Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Why EPCOT Lost Its Way

At the D23 Expo last week, a frenzied festival of corporate control and spin, there was this discovery:

How did Disney allow this to escape?  Or this?

What on Spaceship Earth was someone at Disney thinking when they allowed things like this to be seen?

Of course, you'll probably recognize these as abandoned, never-built concepts for EPCOT Center, and as such they are extraordinary to look at.  The original concept for The Land may be the single most astonishing thing I've ever seen come out of Imagineering.  As a sixth-grader, I remember reading about it, but to see it in three dimensions as an adult is just staggering.  It is everything you could hope for in a Disney attraction ... and possibly more.

It was odd and disappointing to think that during the D23 Expo, literally scores of Disney executives walked by these models.

How is it possible that the visions and dreams of nearly four decades ago are so much more daring, exciting, vibrant and bold than the concepts put forth today?  It got me thinking about how EPCOT, a project unlike any Disney has ever again undertaken, could have lost its way.

This isn't a question of how EPCOT got derailed.  The answer to that one is easy: Money.  The visions have always been there; virtually every Imagineer you meet will tell you that Disneyland may have inspired them, but EPCOT really sold them on the idea that Disney was a visionary organization.

Money, and the constant need to gratify the gambling addicts on Wall Street, was the primary motivator behind the downsizing, though even in the late 1980s and early 1990s, Disney was promising lots of creative growth for EPCOT.

But what's most interesting to me, at least, is that EPCOT became mired in politics.  Yes, there were the always formidable internal politics of The Walt Disney Company, an organization that is primarily run to satisfy the outsized egos of a handful of key executives ... and EPCOT was never the kind of place those executives cared about.  EPCOT never really got a "seat at the table" when it came time to talk about Disney's brand, even though it stood apart so starkly from every other aspect of Disney.  It was the lanky, skinny, introspective middle child who everyone dismissed as the odd-duck outlier -- just over there in the corner, quietly doing its own thing, while its siblings picked on it mercilessly.

What really clinched EPCOT's fate, though, came not from inside The Walt Disney Company, but from outside.

EPCOT was conceived -- first as a city, then as a theme park -- by a slightly naive, though undeniably genius, group of people.  Walt Disney was a brilliant businessman, an extraordinary artistic visionary, perhaps the most influential entertainment executive (ugh, I hate that word, but that's what he was) who ever lived.

On top of that, he was incredibly optimistic and, by his own admission, could be naive.

He also had the temerity to die at the least-opportune time for the concept he was most enthusiastic about: EPCOT.  To hear Marty Sklar, former head of Imagineering, tell the story, the municipal version of EPCOT was possible to realize ... but only with Walt.  Once he died, no one had the vision, the daring or, quite simply, the personal connections and influence to see it through to completion.

When Walt Disney died, the world was on the brink of change.  John F. Kennedy had been assassinated, but Martin Luther King and Robert F. Kennedy were still to come.  The U.S. was involved with Vietnam, but the violent opposition to that war hadn't erupted.  Richard Nixon was on the political map, but he hadn't ascended to power.  There was a counter-culture of flower children, hippies, gays, women and blacks eager to find their voice, but they hadn't spoken forcefully yet.

On December 15, 1966, the world was a very different place than on October 1, 1982.  Nearly sixteen years after Walt's death, EPCOT Center opened and presented a vision of the future that seemed ... out of synch.  It wasn't outdated, exactly, because the technology marveled, and the concepts were fascinating.  But EPCOT still held to an ideal Walt believed in strongly: that the problems of the world were going to be solved by its corporations and the people who ran them.

Maybe he knew better, maybe he didn't, but Walt at least seemed to believe that companies like Dow Chemical were trying to make the world a better place; we hadn't heard about Napalm yet.  Agent Orange wasn't Monsanto's claim to fame -- they made chemicals to improve your every day life.  The public didn't perceive Exxon as a polluter and Kraft as a purveyor of junk food in the 1950s and 1960s, they saw these companies as protectors of the common good.

That changed in the 1970s.  By the time construction on EPCOT Center was in full swing, Americans were desperate for the war in Vietnam to end; they had lost faith not just in a president but in the entire American way of government; they were besieged by revelations that the companies and brands they trusted hadn't returned that trust in turn.

By the time the 21st Century began on October 1, 1982, the claims EPCOT was making were at best suspect.  The idea that a bright and shiny exploration of one possible future world was all "presented by" and "sponsored by" companies we didn't trust was a tough sell, both to the public and future sponsors.

Still, it persisted, and for a while even thrived.  Then, as contracts expired, corporate sponsors became more and more difficult to find.

In part, this was due to Disney's intractability over costs; the price of sponsorship of an EPCOT pavilion is, in a word, extraordinary.

In part, it was due to the rise of technology in marketing and communications: It was no longer necessary to try to reach a large, captive audience when you could reach them in so many new ways, with more individualized messages.

In part, it was due to Disney's lack of interest in EPCOT: It was just too difficult to define, and didn't really fit in to the company's new corporate mindset, except in the sense that it brought in a lot of money.

EPCOT has suffered, there's no doubt.  While there's still a lot to be impressed by at today's Epcot, the much-rumored addition of Phineas and Ferb to the Imagination pavilion, the rise of the thematically incongruous Soarin' to The Land pavilion, the replacement of Horizons with Mission: Space (a ride whose animation and technology is already on the cusp of being outdated) ... they all seem to pale in comparison to the bold visions seen in the models on display at the D23 Expo.

If Disney wanted to remind its most loyal audience that today's Imagineering can't hold a candle to the Imagineering of 30 years ago, they did an excellent job of that.

But it also begs the question of why Epcot had to decline the way it has done so dramatically.  The Walt Disney Company can spend $4 billion to buy Lucasfilm Ltd. and barely bat an eye.  Yet, when it comes to re-designing and updating an attraction like the Universe of Energy -- which was last upgraded in 1996, when the world was arguably more different compared with today than 1982 was compared with 1966 -- Disney claims it cannot improve Epcot without the involvement of sponsors.

Could it be that there's simply not an animated character that fits the vague "energy" theme like Nemo fits with "the seas"?  That there's no reason for spending cash if the result can't benefit Disney's merchandise sales?

Disney's claims that sponsors are needed to underwrite Epcot aren't just ludicrous, they're not in keeping with the way the park has developed.  We lost trust of corporations years and years ago, before EPCOT even opened, but a very large number of people have never lost trust in Disney.  Disney can tell its own stories now, in a way it couldn't afford to do 30 years ago.

EPCOT lost its way because its creators assumed the world would never change, that we would always trust companies to do the right thing.

Unfortunately, it seems, we can't even trust Disney to do the right thing with the suffering, increasingly dilapidated EPCOT.  Ah, if only it had achieved the lofty ambitions its Imagineers dreamed up so many decades ago!


Andy JS said...

Great post - I don't know why no-one's commented so far.

The interesting thing about Epcot in the late 80s and early 90s is that, for me personally anyway, it actually made me think of the corporations sponsoring the Pavilions in quite a positive light. I thought that if they could produce interesting rides and displays like this, in conjunction with Disney, they must be a lot more interesting and creative than I'd previously thought. Maybe a lot of other people thought that too at the time.

Anonymous said...

I wonder how much of the decision making is more about risk than money. Certainly, investing capital into any park requires substantial risk, as much as it did 30 years ago certainly. Spending $1b on Cal Adventure was a huge gamble... except, entrusting it to a known franchise limited that risk quite a bit. But most accounts, that was a great success.

So, recognizing how much risk was involved with EPCOT 1.0, it isn't hard to see why the "suits" are so reluctant to make similar gambles on unknown entities now. Sad... but true.

Frankly, and this may be quite off topic, I'm more disappointed in the operational cutbacks at Disney World (e.g. reduced extra magic hours, etc.) than I am the lack of capital improvements. Rather, degradation of one or the other might be tolerable, but lack of both is a double slap at the consumer.


Anonymous said...

Even though Misson Space is more high tech I miss Horizons terribly.Fast rides to me are not memorable.
I think Disney is starting to conform to what all the other amusement parks do which is fast rides.I thought Disney was not suppose to be like those other amusement parks.
I'm sure there's more to it than that.

Anonymous said...

Disney lost its way years ago.
They dropped the baton, and others are picking it up.

Tim said...

The truth is sad but it DOES all boil down to money now. Richard Branson billionaire said that once a company goes public it will NEVER be the same. The same goes for Disney. Yes, while Walt was alive they did things his way regardless of stock prices, board of directors, etc. but the bottom line now is the bottom line. Do you think that Walt would have said we can't expand the monorail it's too expensive? He would have said to hell with the cost, Roy will find a way to pay for it later.