Let’s go back a couple of decades to the opening of EPCOT Center. “Our goal,” wrote Marty Sklar, then a vice president at WED Enterprises (later Imagineering), “is to inspire the visitors who come here, so that they will be turned on to the positive potential of the future and will want to participate in making the choices that shape it.”
As an introduction to Richard R. Beard’s book Walt Disney’s EPCOT Center: Creating the World of Tomorrow, Sklar promised, “Remember that at our opening in October 1982, we are just getting started – there’s much more to come!”
Later in that book, Beard wrote, “While entertainment will continue to be a highly visible attraction of Epcot (sic) Center, it is the underlying educational value of Future World that is its most important contribution.”
Aw, c’mon. You can’t be serious. Education is boring. No one goes on vacation to learn. (Strange, then, that Kennedy Space Center remains such a draw.) Being inspired? Phooey. Participate? No way -- I'll do that when I get back home and go to the PTA.
That was the most commonly heard complaint about EPCOT Center in the first 15 years of its existence. It’s boring, it’s too serious, it’s too difficult. This vacation stuff is supposed to be entertaining and fun. Less of the tough stuff, please. More cartoon characters, please! More thrill rides, please!! MORE DISNEY, PLEASE!!!
Disney listened. And Epcot changed. Too much on both counts, if you ask me. (Well, you didn’t, but you’re reading my blog, so maybe you care a little.)
Now, I’m a huge proponent of listening to the customer ... when it comes to commodities and retailing. If your customer says s/he doesn’t like something, you do one of three things: you change, you innovate or you go out of business.
When it comes to artistic endeavors, though (and a theme park is most certainly an artistic endeavor, one of grand proportions), that’s something quite different.
We’ve seen over and over and over again how basing creative decisions on consumer sentiment leads to a bad product.
After all, Hostel, Madea’s Family Reunion, The Pink Panther and Scary Movie 4 each were the No. 1 movie in the country at some point in 2006. Financially successful? Yes. Creatively? You be the judge. Each was made because it appealed to a particular demographic or followed a routine formula that has led to success in the past, not to fill an urgent creative need. Each made a lot of money. Each will be completely forgotten 25 years from now.
When the public voted, American Idol said goodbye to Elliott Yamin, Chris Daughtry and Mandisa – all of whom were believed, at one point, to stand a good chance at winning the contest and were considered by virtually all critics to be better than eventual winner Taylor Hicks (who, I admit, I happen to think is OK). Hearing the outcry was always amusing; after all, how can viewers be shocked by their own actions?
See, the thing is, people don’t always know what’s good. I’m not being elitist, and I’m not saying that, individually, we don’t appreciate quality. Collectively, though, it’s very often a different story. The least-common denominator almost always wins out.
It’s truly important to listen to what your customer says if you’re selling soap, cars or candy bars. But if you’re selling entertainment, and you aspire to something out of the ordinary, you don’t listen to what others think. You just don’t. People who don’t make movies, who don’t write plays, who don’t design theme parks are not the people to trust.
They’re the audience, not the creators. Of course, they may have opinions (as I do, clearly), and it’s important to hear what they have to say. They may even hate what you have to offer. But if you’re committed, if you’ve got a vision, you stick to your design.
As a rule, consumers of mass entertainment will say they do not want to be challenged, do not want to be “inspired,” do not want something that’s different – they just want to be entertained.
Except when they don’t.
See, more and more people say that they don’t get enough out of movies, TV and, yes, theme parks. These diversions leave them increasingly dissatisfied.
Huh? Aren’t these the products that they said they wanted to see? Ahhh … strange how that works, hm?
Epcot tried offering guests an experience with “underlying educational value,” but they said they didn’t like it. So, it’s grown into a park that fulfills the thrill-seeking ambitions of a 14-year-old boy, but increasingly offers nothing new for anyone other than him. Disney spends hundreds of millions to upgrade attractions that appeal to boys and teens, but won’t spend a dime to improve those that are deemed to be “for adults.”
That’s what happens when you pay too much attention to what the public thinks – when you forget that you (meaning Disney management) are getting paid because you’re supposed to be an expert at creating a fantastic guest experience … not just at surveying park guests and interpreting the numbers. You're supposed to make the decisions, develop the concepts, do the fine-tuning -- you're not just supposed to ask people if they like what you've done and change it if they don't. The tougher task, the toughest task, is getting them to appreciate something that's difficult and challenging and "good for them." You know, just like it's tough to get a 9-year-old to eat broccoli, no matter how good, how worthwhile, how important it is. (Which may be why we're raising a nation of obese people ... it's much easier to feed ’em McDonald's -- to give ’em what they want.)
So, now, here we are 24 years and some months after Epcot opened with its grand ambitions, its promises of something that would blow us away. For a while, it did. But now that so many people have made Disney management second-guess almost every decision that went into the creation of Epcot, we’re left with the theme-park version of The Pink Panther or Taylor Hicks:
Bland, inoffensive, fun on the outside … and hollow within. Give ’em what they want, right?
And let them get what they deserve.
Can it be changed? Can Epcot regain its spirit and adventure and style that made it so different? Perhaps, if Disney listens to its creative geniuses, not to a hot, tired, cranky guest.