Amongst Disney watchers, there is a subset of us which could glibly be referred to as the “WED did it better” crowd. With a historical view of Disney attraction offerings, one can come to the conclusion that the old-guard Imagineering that created Pirates of the Caribbean, the Country Bear Jamboree and Horizons possessed a certain flair that the Imagineering that created Stitch’s Great Escape, Journey into YOUR Imagination, and Monsters Inc. Laugh Floor lacks.
The real reasons for this perceived shift are hard to single out; there’s certainly not a lack of artistic talent or technical wizardry at Imagineering, even after several waves of layoff and attrition. There are a variety of opinions out there as to why things are the way they are, and at what level the responsibility lies. And the blame doesn’t all fall squarely on Imagineering’s shoulders either; after all, they can only build what they are asked by the parks division to build, and only with the budget they’re allotted by Disney corporate.
It’s a complicated issue, and the subject for another post. But even for those of us who sense these changes it’s occasionally difficult to put into words just what is different. It’s easier, though, when a situation presents itself where you can compare apples to apples and the difference between the two ages of Imagineering crystallize. These are “one to one” comparisons; the aforementioned Journey into YOUR Imagination is a perfect example. It’s predecessor, Journey into Imagination, was an omnimover-based darkride about imagination. Subsequent versions were also omnimover-based darkrides about imagination, both of which used parts of the original ride’s track and one of which featured a character from the original. Yet the original Imagination attraction was an artfully-created favorite that is still considered a masterpiece, while its followups are considered two of the most loathed attractions in Disney history.
Another one of these easy comparisons came to light recently with some negative press coverage of an new exhibit at Epcot’s Innoventions pavilion. The new exhibit, Habit Heroes, is ostensibly intended to encourage better eating habits and exercise in young people. But according to the Calgary Herald, it has come under criticism from anti-obesity advocates and public health groups for its rather clumsy and clueless lessons about the epidemiology of obesity and the negative messages it conveys to young visitors. Dr. Yoni Freedhoff, an assistant professor of family medicine at the University of Ottawa, calls it a “gross oversimplification”, while George Washington University professor Rebecca Scritchfield simply said, “I would love to know what sickos thought this up.”
While it could be said I have more than a passing interest in Epcot, I rarely bother to pay attention when new exhibits open in Innoventions. This is, of course, mostly because Innoventions is terrible. It’s improved somewhat since its early days, when it felt cobbled together from cast-off industry trade show displays; at least now its exhibits feel custom designed and represent some level of investment. But as we’ve discussed with Carsland, just because a project is well-funded doesn’t mean that it’s well thought out. Innoventions still feels like a dark, dark box where all the leftover pieces of string and rubber bands have been swept.
When I scrolled up the video of Habit Heroes to see what the fuss was about, my opinion of Innovations was not changed. As seems to be par for the course these days, it’s really loud and really dumb. Basically, the message is that fat people are supervillains that can be reformed by peer pressure… and also you can shoot broccoli at fast food, or something. It’s truly insightful stuff. Take a look:
Of course, Epcot used to have an entire pavilion dedicated to good health. The fields of health and medicine were considered a key element of Epcot’s mandate, and work on a “Life & Health” pavilion began back in the 1970s. And this is where the difference between WED and WDI begins to become clear.
To assist in the crafting of Life & Health’s content, Disney assembled a team of medical professionals and academics from a number of fields. The chief adviser for the pavilion was Dr. Charles Lewis, a UCLA professor and expert in the fields of preventative medicine and health education. According to Rolly Crump, who led the pavilion’s design team, Lewis (who Crump called “Dr. Chuck”) was intent on incorporating positive messages into the attraction and keeping things entertaining. Lewis’s opinion, says Crump, was “If it’s a ton of fun, and an ounce of information, you’ll reach a teachable moment.” Continues Crump, “Now it doesn’t get any better than that. And that’s exactly what we used as our motto for all the different parts that we designed for EPCOT.” Lewis would later say that such a pavilion could only work “only to the extent that it primarily provides entertainment and enjoyment.”
Lewis was insistent on this point. Part of his mandate which is relevant to this discussion was that:
Thou shalt not increase fear or anxiety, send put-down messages to any group related to their “health habits”, or increase the dependency of individuals on others.
Lewis felt that, unique among Epcot’s pavilions, Life & Health faced the dilemma of not only having to be inspirational but also motivational. It had to help encourage visitors to take specific action, whether that be exercise, improving habits, or quitting smoking. To achieve this end the pavilion’s messages should be clear and simple, and the tone positive. The information received was less important to Lewis than the emotion experienced, for that is what would encourage guests to seek out more information and take meaningful action once they returned to life outside the theme park. This required information presented in the pavilion to be free of ethical judgments.
The difference between the tone of the Life & Health pavilion and something like Habit Heroes is clear. But there was even a more direct comparison to be made from among Life & Health’s offerings. One of the key elements of the pavilion was to be an interactive arcade called – amazingly – the “You Bet Your Life” Gambling Hall and Shooting Gallery. Now, if that name alone isn’t testament enough to how awesome WED was, nothing is.
The Gambling Hall and Shooting Gallery was to feature a number of custom-created games emphasizing different aspects of health and fitness. Apropos to this discussion was this shooting gallery game:
In this game, various foodstuffs would pop up at the bottom of the display and guests would shoot at them a la a shooting gallery. The animated cyclist at the top of the game would race against other players like a midway steeplechase game. His speed would be determined by which food items players shot out; higher-calorie items would require him to cycle longer to burn them off and would delay his arrival at the finish line.
It seems so simple, but you can see how this game – from around 1978! – compares to the shoot-em-up action in Habit Heroes. The Life & Health version is aspirational, not punitive. People are trying to achieve something, not prevent something. It illustrates, in a fun way, how one can make choices and affect change. And it educates, providing information about the caloric value of different foods, and what is required in order to work those calories off. And all while being fun.
This game, sadly, never came to be; Disney struggled to find a sponsor for Life & Health and by the time Wonders of Life opened in 1989 the company had new leadership and the pavilion had been handed off to another creative team. But even Wonders of Life had a few examples of fun-motivated health exhibits – who remembers fondly riding through Disneyland while burning calories on the Wonder Cycles?
These kinds of analysis seem esoteric and nitpicky, but it is these small shades of tone and meaning that separate an effective attraction from preachy unpleasantness. And, unfortunately, it is increasingly this level of subtlety and finesse that separates EPCOT from Epcot.
UPDATE: Word is on the Disney travel planning sites that “Habit Heroes” has closed today pending changes. Some are berating Walt Disney World for giving in to pressure, but I obviously feel this is a good decision on their part and hopefully motivated not merely by bad publicity but by realizing that it is a flawed attraction. But whatever it takes, I guess.
There’s also been a weird backlash against the closure, most of which reads like “fatties should suck it up and stop whining” and “THIS IS WHAT IS WRONG WITH AMERICAZ!!1!”. To this I would counter that obviously this is a huge epidemiological issue which is precisely why it should be tackled with finesse. People don’t respond well to scolding or shaming, which is what this entire post is about – earlier attempts at addressing the theme went out of their way to consult health professionals who stressed this point.
And ultimately this isn’t a “free to be you and me” issue of feelings anyway – it’s a matter of information. I’ve seen some refer to Habit Heroes as “edutainment”, which is beyond laughable. There is nothing remotely educational about it. Do you really think “junk food is bad” is a huge moment of enlightenment and education for most people? Even children? As I mentioned, this is a major societal issue which is why people need to be informed and inspired, and merely parroting “you should get some exercise” is not cutting it. It’s window dressing for just another flat-screen videogame; an attempt to cloak the fact that they’re just re-using the Toy Story Midway Mania technology with a veneer of respectability because the show is now about “health.” There is an enormous difference between having a message that is “simple” and a message that is “facile”. This is facile.
It’s facile, and a microcosm of what plagues modern Epcot. Mission:SPACE isn’t really about the promise of colonizing space, it’s just a thrill ride. Test Track isn’t about… anything, really, it’s just a thrill ride. Energy is based on Exxon-approved information from twenty years ago. And the Seas is about selling Nemo merchandise. I’ll ask you this – would it have cost them any more to have used the exact same show scenes currently in the Nemo ride, but made the plot about “Mr. Ray” taking Nemo’s class through the ocean and talking about all the cool stuff out there? Probably not, but instead they just repeated the plot of the film. This is my problem – I’m not talking about building California Adventure because it cost less than Westcot, I’m talking about not taking the time to think about what you’re doing and make it relevant to Epcot’s mission. These are cases in which good taste literally does not cost any more. And in Habit Heroes it would cost less, since they wouldn’t have to retool it.
One more thing – I’ve had some folks interpret my lead-in as a blanket criticism of WDI, which was not the case. As I’ve said, there are a lot of very talented people at Imagineering working very, very hard to keep the old ways alive. But somehow, that effort on the bottom doesn’t always filter its way through the system and into the parks. While WDI’s output has seen a marked decline over the years, I honestly do not place the majority of the blame at Imagineering’s doorstep – at least, at the sub-managerial level of Imagineering. There are so many places along the project pipeline where things can go awry. As I said: Imagineering can only build what the parks request, and with the budget they are given. And at every step in the process there are managers and meddlers trying to foul things up. It’s a miracle anything makes it though at all, so we should cherish those triumphs when they do.
There are many Imagineers who agree wholeheartedly with you and I about all the things we grouse about. And they have my respect (and sympathy) as they work extremely hard to right the ship and push through projects worthy of the Disney legacy. However in this specific instance the fault has to be placed with the content creators. The exhibit doesn’t appear overtly cheap, and the mandate – a show about health and exercise – is sound. I did not mean to say that every problem in the Disney parks is the fault of WDI, however, and if it reads that way I apologize.
And yes, I changed the title of the article. Epcot Explorer name-checked the old “Goofy About Health” show and I was so angry at myself for not thinking of that as a title.
Now get out there and do some jumping jacks before I have to throw broccoli at you!