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Even as Disney continues portraying an outdated "vision" of our world's energy needs, even as it virtually ignores the realities of the past 15 years, a sleepy little Florida hamlet called Arcadia (ironic,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.


Airamerica said...

It seems that the Disney execs have a huge problem...

How do you 'educate' people and not make it seem like you are 'preaching' to them?

In the mid 90's something changed globally. We were suddenly told that the world was edging towards catastrophe, the planet was heating up at an alarming rate, the sea levels were rising and pollution from fossil fuels was choking everything!

At about this time EPCOT began to be less about education and more about entertainment. However, the execs didn't go all the way - leaving far to many reminders of EPCOT's original ideal. This left the park in a huge cavern.

Fast forward 15 years and the execs are trying to inject a bit of life into the property by aligning it with popular culture. However, this sin't visionary management. It's 'safe' management.

The challenge for EPCOT is how do you balance education and entertainment, while keeping people coming through the gates?

I 'like' EPCOT today, I take it for it's faults and accept it's not the place I used to 'love'. It allows me to escape the seriousness of the outside world and immerse myself in the 'Disney World', where life is good, the grass is perfect and people are happy (even when in the line for Soarin').

Having said that I avoid 'Universe Of Energy' and not just because the show is hopelessly out of date - I simply don't want to be reminded about what's going on in the real world. I've paid a high price to be transported away from that!

So, here it is... What should EPCOT do, entertain or educate?

I want entertainment that doesn't force me to think too deeply and avoids 'telling' me how I'm responsible for the state of this planet!

More Spaceship Earth style attractions please.

Anonymous said...

One of the few ways I can think of to rehabilitate the "Universe of Energy" pavilion is to scrap the entire ride & have it become one large post-ride area filled with exhibits featuring all of the major energy sources - Nuclear, coal, oil, solar, wind, hydro, etc.... Almost like a Communicore but energy-related. Some exhibits would feature audio-animatronics just to keep the purists happy but the mass majority of the place would almost be like one of those "children's science" (yes, I hate that phrase, too, but you can't have a science museum anymore unless you cater to the 1st graders & their mental equivalents) museum.

You can drop the preachy "Dead Dinosaur" energy speech that turns off some people; You can crank up the interactivity of the pavilion which makes the kiddies (and their parents) happy; You may even educate adults as well.

I can't believe that Disney hasn't tried to monetize this pavilion with some assortment of science-related gifts. They have kiosks everywhere else (on bridges, no less!) selling cheap Disney crap, they have mega stores where Communicore once stood (because we all know that the average visitor can't take 21 steps without resisting the urge to buy something Disney at outrageously inflated prices), why not a store where they might actually sell something *gasp* science-related in a place called "Future World"?

Anonymous said...

It doesn't help that the economy is dead now. Disney isn't exactly in the position to find new sponsors...So that leaves us with a soon to be sponsorless Test Track (that'll need a LOT of logo stripping...) A perfectly good Land pavilion that's now sponsorless, and the Universe of Energy comedy show. Really nice, Disney. *sigh* Thank God for Siemens preserving Future World with SSE and Project Tomorrow. Steve, there's something I really want you to see. Check this out: How cultural! See that mural? Tequila cultural experts? Disney still kinda gets World Showcase! Maybe that'll detract some attention from The Tree Cabbelleros... There's hope for WS man. -Mike H.

Anonymous said...

Maybe you're too young to remember, but the economy was almost as dead as this in 1978, and Disney still managed...

David Landon said...

The present show at Universe of Energy was developed while Exxon was still the sponsor, remember, so its downplaying of the fact that fossil fuels are NOT the future of energy is not at all surprising. I'm confident that the next show we get there will be the best (and most honest) yet.

Secondly, what is it with the idea that Disney needs sponsors to run EPCOT? They're spending tons of money on the Fantasyland expansion at the Magic Kingdom, and they didn't get a corporate sponsor to help pay for it. I have no doubt that the Eisner administration blamed EPCOT's lack of quality in the late-90s to mid-2000s on the lack of sponsorships, but Eisner is gone now and different people are in charge. Things are changing for the better. Spaceship Earth's refurb has left it with the best post-show area it's had since the Earth Station days, Innoventions plaza is in the midst of some kind of refurbishment that will likely lead to the removal of all the visual clutter there, and there's some nice new stuff in Innoventions-like the Sum of All Thrills attraction. Heck, they even returned the exterior of the Energy pavilion to it's old red/orange/gold color scheme.

You can't undo a decade's worth of neglect and stupidity overnight, but I really think that the current administration is better than the previous one, and they've shown that they're willing to spend some money on the parks, something Eisner was loath to do.

Ten to fifteen years from now, I think EPCOT will be in much better shape. Wait and see.

Dylan Kenny said...

I agree with the comment above about redoing Energy totally. While the dinos are cool the whole concept of Energy is so vastly important to us as human in the early 21st century that this paviliion could be a tremendous draw for EPCOT and Disney if it was done right. Drop Exxon with vast haste and malice. They and other "sponsors" like them have held EPCOT back too long. I think sponsorship is a big gimmicky scam anyways. Turn Universe of Energy into a all the myriad ways and forms of Energy in the universe make it fun and crazy atmosphere like Life was a one point. Use Living Character Initave and other new animatronic techs to real push home and make a show everone who comes to Disney parks must see! Imagine a big ol happy sun in the ceiling that powers a solar display. A huge talking windmill that might even be a ride. Water Water Everywhere and all of it providing energy! Even the baddies of energy could get a place like nuclear and others, mention just in passing that petrolum is still out there.

I think Disney is missing a huge opportunity to relauch and refurbish all of EPCOT as a wonderful place in thier park lineup. The wouldnt have to put a whole lotta money into this compared with say buying Marvel! A paltry billion or 2 at most would give EPCOT major new paviliions and attractions a whole new face and new life. Start with Energy and remake it. Make the old life building into a nanotech themed future pavillion. Totally redo Imagination with a new storyline and bring back Dreamfinder! Do at least that Disney...if not much more!

Anonymous said...

Every time I think about the Universe of Energy pavilion I wonder what kind of advances have been made in solar panel technology over the past 28 years. I would hope that they have become more efficient in that time. If this is true, an update to the cells on the roof could, in the long run, help absorb more of the operating costs for the pavilion. With any luck it may even make corporate sponsorship unnecessary.

Anonymous said...

When I first went to EPCOT, my initial impression was "boring". Perhaps it was because it was so different than the Magic Kingdom. Perhaps it was because i was younger. EPCOT was definitely the adult park. In my opinion, far too much emphasis was placed on education. The entertainment factor was scaled way back. That's not the purpose of a theme park. And it seemed the corporate sponsorship was really in-you-face. I remember thinking of the energy exhibit as simply the Exxon commercial. Certainly, the best attractions were those with heavy animatronics present (Horizons, World of Motion, Spaceship Earth, etc.). Those are mostly gone. Too expensive to maintain I guess. Entertainment value be damned. But thank goodness the Wonders of Life pavilion is gone. What a joke. Theme park attractions MUST entertain. Do you remember anybody coming out of "The Making of Me" with a smile on their face? Ever? And World Showcase was totally lost on me. Today, a couple of decades later, I find World Showcase to be my favorite place in all of WDW, although Future World is a still a wash to me. Outside of Spaceship Earth, it's pretty forgettable. Disney really needs to rename Future World. There's nothing futuristic about it. Perhaps Discovery World?

So how would I fix it? Not sure. Certainly drop the whole educational perspective. Design everything around entertaining your guests. I guess my dream is for WDW to build a bunch of new attractions with NONE of them based on existing Disney movies or TV shows. Original content. Especially not Pixar content. Those movies are seriously over exposed. Hey, I can dream.

The biggest problem with WDW is lack of investment. That's because WDW is the cash cow for the rest of the Disney/ABC/ESPN conglomerate. Everything else is allowed to bleed money, while WDW (and the rest of the theme parks) carry the load. All profits get sucked from the parks. $14 to park? I guess that'll keep ABC Family on the air for a little longer. I mean where else would I go to see ABC reruns.

Unknown said...

Anonymouse - solar panels take on average 20-30 years to pay off and to make any reasonable contribution to the grid compared with what it costs in energy to build them. Do you propose they throw them away? Even moving them somewhere else would surely break them and cost money.