"But," the oft-heard argument goes, "EPCOT Center was boring. No one liked it."
Sorry, EPCOT Central isn't buying it.
Say the EPCOT had to change, and you're on to something. Say that EPCOT grew stale and didn't reflect the rapidly changing times, and it's a fair assessment. Say that EPCOT paid the price for not explaining itself to guests, and the argument holds water.
But, folks, EPCOT Center was not boring.
In 1993, film critic Roger Ebert (who used to work for Disney) wrote a review of the richly emotional The Remains of the Day, which he compares with the simliarly thoughtful The Age of Innocence. His review concludes: "I got some letters from readers who complained the movie was boring, that 'nothing happens in it.' To which I was tempted to reply: If you had understood what happened in it, it would not have been boring."
So it was for EPCOT Center, a theme park that from inception was designed to be unlike any other, and suffered the consequences for its one-of-a-kind ambition.
EPCOT Center, as it was conceived in the years after Walt Disney died, was a hard-to-define combination of world's fair and theme park, where guests could learn about the world around them -- both how it worked and who made it work. Its two distinct areas, Future World and World Showcase, may have seemed quite separate, but shared a common theme: We are all in this together.
Politics and economic philosophies were cast aside, and with good reason. Because at its core, EPCOT Center sent a message that whether we believed in progress at the hands of major corporations, or whether we believed that individuals shaped our destiny, the world was ours to make of it whatever we could dream.
This was a brazen concept. It conformed to no pre-existing "rule" about theme-park design. There was no "hub-and-spoke" concept to lure guests into the park. Visually, much of EPCOT Center couldn't be seen from any given location. Simple "rides" were transformed into lengthy experiences. Each of these experiences hewed to the theme. It wasn't enough to create a fun attraction; the central concept of our future world or our shared global culture had to be reflected.
Where EPCOT Center went wrong was less in the execution -- though that was no doubt hampered by the economic realities of spending $1 billion in the late 1970s and early 1980s, money that Walt Disney Productions simply didn't have -- than in the communication of the message.
What was EPCOT Center? It was almost impossible for guests not to know that it existed; they just didn't know what it was, and once they got there, those who hadn't sought out the explanation for themselves were left not knowing what to make of it. Two miles away, The Magic Kingdom was filled with fun and frivolity. Around the Walt Disney World "Vacation Kingdom," simple pleasures like golfing, tennis, water skiing and horseback riding beckoned. They didn't need explanation. EPCOT Center did.
One of the most frequently maligned attractions of EPCOT's early days was the Universe of Energy, sponsored by a Exxon -- a company that, even in the oil-crazy days of the 1970s, was hardly a bastion of trust and integrity. Exxon had an agenda, and the Universe of Energy proved a perfect platform from which to extol the virtues of petroleum-based energy products. With the leaden, stentorian tones of a dull college professor, the attraction insisted that oil and gasoline would lead the way. Considering the times, and particularly what followed EPCOT Center's opening, the attraction was tone deaf and, yes, dull.
But was it boring? Not to anyone who disagreed with its view. Not to anyone who looked beyond the surface to explore the ideas and concepts that were buried just under the surface. If the Universe of Energy wasn't exactly inspirational, it wasn't boring. Even in its deceptive simplicity, it was unusually complex in its ambitions.
No, neither the Universe of Energy (used here as just one example) or EPCOT Center could be defined as "boring." Challenging, perhaps. Ambitious and not entirely successful, without doubt.
The problems with EPCOT Center, looking back, came not from execution, but from expectation. Guests expected to find the prototypical, happy, silly, tune-filled Disney merriment, but came away confused. Confusion is never good for a brand-conscious company like Disney, so over the years, Disney marketeers sought to decrease the confusion.
"Epcot" became a "discovery park" for a while, and today has no real definition. It's just another "Disney park," one that can't be defined as "the Hollywod park," or "the animal park" or "a place where fairytale dreams come true."
EPCOT Center has never lived down its early reputation as being boring. But it didn't earn that reputation. More accurately, Disney never tried to combat that label. Instead of developing a team of marketers, publicists, brand managers and operations staff who could further define and understand EPCOT, Disney gave up on it. Now, it's a dumping ground for anything that doesn't quite fit anywhere else. It's a hodgepodge of ideas, one that seems somehow easier to define for its lack of a consistent theme than it ever was when it knew what it wanted to be.
EPCOT Center was never like any other place. It might be true that few 11-year-olds were blown away by the place, found it to be exciting and captivating. But as one reader recently observed, when he first visited the park, he found it boring. Today, he can't get enough but his family finds it dull.
As a high-school teacher used to say to our class, "Only boring people are bored." For those of us who went in knowing what to expect, who were willing to open our minds to the ideas presented (even if they were rudimentary), who wanted something more than passive entertainment, EPCOT Center was hardly boring, and could have grown and changed into something even more spectacular, even more ambitious ... not just a dumping ground for cute cartoon mascots and high-tech thrills.
Had EPCOT Center truly been boring, this blog wouldn't see thousands and thousands of readers every month. It would have been forgotten. As flawed as it may have been, EPCOT Center stirred the imaginations of a great many who visited it. Only time will tell, but it's hard to imagine the same thing happening with the lower-case Epcot. It just seems like a big waste of a great idea.