It took some time, but this is a biggie. Survey says…
#2 – Rethink EPCOT. Completely.
It’s been a while since I last did one of these. The delay was, in part, because not only is this particular topic very near and dear to my heart, but it’s also one for which there are no easy solutions. It’s also a situation for which I actually have a number of very specific ideas and suggestions, and I didn’t want this to devolve into just another fanboy blue-sky sandbox exercise. The fact remains, though, that the problems that face EPCOT Center, that have hampered its development, and the things I’d like to see done there in the future take up the largest amount of pondering on Disney parks that I do on a regular basis. So with the disclaimer that I’m aware that I’m far too invested in this subject for my own good, here are my thoughts on EPCOT.
My obsession with EPCOT has a lot to do with timing. My first trip to Walt Disney World happened at the age of five, and we arrived in Orlando only a few short weeks after EPCOT had opened. From that point on, EPCOT was my favorite of the Disney parks. If you’ve been reading this blog for a while, you’ve probably heard me base at least some of my rants against the “received wisdom” of Disney marketing in the fact that, as a child, many of my friends and I were far more “enchanted” with EPCOT than with the Magic Kingdom. When I hear latter-day Disney propagandists admit that kids just hated EPCOT before it got “exciting”, my bile starts to curdle.
My seminal Disney experiences occurred concurrently with EPCOT’s golden age, and I feel that I fell right into the “sweet spot” temporally to be completely won over by the park. Had I been a Disney fan of an earlier age, I might have grown up with Walt’s original idea of EPCOT-as-city in my head and been crushed by what was, to be honest, a massive but well-intentioned cop-out by later management. One of the interesting revelations I’ve had from digging deeper into Disney history is the realization that a lot of the public was really let down by the announcement of EPCOT Center as a theme park – people seem to have been really anticipating a city of the future and they spent a lot of time in the early 1970s pushing Disney managers for details about when it would be built. While years of corporate spin has tried to present EPCOT Center as “Walt’s greatest and final dream”, that’s just simply untrue. For many Disney fans at the time who knew the truth, this must have been a hard pill to swallow. But seeing as the only EPCOT I’ve ever known was EPCOT Center, I was able to be blown away by it without any preconceptions whatsoever.
The flip side of this is had I become a Disney fan later, I would have only come to know EPCOT during its long downward slide under the Eisner regime. Depending on where I came in, I wouldn’t have known the original Spaceship Earth, or Horizons, or World of Motion, or Journey into Imagination… I wouldn’t have known the thematic consistency of early EPCOT Center, a concept reflected in even the iconography of the pavilions themselves. I also wouldn’t have known that heady sense of excitement about things to come that was incorporated in all of EPCOT’s promotional material from that time. There were no more exciting words then than “Coming Soon” – Equatorial Africa, Spain, Israel; or Horizons and The Living Seas, to be soon followed by “Space” and “Life & Health”. A great deal of EPCOT’s potential in my mind comes from those original unrealized concepts that promised amazing and mind-blowing things to come.
The story of why EPCOT started off with such a unified vision but never reached its full flower has been touched on here before. Growing up, I had always wondered with irritation why Disney just didn’t get it all done at the start – why we had to wait for those extra pavilions, or the Germany pavilion’s boat ride, or the expansion of the Japan pavilion. The truth is that EPCOT barely – just barely! – opened on time as it was. The story of EPCOT’s breathless 24-hours-a-day, 7-days-a-week rush to opening day is a harrowing one. Some key elements of the park did, in fact, open late. Many others were delayed in an attempt to concentrate resources on key attractions for opening day. We’ve mentioned a few of these delayed attractions – the rides for Mexico, Germany and Italy were all shelved at one point due to time constraints, with the Mexican boat ride only being reinstated when it became apparent that the park would need its ride capacity on opening day. The shortened construction cycle led to El Rio Del Tiempo being only half of its original planned size. Many other attractions remained delayed for a “Phase II” that never came.
One key myth perpetrated by revisionist Disney publicists is that EPCOT was somehow unsuccessful upon opening or poorly received by the public. This can be seen even in officially sanctioned media like the Travel Channel “Modern Marvels” episode about Walt Disney World. The fact of the matter is that EPCOT was a smash success, with record crowds far exceeding Disney’s own estimates. Press coverage from the time is almost uniformly positive, with the most oft-repeated criticism being that guests wanted more – more rides, more restaurants, more shops, more shows. The park was so swamped with guests that its amenities proved inadequate, and long lines only became worse when compounded with the technical issues that arise in any new theme park of such an advanced nature. EPCOT was slammed with an unprecedented wave of visitors, all who wanted more; thankfully, Disney had plans for just that.
Upon its opening, Disney continued work on the few Phase I attractions that had yet to open – key among these being the Journey Into Imagination ride – while immediately beginning work on the park’s Phase II. Loans were secured to underwrite tens of millions of dollars in new attractions and additions. Horizons was well on its way to its 1983 opening, and construction began on The Living Seas as soon as United Technologies signed as a sponsor in summer of 1983. That same year, the Kingdom of Morocco would open its pavilion in World Showcase – the first of many intended Showcase pavilions for Phase II. Additional restaurants were added to Communicore, France and China, and a second restaurant was planned but never built in Italy. The sponsorship search continued for Space and Life & Health, and Disney heavily promoted upcoming pavilions for Equatorial Africa, Spain, Israel, Venezuela, Denmark, and Scandinavia. So what happened?
It’s easy to mistake the abandonment of EPCOT’s Phase II as another instance of management failing to follow though on their promises, but that’s not the case here. The groundwork for Phase II was in place, but in 1984 there was a sweeping change in management that brought Michael Eisner and Frank Wells to Disney. Eisner’s primary concern, by far, was the motion picture and television divisions of the company. Eisner wanted to be a media mogul, and while his concerns about the under-performance of Disney films at the box office were well-founded, his massive shift in the company’s direction came at the expense of the theme parks. Eisner admitted the parks would continue to expand, but at “pre-EPCOT” levels. That first year, Disney wrote off more than $40 million worth of canceled theme park projects at the behest of the new management team.
I often see people who claim insider knowledge from that era state that Eisner “hated” EPCOT. It’s said that Eisner, who didn’t grow up attending theme parks and seemed to look down on them, saw EPCOT as an expensive blunder. I have no idea if any of that is true, but it’s clear by his actions after arriving at Disney that, at the very least, Eisner did not understand EPCOT whatsoever. Attempts to drive up attendance at the park without major further investment gave the appearance that Disney was grasping at straws, and this would only become more apparent as time passed.
EPCOT’s drift into chaos began almost immediately; it can easily be seen in 1987’s Daredevil Circus Spectacular. The expansions that did arrive after Eisner’s arrival were legacy projects; The Living Seas had broken ground in 1983, 1988’s Norway pavilion was a descendant of the pre-Eisner plans for a Scandinavia pavilion, and even 1989’s Wonders of Life was an adaptation of the “Life & Health” pavilion that had been under design since the mid-1970s.
So deep was Eisner’s ambivalence towards EPCOT that, for a time in those early years, Disney considered selling off EPCOT in part or in whole to another company. In what would be a scheme to raise a lot of quick money for – what else – expanding film production in California, Disney would sell EPCOT or its individual pavilions and then either lease them back or manage and operate them under contracts similar to the arrangement by which Disney operates Tokyo Disneyland. While this scheme to raise a quick billion dollars never came to fruition, the fact that Disney management was willing to seriously and publicly discuss the potential divestment of EPCOT shows the lack of regard the park was given at the time.
There followed a period of stagnation, interrupted only when the Future World sponsors’ contracts needed to be renewed in the early 1990s. The Land and Spaceship Earth received overhauls; while Spaceship Earth got a new narration and an incongruous new ending, The Land had two of its smaller attractions replaced. The film Symbiosis was replaced with Circle of Life, the first of many attempts to insert characters into the park’s attractions. The wonderful and catchy Kitchen Kabaret was also closed; its replacement, Food Rocks, was so cheaply executed that I once thought it would certainly be the all-time nadir of Disney attractions. I was wrong.
The cohesive sense of design that once tied Future World together really fell apart in the mid-1990s. Communicore, which once served to tie the concepts of the individual pavilions together and serve as an outreach resource to guests, was replaced with the crass trade show displays of Innoventions. These exhibits were crammed into the Communicore buildings, closing off sightlines and guest traffic flows, removing the natural light and open vistas that had characterized the buildings, and taking no advantage of the buildings’ pre-existing design. The public areas of Future World slowly filled with odd bric-a-brac that only created clutter and visual contradictions.
The attractions themselves changed, removing many of the futuristic concepts they once embraced and abandoning the iconography that once linked all the pavilions together. The Universe of Energy became Ellen’s Energy Adventure, becoming less informative and relying more on the use of familiar celebrities and humor – a tactic also employed in the then-new Honey, I Shrunk the Audience. The World of Motion closed for several years as Imagineers replaced it with Test Track; the result was an uninspiring mild thrill ride/car commercial with critical reliability and technical issues. Horizons closed, opened, and closed again; it was finally allowed to fall apart in plain sight of guests before its eventual demolition. World Showcase remained untouched since 1988. Then things really went off the rails.
Journey Into Your Imagination. A name that will send shudders down the spine of any EPCOT fan. The completely unnecessary closure of an EPCOT classic – and the single EPCOT fantasy dark ride in the true Disney tradition – led to this abomination, and the public response was so universally negative that Disney was actually forced to close it again a few years later. Horizons was torn down and replaced with Mission: Space, an expensive simulator ride which made many guests ill and resulted in a few deaths (all from pre-existing conditions, but still bad for publicity). So troubled was Mission: Space, that Disney was programming other attractions to print out free Fastpasses for the ride just a couple of years after its opening.
Recent additions show no rhyme or reason, or adherence to any unified concept for the park. Soarin’, the only successful attraction from California Adventure, was imported to The Land despite any real reason for it to be there. The entirety of The Living Seas has been re-themed to center on animated characters from Finding Nemo; while its dark ride segment is appealing, it merely retells the story of the film without adding any insight about the actual seas and their inhabitants. The same criticism could be aimed at Mexico’s Gran Fiesta Tour, a character-based ride overlay that missed the potential provided by the fantastic Three Caballeros by focusing on yet another “character hunt” instead of having anything to say or show about Mexico itself. A recent overhaul of Spaceship Earth, while laudable for its needed technological upgrades, has been criticized for “dumbing down” the attraction’s narrative and for its still-unfinished ending.
So, the park remains a hodgepodge; many layers of mismatched design from different periods collide in guests’ senses, and the lack of meaningful new additions becomes more glaring when you realize that there are no announced projects in the pipeline for at least the next several years. At the very least, though, this gives Imagineers and fans a chance to pause, examine the situation, and ask – what should happen to EPCOT?
John Hench was one of the Imagineers who worked heavily on the creation of EPCOT Center in the 1970s and 1980s, and from his writings one gains the impression that he was among the most scholarly of Walt’s original team. Hench seems, in his interviews, to be a very thoughtful person who was concerned not only with what works in themed design, but why it works and what that says about us as a species. One of the better-known ideas that Hench often spoke of involves the roots of Mickey Mouse’s popularity; Hench believed that the circles that underlie Mickey’s design tapped into an inherent human predilection towards that form. Humans, or so Hench thought, had an evolutionarily conditioned positive response to roundness; roundness meant safety and nurturing, while sharp angles meant danger. Hench saw Mickey’s triumph in public popularity over his angular rival Felix the Cat as a microcosm of this effect.
Mostly, though, Hench hated contradictions. The success of Disneyland, in his eyes, stemmed from its lack of contradictions. Every area of Disneyland grew out of a pure notion of a specific time and place that resonated deeply with the collective unconscious. In Disneyland’s Main Street, Hench said, they took everything iconic from mid-American small towns of that era and stripped it of contradictions, especially the contradictions that had crept in since the time it’s meant to depict. There never was a real small town like that, but there’s an element of truth in it that strikes a chord with visitors and is somehow true to all those Main Streets without being really at all accurate.
This must be the first goal of any EPCOT renewal – the elimination of contradictions, be they visual, thematic, or content-based. EPCOT must once more be seen as a whole, not an unrelated smattering of parts without relation to each other or to the whole. The pavilions must share similar goals, if not necessarily similar approaches; a shared and stated purpose would give this park a clear identity for the first time in decades.
These contradictions now run throughout the park, on a number of scales. They can be as small as selling pirate merchandise or Crocs from push-carts in the Innoventions breezeways or featuring Aladdin in the Morocco pavilion to something as large as the fact that Soarin’ has no relation to the rest of The Land. The cacophonous buildup of years of poor choices (a Coca Cola carwash in front of Test Track?) lies in layers over the park, and must be stripped away completely.
This does not, necessarily, mean a complete reset to EPCOT Center, Day One. While obviously I’m more a fan of the original EPCOT than its current incarnation, that doesn’t mean we haven’t learned anything in the last twenty-seven years or that the original park was perfect. For one thing, as I’ve mentioned, it was under-built to handle the initial rush of guests. Another element that received some criticism even at the time was the influence and effect on the pavilions by their corporate sponsors. Disney needed corporate participation to fund the park; the necessity of pleasing the sponsors was critical to EPCOT’s existence and often influenced the narratives of the pavilions. Where in GM’s World of Motion ride was the push for mass transit or alternatives to the internal combustion engine? Exxon’s Universe of Energy, though spectacular, has been biased in favor of fossil fuels in both its versions, and tends to gloss over any real potential for alternate forms of energy production. The Land was originally intended to focus on ecology and the world’s biomes, until sponsor Kraft signed on and shifted the pavilion’s message to nutrition and food production.
In most of these examples, the problem came from a lack of meaningful exploration of cutting-edge ideas or alternatives that would mean real change for the future. By showing a future full of shiny, high-tech automobiles, World of Motion essentially punted on the idea of meaningful advances in the way we travel and just showed us a more glossy and streamlined version of our current modes of transportation. With the exception of Horizons and, to an extent, The Living Seas, truly groundbreaking ideas were not prominently embraced in the actual attractions, and if they existed at all they were often relegated to post-show areas or exhibits in Communicore.
The most glaring element missing from the original Future World attractions, as much as I loved them, was a slight deficit in humanism and a lack of global perspective. EPCOT grew out of the mid-century World’s Fair tradition, in which technology was viewed as a solution in itself to humanity’s problems. Personally, I grew up immersed in this mindset and still find it engaging. What the last several decades has taught us, though, is that technology in and of itself will not solve our problems for us, but must be promoted and applied wisely, efficiently, and equally if it’s to benefit everyone. EPCOT emerged from a very suburban worldview, where having a push-button kitchen wizard that cooks your rump roast with RADAR means real progress. What this picture misses is the fact that if someone on the other side of the world doesn’t have access or the means for RADAR, roasts, or even kitchens, those distant problems might eventually find their way to your doorstep. This global outlook was not completely absent from early EPCOT, of course; the technologies discussed in The Land might eventually prove critical for ending famine and providing economic growth in arid or resource-poor areas, and Horizons was centered on human adaptation to future lifestyles. But this idea of interconnectedness should be present in all Future World pavilions, as it will eventually be necessary to achieve the futuristic view that the park was built to embrace.
It’s this vision of the future – and what it means for people worldwide – that has often been lost in the years since EPCOT’s debut. As the years passed, many said that the Future World pavilions had become outdated and, like even the best futurism, this was often true. The critical failure in these arguments, though, is that the elements that had become outdated were mostly superficial; a dated-looking polyester jumpsuit or outmoded color scheme are trivialities and easily changed. The fact that’s often missed is that the ideas and problems addressed in the pavilions are just as relevant, if not more so, now as in 1982.
One thing that struck me repeatedly during last year’s presidential race was how often the critical issues being discussed had a direct connection to something that had once been addressed in EPCOT’s pavilions. Energy policy, transportation and its infrastructure, the environment and ecology, and universal access to information technology were all at the fore. Topics that were on the back burner of public discussion when EPCOT opened are often headline news these days; computers are no longer slightly mystical items reserved for the academic elite, and the public is now versed in subjects like the need for alternative energy, the problem of pollution and global warming, and the search for new modes of transportation.
In this regard, EPCOT is now actually behind the curve. Look at Universe of Energy – so much has been done in recent years to explore new possibilities for energy production and to understand the hazards of continuing our current path; we’ve seen An Inconvenient Truth become the highest-grossing documentary ever, and fuel cells and passive solar become fairly familiar terms. While I find Ellen’s Energy Adventure amusing and fairly entertaining, it’s also backward-looking. With everything that’s changed in the world since its 1996 debut, the Energy pavilion once more needs to embrace and evangelize cutting edge technologies that guests might one day be able to use on a daily basis to reduce our dependence on a carbon-based economy.
Disney must do this with each pavilion. While they seem to just cast about desperately for a character or gimmick to put into each attraction, they really just need to look at the fields of study the pavilions were intended to address and look at how relevant they’ve become in the real world. Energy’s importance has been discussed. Transportation has become a critical issue for both personal and mass transit, and the way these problems are dealt with both inside and between cities. The Land already has its greenhouses, which are fantastic, to address the need for more efficient methods of food production in areas where water is scarce – including the American west – and the necessity of finding creative ways to reduce our needs for harmful chemical fertilizers and pesticides. The Seas are also a vital topic of interest; key areas include pollution and the role of the seas in global warming, the best ways to exploit the seas’ resources without exhausting them, and the sheer possibilities and excitement afforded by exploration in this uncharted realm.
Space is a subject with vast, awe-inspiring potential that Mission: Space fails to exploit. The current attraction would serve, perhaps, as an adequate preshow to a fully-conceived space-based attraction that could truly convey the excitement of space exploration and the possibilities it holds for advances in various life sciences, materials science, and resource exploitation.
An even more relevant issue is now completely ignored in the park; the closure of Wonders of Life now looks patently absurd, as health issues have come to the forefront of public debate. Issues such as healthy lifestyles and preventative healthcare are a necessary part of the future that EPCOT was built to portray. EPCOT was intended to tackle these issues in an engaging and public way; Disney can continue to retreat from this idea and just provide an odd assortment of vaguely “discovery” themed attractions, or they can do the hard work and pull it all back into focus.
The trick, of course, is how to present these critical ideas and themes without becoming preachy, dry, or unentertaining. It’s an incredibly difficult proposition, of course, but it’s possible; Walt himself always believed the best way to inform was through entertainment, and that’s been proven time and time again. Look, again, at Horizons – it presented many glimpses at the technologies that will influence our future without becoming didactic or boring. Each attraction need not provide a full education on its specific subject matter, but it should give a sense of the possibilities ahead and allow guests an entry into the material that could spark further interest.
So far, I’ve focused mostly on the Future World pavilions. This is because the ideas promoted by that part of EPCOT are so much more abstract and difficult than those illustrated in World Showcase. Future World is also far easier to get wrong, as a failure of any of its parts or in achieving some sense of cohesiveness can happen easily if Imagineers take their eye off the ball. World Showcase, in comparison, is pretty easy to get right.
It also helps that the Showcase, for the most part, has actually improved over the years. This is merely my observation, but I feel that elements such as the food and entertainment have become slightly more authentic as the cultural horizons of average Americans have widened due to greater exposure to different nationalities. It seems as if these elements have become more varied in the pavilions as well; it seems that there’s always some performance happening in World Showcase at any time.
This doesn’t mean that Showcase is without need for improvement. Obviously, as any fan would tell you, it needs to be expanded. There is a thirty year backlog of unbuilt pavilions, with the last addition coming a full twenty years ago. More than that, though, there needs to be a renewed focus on the cultures of the individual nations beyond mere shops and restaurants, or especially character greeting experiences. Rides and films are always welcome, of course, but they should actually reveal something about the countries themselves rather than serving as venues for character-based promotions or cheap thrills. Aside from these more expensive options, other types of cultural features should be considered. The small museum galleries in Norway, China and Japan are always interesting diversions, but should be expanded or refreshed more often. This idea could be expanded to other pavilions as well. But beyond static displays or ride attractions, there’s room to explore new concepts. I’ve always pictured something like an incense-filled room in Morocco, with a storyteller spinning yarns from the nation’s past while in-theater effects enhance the tales. Films are great too, but must be kept fresh – the Norwegian film is about fifteen years overdue for a reshoot.
There are many fixes that could be made to EPCOT piecemeal, but I think the best way to do it is to build a dedicated team of Imagineers who understand the big ideas behind the park, and let them craft a single coherent refreshed design for the park. I also think that there should be a designated creative lead on the park; this person must be both aware of EPCOT’s history and enthused about its future. The “all at once” concept worked well in 1982, and it’s necessary now to strip the park of those contradictions we mentioned before. A team of Imagineers who see EPCOT’s potential, rather than seeing as some corny, stodgy snoozefest to be made fun of, could craft a message for Future World and insure a consistent level of thought and design throughout World Showcase. They could tie the ideas of the park together, remove the current feeling of isolated and unrelated experiences, and give the park the thesis it needs.