Wednesday, October 28, 2009

EPCOT: What Works

EPCOT "works" splendidly.

Except, that is, when it doesn't.

So, from time to time, EPCOT Central will explore aspects of EPCOT that fulfill the vision of this grandest of all theme parks ... as well as those that, well, don't.

And why not start with some controversy?

Many readers abhor the revised descent/ending to Spaceship Earth, but EPCOT Central thinks it works. Here's why:

From its very start, EPCOT Center was focused on how you, the guest, would live and interact with your future world. In EPCOT's earliest incarnation, much of that exploration was done with gravity and seriousness -- a little too much. Indeed, World of Motion is fondly recalled not so much because it was actually good (it wasn't, really; though it was at least an elaborate example of the kind of Animatronic-filled ride-through that no one but Disney could do then ... or has ever been able to do). Rather, World of Motion was singled out because it at least attempted to be humorous.

There weren't many examples of that in EPCOT Center. Cute little Figment over in Journey Into Imagination was certainly fun. World of Motion was played (mostly) for laughs. And Cranium Command -- well, it was in a class by itself. But humor, for the most part, was overshadowed by education.

At the same time, Spaceship Earth, quite (OK, almost) literally the centerpiece attraction in EPCOT, was a terrific experience all the way to the top ... and then a drag on the way down. From the get-go, Imagineers sent a not-so-subtle message to riders of those backwards-swiveling "time machines": The show's over, nothing left to see.

In the mid-1990s, an attempt was made to make the descent more interesting. One idea, if it had actually played out (something that would be easy to do today but wasn't too easy in 1994), was to show today's world news from around the world. That was, at least, the idea behind the scenes of newscasters projected on a screen at the beginning of the descent. But it wasn't possible, in the pre-Internet, narrow-band days, to actually stream live news, so the concept was never realized.

Static figurines of kids and adults in an "interconnected" world never sparked the imagination, and were, frankly, boring. A lovely cityscape was built with a terrific fiber-optics depiction of "flowing information," but more often than not, it was dark and dull.

The descent never worked, was never engaging.

Now, it's a fun combination of technology and interactivity. It's understandable if your heart sinks a bit the first time you see a monitor in a Spaceship Earth time machine -- is this going to be another example of on-screen distraction that tries to hide the flaws of the ride itself? But after asking a few questions, the screen goes dark and doesn't bother riders until the descent begins.

At that point, the ride becomes a highly individualized, clever and cute diversion. Mashing your face together with a retro cartoon vision of the future, Spaceship Earth now follows its information-rich, education-focused "main show" with some fun, relaxing smiles. I've yet to encounter anyone -- even if they objected to the comedic tone -- who didn't crack a grin. And that's saying something.

It's particularly noteworthy in today's "Disney Parks" environment, because the grin comes without a single Disney character. It's the Disney touch that makes this work. It's a fine bit of Disney nonsense, in keeping with the manic tradition of later Donald Duck cartoons, Alice In Wonderland and Disney's stylized 1950s Cinemascope efforts.

The downside is a lost opportunity -- these peeks at the "future" could have been based on real science, rather than a goofy, retro vision of bubble-shaped saucer cars and robotic homes. That future is likely never to be a reality, and while it's cute to see this kitschy '50s notion of "The Future." There's no science here, only silliness. That's indeed too bad.

But it would be worse, really, to stare at dusty old statues prophesying a future in which we all connect by -- wow! -- live videoconferencing. That concept of "the future of communications" pre-dated Facebook and MySpace and YouTube, which have changed the lives of everyone on the planet, even people who don't use them.

Besides, this version (at least theoretically) is easily changeable, and it's undeniable fun to spend a few moments in the dark answering the on-screen questions about taste and preference. There's music, there's dramatic lighting, and there's a magician's flair for distraction -- you don't notice, and you don't care, that nothing is happening around you. Watching the resulting cartoon with your face is great fun. And, what's this? For once, Disney doesn't try to sell you a picture of yourself!

Spaceship Earth as a whole works wonderfully now, a lovely balance of seriousness and humor, of education and mirth. The theme is still problematic -- it's no longer technically about communication, and despite its claims it isn't really about innovation. Actually, it is about human communication and all it has meant to our planet, but since the final cartoon doesn't uphold that theme, Disney opted instead for a confusion thematic claim countered by a different thematic execution.

Nonetheless, the new Spaceship Earth descent works, and sets the tone wonderfully for EPCOT as a whole. It's about you and your role in shaping the future. It's a blend of fun and fact. It's a modern spin on a timeless tale of human endeavor.

Now, if the rest of Future World would just get with the program ...

Friday, October 23, 2009

Meanwhile, Down the Road

A hundred miles southwest of EPCOT, it's happening.

Even as Disney continues portraying an outdated "vision" of our world's energy needs, even as it virtually ignores the realities of the past 15 years, a sleepy little Florida hamlet called Arcadia (ironic, no?) is home to the country's largest solar-panel power plant.

It's puzzling indeed to see how Disney has lost the ability to put forth any vision of the future that does not revolve around movies, DVD or 'tweenie-bopper celebrities. It's strange, really, to conceive of EPCOT's Spaceship Earth and Future World gleaming in the Florida sun, standing as testament to the efforts -- even the unsuccessful ones -- of Walt Disney and some of the men and women who followed in his footsteps to offer up a visionary experience.

No, EPCOT was never entirely successful at taking difficult, esoteric concepts and reducing them to levels that could be comprehended by tens of millions of people a year. That's an extraordinarily ambitious task, one most museums can't quiet make work, either. But it tried.

Back in 1995 or so, about halfway through EPCOT's life (so far), Disney gave up trying. EPCOT, like The Walt Disney Company as a whole (and, it could be argued, society in general) recognized that it was far easier to succeed at creating shiny, pretty, easily digestible entertainment than to educate, inform and enlighten.

It's just a shame, though, that we have entered that future that EPCOT and Walt Disney once envisioned, but to a large degree we're doing it without a guide, without someone truly "at the helm" who can guide everyday folks through the confusion and explain what it all means. Walt Disney did that for one generation, and EPCOT tried to do it for the next. Now, there's literally a bright and gleaming future being built ... and no one, really, to tell us how exciting it is.

Sorry, but Ellen Degeneres and Bill Nye the Science Guy from 15 years ago don't count.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Presented By ... No One?

  • It was a surprise to walk up to The Land pavilion at EPCOT recently and discover that Nestle was no longer the presenting sponsor.
  • The Seas With Nemo and Friends has a beautiful VIP lounge (complete with circular logos for "The Living Seas") that mostly sits empty.
  • GM has emerged from bankruptcy, leaving EPCOT lovers to wonder how, if at all, the struggling company can justify or afford continuing Test Track sponsorship.
  • The Universe of Energy has no sponsor, while Wonders of Life is empty lacking corporate backing.
  • The Norwegian government no longer sponsors the Norway pavilion, which has led to little authenticity (unless you believe princesses based on Middle Eastern, German and French stories belong in Norway).

What's going on at EPCOT?

Was it really that long ago that both American Express and Coca-Cola were sponsors of The American Adventure?

EPCOT, or more precisely EPCOT Center, was conceived as a way for both major corporations and individual countries to showcase their new ideas and products, as well as their cultures and tourism potential, to tens of millions of guests every year. On a sociological level, there's little doubt that the Eighties and Nineties left us scarred and less trusting of corporate behemoths. And yet, they didn't go away. The economy is just as ruled by corporate culture as it ever was, we're just a little more loathe to admit it. Scandals, bankruptcies, failures and broken promises left us doubting the collective wisdom of corporations to guide us into the future.

And yet, pessimism has rarely been welcome at Disney. Walt Disney believed that the research-and-development work being done by American corporations was some of the best, most valuable in the world. Now, those corporations are multi-nationals, and America may not be the shining beacon of optimistic progress that it once was. Still ... it's hard to deny that Coca-Cola, Apple, Toyota, Starbucks, Google, Nike, Kellogg's, Colgate, Nestle, Kraft, Ikea, UPS, Citibank, FedEx ... that these brands aren't so powerful that they don't move and shape the world. They do.

It's just that in 20 years, Disney has become one of those powerhouse brands. It has as much power, if not more, as others ... and the last thing you want to do when you've got money is give it to someone else who has money. That's what seems to be happening here. Disney used to have a major "Corporate Alliances" group whose primary job was to develop and work these big-brand relationships. What happened?

How come an EPCOT cast member told me recently, "No one wants to sponsor these pavilions, and without sponsors, it's hard to operate them?"

That comment is problematic on at least two levels:

1) Why don't major corporations want to be sponsors of EPCOT attractions anymore?
Is Disney underselling EPCOT? Or is it overpricing its sponsorship package? To continue achieving its vision -- even in a watered-down form -- EPCOT needs to be a showcase of ingenuity and progress. And to do that, its managers need to be able to articulate that vision. EPCOT affords an opportunity for immersive brand exposure unlike anyplace else in the world. So, why is it that companies don't want to buy in?

2) If corporations aren't going to come to the table, why can't Disney go it alone?
The visionary ability of Walt Disney Imagineering is unparalleled, and Disney could present its own unique vision of the future at EPCOT without the need for sponsorships. Does the $10 million or so a sponsor gives really add to the experience? Or is Disney artistically incapable of creating a traditional EPCOT pavilion run without a sponsor?

Does Disney actually need sponsors to effectively run EPCOT and its other theme parks? Or is Disney overpricing and under-servicing potential sponsors in an effort to ensure that EPCOT, like other Disney parks, simply becomes a showcase for Disney movies, Disney cartoons and Disney merchandise?

Of course, sponsorships do still exist at EPCOT, most notably GM and Siemens. But they seem lately to be the exception rather than the rule, which waters down the experience of EPCOT and its positioning as a place to view and experience the developments that will fuel our future. More and more, it's just an odd, disjointed theme park now.

Given that Tokyo Disney and the Universal parks seem consistently "full-up" on the sponsorship level, you have to wonder if the stateside Disney motive isn't just to get rid of the sponsors altogether so that the only sponsor that matters is the Mouse himself.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Dear Steve Jobs,

I understand from reading a front-page story in yesterday's New York Times that you're encouraging Disney Consumer Products to "dream bigger" and that you're helping guide a massive overhaul of the Disney Stores.

That's highly commendable. No sarcasm here. It's about time someone tell the Consumer Products division of Disney that its "vision" of the Disney Stores as being "the best 30 minutes of a child's day" is, frankly, not impressive. It's been a long while since Disney Consumer Products was impressive, and now that Dick Cook at the Walt Disney Studios and Ed Grier at Disneyland have been shown the door, it will be interesting to see how long DCP's Andy Mooney lasts, since that division has been languishing for quite a number of years.

But this is a blog about EPCOT, not about Disney Consumer Products, so you must be wondering what the two have to do with each other? Well, a lot.

Because while you're encouraging big thinking and grand ambition for the Disney Stores, the biggest, grandest, most ambitious theme park of any sort, Disney or otherwise, is pretty much languishing.

Many of the people who work for you at Apple and Pixar were -- you might be surprised to hear this -- inspired by EPCOT Center. They were exactly the right age to have their imaginations sparked back in the late 1970s and early 1980s when Disney set a simple-yet-lofty goal: Make sure every man, woman and child in the U.S. had heard of EPCOT. In the pre-Internet, "old media" days, that was not an easy thing to do, and even if people didn't quite know what it was, by the time October 1, 1982, rolled around, they knew that it was.

In its first decade of operation, EPCOT introduced literally hundreds of millions of people to impossibly futuristic technologies like touch-screen computers, video conferencing, fiber optics and hydroponics. It was the first glimpse many people had of a world of the future, one that we knew was likely impossible but, hey, we could dream, couldn't we? And over across the lagoon, there was no "West Germany" and "East Germany," Japan and China weren't filled with people who "all looked the same," and Italy wasn't a formerly fascist country that many people still feared a bit. Nope, World Showcase depicted a planet in which our differences were celebrated, where we worked together to build that idealistic future on Spaceship Earth -- which was almost always visible, no matter where in EPCOT you were, reminding us that we were all in this together.

And through it all, there were hardly any Disney characters to be seen. EPCOT wasn't a place where Disney marketed and merchandised itself, but where a "new Disney era" was coming to life. Perhaps it wasn't as amazing as Walt would have made it, but it was an honorable attempt. More than that, it did exactly, Mr. Jobs, what you are urging Disney executives to do today -- it dreamed bigger.

It's fantastic and wonderful and terrific and very, very cool that you've taken an interest in the Disney Stores, which have been the victim of small thinking and are still trying to recover from having been literally cut away from the rest of the company for several years.

But even as you go about encouraging this laudable renaissance for Disney's retail stores, I'd like to propose that you encourage the same sort of spirit of innovation, creativity and imagination for EPCOT.

As I mentioned earlier, it would be impossible to deny the huge influence EPCOT had on many of the people who have been instrumental in creating the real-world renaissance of the past decade and a half. It's become fashionable and fun to bash EPCOT as "boring," but that simple view undermines the inspiration it brought to people who didn't find it that way, who conversely found it enormously exciting and endlessly inspiring.

At the Apple Store, you've built a retail environment that is all about hands-on interaction, about educating your guests, about letting them see and experience a future that's not just possible ... but possible for them to take home. You've created a retail location that everyone in the retail business said was impossible: One that encourages people to visit, to experience, to think, to imagine, to learn ... not just to buy. The Apple Store shows its guests how their lives can change thanks to technology.

Basically, you've created 273 mini-EPCOTs, albeit with a theme of computers and home technology, but, still ... the idea is the same. Now, take that amazing innovation and creative spirit and apply it to the actual EPCOT concept, and the mind boggles.

If Apple's creative and technological geniuses were to blend with Imagineering, if they were given the canvas of EPCOT and told, "dream bigger" ... well, perhaps you can see how easy it is to get excited about the possibilities.

EPCOT is Disney's diamond in the rough, its pre-existing opportunity to grow its brand in an entirely new direction, to capture the hearts and minds of young people in ways that don't have solely to do with dressing like pirates and princesses or meeting Ariel and Mickey. EPCOT can be so much more than what it has become.

So, Mr. Jobs, it's really great that you've taken such an interest in Disney's mall-based retail locations. There's almost no way that Disney can't benefit from your inspiration and encouragement. Now, there's just one favor to ask of you for your next project: Take a look at EPCOT and ...

Dream bigger.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Which Is It?

For those who haven't yet read the latest EPCOT Central blogpost, I'll keep this short so space at the top of the page isn't tied up. But earlier today, Disney announced that George Kalogridis has been named president of the Disneyland Resort in Anaheim. Take a look at the press release. So, is EPCOT indeed an acronym all in upper-case letters? Or is "Epcot" the name of the park? Or doesn't even Disney know anymore? If even Disney is referring to it as EPCOT in official press releases now (which is something that should be lauded and encouraged!), why not just revert to the EPCOT Center name ... or at least officially make it EPCOT, the Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow, which comes with a story, a history and a background and isn't just a made-up nonsense word?

What Could Have Been

Germany and Japan have something in common -- and we're not talking about World War II here. At EPCOT's World Showcase, these two pavilions harbor remnants of an EPCOT that could have been ... and, tantalizingly, almost was.

Though it's difficult to make out when you're strolling around the World Showcase promenade, next time you're at EPCOT take a look at both the Germany and Japan pavilions from afar. You'll notice they're unusually large, particularly given that neither one houses a traditional attraction. Disney does its best to hide these structures and not call attention to them, but what's particularly sad is hearing the apparent fate of two impressively ambitious attractions.

As most EPCOT Center enthusiasts know, Germany was supposed to house the "Rhine River Cruise." One concept drawing in particular -- which you can find here -- was one of the first images I ever saw of EPCOT Center. At that age, I had no idea what a Rhine River was, but you can bet I immediately went searching for everything I could read about it. On a recent "Undiscovered Future World" tour, the tour guide explained his understanding of what became of the Rhine River Cruise: It was an approved project at WED/Imagineering, and was such an integral part of World Showcase that the full show building was constructed. Although a final ride concept was not fully conceived (according to this guide), the idea was close enough to being finalized that a few show pieces were even developed, but as the 1970s drew to a close and Disney found itself pouring virtually every extra dollar it had into EPCOT Center, some tough decisions had to be made for the company -- which was unable to secure further financing for the project.

Officially, the Rhine River Cruise got put "on hold," and the intention was to build it after EPCOT opened in 1982. But by 1983, partly thanks to the debt Disney had incurred to build the Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow, the company was in no position to add anything at all to its stateside parks. Names like the Bass Brothers, Arvida, and Gibson Greeting Cards became the talk of the town -- and as Disney sought desperately to save itself from being bought, broken up and sold off to the highest bidders, the urgency behind creating a big, new theme park attraction faded. So, by the time Michael Eisner and Frank Wells took over in 1984, plans for the Rhine River Cruise had met their Lorelei. Allegedly, some Imagineers still recall these plans fondly -- though exactly what they were isn't clear; a recent Google search turned up a multitude of alleged storylines for the Rhine River Cruise at EPCOT, but whether any of them are legitimate is hard to know.

Twenty-seven years later, it seems more likely that "Diff'rent Strokes" will have a place in NBC's 2010 fall lineup than it does that the Rhine River Cruise will ever make a comeback. The vast show building is used for show rehearsals and for storage -- and, astonishingly, most cast members don't even realize it exists. Sure, they see it frequently, but they don't know what it is or its history; to them, it's just another large warehouse-style building.

Personally, I've always been curious where the entrance for the Rhine River Cruise would have been. Was it intended to be on the other side of the Biergarten Restaurant? Or where the Sommerfest mural has been painted? Germany has such a fascinating, myth0logy-laden past that imagining what might have been for the Rhine River Cruise is both frustratingly unproductive ... and fascinatingly fun.

Despite Germany's shocking, shameful role in World War II, political reasons are never cited as a reason for not building the German pavilion's Rhine River Cruise attraction. But politics apparently played a heavy role in the 11th-hour decision not to install the "Meet the World" attraction at EPCOT's Japan pavilion.

"Meet the World" operated in Tokyo Disneyland until 2002. An unusual -- and by all accounts painfully dated by the time the 21st century arrived -- account of Japan's history, it combined film, music and Audio-Animatronics to depict key moments from several thousands of years worth of Japanese folklore and fact.

Set on a revolving stage like "Carousel of Progress," "Meet the World" had something else in common with that nostalgic look at American history (as filtered through the lens of electronic advancement): It featured a theme song written by the Sherman Bros. ... one whose lyrics were sung entirely in Japanese.

"Meet the World" was a decidedly traditional Disney-style attraction that had both its fans and its detractors. Given what has happened to World Showcase presentations and shows in the past 27 years, it's probably "Meet the World" would have been as untouched at EPCOT as Tokyo Disneyland and would have ultimately met the same fate. But we'll never know ... though we can speculate, as its show building still stands prominently in the Japan pavilion.

EPCOT Center had a lot of ambition -- ambition that Disney simply wasn't able to realize. It's just too bad that instead of ultimately following through on these exciting projects, Disney just gave up. World Showcase has always needed more rides and attractions, and to think that Disney once had grand plans that were simply never realized is disappointing. But the future is filled with promise and possibility, a lesson learned well at EPCOT itself. So, perhaps there's still some hope.

Thursday, October 08, 2009

And Good Show

Sometimes, Epcot shows off in full splendor exactly why it is the most unique, most exciting of all Disney parks. (And, yes, that includes Tokyo DisneySea, which is a close second!)

Wednesday, October 07, 2009

Bad Show

When some elements at Epcot are so perfect, the parts that aren't really stand out.

Word of warning: Mirrors reflect.

There's really no excuse for something like this.

So, it is all upper-case now?

Bear in mind, Disney just spent $4 billion, mostly cash, to buy Marvel. How much do you think a new stage would cost?

They're not even trying to make the disused World Key kiosks look good -- the plywood coverings are unattractive at best.

And don't worry -- in the next update, EPCOT Central will be calling attention to some good show, just to balance things out!

Tuesday, October 06, 2009

Random Observations

This latest trip to Walt Disney World and EPCOT provided lots of food for thought. Below, in no particular order, are some observations and musings, some of which will stand on their own, some of which may be developed into later, more detailed blogposts. Bear in mind, it's just a sampling of thoughts ... feel free to add yours!
  • With just four small snips, the "Spirit of Norway" film could be perfectly timeless and run forever ... but it would also help if they could project it digitally so the worn-out 70mm print wouldn't look so scratchy.
  • It's still a mystery why some people resist that downright majestic five-minute film.
  • Whoever decided to move Norway's stroller parking to the lagoon side of the World Showcase Promenade deserves at least a commendation, if not a medal of some sort.
  • Journey into Imagination is not a horrible attraction, it just assumes kids are a lot dumber than they are
  • It's a crying shame that the entire upstairs of the Imagination pavilion is used only for storage; it looks eerie up there, like it was abandoned in a hurry.
  • The Nemo ride that now opens the Seas pavilion is atrocious and gets worse, not better, with time; at least the old, oft-maligned reef ride gave us something to look at beyond cartoon projections.
  • How odd it is that "Honey I Shrunk the Audience" has a hard time getting anyone to see it at Disneyland, yet it remains a top attraction at EPCOT.
  • Spaceship Earth gets better with every ride, and the video descent is pretty good -- too bad it's all played for laughs instead of having at least some basis in reality (it comes across like one of those cheesy "futurism" cartoons from the 1950s).
  • The new moving images of the caveman fighting the mammoth that open Spaceship Earth are just wonderful
  • Judi Dench isn't a bad narrator, she just comes across as a bit smug -- especially when she says, "Remember how easy it was to learn your ABCs?" and "Call it the first backup system." Ugh.
  • At the Magic Kingdom, it's easy (too easy) to find Magic Kingdom merchandise; DHS merchandise is a snap to find at DHS; Animal Kingdom is filled with DAK-themed product ... so how come there are about 10 SKUs of EPCOT merchandise at EPCOT?
  • That said, it's such a thrill and delight to see "old-school" EPCOT logo items.
  • But, really, couldn't MouseGear have a whole "EPCOT" section, including futuristic/technology-driven doo-dads and thingamajigs?
  • The Fountain of Nations is a kick to watch when it goes into full "water ballet" mode, particularly at night when it's spectacularly lit -- and, astonishingly, each nozzle and light has to be programmed manually. To whomever does that job: Congratulations, you do it astonishingly well!

  • Among the things I never knew (or realized) about EPCOT: The park's west side is ruled by water, curves and lots of flowers and trees -- while the more tech-heavy east side is all sharp lines and grassy areas, and gets the harshest sun of the day.
  • There seems to be a lack of consensus about whether the EPCOT Center logo on the ground in front of the Fountain of Nations marks the original "center point" of Walt Disney World, or whether it's the center of the wonderful set of inventors' quotes and landmark dates between Innoventions and The Land.
  • Boy, those hallways in the southwest section of Innoventions are awfully barren; can't someone add more artwork, a mural or some sort of permanent displays in this area?
  • On that note, EPCOT seems to have more unused areas than most theme parks, which is a shame.
  • Speaking of unused, can't Odyssey be turned into a permanent, multi-faceted "princess dining" experience? There could be a Belle seating area, an Ariel seating area, a Jasmine seating area, a Snow White seating area ... and still room to spare, and the building wouldn't just sit there unused most of the year.
  • An EPCOT cast member told us, shockingly, that EPCOT management is thrilled to have the old Wonders of Life pavilion sit empty, because they can use it for festival headquarters "and it takes pressure off of other locations in the park." Really? Is that the official line? That's pathetic.
  • Ballzac has got to go.
  • What a missed opportunity that the Teacher's Center doesn't still exist.
  • Soarin' is a great attraction but really, really makes no sense as part of EPCOT. (The same cast member told us, "As long as it pulls in guests, no one will see a need to change the film." Yes! That's the Walt spirit!)
  • Once you know about the show buildings behind Germany and Japan, they're all you see.
  • Illuminations: Reflections of Earth is just wonderful -- it would be great if someone could figure out a way to communicate the "story" to guests in some fashion.
  • The old World Key reservation stations outside Guest Relations are still there, just clumsily boarded up; never noticed that before.
  • Spaceship Earth is like a great painting; I could stare at it for hours and just contemplate it. It's a truly inspirational and awe-inspiring piece of architecture that is unfairly dismissed as an "amusement park icon."
  • How is it Disney can spend $4 billion to buy Marvel and pay its top executive $51 million a year ... but it still "needs" corporate sponsors to run its attractions?
  • Epcot is fantastic ... but, man, with someone in charge who had genuine vision, EPCOT could be truly, jaw-droppingly extraordinary. Maybe that day will come.

Monday, October 05, 2009

Kimpossibly Close to the Mark

Engaging younger visitors has always been a perceived problem with Epcot. Based on the number of strollers, toddlers and harried parents that can be seen wandering through Future World and World Showcase on any given day, it's questionable whether it's really an issue -- but, for, oh, the last 27 years or so, Disney has been more or less convinced that Epcot simply doesn't hold appeal to guests who are younger than the legal drinking age.

Mickey & Co. in futuristic and culture-appropriate garb, "The Seas With Nemo and Friends," "Gran Fiesta" at Mexico, Epcot Character Spot, constant re-jiggering of Imagination, the addition of Test Track and Mission: Space -- all of these projects have been undertaken, to at least some degree, because Disney decided that Epcot and kids don't mix.

It's almost an urban legend, Disney's version of the Mayan calendar predicting the end of the world: It doesn't matter if it's true, Disney management believes it to be the case, and they'd doubtlessly pull out piles of polling data to "prove" it.

One of the latest attempts to fix this alleged problem is the Kim Possible World Showcase Adventure, which mixes rudimentary smart-phone technology with a scavenger hunt. And here's the huge surprise:

It's not bad.

It's actually Kimpossibly close to being good enough to suck in adult players.

The premise is simple -- using "Kimmunicator" devices (aka Motorola cell phones), guests will receive clues to help them solve a mystery taking place throughout World Showcase. Clues pop up on the phone, and when each clue/puzzle is successfully solved, the device sends participants racing off to the next location.

Getting guests to engage with World Showcase is a brilliant idea, and it's great to encourage youngsters to learn a little bit about what they're seeing rather than just pull on mom or dad's hand and say, "Come oooonnn, let's gooooo." Epcot as a whole is filled with fascinating details just waiting to be discovered, but this is particularly true in World Showcase.

There's a lot that's right about the Kim Possible World Showcase Adventure. So here's a question: How come every single "recruitment" center stood virtually empty all day? Why do guests either not know about this entertainment option or seem resistant to it? In short, why (at least from the perspective of an observer) does it not seem to be working?

A thought: "Kim Possible" the series certainly had a fan base for a while, but the show barely airs anymore, and new episodes haven't been produced since 2007. "Kim Possible" was no doubt a success, but not one that had major brand recognition outside of Disney Channel-aged guests. In short, she's a minor "Disney character" at best, with dwindling appeal. And since she's "girl-focused," younger boys are less likely to want to engage with the "Kim Possible" brand. (It shouldn't be this way, but, sadly, this gender bias is impossible to deny.)

So, here's another thought:

Keep the World Showcase Adventure, and dump "Kim Possible."

Like "Nemo," "Gran Fiesta" and Eric Idle in Imagination, it's just unnecessary. Kids are not stupid, and they don't enjoy pandering. Adults think it's what kids want ... but most really, desperately, just want to be treated like little adults. They want to see and experience and discover things for themselves. Are there a large number of pre-teen girls who suffer terrible ennui and spend their Epcot touring time texting friends back home? Yup, and they're still going to do that, no matter what. Making sure they're engaged isn't the purpose of Epcot -- it's to reward those millions of young visitors who come to the park with a spirit of adventure, open to experiencing and learning new things. They really, really do exist, but as long as the long-suffering, pre-adolescent teenage girl is held up as the model of Epcot's biggest "audience problem," it's easy to ignore the guests who really want to be there.

"Kim Possible," with all due respect to its talented creators, has seen its day. Its popularity has crested and waned, and even while it has, Epcot remains. It still receives tens of millions of visitors. It remains successful and popular. So, stick with the brand that has the longer staying power.

A revised, Kim-less World Showcase Adventure, properly marketed as an enhancement to an Epcot visit, could be a fantastic way to make Epcot feel new again, even to longtime visitors. As any fan of CBS's "The Amazing Race" knows, traveling around the globe is a not-so-secret desire of a great many people. Epcot has always offered a manufactured, safe version of this fantasy wish-fulfillment, and adding a new element of excitement through a revised World Showcase Adventure could be just the shot in the arm Epcot needs.

Disney's theme-park management just has to trust that Epcot is a strong enough, exciting enough brand on its own. It doesn't need -- never has -- cartoons and Disney characters and animated teenage spies to make it interesting. It offers the world and the future, and there aren't many more exciting themes than that.

So, keep the technology-driven World Showcase Adventure. Offer a "youth" version, an "adult" version and a "family" version. Keep the guest engaged. Keep them guessing. Enrich their visits with a new sense of discovery, fun and revelation. Get them to talk to cast members, find new corners of World Showcase, and learn about the cultures they are seeing represented. Encourage them to explore.

But dump the kid spy. By doing so, you may see lines at the "Recruitment Centers," not cast members who look like they're desperate to get someone, anyone to try it out.

Friday, October 02, 2009

There's No There There

"The trouble with Oakland," Gertrude Stein wrote, "is that when you get there, there isn't any there there."

Oh, Ms. Stein, would that you could see Epcot, and in particular what's now known as "Innoventions Plaza."

Take a look at what was intended for EPCOT Center's overall design aesthetic.

Then look at how the design was realized, circa 1986.

And now we come to 2009:

Now, there are many who say that in its original incarnation -- as it existed until around the mid-1990s -- EPCOT Center presented a vaguely sinister, totalitarian vision of the future, sterile and monolithic, lacking humanity and personality.

But they're wrong.

In its starkly futuristic, monochromatic, mid-century approach to the future, EPCOT offered a sort of reassurance. Everyone was equal; what was on the outside was far less important than what's on the inside. By its very sameness and sleekness, the design reinforced that the promise of some advanced, technologically driven future was within our reach, even if we knew in our hearts it was an impossibility.

Across the World Showcase lagoon was our past, the mish-mash of styles and designs that led us to our current place; but Future World indicated that all of those individual cultures would soon coalesce into a unified whole. Our past was always going to be preserved and protected, but our future was ours to imagine and create in whatever way we wanted.

CommuniCore was the center of Future World, quite literally, and by extension the heart of EPCOT Center. Its design was perhaps the most important element of this highly themed theme park, because it did something no other park had ever attempted: It closed off the guest. It loomed on all sides, hiding what was behind it.

There was no other way to get to the pavilions that ringed CommuniCore, or to World Showcase itself. Every single EPCOT Center visitor had to pass through CommuniCore. This was the core of the community created by guests. Unlike the "hub" of Disneyland or The Magic Kingdom, which could be bypassed, CommuniCore was inevitable.

The two massive buildings that created the circular CommuniCore were both human in scale (they are about four stories tall) and overwhelming in size. Though lined with glass, it wasn't possible to see in; to know what was inside, you had to explore. Even if you chose to start your visit to EPCOT Center with a ride on Spaceship Earth, you would be deposited safely into the middle of CommuniCore.

Cleanly in design, bold in execution, simple in concept, and easy to wander, CommuniCore reminded us that the only way we could COMMUNIcate, the only way we could exist as a COMMUNIty, was to interact with each other. Guests would wander CommuniCore, but with an odd sense of purpose, to get through it and find out what was on the other side. It wasn't warm and welcoming like Main Street, that's for sure, but it also wasn't hostile or scary.

Visually and thematically, this concept of a central "core" defined EPCOT Center. It had trees and flowers (all neatly arranged), was spotless in appearance, offered the reassuring and very natural sound of running water amid the curious design. Our future, it seemed to say, would still contain the simple elements -- water, land, sky -- that have always sustained us ... but what we could achieve with our minds and hands would be what built the world that awaited.

CommuniCore was vital to EPCOT Center.

Now, it's just a jumble of color, noise, visual distractions and aggressive signage. Gone is its stunning uniformity, its promise of a tomorrow just like the one we used to imagine. Returning "Innoventions Plaza" (keep the name if you insist, it's not bad) to its original design would not be tremendously difficult ... but would require a certainty of vision, a confidence of design, that seems to be lacking in the still-sometimes-magnificent theme park that lower-case Epcot has become. Like our own world at large, it wants us to notice it ... not notice ourselves and our responsibilities to guide and shape our own tomorrow.

Thursday, October 01, 2009

27 Years Ago Today ...

2009 has been a tumultuous year for me, and I'm sorry that the changes (some good, some difficult and unpleasant, all leading to growth) have resulted in the seeming disappearance of EPCOT Central.

But like the spirit of EPCOT itself, EPCOT Central remains a big part of who I am, and when I realized a couple of months ago that far too long had elapsed since updating the site, I thought it would make the most sense until October 1 to "relaunch" it.

Twenty-seven years ago today, EPCOT Center opened its doors. In the ensuing years, there have been high points -- like the additions of pavilions and attractions-- and low. But EPCOT has endured ... and always will.

As I don't call Central Florida home, it was important for me to have at least one more trip to EPCOT, to spend time soaking it all in, observing, thinking, watching guests interact, exploring both myself and through my personal guests and through EPCOT cast members just what keeps EPCOT thriving. So, in the coming weeks and months, there will be more EPCOT Central, and hopefully you will start reading again.

Thank you for your patience, for your concern and empathy (this has been a difficult year for a great many people, it seems), and for your continued devotion to EPCOT, its ideals and its unique place in Disney's repertoire.

Today marks EPCOT Center's 27th anniversary. It's an occasion worth noting! Here's to new horizons on this, our spaceship Earth.