Sunday, March 01, 2009

Our Future, Epcot's Future

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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.


Digital Jedi said...

There's no need to apologize for any delay. I'm sure you have a life outside the blogosphere.

Immediate gratification is precisely the problem with modern day Disney. Making money fast, frequently and then putting it a pile in someone's closet is the goal. A lot of people see the immediate returns as a mark of Disney's success and bright ideas. But just as piling junk food and sweets into your system will feel great for a time, over time, you'll begin to see the deleterious effects.

Disney's dealings will similarly hurt the patient eventually, even if it feels good and lucrative right now. I just hope something can be done, before it's too late to turn back. Disney needs its own Obama.

Anonymous said...

The biggest problem Disney has is shareholders!

It's not a privately owned business, nor is it funded by a few specific organizations, as it mostly was when the Florida parks were being designed and built.

Therefore, $ is king and Disney management have to keep the shareholders happy as a priority. Sadly, these management guys also have to fight to keep their jobs and stave off any sort of takeover, which could happen if the $ take falls.

Back in the 70's, 80's and to an extent, in the first half of the 90's Disney was in a much stronger position, with long standing directors making decisions with a degree of the original Disney ideal in mind - not withstanding the Eisner influence!

The lesser problem Disney, (in Florida) has to battle is competition from newer, cleaner and more modern theme parks. Universal, whilst much smaller in total size now stands direct comparison with every one of the Disney gates.

There is no denying that 'time' has caught up with Epcot and the Magic Kingdom in particular, so what do the management do... close the parks, rip them apart and start again. Or maximize their profitability, at the 'expense' of guests? However, keep in mind that many first-time guests don't remember the past glory days and still think the Disney experience is fantastic!

Clearly, we do remember those halcyon days gone by!!!

So, the challenge facing Disney is how do you fight time (aging parks), how do you fight the economy (unique circumstances) and how do you keep shareholders happy (they are king)?

The answer is, 'by doing things the way they have been, for the last few years'. Plus, I'm certain they have a plan for the future that will become clear when the economic climate changes...

Keep in mind the alternative, is ownership in part or completely by another organization and this reality is far worse than the state of the parks today - at least traces of original Disney DNA exist still!

Anonymous said...

Over the past 10 years,Disney has done for shareholders what they have done for guests: Nothing!

Anonymous said...

Disney has lost nearly $30 BILLION in value "for" its shareholders lately. Obviously, part of its problem is outside of its control. The economy isn't just in a "correction," it's in an outright recession, if not depression -- economists can argue this for years.

But remember, Disney began offering shares to the public as early as April 1940. Disney has been beholden to shareholders of some sort for more than half a century, and Walt Disney was very much alive when the company had its first outside investors.

The difference is, Walt Disney had a vision. He wouldn't settle for doing things the way that investors or the board told him, he had his own plans. When ABC bought 1/3 of Disneyland, Walt and Roy bought it back just six years later. Walt Disney wanted to control what his company did.

Today's Disney has no vision. It is run by managers who look only at the bottom line and apply wrong-headed business theory to the company's moves. That idea has gotten it nowhere. DIS, like many other American companies, needs to take risks and have ambition, not just follow a business plan.

Anonymous said...

If they follow this same formula, where do you see them 10 years from now?

I don't know if this is a crazy thought...but is closing one of the parks at WDW a far fetched idea?

They can start the list with Animal Kingdom first and release all of the animals into the wild and this will prove that they care about the enviroment.

bluesky said...

If the people in charge of the decisions made at Epcot or any of the theme parks cared 1/10 the amount that you and other fans do, the parks would be amazing! I still feel that Disney has the best theme parks in the business. However, they used to be and could be so much better.

Anonymous said...

Anon 2...

I hear what you're saying about the value being lost on Disney shares and that it being a publicly owned company for many years - including when Walt was alive.

However, the pressure on management today, is far greater than in the past. Disney was an 'emotional' investment in the the early days, buying into Walt, his ideas and a significant slice of American sentiment.

Sadly, as the the company became more successful the investors changed and became more aggressive and 'institutional', expecting to see good ROI. This has placed the pressure on the theme park system that we are witnessing today.

As I mentioned before, Epcot and the Magic Kingdom would benefit from closing for 12 - 18 months to update the facilities and rebuild certain areas. However, there is no way that shareholders or the board would allow this. Therefore, the management have to refine what they have and make it as profitable as possible!

I don't like it, but is the reality of the situation.

The underlying problem is that when these parks were built, no one had a plan for them 25 - 35 years down the line. Right where we are now. I imagine that if Walt was still alive the parks would have changed and been updated. To this end, you're right, he would have got things done. Certainly with more success that todays management.

However, focussing on Epcot, I like the park today. I remember going there first in 1988, as an excited 11 year old boy and I was bored!

I felt that trekking around there was like being in school, the very thing I'd been taken on holiday to get away from. In contrast my parents seemed to love it?!? My judgement may be a little foggy but other kids seemed to be experiencing the same thing - being dragged around by over enthusiastic Mothers and Fathers!

Now, I'm in my 33rd year and have continued to make the trip from the UK to Florida and Disney 3 - 4 times a year, spending at least 2 days each trip at Epcot. Whilst, I don't have any children (yet) I've been in the park with my friends who have and it appears that now, more than ever, Epcot appeals to everyone!

I'm reminded of a conversation last year, where the children wanted to do Nemo and the Seas, whilst the parents wanted to do Test Track...

Personally, I can't ever remember begging my family to take me to the Living Seas, as it was back then!

Anonymous said...

Too bad Obama's vision of the future is one of Socialism, and a "do-it-for-me" type of America instead of the self-sufficient America that Walt Disney knew.

Enough of the Obama comparisons alreay. Him and EPCOT are nothing alike.

George Washington = EPCOT Center
Obama = Epcot

Anonymous said...

@Anonymous: As for one of the parks closing permanently, I'd just be afraid it'd turn into a ghost town, a la the Legendary Years or River Country.

Anonymous said...

Ben Franklin, Mark Twain = EPCOT Center

I would keep elected officials out of the conversation.

Anonymous said...

Blade Runner = EPCOT Center
Total Recall = Epcot Center
Minority Report = Epcot

Bonus points to whomever can figure out the connection between the three films without getting help from the Internet...

Anonymous said...

From a certain angle, Spaceship Earth looks like a Ferrero(sp?) Rocher Candy piece.

I'm suddenly hungry now.

*Runs away from even angrier EPCOT Center fans wielding torches and pitchforks*

Anonymous said...

At least a Ferrero Rocher is a classier comparison that the trite comparison of a golf ball.

Anonymous said...

Is it safe to say that if you didn't like EPCOT Center because your parents did, you were a rebellious kid, but if you liked EPCOT Center then you were an overly obedient goody goody? Because I'm not rebellious, and I always liked the same things as my parents, EPCOT being one of those things. Or is it possible that it held something so unique and inspiring, that your parents appreciation for the park would't have made a difference in your fondness for it or lack there of? I'd like to think the latter is the case.

Anonymous said...

I can draw every Classic Future World Pavilion logo with ease, yet I can't draw a decent EPCOT Center logo. If anyone can draw the park's former logo, can you help me?

Anonymous said...

William Taft = Spaceship earth

William Harrison = Rocket Rods

Scott said...

Either Kevin Yee or Al Lutz at MiceAge was talking about Disney stock, and suggesting that it was a mistake to position Disney as a "growth" company instead of a solid earnings company as far as stock goes. By positioning it as a "growth" company, they put themselves in a position where they have to increase profits and stock price. This also goes to the way execs get their bonuses (stock options). In order to wring every penny out of the parks and the company in general, they aren't "true" to what made Disney "DISNEY".

Oh, and the connection between those 3 movies is that they're all based on P.K. Dick stories.

Flerg said...

I understand the need to appeal to people who don't "get" epcot. My neices are some of those people. They were raised to have uninquisitive, uncurious minds. There are millions more like them out there, thanks to bad parenting and poor education funding. Since Disney is in capitalist hands, these people are a core audience. Their needs must be met.

Walt knew how to make a movie / ride that appealed to adults and children, intelligent and dumb. The old imagineers did too. The new Disney doesn't even understand the question, let alone how to solve it. They are all just uninspired businessmen, incapable of inspiring.

Ed Rhodes said...

ummm, because we're in a recession and can't?

skyscratch said...

I was just in EPCOT yesterday after nine years of being away and these are my immediate ideas to radically remake the park into the original verison;

1) You must be 18 yrs or older to enter; no exceptions; no baby carriages, no 4-yr old girls in Jasmine princess dresses and tiaras and no screaming 8 yr old "bored" boys.
2) Immediately remove every cartoon character from every ride, sign and gift shop.
3) Every item in every country in World Showcase must be made in that country; that means no Goofy stuffed animals in red plaid shirts and cowboy hats made in China in the Canada gift shop.
4) Every country in World Showcase must meet a minimum level of cutltural significance to today's world or its political or economic reality; therefore Norway, Morocco and England paviliions would be immediately destroyed and replaced by Russia, Isreal (or a combo Israel--Palestine pavillion) and India.
5) Test Track would be immediately demolished and replaced by a pavillion totally devoted to hybrid and electric car technology and weaning Western civilization (particularly America) off fossil fuels.
6) Guests could be tested at various points throught Future World (a la Trivial Pursuit) with real questions about the technology they're learning; if they answer correctly, they would be rewarded with free lunches, beer or wine or gifts or tickets to Magic Kingdom or other aprks.
7) All food served in The Land would be organic; also a ride would be added there titled "The consequeces of the standard American diet" and would include lectures on obestity, the benefits of vegetarianism and raw food diets and the global cost of the meat industry; also a lecture on the coming world food epidemic.
8) All guests eating at the restauarnt in the Seas pavillion have to catch their own fish out of the aquarium, prepare it and cook it.

If I think of more I'll post them.