Thursday, January 25, 2007

A Memo to Brad Rex

Date: January 25, 2007
To: Brad Rex, Vice President, Epcot
From: Epcot82 (EpcotCtr82@yahoo.com)

Re: EPCOT Center and Epcot

I understand you have been in charge of Epcot for quite a while. We’ve never met, but I know a lot about Disney, particularly on the corporate side, and I realize, more than anything, you’re doing the best you possibly can within a difficult organization.

I’m not here to blast you or say you’re doing a crappy job or endlessly criticize your decisions.

By now, perhaps you’ve read some of the responses to the blogpost I wrote called “I (Heart) Epcot.” It’s gotten a tremendous response; for every comment you see here, I’ve gotten two e-mails from others who have said they didn’t want to post their comments. Some of these are from Disney employees who, despite the anonymity offered by Blogger.com, are worried that somehow even their support of Epcot and Disney theme parks will be traced back to them. That fear speaks volumes about the organization. I’m not sure how you can encourage feedback from Epcot cast members when many people at Disney (both in California and Florida) are fearful even of an anonymous system!
That’s beside the point, of course. The point of this blog is to discuss what is great – and nearly great – about Epcot. (For the sake of argument, I’ll use the lower-case moniker, though EPCOT Center, as nebulous as the name might have been, was more grand and evocative of something enormous and vaguely mysterious.)

Epcot is a grand and glorious place. It has never been, and probably never will be, duplicated in the world. It is so far outside of what we consider “Disney” that for many of us it has come to define “Disney” – trying for something new and exciting, pushing the boundaries of what is possible.

Throughout this site, you’ll find a lot of criticism. Perhaps you’ll understand how sincere that criticism is. Perhaps you were like me as a kid: You didn’t try too hard at school, you always managed to get Bs, perhaps an A here and there, sometimes a C (or worse), but overall, you did fine. It probably wasn’t enough for your parents. They didn’t understand why you would settle, and you didn’t understand why they cared. It was, after all, your life – and you were correct in that assumption.

But when you see someone who is capable of so much not living up to full potential, it hurts; you know that there’s a chance for greatness with a little effort.

So it is with Epcot.

Many of the readers of EPCOT Central, I’ve learned, had similar experiences to me growing up. On TV, in books, at the movies, Disney was a constant in our young lives. And then, 1982 happened. EPCOT Center burst on to the scene, and when we got our first tastes of it, we learned something incredible: The world was bigger than we imagined. “Disney” was safe and simple, its characters taught us little lessons and encouraged us to be imaginative. But Epcot was something completely different; here was Disney telling us that we lived in a big, messy, complex world that was filled with people different than us and things we didn’t understand.

EPCOT Center tried (and succeeded more often than it failed, I think) to show us that our world could make sense, that there were a lot of difficult things in it, but if we broke those things down into their simplest parts, we could understand them, just as we could begin to understand how they all related to each other.

There was a world around you that contained complex issues and subjects, but not only could they be understandable and even interesting, if we simply crossed a bridge we could find people in other parts of the world who were also dealing with the same issues, and we could learn about them and have fun together.

Yes, Epcot attempted to do a lot, perhaps too much. But there’s much more to be said for trying and sometimes failing than not really trying at all.

Over the years, though, Epcot seems to have grown weary of trying. Make no doubt, it is an effort – one that isn’t easily explained or illustrated by the basic principles of entertainment marketing. Epcot sits so far outside the boundaries of what is “normal” for a theme park, it is much easier to throw in the towel and make it like everything else.

Giving up on Epcot may even have seemed to be profitable in the short term. Anytime a theme park adds an exciting new thrill ride or finds a marketing hook, there can be a substantial uptick in attendance, and I’m fully aware that you’re judged not against qualitative metrics but against quantitative, numerical ones.

But giving up is always disappointing to everyone, particularly when it closes the door on ambition.

Epcot was once filled with ambition … but it has become lazy.

I don’t blame anyone for taking the easy way out with Epcot, but look at what goes missing: Inspiring a new generation of guests the way millions of people were inspired by the earlier incarnations of Epcot.

Epcot has become flashy, fun and a bit simplistic; it emphasizes immediate thrills over lasting satisfaction. To draw a real-world correlation, you probably dated people like that: they wanted nothing but fun and excitement all the time, and they weren’t particularly deep. These aren’t the people we marry and have a lasting relationship with. After a while, that insistence on having fun becomes exhausting and a little boring. Sure, a bit of it is fun, but whether we admit it to ourselves or not, we crave more than that.

At Walt Disney World, pure fun and thrills are everywhere. Don’t like a bit more substance on vacation? You could go a week without setting foot in Epcot and come away satisfied and happy. But if you do want more – which so many of us do – what’s wrong with providing that? It doesn’t mean you want a boring, mundane, stuffy museum, it just means you want stimulation of another sort.

Epcot provided that. It was, to repeat myself, glorious.

Next time you walk around Epcot, take a good hard look at what it’s become. Perhaps it’s just having a midlife crisis, desperate to be as flashy and showy as those around it.

Epcot doesn’t need to be anything more than it was. It was perfect like that: always growing and becoming something subtly different with each visit, but with a clear sense of purpose and confidence of its mission.

You’re in charge of a wonderful, fantastic place. I hope you know that … and that you will want, for yourself and the park, a legacy of change, of improvement, of lasting impact and genuine achievement.

Next time you’re there, I hope you’ll look at that dedication plaque outside the park’s gates, then look up at Spaceship Earth and remind yourself of what Epcot is … and how much more it could be.

Maybe the readers of this blog and I have become bothersome in our insistence on improving Epcot, but know we want that because Epcot was meant to be unlike any other place in the world. Don’t let it become just another theme park. Let it be Epcot. Let it be amazing.

I wish you all the best for a successful, inspiring 25th anniversary, one filled with hope, excitement ... and vision.

18 comments:

Digital Jedi said...

>>>Next time you walk around Epcot, take a good hard look at what it’s become. Perhaps it’s just having a midlife crisis, desperate to be as flashy and showy as those around it.<<<

That is an absolutely wonderful way to put it. That is how I'm going to think of EPCOT from now on. And that means that once it's done proving to the world it can keep up with the times, it will one day return to its grand, normal self, only this time better then ever. That turn of phrase inspires hope.

Thierry said...

As for myself, I had to give up at my passion of photography to live up studying in human sciences, too much pression from dad. Inspiring places like Epcot are dangerous when you get back in your messy world. I know it's in French (I live in Quebec, Canada), but some stills from my first videos like 27.Tonton Luc Fever or 23. shows up well the young and illuminating spirit I still had at 17 yrs old: www.twistar.net

F*ck up Disney :(

Anonymous said...

You think that this gentleman would read the full letter?

Epcot82 said...

We'll see! Maybe, maybe not, but it made me feel better writing it. ;-)

Thierry said...

And that's the spirit of this blogspot! :-)

Brian said...

(sorry if this is a dupe)

Again, I think your points are great and your passion is wonderful. But honestly I hope you didn't already send this - here are a few tips I've found help with interacting with executives:

- bullet points
- short-to-the-point letters - i.e. rework this so it is about 1/4 as long...
- passion is OK, but it must be controlled
- blunt honesty is actually very good; good executives appreciate candor more than you may realize and don't really have time or patience for sugarcoating
- be extremely polite in the introductory paragraphs:
"I know you are extremely busy and I apologize for the intrusion. But I've been busy building a community of people who are really passionate about EPCOT, and thoguht you might be interested in some of things we've been discussing."
- don't make _any_ assumptions about his personal life - performance in school - that is not professional. Focus on the _point_ - don't try to "relate" to him.

Get to the point, pique his interest - that's all you need to do. Like a resume, the goal of it is to simply get your foot in the door so he'll come back for more.

-Brian

Digital Jedi said...

I'm reminded of something a seasoned writer once said. Can't quite remember the exact phrase, but more the spirit of the statement.

Effectively, he said that first time authors, unaware of the general and established principles behind good writing, are often in a better position creatively then old school authors who are well aware of those principles and often have more successful first novels then any other after that.

Often, it can be what you don't know that can cause you to be more effectively heard. It's not a guarantee, mind you, but there are times the spirit of what you write shines through more brilliantly because you weren't preoccupied with a structure and form your not all that familiar with and that could potentially detract from the heart of your message.

Though I must say, this letter was remarkably well put. If Brad Rex is easily offended by a personal supposition, and not even remotely empathetic to it, then perhaps that speaks more negatively to his character and the future of EPCOT Center's development then it does to the letter that offended him.

Brian said...

Digital Jedi -

Whether or not he is offended by personal suppositions or not is not the issue here; it is common courtesy to not bring these into the picture because, if they're inaccurate, they immediately distance the writer from the recipient.

My point is that these are not necessary; in fact, executives are extremely busy and need brevity and clarity. Whether or not they are already sympathetic to a few radical hooligans on a weblog (and you should _always_ assume that this is the case until you find out otherwise) isn't the issue: I believe one should make a concerted attempt to influence them towards what we believe is right in any case. There is no such thing as a lost cause.

Epcot82 said...

Allow me to clear this up:

The post was not written as, nor was it intended to be, a literal memo to Brad Rex. I used the form of a memo stylistically, to offer my commentary. By pointedly addressing him as the subject of this "memo," I was able to put a different spin and perspective on my thoughts.

I do appreciate your points about writing to executives. They are useful tips when sending actual e-mails and letters, but that was not my intent. I was simply trying to bring another style and "voice" to my writing.

Digital Jedi said...

Don't get me wrong, I understand the principle behind it. Just offering my perspective on the matter. I tend to cherish the brashness of not knowing what your doing and going against the accepted norms. All the bad influences in my life. :-)

Nevertheless, since this is an open letter, then there's actually a greater chance Mr. Rex might read it. Especially if there sufficient enough buzz surrounding its message to get back to him. I like the direct address approach of this blog entry. We are Disney Dreamers, after all. Anything's possible. ;-)

dean said...

One thing that is remarkable about this particular blog is that it is not offensive in any way. With the exception of the inevitable difference of opinion that people might have over a certain viewpoint, it makes an excellent case for re-establishing the values and objectives of the original EPCOT Center. And the distinction is repeatedly made not to turn back the clock to 1982, but to move forward with those admirable goals in mind.

Undoubtedly, Mr. Rex has a huge commitment to bringing people through the turn styles of Epcot, and perhaps he even has his own sense of vision for the place. The issue is: even with Mr. Rex buying-in to a renewed EPCOT Center, does he even have the influence in the heavily bureaucratic and political Walt Disney Company to bring about such change?? It sounds very depressing that the president of a park might not have the authority to control what goes into his park and how it is marketed, but that is a valid critical observation that has recently been made of how the company is currently run.

Another supposed story that I read about a year ago is that when Siemens took over the sponsorship of Spaceship Earth, they were pressured by none other than Imagineering to replace the venerable attraction with the thrill-oriented Time Racers concept. How can the goals of EPCOT Center be pursued when even the supposed creative heart of the theme parks division is lost on it's concept?? A perfect current example is The Seas With Nemo and Friends. Whereas Test Track and Mission Space can be minimally "tweaked" to bring them back to the EPCOT Center Future World theme, the latest "Seas" ride-thru makes no attempt to be anything more than a Fantasyland character ride. Perhaps it was beyond the control of WDI to make it anything else, but there seems to be a certain devotion to project's design that belies that WDI went into the project less than wholeheartedly.

Letters such as this need to be addressed to the correct person with the authority to make the proper changes, and at this moment it is Bob Iger. It isn't because the various company presidents and vice-presidents don't have the vision or interest to do good. They are all working in the best interest of the tasks given to them. It is because the company interests have been woven over the decades into a dysfunctional tangle that has placed those with the lesser creative talent in control of the artists and visionaries who should be the true heart of any creative endeavor. Only Mr. Iger can restore Feature Animation and WDI to their rightful creative importance over Marketing and Consumer Products, put those with the myopic talents of Jay Rasulo in charge of projects more suitable to their abilities, and finally to show the self-serving political prima donna types in WDI to the door.

dean said...

The following interesting article discusses many of the positive changes Bob Iger has made to the Disney Company this past year. Perhaps there is hope yet...


Iger Article

Blog said...

I found your site while looking for some of the old EPCOT Center I remember from the 80's. Your analysis of the situation is spot on. EPCOT Center was such a unique place...not only entertaining, but educational, and a valuable source for genuine hope for the future.

I went back to "Epcot" in 2005 for the first time in 17 years, and was truly shocked by what's become of it. Defacing "Spaceship Earth" with the world's largest graffiti? Replacing "Horizons", the greatest vision of the future ever realized in a physical form, with a sickness (and in one case, death) inducing puke experience? All but leaving World Showcase to rot for two decades? Whatever Disney has done for this park over the past 20 years cannot be described as "management"...it can only be described as "negligent".

Sadly, there will be no new EPCOT Center to ever take it's place. Vision and optomism have been replaced by the cynical and myopic desire to simply make a buck.

I love EPCOT too much to ever want to see it that way again.

Agapanthus said...

Vision and optomism have been replaced by the cynical and myopic desire to simply make a buck.


Have heart and hope -- vision and optimism will be around as long as people breathe. Also have a chuckle because the statement itself is the definition of cynicism!

kcnole said...

There's an interview with Brad Rex talking about what the plans are for Epcot over on Deb's site at allears.net. Most of the info I already knew such as the three cabelleros, and Siemens working on SSE, but it was very sad to finally have an answer from someone in authority. There will be NO public recognition of Epcot's 25th anniversary. This was almost like a punch to the stomach for me. It hurt more than any other decision Disney has made lately. I am very close to losing hope that we'll ever see the EPCOT Center we loved again. Instead we'll have to make due with seeing its evil twin brother Epcot.

Epcot82 said...

It is really amazing to consider that this is the first time (that I know of) that Disney has not marked a milestone anniversary of a theme park. How sad that EPCOT Center gets this dubious distinction.

Charles said...

I love Epcot. It was the place I could go for a look into the future as well as be entertained without all the Disney charachters surrounding me. I was very young when the park opened (about 6 years old) and I did not require all the Disney charachters around me to love it. When I go back now I don't see a look into the future. I see a look into the present with a touch of the Magic Kingdom and Six Flags trickling in. I don't mind paying $70 if it is good. You get what you pay for and at Disney a bargain would say something negative to me. But make it worth my money. It still is worth a good bit but could be so much better. Lose the wand, the charachters and the dead space. Open up the Odyssey and lose Ellen in Energy. It dates the whole thing and smacks of Michael Eisner and the worship of Hollywood celebs. Don't need them. Put in a new country in the world showcase. Update the films. I like them the way they are totally but Epcot must move on and I realize that. It is not 80's Epcot, it is EPCOT Center looking at the future. Fight to keep Alfredo's. Bring back Communicore East and west and let it amaze people instead of having yet more dead space and/ or a Mickey dept. store. Danke Schön Siemens for stepping up and sponsoring Spaceship Earth. Updates are appreciated. Test track is great but it has nothing to do with the future. Nothing to do with nothing really. Lose Nimo, the Three Caballeros. Soarin is great but put it at the America Pavillion. It has nothing to do with the future world...if it is still even called that. In short, bring back the old EPCOT but blow our minds with cutting edge. If anyone can do that Disney can.

Ross said...

I actually know Brad Rex quite well - he's no longer with EPCOT. I think some of your assertions are right on the money, but the decline or "unspecialing" of EPCOT has as much to do with the shallow taste of the general public than EPCOT's management.

Also, Brad didn't date shallow women (his wife is a lovely woman), as far as I know, and he's a Harvard grad, so likely, his grades were pretty good.

He's happy to be away from Disney... Maybe a fresh perspective at EPCOT will help with some of your concerns. Anyway, as well-written as it could be when you don't know the particular executive, and I share your love for EPCOT.