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Last week, when speaking to Congress, President Barack Obama once again (for this EPCOT-loving listener, anyway) evoked thoughts about what went wrong with Disney's most ambitious theme park ... and about why there is no better time than now to get back to the business of making it work properly again.
EPCOT Center had an ambition unlike any theme park before or since. Its goal wasn't simply to entertain, it was also to inform and inspire. Guests to EPCOT Center were expected to be active, not passive, participants in the experiences.
It was an ambitious goal, and because it was so unlike anything else, Disney ultimately lost sight of it. It's no easy thing to try to "monetize" the desire to "inform and inspire." Entertaining people is much easier.
But here we are, a quarter of a century later, facing challenges unlike any that most living Americans have ever experienced. The outlook is dire, there is no doubt. Will we be able to meet the remarkable demands placed on us in the next three, five, ten, twenty years? At times like these, people need to be inspired.
EPCOT Center may not have done everything perfectly, but inspiration is indeed what it tried to impart. It was a theme park, to be sure, but it also sought to have its guests leave feeling edified, feeling eager to learn more about what they had experienced. For a while, a short while, Disney even tried to encourage EPCOT's ideals outside of the theme park, by operating a teacher's center within the park, by producing educational materials and by producing a magazine.
Today's Epcot, alas, is a place to have a good time and spend some money, not a place to learn. It's a place to talk with Crush the Turtle and drink your way around the world. Few guests likely come away from Epcot eager to launch their own explorations of the seas, transportation, space, energy or international culture. Epcot is about diversion, not inspiration.
Still, some 11 million people a year visit Epcot, the majority of them Americans. A healthy percentage of them are of a very impressionable age. What they learn and experience at Epcot could change their lives, could inspire them to forge a different path, and to influence their friends and peers.
But Epcot is wasting these opportunities -- either through sheer neglect (as in the Universe of Energy), through a misguided notion that vacationing guests just want simple thrills (as at Test Track), or through a lack of understanding of enormous potential (as with the park's overall theme).
As our President lately has been telling us, we are now paying the price, as a nation and as individuals, for years of choosing expediency and immediate gratification over long-term dedication and principle. Similarly, Disney is paying this price with Epcot. Now is the time for change.
The Walt Disney Company has a fantastic opportunity to begin rebuilding EPCOT Center to its former glory, making it more meaningful, more relevant and more influential than ever before. That doesn't mean tearing down what is there and returning the park to its 1982 guise. It means focusing on the core values of EPCOT Center, recognizing that Disney has the opportunity to create a theme park that actually reflects the world around us, a world on which it can have genuine impact.
The next four years (and beyond) are filled with challenges, but last week, Obama started drawing the map to a destination that promises to be better than where we are now. He reminded us that we are all passengers on Spaceship Earth, that we're setting forth on a grand American Adventure, and that the actions we take today and in the months ahead will shape our Future World.
Its original promise of being an always-changing, ever-growing place might have seen EPCOT rather immediately reflect our current environment. Instead, it is stuck in carefree, "fun" mode. Still ...
With care and effort, EPCOT could be one of the most extraordinary destinations Disney has ever created. It could constantly change to make us more aware of our world while never being staid or overbearing. It could be an EPCOT for these times, as well as for all times.
But Disney would need to put aside "immediate gratification" projects like more Disney Vacation Club resorts and new Pixar-based attractions ... to turn its back on short-term gain in favor of long-term vision.
The world is struggling to believe in a message of change and hope, to believe in a better future. It's hard not to remember, as the President speaks, about what EPCOT was meant to be, what it almost became. EPCOT Center was conceived in an era of turmoil and change. Perhaps an era of turmoil and change can once again have an impact. If EPCOT is at all important to The Walt Disney Company, there's no better time than now to prove it.