractions to thoroughly and completely convey a sponsor's intended message. The sponsor's logo wasn't simply pasted onto the ride; the entire concept was developed with the partner's involvement.

So, quite the opposite than "flawed," the sponsorship opportunities at EPCOT are quite brilliant. The problem is, Disney cannot define the park to potential sponsors, cannot articulate a clear vision, and have difficulty helping sponsors understand why such an "old-fashioned" concept is still relevant. In this area, Disney clearly needs some help. When companies are spending literally billions of dollars on acquisitions, brand extensions and new businesses, there should still be money for something that captures tens of millions of people as singularly as a trip to a Disney theme park.

But today's Disney is not like yesterday's. While market cap and overall value have declined precipitously, Disney has the money, the ability and the power to operate its own theme park, even without sponsor money. It can, it just won't, and the question of "why" is indeed a curious one. Why wouldn't Disney want to encourage its own vision of the future, to lay out its own story of what we can be in our Future World, to present its own vision of our peoples in World Showcase? Well, in part, it does appear to want this -- as long as that vision includes Pixar characters, Disney characters or synergistic opportunities.

Disney's "vision" these days doesn't see far beyond its balance sheet, which is too bad -- because when you consider the remarkable opportunity it has created for itself, it's almost scary. Tens of millions of people are in Disney's thrall every year, and yet it does not try to espouse a particular set of views or philosophies. It's a big like a comic-book super-villain bent on "dominating the world" instead being content to sell toys and candy to everyone. Yes, I'm implying here that Disney could use its unprecedented opportunity to spout propaganda for nefarious purposes ... it could also use that opporutnity for remarkably good purposes, employing (as it once did) some of the greatest scientific and philosophical minds to create a vision of a possible future.

But really all it wants to do is sell more toys and candy. Oh, and lots and lots of t-shirts.

That's a major opportunity wasted, if you ask me.

In fact, EPCOT Center (or lower-case Epcot) should indeed"compliment (sic) the rest of Disney's offerings." But I think you were trying to imply that they should all be more alike than different -- an assertion I couldn't disagree with more. That's no more true than saying Disney should make only one kind of movie, only one kind of TV show, produce only one type of toy, publish only one type of book. Just as you would not want every house in your city to look exactly the same, or every piece of furniture in your house to strictly adhere to the same design ... just as you would not want every child in the world to think alike ... or every painting by Van Gogh to look alike ... or every piece of music by Mozart to sound alike ... every Disney theme park should "compliment" (actually, that's complement) each other, not mirror each other.

They should exist harmoniously together. They should each offer an experience that is unique and exciting and entertaining. Totally different, totally unlike the other, yet also making up a wonderful whole.

In fact, you're right, Anonymous: It's exactly like letting the public choose "their own form of entertainment." It's why we have hundreds of TV channels, hundreds of movies released annually, why the shelves of Target or Wal-Mart or Blockbuster are filled with thousands upon thousands of movies. Each one of us likes something different ... and in sum, we can say we share a common love "of movies" or "of reading" or "of Disney," even if our individual definition is different. Unfortunately, Disney, like you, would have it mean only the same thing, narrowly defined, denying itself the one thing that Walt Disney used to encourage us all to believe in: possibility.

Why Disney can't recapture that, why it has become a concept so narrowly defined that it can't sustain EPCOT, why it can't see Spaceship Earth as much more than "a giant golf ball," well ... that is the real disappointment.

As a longtime fan, as a lifelong shareholder, and as a steadfast believer in the things Walt Disney spent his life trying to get us to believe, it is saddening. This quote has been used before, and it will be used again no doubt -- the comment Eric Sevareid made on the night Walt Disney died: "The century hardly deserved him."

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Marketing EPCOT

Determining your audience is one of the most important tasks a marketer can perform. It's important to have a thorough understanding of who likes your product, who might like your product, and who just absolutely never will like your product, no matter what you do. It's also increasingly important to find out if you have "brand ambassadors," people who love your product so much, they'd go out of their way to promote it.

So, it's hard to be convinced that, despite its formidable marketing army (which, if rumor holds, will be trimmed significantly sometime early this week), Disney really does understand EPCOT.

There's no doubt Disney understands the concept of a theme park. It definitely gets the idea of a Disney theme park ... so much so, that its most innovative (if that's the right word) development in the past five years has been rebranding all Disney theme parks under the generic "Disney Parks" moniker. Live in Tokyo? You're living near a "Disney Park." Live in the Western U.S.? You live near a "Disney Park." Visiting Paris? You can go to a "Disney Park."

Perhaps, following this logic, a consortium of marketers representing fine art museums could establish a marketing campaign that rebrands every museum, from the Whitney to the Guggenheim to the Smithsonian, as "Art Museums -- Where Fine Art Lives." The "Disney Parks" concept seems that ludicruous ... yet it has stuck.

The Magic Kingdom-style parks are easy. Disneyland, The Magic Kingdom in Florida, Tokyo Disneyland and Euro Disneyland all fit a clearly identifiable mold of what a "Disney Park" should be -- there's a castle, there are cute and cuddly characters, there are rides and attractions for the family, parades and "pixie dust."

But a quarter century ago, Disney made a clear step away from that basic mold. With EPCOT Center, Disney-MGM Studios, Disney's Animal Kingdom, Tokyo Disneyland, Disney's California Adventure and (to a much lesser extent, the awful Walt Disney Studios in Paris, Disney expanded the concept of what a Disney theme park could be. Now it wants to go back on its word.

The problem with that is, in differentiating its parks, Disney understood (through research and hard work) that different members of the family, different types of tourists, different kinds of Disney fans, different age groups ... they all wanted different things. Some wanted thrills. Some wanted "magic." Some wanted to learn. Some wanted to explore. Some wanted visceral excitement. Some wanted active discovery. There was no one "prototypical" Disney theme park guest, so it stood to reason there should be no one "prototypical" Disney park.

Which gets us to EPCOT. It was the first expansion of the Disney theme park concept, opening a year before Tokyo Disneyland, and by far the most unusual. EPCOT Center deliberately sought to be the "anti-Magic Kingdom." From its design to its theme, there was nothing overtly "Disney" about it, except the Disney name. EPCOT was intended to be a brand unto itself, to establish its own meaning and own set of principles.

Opened just as a huge revolution in technology was set to change the world as we knew it, EPCOT presaged these changes and promised that they would lead to an explosion of prosperity for all the peoples of the world. EPCOT gambled that guests would welcome the chance to have a different part of their mind stimulated, to find excitement not in 999 happy haunts or sailing over London, but in the boundless opportunity presented by our own creations.

So, Disney (at least for a time) knew exactly what EPCOT was ... but from the beginning to today, you have to wonder: Did they know who it was for?

EPCOT is not for a family of six who wants to spend their time being passively entertained. EPCOT is not for small children who want desperately to dine with a princess or pirate. EPCOT is not for people who find the news and documentaries boring and pointless. EPCOT is not for guests who feel education is meaningless. There are many people EPCOT most decidedly is not for, and on those guests EPCOT Central passes absolutely no judgment. Many people can spend three days at the Magic Kingdom and feel entirely fulfilled. They can make a side trip to Disney's Hollywood Studios and ride some thrill rides and see some shows and never really come face to face with "reality." Even Disney's Animal Kingdom presents the kinds of experiences that most of us (not "them," but, frankly, most of us -- all of us) will never see: African savannahs and Asian jungles feel as exotic and fantastic as a splash down a cartoon mountain.

So, who is EPCOT for?

EPCOT is for the many millions of people who want to discover something new on vacation. The same people who are targeted for "Adventures by Disney" (real-world excursions around our actual planet) are the families and guests who are ideal EPCOT guests. Kids who love science, the arts and social studies. Adults who like learning and exploring.

There are many, many different target groups that are the ideal EPCOT consumer.

Trouble is, Disney seems to have stopped breaking down its demographic outreach in those ways. EPCOT is now just part of Walt Disney World, which in turn is part of "Disney Parks," and as such, it must conform. There is no room for it to be unique or challenging.

Soon, I hope and believe, Disney will come to realize that its greatest asset, what truly sets it apart from any competitor, is the variety of its parks. Each one is truly different from the other. The more they become the same, the less reason there is to bother visiting multiple parks. If you've had a Nemo experience at Animal Kingdom, do you really need it at EPCOT? If you've dined with the princesses at the Magic Kingdom, is it a necessity to do it in World Showcase?
Maybe for some. Not for others. And those others are where Disney's growth opportunity lies.

In this down economy, Disney has to start looking at ways to really make itself different and distinct. The "sameness" of its theme parks just is not going to be able to sustain. They've been turned into commodities, not concepts.

As that begins to happen -- and I have to believe that with the scrutiny being given to all areas of The Walt Disney Company and corporate America that it will soon -- Disney will have that "a-ha" moment ... "We have different parks, not just multiple variations on essentially the same thing! Wow! And each one has a different audience. Big audiences!"

The media environment has become increasingly fractured, increasingly compartmentalized -- it's easier than ever (though more time consuming) to reach specific target groups, to craft messages unique to them, that will appeal to a specific niche audience, such as those millions who would be completely "turned on" by the concept, ideas and philosophies of a revamped, updated, reinvigorated EPCOT.

As Disney attempts to get smarter about its marketing efforts, hopefully they'll come to this realization: They've been sitting on a gold mine, they just have to find the key.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

The Epcot-city of Hope

Yes, it's a play on words, using the title of President Obama's book. But it's also what many Disney fans wish EPCOT Center had become -- that shining city in Central Florida with a massive spire at its heart, streets and businesses radiating outward from it in circular fashion.

There's a reason the notion of an EPCOT city has persisted for more than four decades. Though situated in the flatlands of Florida, as soon as it was introduced by Walt Disney himself, a few weeks before his death, it became the proverbial city upon a hill, with the eyes of all people watching.

EPCOT the city represented hope, an assurance that the ills of the civil-rights struggle, of violence and war, of poverty and disease could be put past us. Walt Disney, who just 38 years earlier was a struggling, near-destitute cartoonist, was the man who could make it so. If he could make us believe in our childhood dreams, allow us to experience adventure and fantasy ourselves, take us to the bottom of the ocean and bring life to a magical nanny, if he could make us forget our troubles on screen, he above others could make us forget them in real life, too.

When he introduced the concept of EPCOT as a city, Walt Disney promised hope.

He assured us that the turmoil that surrounded us on a daily basis could become distant memories if we applied enough innovation, creativity, dedication and vision.

When he died, the plans for the city mostly died with him ... but, Alexander Pope told us in the 18th century, hope springs eternal.

Hope for a better future. Hope for understanding and prosperity.

In 1982, we saw that the grand ambition may have died, but the hope it represented was still alive. EPCOT Center was not Walt Disney's promised land, but it embodied many of its ideals. It offered a glimpse into a future world in which we could actually solve our problems -- and gave us the seeds to take home and plant that could grow, one by one, into solutions. It presented a view of a world in which Mexico and Norway sat next to China, in which Italy and Japan, our enemy 40 years earlier, flanked the United States. The world, EPCOT Center promised, could live in harmony.

We are once again facing a time of uncertainty, unhappiness, fear and disillusionment. But where is the hope? Today's Epcot tells us that while there are things to discover, mostly life is about entertainment and thrills. Sit back, relax, enjoy the ride, forget about the real world, forget about your troubles, just have fun.

EPCOT the city and EPCOT Center the theme park reminded us that the future is in our hands. The only thing Epcot leaves in our hands is a Fastpass and an airsickness bag.

We need hope. We need Disney's incredible creative minds to show us again that the eternal flame of possibility hasn't died, no matter how meekly it may be flickering.

Monday, March 09, 2009

I'm No Fool, No Sirree!

Note: See March 10 update on this post, below.

Only rarely does EPCOT Central comment on non-EPCOT-related Disney news, but in this case, the detour feels warranted.

Tomorrow (Tuesday, March 10), The Walt Disney Company will hold its annual shareholder's meeting not in Anaheim, not in Orlando, not in New York, but in beautiful, downtown ... Oakland. At least it's not quite as bizarre a location as Philadelphia or Milwaukee, where the company has run to in years past to avoid confrontations with angry stockholders. This year's meeting is in close proximity to Pixar Animation Studios, though given that Disney's market cap has shrunk by more than $30 billion in recent months, it is worth wondering if Disney maybe should have stayed a little farther afield to avoid shareholder ire.

But more to the point, one of the worst kept secrets among Disney enthusiasts is the planned announcement on Tuesday of "D23," a new magazine-slash-fan-club that seeks to engage older, longtime Disney lovers.

So, eight years into the 21st century, Disney has finally acknowledged that we exist. And now the company wants more of our money.

It wasn't all that long ago that Disney operated a free fan club and fan magazine -- The Magic Kingdom Club and its Disney News. There were better, more polished magazines out there, but I can't be alone when I say that I can pull an issue of Disney News from the 1980s off of the shelf and pore through every article once again. (It's also fun to see the old theme-park admission prices.) In the 1990s, Disney dismantled MKC and Disney News, and instead offered a pay-for-play version of the "discount club." But that wasn't good enough, and ultimately that concept was done away with in favor of an "affinity" credit card -- buy enough Disney stuff, and you could get a free Disney theme park ticket ... assuming you were willing to spend the literally tens of thousands of dollars needed for that perk.

Disney also used to operate a modestly scaled collector's event called the Disneyana Convention. Typically held at Walt Disney World, the Disneyana event offered all sorts of great opportunities to meet and interact with Disney actors, writers, directors, voices, animators and other celebrities. The price was steep, but Disneyana was clearly intended for those who were serious about their love of Disney.

But now that's gone, too.

For the most part, Disney has turned its back on serious Disney enthusiasts. Insisting that Disney is a company that makes childrens' dreams come true (just look at the cover of this year's Annual Report), it has become a company for children, not for the child in all of us. One by one, many of the special touches that Disney theme parks offered to more "mature" fans have fallen away -- one need only look at the Golden Horseshoe Review at Disneyland, or the barely operational Carousel of Progress, or Horizons at EPCOT, to name but a few. In their place have cropped up new, "synergistic" opportunities to relentlessly and shamelessly plug new Disney movies and TV shows.

Now comes D23.

Rarely, if ever, has a marketing ploy felt so crass, so manipulative, so aimed directly at the wallet.

For $16, you can buy a glossy magazine that retells stories most Disney fans have heard many times over.

For even more money, you can join a membership club that nets a couple of nifty lapel pins.

And for even more money, that membership will get you a few bucks off of a multi-day Disney convention to be held in Anaheim in September.

No doubt, there will be many fans who won't view this through cynical, wary eyes. But D23 isn't really about honoring Disney fans -- it's about getting more money from cash-strapped fans in the midst of an economic downturn the likes of which haven't been seen since "The Three Little Pigs" first came to theaters.

D23 claims to preserve Walt Disney's legacy while the company continues to trash it.

There are many fans who complain that EPCOT Center failed to honor Walt Disney's greatest dream because it turned the idea of a full-fledged city into a theme park. EPCOT Central would like to suggest this:

The Walt Disney Company fails to honor the man who created it every time it turns its tin ear to the wind, pretends to listen to the voices of its "fans," and then offers another cash-grab marketing ploy in response. (Have you ever been to one of those "collector's" events at the theme parks, the ones that charge big bucks for the, erm, privilege of buying a high-priced item?)

Rather than preserving the Disney Legacy for a few fans wealthy enough to fork over the several hundred bucks it'll cost them for the full "benefits" of D23 membership, why not instead revitalize Disneyland to more closely reflect Walt Disney's ideals? Instead of creating a fan club for "serious" Disney fans, why not study the business philosophies and vision of the man who founded The Walt Disney Company and turn to his extraordinary success for inspiration?

For some reason, The Walt Disney Company is about to put a lot of effort into D23, a program that by its very nature excludes fans who can't afford membership, or those who don't (in these very difficult economic times) have $16 to spend on a magazine. Disney used to be about providing entertainment for everyone -- not slicing it up in ways that excluded others.

For those who regard D23 as a boon, here's hoping it is indeed a success -- and that there are enough passionate fans left, after being ignored for the better part of the past decade, to warrant a three-day Disney convention, one whose sheer size reportedly is intended to rival Comic-Con's. For those of us who aren't gonna be suckered by this shameless attempt to wring more money out of our wallets, after watching The Walt Disney Company neglect Walt's legacy for years, here's a little tune to consider:

I'm no fool,
No sirree,
I'm not gonna join
That D23!
3/10/09 Update:
There has been noticeably little mainstream news coverage of the D23 "announcement," but USA Today's pop-culture blog did pick up on the news ... and not in a way that was laudatory toward Disney. The headline: 'Disney reaches out to the nerds.'
Apparently Disney fans don't even warrant the more affectionate "geeks" anymore. The article also points out that "unfortunately" the membership price is steep. Here's the full article, which is not exactly how you want something like this launched in the media.

Saturday, March 07, 2009

EPCOT Center Was Boring

"But," the oft-heard argument goes, "EPCOT Center was boring. No one liked it."

Sorry, EPCOT Central isn't buying it.

Say the EPCOT had to change, and you're on to something. Say that EPCOT grew stale and didn't reflect the rapidly changing times, and it's a fair assessment. Say that EPCOT paid the price for not explaining itself to guests, and the argument holds water.
But, folks, EPCOT Center was not boring.

In 1993, film critic Roger Ebert (who used to work for Disney) wrote a review of the richly emotional The Remains of the Day, which he compares with the simliarly thoughtful The Age of Innocence. His review concludes: "I got some letters from readers who complained the movie was boring, that 'nothing happens in it.' To which I was tempted to reply: If you had understood what happened in it, it would not have been boring."

So it was for EPCOT Center, a theme park that from inception was designed to be unlike any other, and suffered the consequences for its one-of-a-kind ambition.

EPCOT Center, as it was conceived in the years after Walt Disney died, was a hard-to-define combination of world's fair and theme park, where guests could learn about the world around them -- both how it worked and who made it work. Its two distinct areas, Future World and World Showcase, may have seemed quite separate, but shared a common theme: We are all in this together.

Politics and economic philosophies were cast aside, and with good reason. Because at its core, EPCOT Center sent a message that whether we believed in progress at the hands of major corporations, or whether we believed that individuals shaped our destiny, the world was ours to make of it whatever we could dream.

This was a brazen concept. It conformed to no pre-existing "rule" about theme-park design. There was no "hub-and-spoke" concept to lure guests into the park. Visually, much of EPCOT Center couldn't be seen from any given location. Simple "rides" were transformed into lengthy experiences. Each of these experiences hewed to the theme. It wasn't enough to create a fun attraction; the central concept of our future world or our shared global culture had to be reflected.

Where EPCOT Center went wrong was less in the execution -- though that was no doubt hampered by the economic realities of spending $1 billion in the late 1970s and early 1980s, money that Walt Disney Productions simply didn't have -- than in the communication of the message.

What was EPCOT Center? It was almost impossible for guests not to know that it existed; they just didn't know what it was, and once they got there, those who hadn't sought out the explanation for themselves were left not knowing what to make of it. Two miles away, The Magic Kingdom was filled with fun and frivolity. Around the Walt Disney World "Vacation Kingdom," simple pleasures like golfing, tennis, water skiing and horseback riding beckoned. They didn't need explanation. EPCOT Center did.

One of the most frequently maligned attractions of EPCOT's early days was the Universe of Energy, sponsored by a Exxon -- a company that, even in the oil-crazy days of the 1970s, was hardly a bastion of trust and integrity. Exxon had an agenda, and the Universe of Energy proved a perfect platform from which to extol the virtues of petroleum-based energy products. With the leaden, stentorian tones of a dull college professor, the attraction insisted that oil and gasoline would lead the way. Considering the times, and particularly what followed EPCOT Center's opening, the attraction was tone deaf and, yes, dull.

But was it boring? Not to anyone who disagreed with its view. Not to anyone who looked beyond the surface to explore the ideas and concepts that were buried just under the surface. If the Universe of Energy wasn't exactly inspirational, it wasn't boring. Even in its deceptive simplicity, it was unusually complex in its ambitions.

No, neither the Universe of Energy (used here as just one example) or EPCOT Center could be defined as "boring." Challenging, perhaps. Ambitious and not entirely successful, without doubt.

The problems with EPCOT Center, looking back, came not from execution, but from expectation. Guests expected to find the prototypical, happy, silly, tune-filled Disney merriment, but came away confused. Confusion is never good for a brand-conscious company like Disney, so over the years, Disney marketeers sought to decrease the confusion.

"Epcot" became a "discovery park" for a while, and today has no real definition. It's just another "Disney park," one that can't be defined as "the Hollywod park," or "the animal park" or "a place where fairytale dreams come true."

EPCOT Center has never lived down its early reputation as being boring. But it didn't earn that reputation. More accurately, Disney never tried to combat that label. Instead of developing a team of marketers, publicists, brand managers and operations staff who could further define and understand EPCOT, Disney gave up on it. Now, it's a dumping ground for anything that doesn't quite fit anywhere else. It's a hodgepodge of ideas, one that seems somehow easier to define for its lack of a consistent theme than it ever was when it knew what it wanted to be.

EPCOT Center was never like any other place. It might be true that few 11-year-olds were blown away by the place, found it to be exciting and captivating. But as one reader recently observed, when he first visited the park, he found it boring. Today, he can't get enough but his family finds it dull.

As a high-school teacher used to say to our class, "Only boring people are bored." For those of us who went in knowing what to expect, who were willing to open our minds to the ideas presented (even if they were rudimentary), who wanted something more than passive entertainment, EPCOT Center was hardly boring, and could have grown and changed into something even more spectacular, even more ambitious ... not just a dumping ground for cute cartoon mascots and high-tech thrills.

Had EPCOT Center truly been boring, this blog wouldn't see thousands and thousands of readers every month. It would have been forgotten. As flawed as it may have been, EPCOT Center stirred the imaginations of a great many who visited it. Only time will tell, but it's hard to imagine the same thing happening with the lower-case Epcot. It just seems like a big waste of a great idea.

Sunday, March 01, 2009

Our Future, Epcot's Future

Your vehicle is resuming its journey. Thank you for your patience!

EPCOT Central apologizes for the delay.


Last week, when speaking to Congress, President Barack Obama once again (for this EPCOT-loving listener, anyway) evoked thoughts about what went wrong with Disney's most ambitious theme park ... and about why there is no better time than now to get back to the business of making it work properly again.

EPCOT Center had an ambition unlike any theme park before or since. Its goal wasn't simply to entertain, it was also to inform and inspire. Guests to EPCOT Center were expected to be active, not passive, participants in the experiences.

It was an ambitious goal, and because it was so unlike anything else, Disney ultimately lost sight of it. It's no easy thing to try to "monetize" the desire to "inform and inspire." Entertaining people is much easier.

But here we are, a quarter of a century later, facing challenges unlike any that most living Americans have ever experienced. The outlook is dire, there is no doubt. Will we be able to meet the remarkable demands placed on us in the next three, five, ten, twenty years? At times like these, people need to be inspired.

EPCOT Center may not have done everything perfectly, but inspiration is indeed what it tried to impart. It was a theme park, to be sure, but it also sought to have its guests leave feeling edified, feeling eager to learn more about what they had experienced. For a while, a short while, Disney even tried to encourage EPCOT's ideals outside of the theme park, by operating a teacher's center within the park, by producing educational materials and by producing a magazine.

Today's Epcot, alas, is a place to have a good time and spend some money, not a place to learn. It's a place to talk with Crush the Turtle and drink your way around the world. Few guests likely come away from Epcot eager to launch their own explorations of the seas, transportation, space, energy or international culture. Epcot is about diversion, not inspiration.

Still, some 11 million people a year visit Epcot, the majority of them Americans. A healthy percentage of them are of a very impressionable age. What they learn and experience at Epcot could change their lives, could inspire them to forge a different path, and to influence their friends and peers.

But Epcot is wasting these opportunities -- either through sheer neglect (as in the Universe of Energy), through a misguided notion that vacationing guests just want simple thrills (as at Test Track), or through a lack of understanding of enormous potential (as with the park's overall theme).

As our President lately has been telling us, we are now paying the price, as a nation and as individuals, for years of choosing expediency and immediate gratification over long-term dedication and principle. Similarly, Disney is paying this price with Epcot. Now is the time for change.

The Walt Disney Company has a fantastic opportunity to begin rebuilding EPCOT Center to its former glory, making it more meaningful, more relevant and more influential than ever before. That doesn't mean tearing down what is there and returning the park to its 1982 guise. It means focusing on the core values of EPCOT Center, recognizing that Disney has the opportunity to create a theme park that actually reflects the world around us, a world on which it can have genuine impact.

The next four years (and beyond) are filled with challenges, but last week, Obama started drawing the map to a destination that promises to be better than where we are now. He reminded us that we are all passengers on Spaceship Earth, that we're setting forth on a grand American Adventure, and that the actions we take today and in the months ahead will shape our Future World.
Its original promise of being an always-changing, ever-growing place might have seen EPCOT rather immediately reflect our current environment. Instead, it is stuck in carefree, "fun" mode. Still ...

With care and effort, EPCOT could be one of the most extraordinary destinations Disney has ever created. It could constantly change to make us more aware of our world while never being staid or overbearing. It could be an EPCOT for these times, as well as for all times.
But Disney would need to put aside "immediate gratification" projects like more Disney Vacation Club resorts and new Pixar-based attractions ... to turn its back on short-term gain in favor of long-term vision.

The world is struggling to believe in a message of change and hope, to believe in a better future. It's hard not to remember, as the President speaks, about what EPCOT was meant to be, what it almost became. EPCOT Center was conceived in an era of turmoil and change. Perhaps an era of turmoil and change can once again have an impact. If EPCOT is at all important to The Walt Disney Company, there's no better time than now to prove it.