There are healthy obsessions, and then there are just plain ol' obsessions. Sometimes, fixating on one thing too long can reap rewards, though not in the right way. Think of the jilted lover who can't stop himself from trying to get back his lost flame. Sometimes, he wins -- but at what price? The relationship is usually doomed to fail.
The Walt Disney Company isn't too-dissimilar. For more than five decades, Disney did one thing and did it better than anyone else ever has or possibly ever will: It created entertainment suitable for the entire family. Yes, in today's world, that sounds boring -- sounds an awful lot like a sneaky way of saying Disney created kiddie stuff.
But that's just not true. Mickey Mouse came to life because Walt Disney wanted to create an amusing character who would appeal to a broad audience. Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs became a legendary sensation (grossing the equivalent of $743 million in the U.S., according to Boxofficemojo.com -- which, in un-adjusted numbers, is about 24% more than Titanic) because it captured the imaginations of kids and adults. Disneyland was famously borne from a desire to create an amusement destination that families could enjoy together -- Dad wouldn't have to sit on the bench, bored, while the kids rode the merry-go-round.
Even in its moribund years, Disney's great successes, like The Love Bug (which would have been something like a $250-million grosser today) and the opening of the Walt Disney World Resort, came not out of a desire to please a specific audience ... but out of a desire to cater to all audiences.
Now, it's all about the 'tweens.
For a while, toward the end of the Michael Eisner era, Disney tried desperately to engage young boys. But they just weren't biting.
Then, it became about little girls, and we saw the age of generic Disney Princesses dawn. Removed from their context, Belle, Aurora, Jasmine and even Snow herself became simple objects of emulation and aspiration simply because, well, I guess because they wear sparkly things and nabbed the Rich, Hot Prince.
But those efforts to segment and age-down Disney's audience pale in comparison to Disney's nearly single-minded obsession to nab the coveted 'tween crowd. Seen those posters for Prince Caspian? They're not about the story or the fantasy or the adventure -- they're about another Hot Prince that 12-year-old boys can aspire to be and 12-year-old girls can swoon over. The rest of us? Well, we're disposable.
A recent news story about Disney's planned re-take-over of the Disney Stores (after giving them up a few years back, claiming that they could never turn a profit -- weird how minds change, eh?) made prominent mention of the fact that brilliant DIS executives plan to reduce the number of stores and make them into hip destinations for 'tweens, focusing on things like High School Musical (run, dead horse, run!) and the Jonas Brothers.
And then, of course, there are the theme parks.
And poor ol' EPCOT.
There's no fate worse, as Woody could tell you, than being rendered meaningless to a 'tween. You're tossed aside, dismissed as unimportant, forgotten, even mocked.
You're tragically un-hip and there's nothing you can do about it.
That seems to be EPCOT's fate. One side of Future World is now cartoon-driven, the realm of the young ones, while the other side is powered by high-octane thrills. (Yeah, OK, you're right, Soarin' is over on the cartoon side, so that undermines the argument just a bit. But only a bit.) The rest? In the case of Universe of Energy, it's been forgotten; in the case of Wonders of Life, it's literally been discarded. Spaceship Earth gets a pass only because, well, it's smack dab in the center, and Disney has to do something with it.
But so much of EPCOT seems a victim of Disney's unhealthy obsession with 'tweens.
Forget the fact that 'tweens are notoriously fickle, and will drop you like a hot potato the minute something better comes along. Forget that they grow up quickly, and soon come to view their favorite things as irrelevant faster than anyone imagines. Disney doesn't care how risky the 'tween market is -- everyone else is going after them, so Disney should, too.
Trouble is, catering to 'tweens or, for that matter, catering to any crowd to the exclusion of others, only leads to trouble. EPCOT's a brilliant example.
EPCOT can never, almost by definition, fit into the 'tween mold. But Disney is going to keep tweaking, changing and refining it until, damn it, those kids like it. Why? No good reason except the reason any obsessive has to keep doing things -- it just has to be done.
Forgotten in this is what made EPCOT, and Disney itself, so successful for so long. The appeal used to be that it was there for everyone. OK, sure, maybe sometimes Mom and Dad had to take a little hit by sitting through a cheery, fun, music-filled ride like Journey Into Imagination, and Sissy and Junior had to endure some lecturing on Universe of Energy. But for everyone, there was at least something to enjoy. Together. As a family. Or as friends. As a group.
The fixation on 'tweens, though, has had only a deleterious effect on EPCOT in general and Future World in particular:
The graceful curves and lines of the World of Motion pavilion, for instance, have become a jumbled mess of scaffolding, hyperactive signage and godawful color schemes for the sake of getting younger guests to think something truly exciting is going on back there.
The engaging, immersive experience of envisioning a possible future in Horizons has given way to a ride, Mission: Space, that ineffectively uses only half of its pavilion space, and finds hundreds of people at a time patiently waiting outside while the thrill-seeking part of their groups experience what's inside the building. The 'tweens love it; the adults, not as much. (And God forbid, though I've seen it done, a 6-year-old go on this ride. Poor kid.)
Disney theme parks have become increasingly age-sensitive. Either you love cartoon characters or you want thrills. But that old notion, the one that worked so well for so long, of appealing to everyone simply doesn't apply anymore. Kids or 'tweens -- increasingly, that's about it.
And parks like EPCOT find themselves in the 'tween era, too ... somewhere 'tween the greatness of their past and the disappointing mediocrity that continues to creep in.