Monday, March 31, 2008

Ten Steps to a Better Epcot: Step No. 2

Step No. 2: Update the Movies

Movies can be expensive, there's no doubt about it. These days, the "negative," or production, budget on a feature film can easily run into the nine-figure range, with many blockbuster movies costing as much as $160 million to produce. So, Step No. 2 toward improving EPCOT isn't made without that knowledge. Movies cost a lot of money.

Similarly, theme-park attractions aren't cheap. The new Cars attraction at Disneyland in California is rumored to cost as much as $300 million -- that's nearly 1/3 of the entire cost of EPCOT Center when it was built in 1982.

But it would seem, then, that Disney would want to make sure that it realizes long-term investments on those attractions, to ensure that, year after year, guests are walking through the doors of an attraction and always finding something to entertain and delight them.

So, why can't Disney consistently and regularly revitalize and freshen up the movie-based attractions at EPCOT?

No doubt, it's not a simple process to re-shoot a movie that requires multiple 70mm-sized movie screens, the CircleVision process or 3-D technology. It can't be a logistical and creative walk in the park to design and produce films that can't be shown anywhere else, that utilize production techniques that aren't exactly off-the-shelf methods.

Still ... it's been 26 years since the view EPCOT audiences have of France has been changed. France, on the other hand, has changed a lot. While certain scenes and images may be timeless, France is an exciting, vibrant, thriving country -- and fashion-conscious, too! They even have some modern cars. But you'd never know that from the impressions of France you get at Impressions de France.

If Disney can find hundreds of millions of dollars in its coffers to market Prince Caspian certainly it could find, say, $15 million to update Impressions de France for another, oh, maybe 10 to 12 years?

Then there's poor, poor Norway. If you watch the lovely Spirit of Norway movie, you'd think the Norwegian fashion sense is still rooted in the mid-1980s and that the country is still running off of 25-year-old computers. There are moments in Spirit of Norway that are downright painful to watch. Since Disney is now operating the Norway pavilion without a governmental sponsor, it seems Disney could at least throw that little country up north a bone and move the view of its people and places into the 21st century.

The Universe of Energy is remarkably dated, as well, populated with U.S. TV pop-culture references that don't even make sense to non-Americans, much less to many teenagers visiting the park today, who weren't born when Bill Nye the Science Guy had his little dose of fame.

It's been nice to see Disney update Wonders of China and, even despite Martin Short, O Canada ... but it took them 25 years to get to that point with two movies. Two.

Will EPCOT turn 50 before the other film-based attractions are updated?

The whole point of these relatively inexpensive film-based attractions was that they were easy to maintain, to update, to freshen and to keep people coming back ...

... and, really, isn't that kind of the point?

Sunday, March 30, 2008

Ten Steps to a Better EPCOT: Step No. 1

Over the next few weeks, EPCOT Central will explore 10 relatively easy ways Disney could significantly improve EPCOT.

Of course, these are just opinions, and your voice is welcome!

Also, a note to Disney's legal eagles: This blog is written anyonymously. Therefore, all suggestions and "creative" ideas are yours for the taking. There's no ownership here; if Imagineers or theme-park management likes what's written, by all means -- take the ideas as if they were your own!

These suggestions are written in absolutely no particular order. Step 10 is no more or less important than step 1; they're just ideas, observations and suggestions made in the spirit of optimism and global community that EPCOT Center used to embody.

With that ...

Step No. 1: Clean Up the Clutter
It's springtime, time for a thorough cleaning ... and EPCOT could use one the same way everyone else could!

Most notably are the open spaces throughout Future World. These spaces were designed to be open, to be large, to be easily navigable. The intention wasn't to line them with outdoor-vending carts, particularly those that serve no purpose than to sell random junk. So, we're not talking about getting rid of ice-cream and refreshment carts, though, frankly, those could be better themed and better located.

The most glaring offender here is that stupid Ballzac stand in the Future World East breezeway. In dozens upon dozens of trips to EPCOT, I've never seen anyone purchase one of these silly things. But lest any guest not understand exactly what a "Ballzac" is (am I the only one who finds the name vaguely sexual and a tad offensive?), the poor cast member staffing this location spends his or her shift bouncing the thing around. That can't be very fun, particularly when no one's buying your wares, so the cast member throws the ball around, tossing it to and fro, often losing control and hitting some unwitting guest in the head. Of course, it's not as if these are exactly lethal weapons, but this particular piece of clutter isn't just thematically irrelevant ... it's downright obnoxious. Pay off the Ballzac vendor and let this walkway just be. If you gotta sell Ballzacs, do it at a water park or a location like the Boardwalk or Pleasure Island, where at least the "zany fun" of the Ballzac can be appreciated.

There's also the issue of those early 1990s-era purple "carnival tent" structures. True, from some distance away, they frame the bottom of Spaceship Earth nicely. But even as that sort of visual framing device, the look can only be appreciated from a particular vantage point, and isn't necessary. Spaceship Earth doesn't need that sort of visual "enhancement."

Worse, from anywhere in Innoventions Plaza, it becomes impossible to actually see Spaceship Earth. And isn't that sort of the point?

One of the many visual splendors of EPCOT is to be able to see Spaceship Earth from virtually anywhere in the park. Whether in Future World or World Showcase, it's always there, visually linking the two halves of the park thematically -- depending on where you are, either symbolizing our future opportunities with its giant, silver sphere, or reminding you that we're all passengers together aboard Spaceship Earth.

So, it's ironic that the only place you can't actually make out Spaceship Earth anymore is right there in Innoventions Plaza, when it should be looming over you like a majestic reminder of everything EPCOT is about.

Lastly, there are the twin travesties of Test Track and Imagination. The latter is less offensive, but, still, are those banners and "temporary" signs really necessary to instill a sense of "fun"? Guests don't need all manner of signs outside an attraction to serve as a reminder to check out what's inside ... and if they're the kind of guests who do need those visual aids, well, maybe they just need to be a little more curious. The beauty of EPCOT has always been that inside each pavilion there are many different sorts of things to see and do. Imagination doesn't need garishly colored signs reminding us to check out the various attractions; it's too lovely and unique a place on its own.

But poor, poor Test Track. The World of Motion building used to be one of the most visually impressive structures at EPCOT, outside of Spaceship Earth. It gleamed in the Florida sun, it seemed massive; its sleek lines were simple and pure, and even for those who think "futurism" was overrated, it was impressive. From certain angles it still is -- when you're far away from it, looking at it from the side, crossing the promenade between Future World and World Showcase. But as you near Test Track, it becomes a horrendous visual clutter, looking for all the world like a construction site for a project that has never been finished, with scaffolding and temporary signs. (It always seems to me like those banners should say, "Open during construction!")

The best visual "sales tool" for Test Track are the cars zooming past the front of the building. Why is the rest of the "visual noise" necessary?

A cleaned-up EPCOT could return the park to some of its former glory, while still retaining all that is new (relatively speaking), different and exciting about its attractions.

Sometimes, simple is the best way to go.

Saturday, March 29, 2008

The Myth of Boring

In 25 years, lots of myths and untruths can develop. Here's one whopper:

EPCOT Center was boring.

It just ain't so.

Those of us who were around back in the early 1980s know first-hand that the "Myth of Boring" is overstated and not terribly accurate. But just as there are those who absolutely insist that Walt Disney's frozen, headless body is buried somewhere 'neath the Animation Building at The Walt Disney Studios in Burbank, there are those who are certain beyond any doubt that there was one major problem with EPCOT Center as it existed from 1982 until the mid-1990s -- that it was excruciatingly dull, given over to quickly outdated pontificating about such weighty matters as science and education.

It's the one excuse that's given, over and over, for the near-constant messing with EPCOT that Disney has done, mostly in the past 10 years. So, let's get this straight:

EPCOT Center wasn't boring. EPCOT Center simply became too ambitious for a giant corporation that lives off of "the bottom line."

On Oct. 1, 1982, EPCOT Center opened with seven Future World pavilions and nine World Showcase "countries." From the outset, Disney promised EPCOT would constantly expand. Within several years, Future World added the Universe of Energy and The Living Seas, while World Showcase grew with two new "member nations." New rides and attractions were added to keep people coming back, and attendance grew modestly.

But, here's the thing: the real world grew, too, and much more quickly than anyone had ever envisioned.

That proved problematic to Future World, in particular, because within a decade of the park's debut, the "new" technologies it put on display, the leading-edge research it showcased, became antiquated. And Disney didn't know how to respond.

But the shows themselves? They were rarely less than fascinating. Perhaps the most ponderous was the Universe of Energy, which did, let's be honest, feel a little like a dumbed-down science lesson. Just the other day, I heard on a Live365 radio station the original narration to Universe of Energy, and I was a little surprised at how lumberous it felt. But it was easy to forget that it was accompanied by a ride through a primeval world, filled with sights, sounds and smells that were impossible to find anywhere else. Universe of Energy may have been a slog at times, but its core experience was hardly boring.

World of Motion contained fun Audio-Animatronic tableaux that were genuinely one-of-a-kind and a delight for families, who could spend the entire ride pointing out silly situations in this comedic, satisfying ride. But then you got to the "GM part," and you sensed Disney's storytellers struggling to combine their creatively spot-on tale of how transportation developed with the needs of Disney's corporate partner. Moreover, auto manufacturing was changing so rapidly by the early 1990s (remember the introduction of the Saturn and the fuss it caused?) that World of Motion felt increasingly irrelevant.

Spaceship Earth? Ah, Spaceship Earth. Even with its latest renovations, no experience has ever captured what Disney does quite so well, providing a multi-sensory experience that took difficult concepts and made them relatable.

Horizons -- well, entire websites could (and have) been written about Horizons. While Spaceship Earth still counts as the masterpiece of Disney ride showmanship, Horizons is a very close second in my book. It reminded us of what we aspire to being. How many times have you felt that in a theme park of any sort?

As for The Living Seas, if you don't get a thrill by watching creatures from the silent world below us in their natural habitat, if you can't find excitement by seeing them in ways that were sometimes better than even Sea World could provide, then no cartoon fish is going to make you feel any differently. (To me, the layering of Finding Nemo on to this attraction is tantamount to characters from Prince of Egypt added to the Pyramids to make them more interesting.)

I've only touched on Future World, and not all of the pavilions there.

It's enough, as I write this, to remind me, without any doubt: EPCOT Center wasn't boring.

But it was abandoned.

The theme park needed to be revitalized, updated, added-to and refurbished nearly constantly. It needed money and a creative team dedicated to it, to ensure that its contents could keep up with what turned out to be one of the most technologically revolutionary times in world history. EPCOT Center suffered because of care, and that's why its attendance suffered in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

Park guests may have found it boring, but that's because within 10 years of its debut, the "wonders" it presented were part of our everyday lives. Disney failed to keep EPCOT Center moving forward.

The inelegant solution Disney decided upon was to stop trying.

EPCOT Center gradually began looking and feeling like other theme parks. There was always a bit of a twist, there was always just enough "Epcot" in there to make it marketable as a "discovery park." But its heart was removed, and its spirit dwindled in the process.

I still love Epcot. It remains a theme-park experience like no other on the whole; but parts, too many parts, are increasingly like what I'd find somewhere else. EPCOT Center didn't suffer from that problem. Nothing else was like it, and that was too much for Disney's Ivy League MBAs to deal with; it was a problem they didn't teach in grad school. EPCOT Center needed more attention than any of Disney's parks, and in the School of Bottom-Line Finances, every investment needs to have a return. The only way you can measure a return at a theme park is by examining its attendance and its merchandise revenue. So, they crammed more of the "same stuff" into the stores, built rides and attractions that were marketable to the least discerning consumer, and ... EPCOT became Epcot.

EPCOT Center thrilled in a way nothing else has ever done. The thrills came not from adrenaline rushes or wind in your hair, they came when you got home and you found yourself wondering if perhaps oceanography was a good profession, or telling people at your dinner party how your food got to the table. The thrills came from understanding about yourself, your world and your fellow travelers on Spaceship Earth.

EPCOT Center was forgotten and abandoned by Disney management who failed to maintain and constantly update its vision and its ideas.

You can say a lot of things about EPCOT Center, not all of them glowing. You can say it was outdated, that it was overwhelming, that it was complicated and challenging. You can say it required a sure and unusual touch that Disney never understood, that it was so unlike anything else that people didn't know what to make of it. You can say it didn't develop and grow, that it suffered. You can say all those things and more.

Just don't say it was boring.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

The Heart of the Matter

EPCOT Center's original name (that is, EPCOT Center) didn't come about by accident. Once Imagineers realized that building a "permanent World's Fair" instead of a Community of Tomorrow was, truthfully, not exactly what Walt envisioned, they had to find a name for this new place.

Still, they reasoned, and perhaps rightly so, the concept of the city version of EPCOT wasn't really dead. No, there would be no residential area, no radial design, no "city center." Then again, there's enough evidence to believe that even Walt would have recognized that, for once, his ambition truly did outdo his capabilities with the Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow. Looking at his plans now, as marvelous as they were, it's clear that Walt's vision of a city could never have lasted more than 10 or 15 years as a real place; urban planning and the needs of human beings just changed too rapidly.

So, no, EPCOT wouldn't be a city in the strictest sense. But a closer look at two of those words, "Experimental" and "Community," brought to light one amazing fact:

EPCOT existed already.

The Walt Disney World Resort itself was as complex as any city -- and any expansion would just make it infinitely more so. Workers and resort guests were on the grounds 24 hours a day, effectively turning them into residents. And they had needs, the same needs of any urban center: traffic control, shopping districts, water management, utility supplies, even mass transportation. If there were no houses, no "commercial district," that didn't make Walt Disney World any less of a "city" than Milwaukee or Portland. There was even a quasi-governmental agency overseeing the development and growth of Walt Disney World, so, perhaps inadvertantly, Disney had indeed created EPCOT right under its very own nose.

And the heart of EPCOT was this amazing Center -- a theme park, yes, but more than that. A grand experiment in itself, one that took two seemingly disparate themes (technology and culture) and blended them, showcasing our common human desires of progress, harmony and a better world.

EPCOT was at the very center, literally and thematically, of this grand world that Walt Disney had designed. If ever a name seemed appropriate, it was "Walt Disney's EPCOT Center."

As it was the first major expansion of Walt Disney World (or, in a broader sense, the "EPCOT Project"), it would need to be connected to the existing infrastructure. What better way to showcase the ingenuity of Disney, to visually and physically link the lighthearted storybook world of The Magic Kingdom with the sleek and unusual world of EPCOT Center than a massive extension of the Monorail system?

After all, Disney had been perhaps the world's biggest proponent of the Monorail, teaming with Swedish transportation firm Alweg to develop and perfect the system. At Walt Disney World, Disney management could continue Walt's dream of proving that a Monorail system was practical and effective by, well, making it truly practical and effective, linking two parks that were miles apart. Walt had wanted to use his parks and Walt Disney World as a showcase for technology that could take root there and grow to impact the lives of everyone.

Over the years, as Walt Disney World grew, so did its transportation sytem. By 1996, a Rand Institute study pointed out that WDW pointed out that under WDW's own Clean Air Act Amendments, its vehicle fleets were often required to purchase and operate reduced-emission vehicles. They augmented the Monorails to provide clean, efficient mass transportation that kept roadways less congested than expected given the number of visitors, and certainly promoted the notion that Disney was on the leading edge of some major issues related to our everyday lives. Disney, it seemed, was still living out the goals, ideals and concepts of EPCOT Center.

And then, something changed. When Disney's Animal Kingdom opened in 1998, the Monorail wasn't extended. Now, to visit this environmentally aware (and, in many ways, environmentally themed) park, visitors had to either park in a massive parking lot, each group driving its own car; or they had to take the WDW bus system, which had become increasingly complex and inefficient.

Today, getting stuck behind a WDW bus is a horrendous experience. The vehicles are far from "clean air" transportation, belching foul-smelling black smoke into the air and proving so inefficient that more and more guests (anecdotally -- I have no empirical evidence) seem to be opting to rent private cars.

The Monorail still shuttles between The Magic Kingdom and EPCOT ... but that's all. Within a theme park designed to showcase our better future, this completely clean, environmentally friendly and wonderfully effective mass-transportation system just stops.

Disney management has said in the past that the Monorail is just too expensive to extend. I've seen it reported that the beams alone cost upwards of $1 million a mile, and over the years that figure has undoubtedly grown. The likely cost of building out the Monorail would be in the hundreds of millions of dollars.

Of course, that's far less money than is going into the "upgrade" of California Adventure. It's probably a little less than Bob Iger's salary and perks for the past few years. Almost certainly, it's less than a new Chronicles of Narnia or Pirates of the Caribbean movie.

But, just as EPCOT Center used to be the heart of Walt Disney World, that, perhaps, really is the heart of the matter.
Doing what would be right for Walt Disney World, doing what would be innovative but perhaps not cost effective, making a major statement that doesn't realize a financial return, investing in a vision of the future that can inspire and inform its guests -- well, those things just aren't in the management vernacular at The Walt Disney Company anymore.

The Monorail extension stopped at EPCOT Center. And just as the inspiration to continue building on the creative ingenuity of the EPCOT theme park seems to have stopped, so, too, has the desire to truly expand and build on the notion that EPCOT, for a while at least, really did exist, and could have changed the future for all of us.

P.S. Apologies for re-using a photo that I also utilized recently; I just like the image a lot, and it fit the subject!

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

'Tween Greatness and Mediocrity

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 -- 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.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Another 3,000 Words

As measured in pictures.

I've said it all along -- I love EPCOT. I'd like to see EPCOT shine all the time, not just in bits and pieces. But in those places it still shines, it shines brightly.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

But When It's Right ...

It's so very, very right.

The pictures can say it better than my words, no doubt. (I'm no great photographer, but I love taking pictures at EPCOT!)

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Making the Priorities Clear

That's what Disney has done.

Is current management leaves little doubt as to where it wants to invest its money, and unfortunately, it's not at EPCOT.

Shares of The Walt Disney Company rose more than 4% in Tuesday's trading (March 18), closing at $31.72, and giving DIS a market cap of more than $59 billion. Its total revenue for the year ending Sept. 29 was $35 billion, with gross profit of nearly seven billion dollars. Profit.

And yet ...

Fully one-fourth of of EPCOT's once-glorious Future World sits nearly or completely abandoned.

A relatively simple item like the video globe used in Illuminations, which Disney itself touts as a "timeless classic," is left to go to rot.

With no financial "backing" from major corporations or governments, Disney simply absolves itself of creative responsibility at entire EPCOT pavilions.

It uses trees in cheap, plastic "pots" as visual barriers for areas under renovation.
And yet ...

Even as one of Disney's most precious assets seems to go to pieces, the company is funding entirely new businesses like "Adventures by Disney" and acquiring existing businesses at sky-high prices. It just can't spend the money to properly run pavilions in a theme park.

It spends literally billions to "fix" poorly performing theme parks that have already proven failures. It just has no money for genuine improvements and upkeep at EPCOT.

With little regard for history or tradition, it "updates" classics like Tom Sawyer's Island and it's a small world to be more "relevant," at astronomical prices. It just can't spare with some pocket change to keep EPCOT up with our ever-changing world.

Disney's priorities are puzzling, to say the least, especially considering that in EPCOT it has a genuine rarity: A wholly unique product that no competitor could come close to replicating. It has an entire brand waiting to be exploited, with only a little creativity and effort. It watches as EPCOT's attendance continues to rise, apparently assuming that increased visits mean there's little need to make improvements.

Granted, Disney has put some effort into EPCOT, there's no denying that. The addition of Soarin', the renovation of Spaceship Earth, even the questionable "updates" of The Living Seas, the Mexico pavilion and the Canada pavilion are impossible to overlook. Whether they "work" creatively, Disney has exerted effort.

Still ... at what price? Is it worth a couple of thousand extra kids in the park to see Nemo (if they missed him at the other theme parks or in the resorts -- though it's impossible to see how they could) when EPCOT seems so vividly to be an afterthought for Disney's theme park wizards, who genuinely have no idea what to do with the place.

Take a walk around EPCOT and Disney's wacky priorities come into sharp focus.

As you cross Innoventions Plaza, look up at the sign over what used to be called Innoventions West and see how carelessly the word "West" has been pried away. Examine other in-park signage and marvel at how Disney's sign shop can't even match fonts or colors. Look at the Wonders of Life pavilion and wonder at the lack of its so-called life.

Take a ride on the Universe of Energy and wonder why, 12 years after its last upgrade, it's so horribly out of date about the world we live in (much less the "Jeopardy!" we watch). Stop for a moment outside Mission: Space and look at all of the people just sitting there, waiting for the other members of their groups to come out of the ride, their groups split up precisely in the way Walt Disney wanted to avoid when creating his theme parks.

Walk past the too-numerous Disney Vacation Club sales kiosks that are so out of place in Disney's theme parks, and notice what expensive space-wasters they are, there for no other reason than to shill timeshares.

Yes, yes, yes, folks, I know ... these laments don't seem to change.

But, then, neither does Disney's attitude toward EPCOT.

Last year, EPCOT was the sixth most visited theme park in the world. So, why doesn't Disney care? Is it a cavalier attitude -- that if it's doing that well, it must be doing something right? Is it a dismissive attitude -- that if it's doing that well, it must not need attention?

This summer, Disney will spend literally hundreds of millions of dollars lavishing attention on movies like Wall*E and Prince Caspian. In the end, the profit margin on those efforts will be miniscule. It's even debatable how long they will be meaningful assets for Disney.

And yet ... there's an under-exploited, barely recognized asset like EPCOT just sitting there, still managing to rake in the bucks and bring in the guests year after year after year -- 25 years and counting. Talk about a perpetual asset! Talk about long-term potential!

Talk about a waste.

Maybe I just came back from this last visit to EPCOT too disillusioned. But I find it harder and harder to have any faith in the real, genuine long-term growth prospect of The Walt Disney Company when I see its management dismissing the potential -- the genuine, inarguable potential -- of the proper care and management of a theme-park jewel like this, tarnished as it has become.

Soon, I promise, I will have unabashedly positive, good things to say about some of the things I saw and experienced at EPCOT. For now, I'm still a little shocked at how Disney regards our future and our world.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Return from EPCOT

Yes, I know, I know -- it's been a while. A long while.

But EPCOT Central is still open.

Knowing that a trip to EPCOT and Walt Disney World was coming up in March, it seemed best to delay updating the blog a bit so the commentary would be based on EPCOT as it exists now, not as it was on the last trip. (Not living in Florida or working for Disney anymore, trips to WDW aren't as frequent.)

There will be much more soon, but here are some initial thoughts:
  • Cast members at EPCOT, particularly in World Showcase, seem lacking in the Disney spirit. There were more lackadaisical, indifferent cast members here than anywhere else on our three-trip -- this was particularly true at Soarin', where we finally broke down and spoke directly to the three cast members who were having an awful lot of fun doing each others' hair, talking about the weekend, and comparing notes on who they liked to work with, but found little appreciation for the job at hand (you know, dealing with guests, managing the queue, etc.).

  • There's a great sadness around the Norway pavilion, which seems almost neglected; Maelstrom's queue area is poorly lit and was strewn with trash, Akershus is peopled only by families with children, and the cast members seem aware that Disney doesn't actually care about representing their culture -- only about turning this into a popular dining location. Visiting the Norway pavilion was painful.

  • Illuminations badly needs care. Hopefully the rumors are correct and the video globe will be replaced, because it's virtually impossible to make out any of the images (and there's a huge black rectangle in South America).

  • The Spaceship Earth rehab is mostly terrific. I agree with the nitpickers that some of the narration is pedantic, there's nothing to look at other than the screen in the descent, the music isn't memorable, and the story's through-line gets a little lost. I wonder, if Disney fans recognize this, how come Disney executives don't? Those problems aside, Spaceship Earth comes the closest to representing the best Disney has to offer. It remains an excellent "introduction" to EPCOT Center, and serves as a reminder to how thematically lacking "Epcot" is -- and how much potential it has to improve. Bravo on Spaceship Earth. (There will be more blogging about this later, no doubt.)

  • Wander to the northeast quadrant of Future World and anyone who cares about Disney is in for a rude shock. It's painful to see what's become of Wonders of Life -- like walking through an abandoned, neglected downtown area in a city that's in bankruptcy. There is absolutely no excuse for this. Universe of Energy looks wonderful on the outside, but there's no one there. Any Disney shareholder who wants to see the negative consequences of Disney's fiscal philosophies should walk through this section of the park.

  • Something needs to be done about stroller parking at The Land and the Seas.

  • El Gran Fiesta at Mexico isn't as bad as feared; but it genuinely does not represent Mexico. It's sad to see Latino heritage reduced to sarapes on birds. Still, it does sparkle more than before.

Generally speaking, this trip to EPCOT reinforced all of the concerns that EPCOT Central has been raising. Disney is neglecting this park, and it's beginning to show. Badly.

It was wonderful to spend time in EPCOT. Even a downtrodden EPCOT is better than no EPCOT at all. But, still ... what couldn't be done here with a little bit of money! How much Disney could achieve by polishing, buffing and re-thinking some of EPCOT and then pouring some marketing effort into it!

As we drove past the billboards and read the marketing material for all of the other theme parks in the area (Disney and non-Disney) it was rather disconcerting to see how similar they all are. They seem to be slicing the same piece of pie ever thinner rather than truly differentiating each offering.

EPCOT is like nothing else Disney, or anyone, has ever created.

One of these days, I hope, someone at Disney will truly understand that.