Tuesday, April 07, 2009

More Disney Than Disney

MiceAge today features a terrific article that looks at some of the plans Disneyland in Anaheim has in store for the summer season. Featured in this article is a look back at a decades-old advertisement for Disneyland's summer season (the ad is shown here, and you can find more at Miehana's photostream on Flickr).

What's rather disarming about this ad is its absolute lack of any Disney characters or reference to "Disney-style" entertainment. There's no mention of Disneyland being "magical." Check out the stylized caricatures of park guests. Notice anything? No children.

The ad is 50 years old, but represents perhaps more canny, sophisticated marketing than is evident today. Disneyland didn't need "Disney" to sell it. The concept was enough. Disneyland was a special place, filled with wonder and excitement. Dixieland music, pop bands, riverboats, Tahitian fire dancers, a speeding Monorail ... there's something for everyone at Disneyland. And despite the fact that 1959 was the year of Sleeping Beauty and The Shaggy Dog, there's no effort to sell Disneyland based on these entertainments (or any other Disney movie). "Disneyland" was all you needed to know.

What does any of this have to do with EPCOT?

Well, consider how little faith Disney has in the very concept of EPCOT or, it's seeming these days, in the concept of a theme park in general. More than half a century has passed since Disneyland opened, yet today Disney is unable to market its parks on anything other than its "synergized" entertainment creations or the increasingly tired concept of "Disney magic." Yes, we all know it's "magical" for little girls to dress up as a princess and romp around a Disney theme park (less magical, perhaps, for the parent, whose wallet is suddenly hundreds of dollars lighter), but is this really the only way to sell Disney's theme parks?

EPCOT has the distinct advantage -- or, depending on how you look at it, disadvantage -- of being unlike any other Disney park. There never have been any easy, built-in opportunities for Mickey and his animated gang to invade the park, which is why even thematically driven efforts like The Seas With Nemo and Friends still feel, at best, uncomfortable. They're not rooted in storytelling, they're rooted in a marketing mindset that fails to understand one basic concept:

"Disney" doesn't just mean "magic."

As Disney's more-sophisticated-than-they-might-have-seemed marketers from the 1950s knew, Disneyland was about a lot more than flying elephants and seven dwarfs and tuxedo-clad mice. It could be many things to many different people.

It's probably one of the very reasons you (yes, you, whoever you may be) are reading this. At whatever impressionable age you were first exposed to Disney marketing, it didn't pander to you and make you feel that the only way to show your love for Disney was to dress up and have character breakfasts. It appealed to your imagination. It promised you wonders you had never before seen.

That was the simple beauty of EPCOT Center. Many longtime EPCOT enthusiasts were hooked from the moment we were promised a glimpse into our future. It had nothing to do with Mickey Mouse or Donald Duck or wishing upon a star. It had to do with tapping in to our not-so-hidden desire to live outside of ourselves, to imagine a world filled with opportunities and untold ambition. In its inherent promise of something extraordinary and wonderful, it became more Disney than Disney.

In its own way, 50 years ago, Disneyland's simple little newspaper advertisement did the same. By not leaning on "Disney," but rather focusing on the wonderful things the park offered, it was more effective at setting a tone than the entire, multi-million-dollar "What Will You Celebrate" campaign that's underway now around the world. Disneyland could take you to distant places, on exotic adventures ... but was as close as the Santa Ana Freeway at Harbor Boulevard.

Disneyland was unlike any other place imaginable. More than any movie or character or other creation of Uncle Walt or his artists, the park defined "Disney" simply by the enormity of its promise.
The same holds true for EPCOT. As Disney continues to struggle with how to bring more "Disney" to the park, its marketing managers would do well to take a look through the company's own history. The late 1950s and early 1960s were when Disneyland made its indelible mark on America and the entertainment industry. Ads as simple as these little guys were more effective in cementing the concept of Disneyland as "special" than all the pixie dust in the world.

So, why continue to shoehorn Kim Possible and the Three Caballeros and Finding Nemo and (no doubt, in the future) other Pixar and Disney "brands" into EPCOT? Why not focus instead on what sets EPCOT apart, makes it unlike any other place on the planet?

EPCOT once promised the dawn of a new Disney era, not just another place to meet "magical" characters. It's that promise and allure of something impossible to find anywhere else that once set Disneyland apart. Imagine what that mindset could accomplish today.


Brian said...

This is one of your more self-contained & succinct articles--not too negative or critical, and it's written in a way that can travel beyond the scope of just this blog and present company.

I think you really hit the nail on the head this time.

Omnispace said...

It's easy to forget that Disney's endeavors were cutting-edge for their time. The feature-length animated films, television programs, Disneyland, the Florida vacation resort, ...and EPCOT Center. It would be great to bring that freshness and inventiveness back to Disney. It means that Epcot won't ever be exactly the same as it was when it opened, though perhaps we can still get the park we were all dreaming it would evolve into.

Marilyn said...

Thank you, thank you, thank you - well said.

Now if only the powers that be would read this and understand what EPCOT is about -----

Anonymous said...

It's funny how the Disney corporation is so off with what to do with characters. They stick characters everywhere you don't want them, like EPCOT, which from the get-go wasn't supposed to be a park that showcased Disney fantasy, but real world issues; yet the places you want to see the characters, The Disney Channel, The Disney Store, in the newly named "Disney's Hollywood studios'" "The Magic of Disney Animation attraction", NOTHING!
And the park experience is starting to all blend together from all of this homogeny. I hope a new generation not fixated on surveys and numbers and synergy can bring about a renaissance in the superior quality Disney always had to offer. It now pails in comparison to it's younger more innovative and downright classier self.

Subsonic said...

My favorite line, "As Disney continues to struggle with how to bring more "Disney" to the park, its marketing managers would do well to take a look through the company's own history."
This rings so true. I simply remember being so impressed with what Disney could do. Of course, back then I had no concept of money and how much things cost but now I know it takes money to make money. What I keep arguing is that Disney is so short sighted today. It's all about the quick buck and they don't realize how that comes and bites them in the butt. The reason they are failing is because they have stopped innovating and started following. They DO need to take a hard look into their past and realize what ideas, concepts, and most importantly, the THEME. Disney parks are becoming less and less THEME parks and more amusement parks. Comedy Monsters in Tomorrowland? Give me a break.

Spokker said...

The characters should be there for those who enjoy them. But for those who enjoy non-character offerings, the American parks are woefully inadequate these days.

I think TDS strikes a good balance. Look at their nighttime spectacle BraviSEAmo! Sure, Mickey is in it, but he's only the host and the only Disney character in it. He's not the star of the show.

I couldn't dream of a TDS without Mermaid Lagoon, but there are also a ton of attractions without Disney licensed characters. The reliance on characters at American parks these days signifies a lack of vision.

EPCOT Explorer said...

YES! This is a ongoing "battle" on WDWMagic...And you conveyed it perfectly. Thank you.:D

Yellows said...

I've never been to EPCOT or WDW, but as a former Disneyland Cast Member (1980s), I agree completely. Thanks for sharing your insight.

Ed Rhodes said...

As cool as the idea of Disneyland and a Sophisticated Disney is, I think the problem behind this is that Disney quickly learned that this "New era" wasn't working. It wasn't selling and if it kept going, it would've killed EPCOT.
Although as one person said, it's funny how they plaster the characters everywhere but where you want them. Like on the Disney Channel and such

BlinkingText said...

Very good article. I think the Disney parks were better when they simply let the magic speak for itself.

RT said...

Ed, yes, it's also funny how, given a choice, most people would opt for McDonald's over something healthy. How most people would shop at WalMart than their local retailers. How most people would rather watch a lousy sitcom on a network than try something challenging.

So, since it's profitable, let's pander to the masses and not worry about taste, sophistication, artistic achievement, etc. You know, let's be like Walt Disney and only create Mickey Mouse cartoons, since that's what was successful. Man, if Walt had followed the "business model" of his own company, he NEVER would have gotten anywhere!

Anonymous said...

My brother sent me a link to this hilarious (and yet so sadly true) youtube video about EPCOT Center:


I do need to warn that the subtitles include some crude language, but it did bring a sad, ironic tear to my eye. Especially the bit about Horizons.

Flerg said...

It really just comes down to intelligence. If you're intelligent, you need more. If you're the average American, characters and magic are all you need.

Marilyn said...

Thank you "Anonymous" for the YouTube link. Except for the language in the subtitles, it voices my feelings EXACTLY. What do we need to do to get this message to the "powers that be" or is it too late? Do they not care they've destroyed the (arguably) best park at WDW? Why do we need characters at EPCOT? If they want to push Nemo and the other Disney movies then put attractions at the Disney Hollywood Studios. Isn't that what the studios are about - movies???? Put technology displays back where they now have the Character Spot!

Okay - I'm done venting (for now)--

Anonymous said...

Again, just negative, negative, negative!!!

Get a life, people! GET A LIFE AND LEAVE DISNEY ALONE!!!

Paul (of the former Waltopia.com) said...

According to what they talk about on the "Disneyland: Secrets, Stories & Magic" DVD the theme park wasn't licensed to use the characters when it first opened. They weren't considered property of the theme park division.

Also, part of the challenge for EPCOT Center is that, from the beginning, it was a compromised version of what Walt designed.

It was never supposed to be a theme park (that's what the Magic Kingdom was for). But by twisting Walt's vision of a showcase of the future to the world - to a World Showcase and Future World they 'fulfilled his dream' but created a puzzle for themselves.

Jennifer said...

The short-sightedness of the current theme park division brass is ultimately pulling the parks generally, and EPCOT particularly, into the ground. They are not appealing to the dedicated Disney fan, nor to the intelligent/sophisticated traveler, and ultimately the cheap, shallow experience being delivered for the "masses" makes one WDW trip enough (rather than building a core guest base who will return continually). To spend the kind of money they are spending to paint, for example, Nemo and Friends all over the Living Seas pavilion both undercuts the importance of the interior exhibits and obscures any "vision" about the future exploration of the seas (since it's all about here and now -- Nemo!). It's also about the tension -- again that old ad is priceless -- between the idea that EVERY experience at Disney parks needs to be "family friendly" and the concept of delivering entertainment and meaningful experiences for an adult audience.

I'll push your argument (so well stated) even further by saying that when we go to EPCOT, we have a hard time spending our money. Huh? Well, the park merchandise has gotten so watered down and tacky that we (gasp!) come home with money in our pockets!! No, I really don't want a flimsy, ugly Hanes t-shirt with MICKEY!! plastered all over the front (the same one sold at every park, at the Disney stores, online, etc.) I'd spend MORE than what they're charging for something decent, something special, something that you could only get at EPCOT.

What a wasted opportunity. Here's hoping someone over there wakes up pretty soon and indeed remembers what the WALT Disney legacy is all about....

Unknown said...

EPCOT is just about my favorite park (after Magic Kingdom) but I agree with you. I hadn't been to EPCOT in 10 years and just got back from a Disney trip this week. Did NOT dig the Thre Cabelleros on the Mexico ride AT ALL!!

Also.. Nemo kind of cheapened The Living Seas for me. And yes... I will always refer to it as "The Living Seas".. not just "The Seas".

Kevin Kidney said...

Bravo! Very well put!

shaun keen said...

I go to disney land every couple of years and always feel the magic

timeshare reseller said...

Thanks for these ideas. Was really amazing back in the old days.