Wednesday, January 02, 2008

Keep Moving Forward


Months after its release, I finally caught up with Meet the Robinsons during the holidays. Having read the excoriating reviews, I was expecting a train wreck of the first magnitude. I was instead pleasantly surprised to find ... well, perhaps a fender-bender of the 14th magnitude.

Is Meet the Robinsons a mess, or some sort of bizarre genius?

Whatever it is, it drove home what I've believed for a long time: We rely on a vision of the future, something that's sorely lacking in our society.

When I was a kid, "the future" meant gleaming white-and-silver buildings, people being efficiently shuttled back and forth on PeopleMover-type vehicles, flying cars, moving walkways, and crisply pressed, one-piece "uniforms" that would elminate the need for High Fashion. Most of those uniforms would have no pockets and a diagonal stripe down them. They were going to be cool.

The Future would be everything the Present was not: orderly, clean, happy and maybe, I suppose, just a tad totalitarian. But, hey, when you're 12 and dreaming of the future, you don't know what "totalitarian" means.

So, imagine my joy when EPCOT Center opened. This WAS the Future! My God, it was all there, from the bizarre architecture to the sleek Monorail trains to the perfectly clean (antiseptic?) sidewalks. EPCOT Center wasn't, of course, actually the future. But for a while, it was close enough.

That has all changed. Disney has, of course, decided EPCOT isn't really a showcase, a unique offering, a compilation of the best that global industry and the world's cultures have to offer. It's a Theme Park, and it had better start acting like one.

The basic problem with that idea is that it ignores what EPCOT actually is (which Disney has never been able to adequately define) in favor of what Disney management would like it to be (which they can write in a PowerPoint presentation). But, as the old adage kinda goes, you can put makeup on a pig, but you can't take it dancing.

By messing with this vision of the future so thoroughly, it's hard to scrape away the muck and figure out what EPCOT was supposed to be. Removing the wand was a great start, and the hope that those purple circus tents will soon come down is a step in the right direction. But then you're stuck with that industrial outcropping around the gleaming World of Motion building. You've still got those crazy rainbow colors on the Universe of Energy (were they always there?). You've got the "Imagination Instutite" goop all over Imagination, the talking seagulls (as cute as they are) outside of The Living Seas.

You've still got a Future that looks like a happy carnival.

Disney earns tens of billions of dollars in revenue each year. It lavishes untold millions of dollars on private planes, high-end lunches and lavish perks for its executives. So, why can't it get EPCOT right?

As Walt Disney famously said, and is quoted in Meet the Robinsons:

"Around here, however, we don’t look backwards for very long. We keep moving forward, opening up new doors and doing new things … and curiosity keeps leading us down new paths.

New.

Forward.

Curiosity.

How can Disney cite its own founder with those sentiments, but not follow them itself.

How did Disney mess up the future so badly?

And can anything be done to bring it back?

There was brilliance in that vision of the Future, as imperfectly conceived as it may have been. Although I absolutely can acknowledg that there were massive faults in EPCOT Center as it existed on opening day, its message was this: The "Great Big Beautiful Tomorrow" that Walt Disney promised over at The Magic Kingdom could actually come to pass, and each one of us who walked through the turnstiles of EPCOT Center could have a hand in making it happen.

The Future EPCOT Center promised was an amazing one. It showed us all we could accomplish. It told us that the crazy notions of the gleaming city of tomorrow weren't all that crazy. Our Future would be an exciting one -- and, just across the lake, we were reminded that we're all working for it together.

Visit Epcot today, and you're hard-pressed to figure out exactly why they call the place "Future World," except that it's vaguely futuristic in some incomplete way. Its attractions barely touch on the promise of what lies ahead, instead encouraging us simply to have fun in the here and now. Anyone going in looking for inspiration, excitement, promise, optimism comes away with ... well, having had some fun at a theme park.

I just find myself wondering ... what happened? When it comes to Epcot, when did Disney stop moving forward?

11 comments:

Andy Stidwill said...

Disney needs to put back some inspirational, slow-moving, omnivore rides like It's Fun To Be Free used to be.

The problem with thrill rides like Mission Space and Test Track is that everyone loves them for 3 or 4 years, but then they become dated because they rely on the latest technology for thrill rides.

It's Fun To Be Free was still loved by most guests 13 years after it opened because it was built on inspiration, not thrills.

I'll never forget my first visits to EPCOT Center in 1988, 1990, 1991 and 1993 as a young kid. It was the most amazing experience I've ever had.

Gil said...

You're getting on to a larger problem: the general public is (unfortunately) not so interested in "the future" anymore. Frankly, many believe we already live in the future.

Imagine telling the next generation things like "I remember when we had to set specific meeting times and places because cellphones didn't exist, or when I had to choose which CDs to bring along because I could only carry so many, or when I used to get lost in the West Village because my cellphone didn't have Google Maps and GPS"... etc etc.

The problem is that Disney should be the ones *making* the future. And I think the problem lies with Tomorrowland. There's currently very little differentiation between Tomorrowland and Future World. What they really need to do is change Tomorrowland to Sci-Fi land like in EuroDisney, and then focus on Future World being a true testament to where we're going next.

It's not like the future isn't exciting anymore. It's just that somebody needs to bring it into focus...

Anonymous said...

To me, the difference was always very clear and simple. Tomorrowland was just for fun, Future World was about where we REALLY were heading. Tomorrowland was the leisure version of Future World. Note I said the difference WAS always very clear and simple. That is, until Disney did that horrible makeover of Tomorrowland, which isn't "tomorrow" at all, and they began to screw up Epcot.

Biblioadonis aka George said...

Great article.

I agree ith you that Epcot doesn't have a vision any longer. It is getting better and with the fan-based support for the recent 25th Celebration, we can hope that they will Keep Moving Forward.

I say hurrah to bringing back some omni-mover rides. Soarin' is amazing and it harkens back (somewhat) to the earlier Epcot Days--moreso than Test Track or Mission Space.

And the new Spaceship Earth looks to be a gigantic step in the right direction.

DaddyBrady said...

A highly thought-provoking post as usual. I was so pleased when you came back as I've read every post. While I don't always agree, I am always left thinking. This (long) comment is not just on this specific topic, but perhaps my reaction to much of what has been said here.

Is it that Disney lost its vision (and faith) in the future, or that we (America) did? EPCOT Center opened just as post-modern cynicism began to take root in our culture: greed was good, science didn't always bring progress (consider the world and meaning of Blade Runner), and that despite a generation of effort, problems such as pollution and poverty seemed no closer to solution.

Progress (in technology, primarily, but in other ways as well) would, in the Disney world, bring us to that Great Big Beautiful Tomorrow. While we still have change in technology, does the average person believe that the newest model cell phone or high-def video player will bring a new Tomorrow? Grandma and Billy don’t play virtual reality games together, they stare at each across a digital divide.

I think we fault the Epcot of today for it's lack of vision, its inability to truly inspire us. We don't see the Horizons of our future, we see the present out of the side of a car screaming by at 50 mph. We no longer Wonder at Life, we Soar, detached from and literally above the world. (Don't get me wrong, I love that attraction, but in no way does it tell us anything about our Future World.)

Are we truly interested in the reality of our future? Probably over a year ago, there was a conversation on this blog around the potential for inspiration to be found Al Gore's An Inconvenient Truth. How could our Imagination bring out solutions? How we were affecting the Land and the Seas? Crikes! the future visions of Energy alone could probably fill half a park!

I thought this was a brilliant idea to engage people in the central issues of our relationship to Spaceship Earth, but reactions verged on the hysterical. Here in the Ought-ies, it seems any point of view, any perspective, is political and divisive, and to be avoided.

In 1964, General Electric could sponsor a presentation that celebrated the American mythology of Progress because by and large people believed that myth. Today I'm not so sure. I believe a similar show today would be accused of having "an agenda" of either the right or the left. So instead, we get scenery, a fast-paced drive, a Mission to Mars.

I was never able to experience EPCOT Center in its glory years, so my reactions to Epcot are based on what is there today. On my recent trip, I concluded that what is lacking in Epcot is the sense of Place that so defines the lands of Magic Kingdom or that creates the lush beauty of Asia or Africa in Animal Kingdom. Future World needn't represent a physical place such as "Italy" to still have a sense of place. The Place is the Future, but that must have an animating vision. The Africa section of Animal Kingdom has a point of view: poaching is bad, we have an obligation to protect the wild. (I simplify.)

Epcot abdicates any perspective, any opinion, and so veers and sways uncontrolled. If you don’t know where you’re going, any road you take is as good as another. Similarly, without that over-arching sense of place, physical or metaphorical, anything vaguely future-looking can be stuck there.

Now, is this Disney's failure, or ours? If we wanted to experience new Horizons, to Wonder at Life, to Live with the Land, to explore a Seabase and see how it's Fun to be Free, these attractions would still be there. But these attractions were out of touch with our days of cynicism and division and our need for diversions in the present. Perhaps we are leaving that age, and the time will be right for Disney – and us—to again engage in Tomorrow with the same confidence Walt felt when announcing the Florida Project.

Have we changed? Are we changing again? Has Disney changed? And is it changing again?

Techno said...

I do wonder if we're passing the cynicism of the 90's. Clearly there was a change in the way we viewed technology and I think part of that was fear that technology COULD go too far and bring about things which are harmful.

To see pop culture versions of this, Blade Runner was mentioned, how about Terminator 2, Gattaca, Jurassic Park, The Matrix...all of them told us that our previous happy vision of the future could turn against us if we let it get away from us.

Now however I think there could be some changes in the way we think. Other factors of the here and now are becoming negative, hope for the future is dimming not because of technology but because of our lack of freedom from relying on fossil fuels, which in turn keeps us tied to very unstable sources in the middle east and africa.

So maybe, like Disney has so brilliantly done in years past, they could bring us NEW ideas that we haven't seen before, new hope about going beyond our way of life. Clearly a lot of changes will be happening to the way we live.

I think it's time to resurrect the ideals from the original EPCOT City plan, make that something they could base some research on and display, maybe enough of companies would have interest in contributing to the plan.

Captain Schnemo said...

(First off, if you were actually asking, no Universe of Energy didn't always have its silly rainbow color scheme.)

As to the question of whether we have become too cynical as a society, the continued success of the Magic Kingdom categorically shows that we have not. We are clamoring for cynicism-free earnest entertainment. Classic Disney films are still incredibly popular.

To say that society has become cynical and therefore Disney must follow is an incredible cop-out! We turn to Disney as an escape from the cynical, irony-choked vibe that permeates most of pop culture (although you'd never know it from looking at the garbage on the Disney Channel these days).

Walt didn't dwell on the negativity of WWII, the Cold War, atomic fear, etc. He created entertainment that would inspire and enchant as an alternative to the real world, which was not as rosy as the sitcoms of the era painted it. 9/11 didn't "change everything", it was just the latest in a long line of trials for the nation.

From time to time, contemporary artists still make earnest, good-natured entertainment and (when it's high quality) it's still very popular. Dark and sinister is cool, but people also are thrilled to have the opportunity to see a sweet little movie like Juno.

If Disney has turned cynical, it's not because the public is asking for it, but because they have become too timid to break from conventional thinking and have chosen to follow rather than lead. If the marketeers think customers visit WDW because they want cynicism, they aren't even watching their own commercials.

Techno said...

I can't compare Magic Kingdom to EPCOT though, since EPCOT is about the future and was designed for more of an adult audience. Magic Kingdom should never have cynisism (and it did, with Alien Encounter) since it's the most family/kid friendly park.

Basically I think the Imagineers were afraid that the ideals of EPCOT were becoming out of touch with reality, and therefore less popular.

captainschnemo (what's with blogspot's bad password code?) said...

It's not as if 1982 was some glorious time when everyone was optimistic and believed that the future was going to be all rainbows and unicorns. There's always been dystopian entertainment out there, but Disney became so popular because it was a departure from all that.

Just look at the box office for Disney movies where they've tried to be "edgy". It's a simple economic fact that people don't want that from Disney.

mcsteverton said...

The Robinsons meet EPCOT...

It's interesting how much Disney wants to separate themselves from the EPCOT Acronym and how often we old EPCOT Center fans are told that EPCOT doesn't stand for anything anymore...That's why it's lower case now!! (huh?!) UNTIL of course Disney produces a movie all about the wonder and importance of inovation and invention. If you had a chance to watch the special features included in the Meet The Robinsons DVD, you will find a short film all about the IMPORTANCE OF THE FUTURE AND INVENTION. Ironically enough EPCOT is featured in this magical little short produced by the marketing "geniuses" at Disney and within the first thirty seconds they refer to EPCOT as the Experimental Prototype Community Of Tomorrow! So wildly contradictive...but as it stands, I can't beleive I'm still surpirsed when they contradict themselves.

BTW, love the site!

"Horizons Forever...It never killed anybody!"

Nick said...

Not only did it never kill anyone, but everyone could enjoy it together and talk about afterward. But some teenagers were bored. And Disney only wanted to listen to them. How come teens count so much when a) they don't actually have much of their own disposable income, since it comes from their parents; b) few teenagers ever like what they did when they were kids, but they love it when they become adults; and c) what they like changes from year to year? Come on, Disney, wise-up. If you don't want to listen to the blog owner, then consider that literally thousands of others are reading this blog and agreeing with what it says!