Saturday, January 20, 2007

The Truth About EPCOT

Over at FoxxFur’s “Passport to Dreams” blog, the author presents a fascinating, dead-on view of the groundbreaking design and near-complete aesthetic success that was EPCOT Center and the confused hodge-podge of thrills, spills and “theme-park” mentality that Epcot has become.

It would be disingenuous of me to try to elaborate on what FoxxFur writes so well. Kudos to this terrific blogger! The writing has, however, certainly made me think more about EPCOT/Epcot.

EPCOT Center may have failed on some counts (its earnestness, its endless optimism, its simplicity), but it succeeded on so many more. Only in hindsight can we see exactly what went wrong with its transition to Epcot in the mid-1990s. But that hindsight is only useful if Disney can and will commit itself to correcting its mistakes.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it endlessly until some action is taken (or until something forces me to shut up): When it “fixed” a mostly unbroken EPCOT Center, Disney closed the door on its own four decades of progress and innovation. By throwing in the towel on an admittedly difficult and expensive project, Disney didn’t just acknowledge its own defeat – it actually gave up, willingly, a leadership position in the entertainment industry. As recently happened with animation, Disney become a competitor in a field it dominated for decades. The company's inability to uphold its own visionary undertaking signified that the company could not be as creatively vibrant and forward-thinking as it had been even a few years before.

Ironically enough, conventional wisdom holds that Disney in the mid-1970s was creatively bankrupt. If you go strictly by Herbie Goes Bananas, The Last Flight of Noah's Ark and Condorman, that may have been true. But this was also the era that turned out such theme-park creations as Space Mountain, Big Thunder Mountain, Disneyland’s Fantasyland, Tokyo Disneyland … and EPCOT Center.

In the mid- to late 1970s, virtually every bit of Walt Disney Imagineering’s efforts went into EPCOT Center; not just WDI's, really, but Disney's. EPCOT was a company-wide commitment on a level that could hardly be imagined today. It was an attempt to continue Walt Disney’s rather extraordinary, unexpected fascination with the applications of new technology, to continue a course that Walt had set. To the outside world, it may have seemed decidedly “un-Disney” – yet in spirit and conception, EPCOT was more in keeping with the Walt's spirit of innovation and exploration than any theme park the company has built in the past 30 years.

The last decade or so, however, has seen Disney inundated with entertainment-industry executives, business-school graduates and marketing “experts” who believe they know Disney better than anyone … even if, well, they don’t. (Few really understand or care to understand the incredible contributions that Walt and Roy O. Disney made not just to their company but to American business.)

Most Disney fans I know -- who are excoriated by executives in Burbank, Anaheim and Lake Buena Vista -- have more inherent understanding of the basic ideals and ambitions that led to Disney's 1920s-to-1980s creative success than the current crop of Disney management (many of whom I also know). Yet these are the executives who were called on to “fix” the “problems” of EPCOT, and their actions led to mistake piled upon mistake.

As in any politically driven organization (which today’s Disney unfortunately has become, first and foremost), each successive regime thinks it has the answer, and all too often their solutions only make past mistakes worse. There is no progress, only a general confusion that comes whenever creative ambition is replaced with financially driven goals, when one hasty decision is made to counteract an earlier bad call.

What every “generation” of Disney’s theme-park management has failed to acknowledge about EPCOT is a simple truth: EPCOT wasn’t broken in the first place.

It was inarguably neglected and in need of care and understanding; it most certainly suffered from a lack of inspiration. But its basic foundation was solid. The only “damage” the park had sustained was cosmetic.

Yet a new regime of Disney management believed some drastic action needed to be taken. Now, 10 years after the efforts began to turn EPCOT into something it was never intended to be, Disney has completely lost sight of what the park had already become. In their zeal to change EPCOT simply for the sake of changing it, no one stopped to consider that everything that made EPCOT different and challenging (for guests as well as management) were exactly the things that made it unique, remarkable and eminently marketable.

EPCOT Center used to serve as a living symbol of why Disney was unlike any company on the planet.

Now, it has become an icon for how much the “Disney brand” is like every other. There’s little innovative or genuinely exciting about it, only amusing and generally entertaining.

The truth about EPCOT is, it could be so much more. Its revitalization could symbolize a new renaissance for Disney's creativity and innovation.

But perhaps the hardest truth about EPCOT is, Disney doesn't really seem to care.

11 comments:

Dan said...

I've recently found your blog and have been reading some of your previous posts. There are so many opinions that you have which I share that I cannot reference all of them in a single comment. During my last visit to WDW, my time at Epcot depressed me, both emotionally and visually. Adding Nemo to The Living Seas and putting a giant television in place of Horizons (no matter if it is a nod to a previous Tomorrowland attraction) doesn't capture the imagination that the original attractions did. Regardless of how the audience's tastes and attention spans have changed, a dissipated focus on Disney's part allowed the notion that business wags could come in and "fix" something that wasn't broken. From all that I've read, Walt never allowed business to interfere with dreaming, although he knew that he needed one to fund the other. His rationale seemed to be the bigger the dream, the bigger the business will be that follows that dream. Today's corporation is not allowing the dreamers to dream because it doesn't fit in with the bottom line first (at least in the US Theme Parks), resulting in off-the-shelf attractions with little added to them. Even the earliest attractions at Disneyland were off-the-shelf rides, but at least they were transformed by studios to be attractions and not rides. Today, sadly the transformations, if they even happen, seem to merely make sure the brand is identifiable as Disney. EPCOT Center had its own brand when it first opened and as much as Disney, the company, imagined, created, and built it, Disney as a brand wasn't the forefront of EPCOT Center. The Sponsors seemed proud to be associated with the attractions and the concepts. I don't know how Seimens can be proud of what has been allowed to happen (or not happen) to Spaceship Earth, especially its exit. At least there is still no indoor roller coaster scheduled for it. I realize that the following is an oversimplification of the issue and that the problems began well before the introduction of the concept, but the current state of WDW can be summed up for me with the following: It all started with a FastPass. Thank you for maintaining this blog. p.s. I know that Epcot is your focus, but I'm still unhappy when I walk through Adventureland and see flying carpets. I guess as long as the dollars keep rolling in imagination can take a back seat to turnstiles

Jeff said...

I agree with your comments on the status of Epcot wholeheartedly.

But when you start bashing Condorman, well, them's fightin' words.

FoxxFur said...

Hey - I owe you a thanks for picking up where I left off on my posts. Although I'm very conscious of quality lapses in the parks when and where they happen, I try to avoid editorializing for the most part regardless of my thoughts on Disney's use of cheap paints and stuffing the parks to capacity (time to start demolishing some hotels, folks). I tried very hard to word myself carefully in the final hundred words or so of my text so as to keep scholarly distance, all while still doing my best to portray Test Track as a scourge from the depths of Hell! It required many revisions.

While I think it's important to continue to get to the core of the problems Disney is having, I also would warn everyone (including myself) to not become the new APs - impossible to please and easy to ignore. Every time I step foot in Epcot I still find it to be a dynamic, exciting, delightful place, which is a miracle considering how badly it's been gutted. Let's celebrate the present as well as the past, and admit to the nice things where they still are. And they are still there. That's why I still can't keep myself out of the place.

Epcot82 said...

Dan, thanks for your very thoughtful follow-up. I couldn't agree with you more. It's painfully ironic to me that American industry needs visionaries who are willing to risk it all (such as Steve Jobs and John Lasseter), but in the end when money comes calling they seem to fail where Walt Disney alone succeeded -- not allowing financial matters to outweigh their visions, and to stick to their ideals no matter what the shareholders or Wall Street say. (Trust me, no one will be happier when a big gamble pays off than those two groups, no matter how they might complain and holler about it at the time.)

Jeff, as for "Condorman," well ... let's just say it was at least a valiant effort. ;-) Thankfully, I notice you did not take issue with my words against "Last Flight of Noah's Ark." I debated whether to include "Watcher in the Woods" in that lineup, too, but at least it was aiming for something different.

Finally, FoxxFur, thanks again for your fantastic blog post. I hear your concern about taking on an "AP mentality," but I try to differ my critiques -- I don't believe I'm owed anything by Disney except the guts to stick to a business model that worked so well for 65 years, then was abandoned. Even when I lived in Florida and Southern California, I refrained from buying an annual pass, because I always wanted my visits to Disneyland and Walt Disney World to be special, not akin to another quick trip to the mall.

FoxxFur said...

Good, don't give them any more money than you need to. =) To be honest my comments above are my wish for the whole community - more perspective on everything. But specifically I'd love to also hear from you what you still find to be attractive about Epcot. For example, as much as Innovations is a poor excuse for Communicore, I have always loved the fiber-optic checkerboards at night as you leave. And I have a sick love for Club / Ice Station Cool, one of the few free things Disney will ever give you. In concept, if not execution, it's actually pretty close to a Communicore exhibit.

Agapanthus said...

I really enjoy this blog! You write:

"EPCOT Center may have failed on some counts (its earnestness, its endless optimism, its simplicity), but it succeeded on so many more. "

Oh man .... please, don't give Epcot a "social conscience" ala 21st century American angst. Please shield us from that.

This concern among many Epcot connoisseurs reminds me of the gardener who cares so much for a plant that he over-waters it and kills it. If anything could kill off Epcot completely, it would be a "realistic" vision of our technological future in terms of reminding people of perceived negatives -- and I stress "perceived," as what one mind-set regards as a negative, another may regard as neutral, beneficial, or even non-existent.

Here, pinched off of Laughing Place, is a quote from Neal Gabler, author of a new Walt Disney biography:

What seemed most to repulse many intellectuals was the sense that Disney infantilized America by refusing to confront reality, and it was reality in all its complexity, agony and sordidness that the intellectuals seemed to revere as the very foundation of art and intelligence. The theme park was especially castigated for its neglect of American tensions....

I think Gabler hits a bulls-eye. Optimism and simplicity are what made Disney, Disney!

More from your excellent latest post:

"The company's inability to uphold its own visionary undertaking signified that the company could not be as creatively vibrant and forward-thinking as it had been even a few years before."

There is a connection. Vision works because the individual who has it runs roughshod over distractions like worries of earnestness and correctness. Vision transcends that stuff.

"It was an attempt to continue Walt Disney’s rather extraordinary, unexpected fascination with the applications of new technology, to continue a course that Walt had set."

Now, correct me if I'm wrong, but weren't large corporate sponsors the backbone of that? If only ... and I know it's a dream, but if we can dream it, we can do it ... but if only commercialism could go just a tad more positive here. Hear me out. This may come as a shock to some, but capitalism and commercialism are good things for Epcot. It's the reason we have all that marvelous technology that shows up in Epcot. As long as Epcot's visionary likes, enjoys, and works with -- not FOR, but WITH -- the sponsor R&D folks AND has a complete grip on the end product of a sponsor's dollar -- and as long as John Q. Public doesn't get in a self-righteous snit every time he sees a corporate logo or humorously positive reference and cries, "Commercialism!!" -- Epcot can thrive and grow. The reality -- an uncomfortable one for many but just as real for all that -- is that commercialism and capitalism are breeding grounds for creativity like nothing else.

I suggest that what people have been eyeing suspiciously as a BAD thing for Epcot, is actually the BEST thing, and that Epcot can't turn around until it's cut loose from the bonds of "fear of commercialism." In its place must be an embrace of Disney Commercialism.

So really, Epcot 82, you got it right later when you observed:

"What every 'generation' of Disney’s theme-park management has failed to acknowledge about EPCOT is a simple truth: EPCOT wasn’t broken in the first place."

This is especially spot-on:

"... Disney inundated with entertainment-industry executives, business-school graduates and marketing 'experts' ...

...general confusion that comes whenever creative ambition is replaced with financially driven goals, when one hasty decision is made to counteract an earlier bad call."


Incompetence thrives in such soil that promotes theory rather than product. Lack of funds to park projects is a symptom, not a cause, although it must be in the interest of many to see it in the reverse.

"The truth about EPCOT is, it could be so much more. Its revitalization could symbolize a new renaissance for Disney's creativity and innovation."

I think it could, too -- by setting it free to focus on FUN and OPTIMISM and positive thinking.

Again, from Neal Gabler: [Walt] Disney encouraged Americans to inhabit an imaginative universe not unlike that of a child, where reality had been transformed into fantasy and its harm expunged. For this act of anti-art, he was to be eternally condemned.

If Epcot has real vision at the helm, it'll be so "condemned" again and bring us all pleasure!

Epcot82 said...

Thanks, Agapanthus.

I'm not suggesting Epcot be fussed over and "overwatered" -- but to use your plant allusion, the poor thing is dying from lack of attention at this point.

Yes, corporate sponsorships were important for Walt Disney to get his concepts built, but toward the end he was moving ahead full bore with the PeopleMover and the Monorail on his own dime, because he could afford to ... just as today's Disney can afford to. It doesn't need corporate sponsors, it wants them because it subscribes to the notion that the only money Disney shouldn't spend is Disney's. Ironic, really, since Walt seemed to believe that the only money he should spend were the hard-earned profits of his company, much to the chagrin of most finance guys.

I still haven't finished Gabler's biography, but it is certainly shedding new light on ol' Unca Walt ... light I never thought could be shed! I guess there was something to be said for someone who didn't really know "the rules" and didn't care much about them anyway. Given how successful his company became, you'd think people would be studying his methods, not ignoring them.

Agapanthus said...

It doesn't need corporate sponsors, it wants them because it subscribes to the notion that the only money Disney shouldn't spend is Disney's. Ironic, really, since Walt seemed to believe that the only money he should spend were the hard-earned profits of his company, much to the chagrin of most finance guys.


Now you've really got me wanting to read Gabler's book!

But just thinking ... Epcot is an exception in that in order to fill its mission it does need corporate sponsors because they are the ones with access to the technology Epcot must use to be ... Epcot!

Epcot needs sponsors, but it also needs vision. One without the other is moot.

Anonymous said...

If EPCOT were to stay true to its vision of presenting a possible future way of living, I'd heartily agree and applaud a return to the concept of putting the best thinking from our country's (and the world's!) most prominent companies.

If they just want to build a roller coaster in "the big golf ball," then I'd completely DISAGREE; let Disney ruin another theme park on its own dime! :-)

Agapanthus said...

If they just want to build a roller coaster in "the big golf ball," then I'd completely DISAGREE...

I don't blame you. I think it's such a shame to put thrill rides in Epcot because they exclude so many. Sit-down slow-paced rides like Horizons can be so fantastic. The R&D divisions of so many companies are rife with creative stuff. They'd love to show it off.

As somebody wrote on another of these great threads, and I paraphrase: How about a simple optimistic view of the future? Fun and optimistic. That's some very tough vision to believe in ... only a screwball could do it. Thankfully, God makes screwballs with some regularity!

not a gator said...

About those corporate sponsors--seems like the corporations involved are just there to clean up their dirty image. (Oil co.s, GM, Koch Industries.)

Truly innovative companies (Google, Apple, Motorola, Boeing) are nowhere to be seen, except for Siemens. At which point what wonders what PR blunder they're attempting to atone for. Epcot is immensely depressing and stuck in the past.

What nobody seems to mention is that the park "Every Person Comes Out Tired" is physically exhausting and a downright miserable experience. Between the lack of access to plumbing, the horrid mildew and mold inside the buildings, the solar oven causeways you're forced to navigate, the "heat of the day" operating hours, and the rudeness and indifference of the staff when the inevitable heat exhaustion and heat stroke kick in, it's a ticket to misery and migraines. Is it any wonder that the park is so empty?