Today, U.S. President Barack Obama delivered an inauguration speech rich with promise and hope, and as he spoke, my mind surprisingly turned to EPCOT Center.
Twenty-six years ago, Disney created a theme park of remarkable scale and ambition, one that attempted to tell us where America and the world had been, where we are going, and what we may find when we get there. The theme was also filled with promise and hope, with optimism and pride. And for the past decade and a half or so, it has been considered outmoded and cheesy, irrelevant to a nation obsessed with commercialism, consumerism and brand identity.
And yet, on the first day of the Obama Administration, our president admonished us for having forgotten those very ideals, those lofty dreams, the idealism and vision that helped create an entire nation out of nothing during the course of just two centuries.
President Obama said, "Now, there are some who question the scale of our ambitions -- who suggest that our system cannot tolerate too many big plans. Their memories are short. For they have forgotten what this country has already done; what free men and women can achieve when imagination is joined to common purpose, and necessity to courage. What the cynics fail to understand is that the ground has shifted beneath them ..."
These were words that had me recalling the very feelings I first felt as a teenager visitng EPCOT Center. Our country is strong. Our world is strong. Our future is strong, if we just have imagination and a sense of purpose.
Earlier in the speech, he said, "We will restore science to its rightful place, and wield technology's wonders to raise health care's quality and lower its cost. We will harness the sun and the winds and the soil to fuel our cars and run our factories. And we will transform our schools and colleges and universities to meet the demands of a new age. All this we can do. And all this we will do."
Science. Technology. Harnessing the sun and the soil. Joining imagination to purpose. As he said this, I recalled Spaceship Earth, the Universe of Energy, the World of Motion, Living With the Land, Communicore, The Living Seas and all of the audacious ideas and concepts they tried to present. I thought about World Showcase and its humbly unspoken message that we all live next door to each other, we are all working together for the vision of the future that is just on the other shore, so close by, waiting to be explored.
As Obama related the struggles of our forefathers, I recalled that The American Adventure offers a similarly stirring story. But is so often overlooked these days, and Disney has responded not by improving and refining it, but by installing the Kim Possible activity, by encouraging young guests not to explore the true stories of the world's nations and peoples, but rather the fictional adventures of a Disney cartoon.
Today's EPCOT reflects our times.
It is crass consumerism, pointed "brand positioning" and unabashed, meaningless "entertainment." It is like everything else, and our society has come to value things that are like everything else. We want our movies to be the same, we want our TV to be the same, we want our cars to be the same. We value profits and economic growth over hard work and sacrifice, over imagination and progress.
"Progress" was a word Walt Disney used frequently. Obama uses it, too. Maybe it will become part of our vocabulary again. "Progress" is different than "growth." "Progress" is change, imagination, inspiration and promise. "Growth" is selfish gain.
Maybe you don't want to be told these things on vacation. Disney has made sure you don't have to be.
Maybe Disney just wants to make sure EPCOT makes the most money it can. Surely after losing billions of dollars on Hong Kong Disneyland and Disneyland Paris and Prince Caspian and ABC Family, Disney can afford to have one theme park that isn't as much a slam-dunk as the others?
We are faced with the opportunity to answer a call to try harder. To come together as an American and a global family. To see ourselves in the faces of those who look and live differently. To shine a light on the path that leads to the future.
These are all things that EPCOT Center tried to do.
It's a shame that EPCOT has given up this attempt. Because more than ever, as we were told today by our president, we need to set an example for what we can be, what we should be. The next generation of EPCOT did lower its sights, and now we see the outcome.
The time has come, Obama reminded us today, citing Scripture, to put away childish things.
Here's hoping someone at Disney was listening.