Tuesday, March 27, 2007
Why Should Disney Care About EPCOT?
Twenty-five years ago, the company then known as Walt Disney Productions opened the gates of its newest theme park, the reality-based, unusual and civic-minded EPCOT Center. It was an ambitious place, greeted both by critical praise and derision, and its opening was accompanied by a marketing and PR campaign perhaps unequalled in Disney's history.
Nothing Disney had attempted prepared the public for what they experienced at EPCOT Center. If it was a "traditional" theme park, where were the rides? EPCOT offered large-scale, immersive experiences, not simple diversions. Where was Mickey Mouse? EPCOT stressed not "Disney-style" entertainment, but expansive "surveys" of themes that were key to understanding our world and its future. Where, for all of that, was "Disney"? EPCOT emphasized learning and discovery, not "magic" and "fun."
By the time it opened, nearly 16 years had passed since Walt Disney died. But the vast majority of early guests remembered Walt the man, not just Walt the brand; they still understood his fascination with science and futurism. For a great majority of them, "Disney" didn't just mean the Mickey Mouse Club, cute cartoons and fairy tales -- "Disney" also taught them at school through popular educational films whose subjects ranged from math to health, from chemistry to anthropology.
Combining education and entertainment was nothing odd to these guests, and EPCOT was simply a grand extension of the concepts and ideas that they had seen presented in Tomorrowland at Disneyland and The Magic Kingdom, combined with a "real-life" It's a Small World.
During the next 10 years, EPCOT Center experienced a pattern that has become well-known to theme-park observers: After a massive burst of public interest, things settled down. Compared with the inaugural 18 months, succeeding years saw a steep decline in attendance. Disney responded by adding attractions and pavilions to EPCOT, ones that had been part of an overall expansion plan in place from the beginning. These new attractions, like the Norway pavilion, the Wonders of Life, Horizons and The Living Seas, opened at regular intervals and fit in beautifully with the overall conception of EPCOT Center as a "permanent World's Fair." For a while, it seemed, EPCOT would grow, expand and change in ways that seemed almost organic.
Then, about 12 years after EPCOT opened (and about five years after its last major addition), something happened. Disney was pursuing other theme-park opportunities both in the U.S. and abroad. Corporate interest (from Disney and from sponsors) began to wane. EPCOT was no longer the "new" theme-park darling -- it had competition, and much like a less-popular but over-achieving student, it had a hard time garnering the attention it needed.
Despite the extraordinary early promise of EPCOT, Disney turned its attention elsewhere. For most theme parks, that would hardly mean much; if executed well, they can retain their high quality over time. EPCOT, however, was different. Inherent to its basic concept was a need for constant change and enhancement. EPCOT required huge amounts of work to keep its attractions current and relevant, and Disney's lack of interest began to have serious effects.
That leaves us where we are today, looking at an EPCOT Center that has become "Epcot," and that is a marketing albatross around Disney's neck. On one hand, it pulls in more-than-respectable numbers year after year; it's the Energizer bunny of theme parks -- it keeps going and going, almost despite itself. On the other, guests aren't always kind to Epcot in exit polls. It has long struggled against a misperception (seemingly encouraged by Disney) that it is "boring" and "educational."
Marketing folks at Disney, who generally are some of the best in the world, seem to have little concept of how to present EPCOT to the public. Is it a "fun" park? Is it a "thrill" park? Is it a place to see Disney characters, or a place to escape from them? Is it for adults? Is it for children? Is it a place families can go together? Watch any Disney vacation video and you'll see what I mean: The Magic Kingdom, Disney-MGM Studios and Animal Kingdom have very clear identities; EPCOT just sort of flounders. What is it, exactly?
Disney doesn't seem really to care. As long as EPCOT makes its numbers, management will continue to ignore it. They'll pump it full of Disney characters, aiming to make it something recognizably Disney.
But that's precisely why Disney should care about doing something more with EPCOT.
Twenty-five years ago, EPCOT proved something extraordinary: It proved that the attributes that defined "Disney" in the public's mind could exist apart from the Disney name. That was a huge leap. Guests understood inherently that EPCOT upheld the Disney ideals even though the Disney name was virtually nowhere to be found at the park. EPCOT proved that Disney could effectively and successfully create non-Disney branded entertainment.
Remember, EPCOT opened about a year before Touchstone Pictures debuted, so it was a doubly important revelation that "EPCOT Center" could become a brand name recognized as part of Disney even while it stood separately.
EPCOT proved that Disney knew what it was doing. It "segmented" the brand long before terms like "brand segmentation" were used very often.
Here's the most astonishing thing to me: EPCOT could still do the same for Disney. At a time when Disney looks to invest its money elsewhere to acquire "non-Disney" brands (think ABC, ESPN, Jetix, Miramax), it has its own internally developed non-Disney brand that, at its core, represents the very ideals and concepts inherent in the broader Disney name.
While reading the excellent Walt Disney: The Triumph of the American Imagination by Neal Gabler, I came across this bit of wisdom from Roy O. Disney. To put it in context, Gabler is trying to explain why the Disney Studios made through the Depression relatively unscathed while other entertainment companies almost went bankrupt.
"We have been doing our own gambling. This past three years will be a very good lesson to the people at large," Gabler quotes Roy O. Disney as saying. Gabler interprets this statement as "meaning apparently that others would have to learn to invest in themselves as well."
Seventy years later, does the lesson still apply? Finance and MBA types will tell you that it is impossible: The world has changed too much in 70 years for such simple concepts to be applicable. I don't believe it. Disney spends literally billions of dollars investing in brands that are supposed to "expand" its core audience ... and yet it has turned its back on the one non-Disney brand it already has and that already has a definition in the eye of much of the public.
EPCOT's central philosophies are very much those of Disney as a whole. EPCOT is sitting in Disney's own backyard (literally), waiting to be re-discovered. Why should Disney care about EPCOT? Because by investing in itself, by exploring all EPCOT could be -- which is, very different than any other theme park, providing a point of distinction that truly sets it apart from the other offerings in Central Florida -- Disney might realize that the future of its theme-park business was actually created 25 years ago.