Wednesday, January 30, 2008
For reasons not entirely clear to me, traffic to EPCOT Central has increased by about 65% in the last three days, compared with average daily traffic. To those of you who are new to EPCOT Central, welcome. To those who are simply reading with more frequency, thank you!
Also increasing is the amount of mail, both positive and negative. The negative responses generally follow the same outline: They come from "ghost" addresses that can't be replied to, they take issue with the tone of EPCOT Central; they feel The Walt Disney Company's management, particularly Jay Rasulo and his team, are doing a phenomenal job; they believe EPCOT Center was a disaster and that only by turning it into "Epcot" has Disney been able to save a monumental blunder.
Likewise, they believe that EPCOT Central wants to turn Disney theme parks "into a museum." Well, anyone who has read more than one or two EPCOT Central posts knows that's not this blog's intention; no one would be more disappointed to find that a Disney theme park hadn't changed in 20 years than me. But the "change is good" mantra isn't always true. Not all change is good. Don't tell me you like being 20 pounds heavier than you were in high school, that you like losing a job or learning of the death of a loved one, that you enjoy the nation's economic recession. No, not all change is good. Just ask anyone who's been watching the downard trajectory of DIS lately.
But some changes are, and those should be celebrated. And EPCOT Central does celebrate them when they are genuinely for the better.
If you don't see a lot of celebration in these changes, maybe that tells you something of the way EPCOT Central regards the changes made in the past 10 or so years. Then again, for instance, changes to The Land have mostly been for the better. And even though it ain't no Horizon, my stance on Mission: Space has softened. A lot.
But it always comes back to oranges.
Watching the Horizons videos (which you can find by scrolling down a bit) reminds me of what Disney used to do so right, what used to work so well before the financial mindset crept in that each and every attraction was somehow a "mini-profit center" in and of itself.
From the 1960s to the mid-1990s, Disney wanted first and foremost to get the experience right, to have a guest emerge from a Disney attraction with a possibly unspoken, but monumentally important, feeling that no one except Disney could do it like this.
Horizons certainly gave us that feeling, and at no place in the expansive ride was it more evident than the orange-grove scene. For that one moment, we were completely transported to another place, where something unusual and beyond our limited scope of imagining was taking place ... and we could smell it, too. The illusion was complete.
Horizons took us in a three-dimensional way to a place we could never go ourselves, and then took the time, took the care, took the effort to wait until we were in exactly the right position, in just the right place, to give us that orange scent.
Sure, it was a cheap effect. It probably wasn't all that complex to do (though it did take some thinking to figure out how to make that scent also go away). But it worked.
It worked in a way that it doesn't quite work on Soarin', where the film-based component doesn't quite make you feel as engaged. (Yes, I know, this is totally subjective, and while I love Soarin', it never quite connects with me the way a ride-through does.) It worked in a way that is sorely lacking in Mission: Space or Test Track, where the thrills are from adrenaline, not from the excitement of seeing something unexpected.
More than that, every time a smell an orange, I'm transported back to that moment, even though the ride has been closed for years. I remember that scene, I remember the feel of being next to my family or friends in that car, in that building, on that ride, at that park. That smell brings a little thrill to my heart every time I encounter it.
I smelled oranges millions of times before "Horizons," and I've smelled oranges millions of times since. Yet that one moment made a memory that lasts a lifetime.
That's the business Disney and EPCOT Center used to be in: lifetime-long memories.
Not 10-second thrills.
Sunday, January 27, 2008
(Apologies for the double-post today. You can find my earlier Sunday post below or by clicking here. It's not nearly as hopeful or wonderful as this video, though!)
The Celebration 25 event was officially embraced by Disney management and was given the rare privilege of working closely with the management and staff of Epcot® to provide in-park event check-in, group history walks, a press conference, and a private dessert party for their more than 1200 registrants.
By the way, I just want to make this perfectly clear: I really do love that the guys behind WDW Celebrations care so much and want to do such a great thing. Congratulations on starting your outfit, folks. But shame on Disney for farming out the "hard work" of loving and caring about their own theme parks.
Thursday, January 24, 2008
In the two years since EPCOT Central opened its doors, finding critics of the site hasn't been difficult. The comments tend to be similar: There's too much whining, too much complaining, too much vitriol and not enough optimism here at EPCOT Central. The consensus of these folks (themselves critical, of course) is that now that Eisner and Pressler are gone, the criticism of The Walt Disney Company should stop, and that its financial success means its creativity has been restored.
I beg to differ.
Let me get this straight: EPCOT Central does not want EPCOT to become a museum. EPCOT absolutely must continue changing, growing and evolving.
Also this: There's nothing wrong with a little dissension. Frankly, among its managers, directors, vice presidents, senior vice presidents, executive vice presidents and senior executive vice presidents, Disney could use a bit more of it.
Criticism has its place. And there is no place about which it's easier to be critical than EPCOT. What started and grew as a grand experiment (that word is even in its name!) has become a place where creativity and imagination are on scant display. What began as an effort to change the theme-park paradigm has become a place that models itself after other, lesser, parks.
And that's why criticism is important.
The Seas With Nemo and Friends may be fine. Gran Fiesta over at Mexico may well be fully entertaining. Disney Princess dining at Akershus may be the height of wonderment for a 5-year-old girl.
But they're not EPCOT.
I've used this comparison before, but I'll trot it out again: As a student, even through my grad-school years, I received B's and C's where other students received A's and B's. It seemed patently unfair, but the teachers and professors always gave the same explanation. "This is very good work," they'd say. "And for another student, it would deserve an A. But I've seen that you can do better. So, comparing yourself only to you, you deserve a B." Or, worse, a C. Average. For me.
They were right. But still I persisted in coasting by, content with my B's and C's because I'd still get the occasional A, and as long as my GPA was above 3.3 or so, I was happy. It was enough.
Only now, years later, have I learned how I cheated myself.
EPCOT gets low marks from me (frankly, a few D-minuses are in there, though Disney's general quality still rescues these efforts from failing completely). That's because The Walt Disney Company generates too much revenue, is too flush with cash for capital investment, to warrant giving EPCOT stellar grades. Disney is capable of far too much to allow a mediocre product like EPCOT to continue struggling.
Granted, there are far more pressing issues for Disney theme-park management. The disasters of Disney's California Adventure, Hong Kong Disneyland and The Walt Disney Studios Paris rightfully need to be addressed, and fast.
The bigger concern is why EPCOT ever fell so far so fast and how its unhappy model can be prevented in the future.
But people didn't want "EPCOT Center" -- that's an excuse I hear often. They were bored by it. EPCOT was too different. Sorry, but history is too strewn with examples of popular art that wasn't accepted at the time, but grew into classics, landmarks and masterpieces for me to accept that excuse.
Disney is a company that needs to make money. It's a for-profit company. It needs to grow revenue and income. Those are also common explanations. To that, I counter that only by offering something truly revolutionary, truly out of the ordinary, can a company grow for the long term. Walt Disney knew that, that's why he was never content to continue doing what had made him successful. An artistically driven company like Disney has to take risks, and if that turns the stomach of its top managers, why did they get into this game in the first place.
Disney is filled these days with people who got into it for one key reason: to make money for themselves. That's not a bad motivator, I have no qualm with that. But they wanted to make money fast, to do it the easy way. With projects like ABC's flagging ratings, the theme-park design fiascoes and the death of traditional animation, they're learning the lesson the hard way. It's not about the quick buck, it's about the long haul. It's about doing what's right.
But we're left with the outcome of their decisions. We're left, at EPCOT, with a vision so diluted as to be hardly recognizable.
Even when things are going well, I'll be the last person to recommend taking the easy route. As a television anchor once told me, "We're not paid to do what we do when things are going well, we're paid to do what we do when things are going down the toilet."
Now's the time for Disney to stand up for EPCOT, to admit mistakes, to take a good hard look at whether singing ducks, funny fish and marginal cartoon characters belong in a park that was explicitly designed as the one place in Disney's kingdom that would not have those things. Now is the time to really consider EPCOT's vision -- and to decide whether current Disney management wants to follow through with it.
EPCOT is a commitment made by Disney artists, designers and executives long, long ago. Should today's managers be questioning what was handed to them, or cultivating it as best they can? If they don't like what they've got, there are plenty of other places they can go that won't saddle them with these difficult creative problems.
EPCOT is too good, too valuable to Disney (and the world), too grand a notion in my mind to not hold it to a higher standard. But higher standards, well, they suck. They mean you're not graded on the curve, you're graded according to what you've shown you are capable of achieving. And for what they're being paid, Disney's executives should be capable of achieving much, much more.
And criticism has its place. As grandiose as it sounds, criticism is the foundation upon which our country and everything about it was built. It is right to be critical, and it is equally right for any reader of this blog to disagree with my criticisms.
I'm just one voice -- but one voice who has seen, for many years, how Disney operates, has seen Disney move from being a genuinely exciting, inspiring place to an organization that is simply trying to churn a buck and will strip-mine every property it has in order to do that.
As a shareholder and as a fan, I don't want to see that happen.
EPCOT Center had a vision.
I believe it can have one again.
Saturday, January 19, 2008
Go to Amazon.com, search for Disney music, and here’s what you’ll find on the first results page: “Radio Disney Jams,” “A Disney Channel Holiday,” “Children’s Favorite Songs” (Vols. 1-4), “Radio Disney: Move It” and a host of other albums aimed squarely at kids and tweens. The "official" albums of WDW are equally bad, just re-hashes of the same music Disney has been peddling as its "park music" for years now, not actually digging deep into the extraordinary audio experience that parks like EPCOT truly are.
But here’s a tip, one you might already know about: Go to Live365 online radio, and your Disney possibilities increase to almost limitless heights. And you don’t have to tie yourself to your computer – if you’ve got TiVo, you can listen to Live365 on your TV, in full surround sound, if you’d like.
While doing my chores today, I’ve listened to a ride-through of Spaceship Earth; revisited the sorely missed Horizons Pavilion; heard the soundtracks of both Illuminations: Reflections of Earth and Illuminations 25; and even passed an hour while listening to nothing but the music loop played in some of the World Showcase pavilions and throughout Future World. I feel like I'm spending time in my favorite place. Yeah, my spouse thinks I'm crazy ... but it saves us a few thousand bucks on vacation costs!
Disney may not care about fans like me, who are fully grown adults with decent salaries and who happen to love Walt Disney World and EPCOT Center. In fact, it’s virtually impossible to find any official source for any of the tracks available on such fantastic “radio” stations as Sorcerer Radio, MouseHouse Radio, MouseWorld Radio, DIS radio, No Lines radio and other fan-run channels. On TiVo, you can even program them in your "favorites" list so you don't have to hunt around for them all the time. I love it!
I have no idea how these fan-run stations find and broadcast these esoteric tracks, ranging from the music that accompanies the Fountain of Nations to the complete audio of full attractions. But thanks to them, I can feel I’ve spent an entire day at EPCOT Center without leaving my home.
So, here’s a big thank you to those who devote their energies to these stations. You put me in a great mood every weekend!
To the executives at Disney, all I can say is, take a (literal) cue from these folks. Not all of your fans are tween dreams, some of us are just normal folks in our “adult years.” If you’re not filling our needs, thank goodness there’s someone out there who does care. You’re losing revenue, but they’re gaining fans.
Thursday, January 17, 2008
Before you laugh and groan (and I can't deny I did both), go pull out your own photo album and find the pictures of someone you're awfully fond of ... as they looked 25 years ago.
You can hardly believe they'd present themselves that way, that they could ever have looked so goofy, so young, so awkward. And yet, that's exactly why you started loving them in the first place.
And in those 25-year-old memories, you remember how you felt then, when things were so fresh and new and life was filled with possibilities. You know change and growth was inevitable, but there's something so joyful in those old reminders, you know that somewhere in your friend, that old heart and spirit is still there.
The Walt Disney Company is going to report its quarterly results soon. No doubt, the phrase "difficult comparisons" will be used. Look past the crappy music, the creepy narration and the simplicity of this promotional piece and focus on what else is there: A clear sense of purpose for EPCOT Center. Then look at the jumbled mess that lower-case Epcot is today.
There's a difficult comparison for you.
(By the way, double-click on the video to go to Youtube, where you can find the second part of this 1983 video.)
Thursday, January 10, 2008
Let’s face it, The Walt Disney Company is ailing. Or, at the very least, languishing.
For every Hannah Montana, there’s a California Adventure-sized problem. With network ratings falling, the writer’s strike seriously impacting its broadcasting future, and a growing national economic problem threatening to impact theme-park attendance, Disney is not, as Eisner used to say, “firing on all cylinders.”
There are bright spots, absolutely. But increasingly, what Disney does well is manage its “creative content,” to “leverage” it across “multiple business units,” to run a company an MBA would be proud to call his own. But creating new content? Well, unless Disney goes outside to find and buy it, it just ain’t happening. The Hong Kong Disneyland fiasco is the latest sign of serious problems, even while Disney does nothing to squash rumors it will continue growing its theme park business in China.
No, folks, Disney’s not the kind of company that produces breakthrough entertainment anymore. You won’t see a Beauty and the Beast, a Snow White, an EPCOT or an Animal Kingdom coming out of this company in the near future.
Now, of course, Disney will never cop to performance issues, not while Bob Iger, Tom Staggs and Jay Rasulo are around; they’re too confident, too economically invested in the company to either admit to flaws or take a huge, daring risk. (I’d love to see them prove me wrong.) In the latest moves to generate some new sources of revenue, they’ve even taken to doing exactly the opposite of what was envisioned in Florida – selling off land and letting more and more outside companies come and build hotels there. Even while resorts like the Grand Floridian and the Boardwalk continue to garner awards and recognition as some of the best in the country (or world), Disney is showing interest in getting out of the resort business.
I’ve always figured, if you’re not in the game, why play?
So, what’s all of this got to do with EPCOT?
About a year and a half ago, I pondered whether EPCOT could actually be a great brand for Disney to develop. All the seeds are there for “EPCOT” to come to mean as much as “Disney” if it were managed, developed and shepherded properly. “EPCOT” could become a major force in our own future world.
As I’ve thought much more about what “Anonymous” recently said, and as I’ve assumed that he’s a Disney employee or executive, I’ve given this some more thought.
Disney needs a new brand. It has done all it can with ESPN – that brand is in “sustain” mode now, with moderate but hardly rollicking growth for the long haul. Likewise, I believe, with the “Disney” name itself. Intent on making Disney into a kids’ brand, instead of widening it and growing it to encompass much more than “fun stuff for kids,” TWDC’s management has painted itself into a corner. Kids and teens outgrow their tastes, and what is hot to today’s kids is rarely hot to tomorrow’s. There’s a certain amount of brand loyalty Disney can expect to retain, but trendy teeny-bopper fun stuff isn’t a long-term growth industry. Just ask the folks who manage(d) Magic Mountain, Debbie Gibson or the almost-unrecognizable, once-hot business called MTV.
What’s needed is a brand that is so defined it’s almost indefinable. Something that can apply to virtually any new creation. Disney used to know this, used to refuse to define “Disney” and let the name speak for itself, to mean quality, family suitability and innovation. It means very little of that anymore, and once lost, it’s extraordinarily difficult to win people back in the short term.
But think about what EPCOT means to those who know it, who understand that it does indeed have a definition beyond the acronym. EPCOT means innovation, it means forward thinking, it means technology, it means global awareness, it means a community mindset, it means experimentation, it means curiosity, it means optimism.
EPCOT can be a magazine. It can be a TV show (or, heck, a TV network). It can be a website. It can be a line of ethnic frozen foods. It can be a “green” household product. It can be garden supplies.
EPCOT can be a clothing label for fashions inspired by other cultures. It can be a line of educational products utilizing technology. It can be a publishing label. It can be a language school. It can be a radio station. It can be a movie label.
EPCOT can be everything “Disney” can’t – it can carry the mark of quality for products that don’t necessarily appeal to kids, but are of interest to a wide range of people.
EPCOT could be what Disney desperately needs: a strategy for the future.
Despite what some say, I don't think EPCOT's a "has-been" at all. Quite the contrary. I think it's quite a "could-be." With an incredibly strong visual icon in both its (original) logo and Spaceship Earth, and such "sub-brands" as Future World and World Showcase, EPCOT's potential is virtually untapped.
Disney is ailing. EPCOT’s good medicine.
Tuesday, January 08, 2008
It's the crazy obsessive fanboy sites like this that convince the Disney number cruncher types that they can comfortably mock all of thier internet fan base. I've seen the discussions and it's pretty painful. When a creative type brings up a fan point of view (which frequently matches their own as well), the first sneering question is a variation on "Did you read that from some nutty fansite?" Do we hate those executives? Usually. Are they and their crappy attitude going anywhere? Dream on. And even the biggest Disney geek imagineer grows weary of sites that traffic in virtually nothing but constant condemnation fueled by nostalgia. I know you think you're presenting passionate, reasoned criticism, but let me clue you in: They wrote you off as a nutjob around the time you were ranting about consumer products utilitarian office building having an employee cafeteria. You are doing more harm than good here. If you are comfortable being part of the problem, keep doing what you are doing. If you want to be a real voice in the conversation, a spoon full of sugar and all that...Now, I'm not about to get into a war here, but as I pointed out in my response to this reader, hey, this is my blog, and while I appreciate his/her perspective, I think it's a bit, um, whacked. Here is what I wrote in response:
At least you've kept up reading, Anonymous, and based on the tracking, it's clear that others at Disney are, too. That says something.
Let 'em write me off as a nutjob. I wrote them off as a nutjob a while back, too, so I like to use this to air my thoughts. That's all. Others seem to enjoy it, too.Based on the feedback I've gotten personally, I'd like to suggest this: The MARKETING types at Disney have written this off as the work of a "nutjob," while the Imagineers (or at least a fair number of them, anyway) have been incredibly supportive. I don't have a lot of respect for the marketing types, either. They're the ones who got Disney into this mess. Seen the stock price lately? Sure, if you bought a couple of years back at, say, $13, you're happy as a clam. Bought it at $50 back in '00? Not so much.
Disney was a creative company that offered new ideas. Now it's a company that markets old ones. And builds new campuses for foundering divisions. Yeah, I have a problem with that -- remember, despite what Tom Staggs wants us to think, little guys like us with a couple thousand (or hundred -- or just a couple) shares have ownership in the company, too. We have a voice in this. Your marketing teams may laugh at us, but let 'em -- the gadflys are the ones who often force change.
Some companies respect their "fanboys," court their opinions, involve them in the process. Others mock them. Guess which companies have the best creative track record?
If you work at Disney, it's sad that you call your own employees "geeks." Everyone is a "geek" if they don't share your opinion. If you don't work at Disney, maybe you should. You'd be in good company.
This isn't a war of words. It's my blog, remember -- and I'm not selling shares [in it]. I want your post to stay up here. I want your voice heard. It's an important one to have.It makes us all remember what kind of a company Disney has become.
If Disney employees are "sneering" because of a viewpoint that matches those of a fan, it makes you wonder when the sneering's going to stop ... and the listening is going to start.
Until Disney reverts to private ownership, it's not just my desire to have a voice and give a tiny place on the Internet where everyone can let their own voices be heard ... it's my privilege, my right and, well, I guess my responsibility as a tiny minority owner of The Walt Disney Company.
Thank you, again, for reminding us of just the sort of mentality that exists at Disney. Interestingly, when I worked there back in the 1990s, your mentality was the one that was "sneered" at. Now it's the one that's held up as the model example. I'll let you decide whether Disney's creative downfall just HAPPENS to mirror that timeframe, or whether there's a correlation.
I just want to briefly elaborate on my response.
It genuinely concerns me that Anonymous represents the prevailing viewpoint at The Walt Disney Company, at least among the marketing types. You see, it's exactly the dissenting voice, the "nutjob," the idealist whose ideas have created the most change in the world. I'm not at all trying to compare myself to any great thinker (some would challenge any attempt I'd make to classify myself as a thinker at all!). But there are great thinkers at Disney. There are great creative minds. There are visionary idealists. After one too many meetings with people who share the viewpoint Anonymous has, I can't imagine they'd feel particularly upbeat.
About 20 years ago, screenwriters Arnold Schulman and David Seidler wrote a screenplay for Francis Ford Coppola and George Lucas called Tucker: A Man and His Dream. In it, Preston Tucker, played by Jeff Bridges, gives one of the greatest cinema speeches ever. It seems appropriate to quote it, particularly when reflecting on EPCOT.
I'd like to think Anonymous doesn't really speak for the cultural mindset at "Team Disney." All evidence, unfortunately, says he does.
"When I was a boy I read about Edison, Ford, the Wright brothers. They were my heroes. Rags to riches wasn't just the name of a book. It was what this country was all about.
"We invented the free enterprise system, where anybody, no matter who he was, where he came from, what class he belonged to, if he came up with a better idea for anything, there was no limit to how far he could go.
"But I grew up a generation too late, I guess. The way the system works now, the loner, the crackpot, the dreamer with some damn-fool idea that ends up revolutionizing the world, well, someone like that is squashed by big business before he knows what hit him. The new bureaucrats would rather kill a new idea than let it rock the boat.
"If Benjamin Franklin were alive today, he'd probably get arrested for flying a kite without a license.
"We're all puffed up with ourselves right now because we invented the A-bomb and we beat the daylights out of the Nazis and the Japanese … but if big business closes the door to the little guy--you, me--the little guy with new ideas, we've not only closed the door to progress and hard work, we've sabotaged everything we fought for. We might just as well let the Japanese and the Germans walk in here and tell us what to do. What's the difference? If new ideas can't be allowed to
flourish, then we've just exchanged one set of rulers for another. Right?"