Sunday, July 23, 2006

Fuddy Duddy Strikes Back


I’m not quite 40, but apparently I’m already a fuddy duddy. That’s what one of my blog readers called me last week (see comments in the post "All Princesses, All the Time).

In my 15 years in the entertainment industry, I’ve been called lots of things, many of which started with the same two letters, and generally they’ve never gotten to me. For some reason, “fuddy duddy” did.

Look, despite my protesting turning Akershus into an all-Princesses dining experience, I am not unfriendly toward kids. I’m fully aware that it was as a kid myself that I became enamored of Disney.

It’s just that Disney in general, and Epcot specifically, hold happiness and discovery for everyone, not just kids. By making Disney increasingly into a kid-oriented company, the executives there – and in the theme-park group particularly – do themselves a disservice and, sadly, sell Disney short.

Take, for instance, the difference between Test Track and Spaceship Earth. They were designed and developed by completely different generations of Imagineers, and it shows.

Test Track is the “new” regime: fast, loud, frenetic and bearing only a teaspoon of storytelling and discovery. You leave Test Track thrilled … and that’s about it.

Spaceship Earth is the “old way”: leisurely, elaborate, rich and designed to entertain completely. It envelops the rider in 360 degrees of story, and if it doesn’t demand that attention be paid, it rewards riders who concentrate and focus.

The thing is, entertainment in general today is made for undemanding audiences. They complain if they’re not entertained and couldn’t care a whit about nuance and artistry. If it moves fast and looks shiny, that’s all they need. Is there anything wrong with that? No. Heck, one of the very first movies ever made was of a train pulling into a station. It thrilled and mesmerized audiences, but it had no story and aspired to nothing more than providing a sensational rush of adrenaline. But moviemakers soon learned they could do much more with audiences than just thrill them; they could tell stories and captivate them, they could create an emotional and intellectual rush, not just a visceral one.

Walt Disney knew that, too. Most of the first attractions at Disneyland were not much more than gussied-up carnival rides. But knowing that, like cinema itself, a theme-park experience could immerse and involve guests, Disney took things to a new level. The pinnacle: The Haunted Mansion and Pirates of the Caribbean.

It’s ironic that some 40 years later theme-park designers have not only failed to reach those heights, but have actually caused their own industry to retreat. The closest that Disney has come to replicating the lengthy, fully immersive, story-driven attractions have been Star Tours, The Great Movie Ride and the Indiana Jones Adventure; the “newest” of these is 11 years old.

Epcot was once the proving ground for the best that Disney theme-park designers had to offer. They created enormous, elaborate attractions that took the ride-through concepts of The Haunted Mansion and Pirates of the Caribbean and pushed them to new levels. Universe of Energy, Horizons, Spaceship Earth, Journey Into Imagination, World of Motion, El Rio del Tiempo and Maelstrom (despite its shortcomings) built entire worlds and took riders on a true adventure utilizing every trick possible, from Audio-Animatronic figures to innovative ride systems to multi-media showcases.

Epcot’s most recent additions, Mission: Space and Soarin’, as good as they may be, just sit there and show you a movie, moving you around some. (Well, moving you around too much in the case of Mission: Space.) Disney has devolved from epic, full-scale shows to a seat with a TV screen in front of it.

What does this all have to do with being a fuddy duddy and (supposedly) not liking loud children? Everything.

Because Disney has shortchanged itself, and nowhere is that more apparent than at Epcot. It has given into the notion that the child-rearing techniques favored by many parents today – namely, sitting your kid in front of a box with moving images – should be the basis for its theme-park rides. It has gone the easy route by dumbing down Epcot and removing virtually all of the wonder and discovery and making it into a place where you can see lots of familiar cartoon characters.

Disney has scaled down its dreaming in the name of being more kid-friendly. And if you can’t get your dreams from Disney when you’re a kid, where can you get them? More importantly, if Disney tells you your biggest dream should be to meet Cinderella or find Nemo, it’s kind of sad – the dreams used to be a lot bigger than that.

Disney should want more than to sell tickets, get people to turn to ABC and make sure little girls wear Princess dresses. It used to want that – EPCOT Center was a shining example. No, it wasn’t Walt’s EPCOT, but it was something pretty extraordinary, something no other company could ever attempt to design or create.

So, if wanting Disney to be as bold, as inspiring, as wonderfully creative in 2006 as it was in 1976 (stop with the Shaggy D.A. jokes, you know what I mean) is being a fuddy duddy, I guess I’m a fuddy duddy.

Ouch.

The truth hurts, I guess.

19 comments:

Gil said...

The thing is, entertainment in general today is made for undemanding audiences. They complain if they’re not entertained and couldn’t care a whit about nuance and artistry. If it moves fast and looks shiny, that’s all they need.

I don't happen to think you're a "fuddy duddy" (who really uses that phrase?), but this is a "fuddy duddy" comment. The notion that audiences only like to be thrilled without nuance or artistry isn't an issue with today's audiences. Sure, thrill plays into it sometimes. But the stories being removed from newer Disney rides isn't the result of a changing audience, it's the result of a changing Disney. DCA was an attempt to throw together some thrill rides. DisneySea was a real world being created. DisneySea is more popular, and it's not because it's in Tokyo. Disneyland continues to have higher visitor numbers than DCA; people still appreciate the full stories, the real environments. And anybody who likes a thrill ride and goes to Disney will truly prefer a thrill ride with a story and real theming than one without.

Rambling aside; to assume that today's audience's tastes have changed when it's really Disney's dime that has changed, that's "fuddy duddy".

Epcot82 said...

Ah, but audiences have indeed changed -- one look at this summer's movie lineup compared to, say, summer 1986, will show you that's the case. (Top Gun is a veritable thinking man's epic compared with, say, The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift.)

But you are definitely right about Disney's insistence on being cheaper and cheaper. The Sindbad attraction at Tokyo is a great example of a terrifically done, immersive attraction (though I can't understand a word, I get the meaning of the overall story), and though it's a thrill ride, Journey to the Center of the Earth is pretty extraordinary. So, I'll grant you that Disney's dime, particularly in the U.S., has gotten thinner and thinner.

On the flip side, by all accounts it's guest response to Epcot as "boring" and the rides as "not fun" (my words, so they probably shouldn't be in quotes!) that began causing Disney to dumb-down Epcot in the first place. As I said earlier, give 'em what they want ... and Princess restaurants fall into that category. You can't blame Disney for listening to its audience.

Well, actually, you can. And should!

onjejank said...

It seems the rub lies in what people define as entertainment. I share your sentiments that Disney is simply giving guests what they want. At the same time, I loathe what the general public seems to crave: shiny things just for the sake of being shiny.

EPCOT Center captivated me as a nine year-old with its vision of the future and encouragement to make that future happen. It challenged me as a 13 year-old with its global view and community of nations as a hope for true interaction and exchange. And as a 31 year-old, I miss a place where I can go to be part of that future community oncemore.

But engaging with the future requires work. It requires thought. It requires the viewer to participate and invest themself. Sadly, the ranks of such people seemingly continues to dwindle. And EPCOT (sans "Center") suffers their plight and careens into "theme park" ambiguity instead of being what it once was.

I blame the tastes of a lazy society as much as I blame Disney in not attempting to challenge the status quo.

Ivonne R. said...

I don't think you're "fuddy duddy" at all! lol.

The way I see it Disney used to be the place you would go when you wanted attractions that thrilled not in the way we think of today but in the way that POTC and HM still do all these years later. Thrill rides like Test Track and Mission Space are nothing new. A car ride (sorry I go faster in my car!) and a simulator (I know it's a centrifuge also, but face it, it's a simulator). I'm actually bored by these attractions and I'm a real big thrill seeker, but I wouldn't mind if thrill rides in Epcot were more like Everest at AK. A thrill with a bit of back story which is something that both Mission Space and Test Track painfully lack. Rollercoasters and simulators can be fun, but when I go to Disney I expect something more.

Chris said...

I really like how you compared "putting your kids in front of a TV" to the new Epcot attractions.

I LIKE Soarin', it's a fun ride, correct it has no real story, but lets look on the bright side...it didn't replace any big attractions in the making of it, unlike Test Track and Mission:Space.

I actually like the idea of Maelstrom because it has both a story-telling portion and a slight thrill portion as well. If Epcot could only have attractions that are built with the same ideas in mind, it would be a much better place.

Ivonne R. said...

Chris said...

I LIKE Soarin', it's a fun ride, correct it has no real story, but lets look on the bright side...it didn't replace any big attractions in the making of it, unlike Test Track and Mission:Space.


Hey what about Food Rocks!?

LOL.

Chris said...

note I said "Big" ;)

Ivonne R. said...

Note that I said "LOL" ;)

Agapanthus said...

Cool blog. I don't think you're a fuddy duddy. You're right about the Askerhaus.

The first time I saw Epcot was in 90, I think. Since the first I ever heard of the park (I was a kid), I decided I wanted to be there someday, and it was a dream come true to get to know it and love it. Like you, I'm an Epcot dreamer. My favorite ride hands-down ten times over was Horizons, my favorite Disney ride ever, followed by the Mansanto ride at Disneyland (I forget the name). I could, and did, ride Horizons at every opportunity I could, which was often. I replay the ride in my mind. I loved that ride, truly. Many times, I was one of maybe three or four guests on the whole ride. That's always been a mystery to me -- my stars, the disconnect!

Disney, especially Epcot, blows it when they put in rides that exclude Grandma. I think Epcot could be saved, but it would take someone with real cojones. Two things would be imperative.

1. It would have to place its focus squarely on a long-term World's Fair model -- a showcase for the technology of the future. No politics, no scare-mongering, no scolding, no guilt trips. Just FUN FUTURISM.

2. Be very commercial because of underwriters and sponsors.

Regarding that last one, another disconnect kicks in for me because I know that bashing commercialism is the most popular indoor sport around much of the world. It perplexes me because corporate sponsorship in all its varied forms has enabled some of our most potent creative endeavors, finest art and richest entertainment.

If Epcot was somehow to find a visionary leader with the optimism and confidence to embrace the future, rather than fear it, and who also was a strong, confident force in working with (not for!) corporate sponsors, Epcot could shine.

But there'd always be those wankers who whine about corporate logos and such ... they give me a pain. I liked Ice Station Cool. I'd love to see a corporate-sponsored House of the Future -- do I give a rip how many times I see "Honeywell" or "GE" sprinkled all around cool new futuristic living homes? *sigh*

I agree totally with someone who posted on your wonderful blog that really, we should show some thanks and support for the loyal sponsors of Epcot. Without 'em ... no Epcot, and I'm DAMNED if I'd ever want to see Epcot become an NPR project! Long live commercialism.

Epcot82 said...

Hard to tell how much of your comment is serious, how much might be tongue-in-cheek (I think a little!), but ...

You're absolutely right that someone with true vision and guts and courage to make serious changes could save Epcot -- or, that is, restore it to a state of being daring and at least trying to have a vision.

I wonder, though, about the sponsors. I don't disagree with what you've written, actually, but I also have to wonder:

If Disney can spend nearly $40 billion to buy its way into broadcasting, cable and computer-generated animation, certainly it can find a few hundred million dollars to design a park that doesn't rely on sponsors? Sure, I understand that there are revenue models in place, but they are just models -- the theory of what works until someone comes along and proves that another model could work equally well.

Why, for instance, can't Disney develop and build an updated Wonders of Life pavilion without a corporate underwriter? When it spends tens of millions to do prints, advertising and marketing for cruddy movies like Annapolis, Dark Water or The Wild, surely it could bear the financial "risk" of operating an attraction on its own, without the need to find a sponsor? Perhaps the sponsor model is outdated and irrelevant.

Given that it (over)spends every year on bad TV, bad movies, bad books, even bad theme parks, couldn't a little be carved out to build up one of the few truly unique and standout assets that it has?

Cliff cot? said...

Somehow the original sponsor model in Epcot became broken.

I think the problem with Epcot is not enough sponsorship. If you want to see a concept of a city of flying cars then ask the imagineers to present it. If you want to see and touch a hydrogen fuel cell car then you have to cut a deal with GM. Unfortunately their present deal probably precludes any other company from presenting any other advance in the field of transportation.

The future of robots are being built by I-Robot, Honda and Sony (sorry for any errors/omissions I’m not in this field). They won’t be built by Epcot, but Epcot can be the place that the developers feel they have to present it at. This will take focus and probably a new department of contractineers(??) to manage the relationship better. GM should not get to show 16 models you can see at your local show room in exchange for 1 concept car. At the same time companies will want some cost sharing or pure advertising if they are to going to send you valuable prototypes or set up expensive presentations.

This goes back to the branding post and responses. Build an area with all the amenities so that technology press events happen in Epcot. How about an annual robot festival? Perhaps Disney has to sponsor this to get presenters to come, but hey what is my $64 day pass for anyway, paying for that Ellen movie? Perhaps if they had something really cutting edge there attendance would increase.

I’m sick of seeing the future today at my local Best Buy and then getting off Spaceship Earth to see……..an empty room with blue carpet on the walls.

Agapanthus said...

Why, for instance, can't Disney develop and build an updated Wonders of Life pavilion without a corporate underwriter?

I was pondering how to zero in on this when Cliff Cot did a better job. But basically, the corporate underwriters are the producers, the creators of this stuff. The pavillions are really venues for their technology as seen through the (unquely Disney) Imagineering fantasy of future optimism.

And I suppose I should be sad to confess that ... no ... none of my post was tounge in cheek, alas! I am very strange, I know. I am a total pollyanna when it comes to commercialism. It's where much real creativity thrives. I am very rarely offended by it and mystified by people who are.

About the only point (and a small one) of dispute I saw in Cliff Cot's spot-on comment:

This will take focus and probably a new department of contractineers(??) to manage the relationship better. GM should not get to show 16 models you can see at your local show room in exchange for 1 concept car...

Agreed on the last part. There need to be rules. As for the first part, I read "department" and find myself thinking "committee" and the buzzer goes off. Creativity and focused vision aren't products of committees, they're products of individual leaders, who also inspire confidence. The vision sets the standards, and the rest follows suit. The right leader will work with sponsors, not for them.

Cliff cot? said...

I really hate to get into some theory of management post………but let me further explain. Leadership is absolutely essential. I believe that the Eisner Disney focus is a on a certain type of sponsorship department (one that can read a contract and count money). I think many pavilions have lost their sponsors because Disney simply viewed them as a cash flow, not as partners.

I called for a department because it probably takes a lot of work to get an agreement that strikes the right balance between what Epcot gets and what it gives up. A staff of people would have to travel and establish relationships to find the technology to bring to Epcot.

If I can digress into my interpretation of history a bit: The original Epcot inherently had a view that the great advances in technology would be led by a handful of companies. The great gigantic unopposed AT+T and Bell Labs with all of its Nobel prizes, would surely be the leader in communication. The largest company in the world GM would be the manufacturing standard. If Epcot had a computer pavilion in 1982, I imagine it would have a monument of a digital tape drive with IBM as the sponsor (was Dell formed yet?).

24 Years later and GM is in danger of bankruptcy. The largest company in the world sells cheap clothes from China. AT+T was busted up and then through 20 years of mergers is now large again.

My point is the landscape has changed and if new technology is to come to Epcot it won’t be as it was originally intended with the original sponsors developing/inventing it then presenting it in their pavilion. It must be searched out and actively recruited.

dean said...

I'm glad there are so many of us "fuddy duds" around to appreciate the intent of the original EPCOT Center. I've heard it over and over again, the question of whether it's the fault of changing times or evolving Disney management that has created the Epcot we see today and I would respond that it is a little of both.

It's no argument that today's audiences are different than those of 24 years ago, but that doesn't mean that people today are less sophisticated -- as Disney seems to believe. I think the big issue is that Disney now trys to over analyze their audience in a reactionary way and it leads to a "least-common-denominator" form of entertainment that pales in comparison to what it once was.

Bring back the high aspirations to create an optimistic, entertaining experience focused on Epcot's original ideals and the quality of Epcot's shows will improve. Keep it fresh and people will keep returning. It's basically what this blog has been saying all along.

I would even go as far as to refocus Epcot - away from an emphasis on the role of corporate technology shaping our future, and more towards of the role of ourselves as a multicultural society, our aspirations and abilities, and how each of us has a part in shaping the future. It's a theme that was underlying much of the original EPCOT Center shows anyway but the "here's the future and technology is going to make it wonderful" message made audiences observers rather than participants.

Agapanthus said...

I think that was well said, Cliff cot.

What a tough nut Epcot is, really. It isn't thrill rides (or at least I don't think it should be), and it IS by definition "commercial" in that all of its pavilions, in Futureland and on the international lake, are sponsored. Some by companies, some by countries.

"New technology ... must be searched out and recruited."

And made workable within a changing landscape. The venues would have to be firmly focused on whatever creative concept to make it so Disney, not the sponsors, would be directing the "partnership" project.

That's got to be tough to do. It would really take a certain kind of personality to be strong and knowledgeable enough to hold his ground face-to-face with paying veteran VIPs, while remaining optimistic and inspiring. The one who doesn't have vision will be the one who will retreat. Result: a timid, dull product.

On another, but oddly related subject of "branding," I think people mistake marketing's place in the natural order. Marketing can market until its face is blue but if the product's bad, it's sand in the wind. Without a good product, marketing has no point.

And I suppose, without a strong vision, trying to inspire and convince sponsors to "get in" on Epcot would be a lost cause. One thing has to happen first, then the rest follows.

Or not! :*)

Epcot82 said...

Thanks for such a great conversation, all!

Jeff said...

I have been reading your blog for all of a half hour, and all I have to say, (for what it's worth,) is you are one of the few that truly "get it".

It's people like you that should band together, and take the Kindom (back) over by storm.

Keep up the good work.

Epcot82 said...

Thanks very much -- I really appreciate that!

Anonymous said...

Hats off to you epcot82. It's unfortunate that so many people don't realize what a caricature Disney has become.