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Goofy About Health

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.

No seriously, this was a thing.

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!

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21 comments to Goofy About Health

  • Just wow. I haven’t set foot in Innoventions in years and had no idea what was going on there. Great post!

    Now this, please:

    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… It’s a complicated issue, and the subject for another post.

    • Haha that assignment might be over my pay grade. I’m not even sure of the reasons for why things are the way they are. I think you have to be inside the system to understand its nuances, and maybe not even then.

      It is indeed complicated. I’ve had some people interpret this piece as overall anti-WDI, which was not the case. As I said, there’s no lack of talent there. And I pointed out that they do not decide what projects get built or where, or what their budgets are. What’s interesting about this *specific* case is that it is not the budget or general assignment that’s at fault, but very specifically the execution.

      I don’t know anything about the team assigned to this, or the circumstances of its creation, but when you look at the very careful thought process that went into creating Life & Health’s message that seems to be lacking from this attraction.

      I’ve seen a lot of people scoff at the objections to this show, saying that it’s “edutainment”. How, exactly, is it educational? By pointing out that junk food is bad for you? How revelatory. There’s a difference between having a “simple” message and having a “facile” one. This is facile.

      About WDI – who knows… maybe some day I’ll know enough to write that story :)

  • RO93461

    It’s ironic that a “lap band” banner ad obscured the screen while I was trying to watch the video.

  • RabidLeroy

    Never mind the mixed reviews of poor Habit Heroes… given the high tech capability of the exhibit, this could have been the key to have brought back Wonders of Life… Instead of shaming the villains as what others perceive could happen to the unlucky members of the audience (read: those on the chunky side or the skinny side), they should have encouraged others to consider ‘helping them’. I knew that Habit Heroes would have been an iodine-swab and bandage solution to follow the footsteps of the former Wonders of Life pavilion, but thanks to those wanting it to close, it seems the wound is beginning to fester at poor Epcot… and spread to the Mouse’s possible message on health habits… “turn on each other!”
    Looks like poor Buzzy would have been upset that if this was the result, management would have used their heads more while preparing the exhibit.

    • Spot on – if this is such a serious topic, Epcot should still have a health pavilion to address it. The point about turning on each other is a good one; I was kind of surprised the message of the last bit was literally “use peer pressure to make the evil fat guy dance”. I mean… that’s not subtext, that’s right there on the surface!

  • EPCOT Man

    It is really sad to see something like this at Epcot. When I compare this to Sum Of All Thrills and the Math Moves You website or even the Great Piggy Bank Adventure, I really wonder what is going on.

    You are right, Michael, it is the subtlety and finesse that separates EPCOT from Epcot.

    • And the sheer randomness of ALL those exhibits just shows that they’re pretty much plopping in things regardless of the overall message.

      • Scott

        This would perfectly describe Communicore/Innoventions from the very beginning. It started out a mess, and continues to be to this day.

        I have no idea what they could do to truly save the pavilion, but nothing they’ve tried has ever worked.

  • Sarah

    The idea behind the Habit Heroes is simply psychological bullying that will never encourage better eating habits in children. They should do a campaign for parents to tell them that they are killing their kids to feed them the way they do. This campaign only shows that some people working for Disney don’t realize that obesity is not the child’s fault but the result of their parents’ inability to give them the care they need. Today’s parents are so busy that they rarely find time to be with their children. They all too often neglect the fact that children need to interact and cooperate with others in order to develop healthy relationships later in life. The natural result then can really be the child’s inability to manage stress which may finally lead to problems such as obesity or other diseases. That’s why I always tried to find some new activities to encourage the natural development of my chiIdren and visited as many baby-centers in Toronto as possible when my children were born. I discovered a number of funny ways to build a strong relationship and I always try to spend as much of my free time as possible with them to avoid similar problems in their adolescence.

    • That’s a good point – informing kids is fine, and should be encouraged, but the real gatekeepers of what kids eat and when are the parents. Parental engagement and awareness are the real threat factor here and this show doesn’t go beyond “junk food is bad for you!” (Duh.)

  • Sadly this is a great read that the people who should read it – those blindly defending Disney’s original design of the attraction – will likely never read because they reject anything that isn’t the company line.

  • Brilliant post. I have yet to experience Habit Heroes (and now can’t because it’s being tinkered with), but my reason for avoiding it is exactly the same as yours: Innoventions is terrible. I always thought Communicore was a bit of a weak link in the original Epcot, but Innoventions takes it to a whole new level of badness. I find most of the exhibits insulting, and even though so-called “good ones” (Sum of all Thrills, the Hurricane thing, the Fire safety thing) are just sort of okay Children’s Museum types of things. It’s a mishmash of design aesthetics and corporate logos, and padded with some downright lazy placeholders (Disney games on PS3, anyone?)

    • Yup, exactly. None of it is determined by, “What would be cool to have here?” It’s all decided by, “What company or group can we troll to pay for an exhibit?” And they’re all pointless games that convey information with the depth of “saving money is good” and “exercise is good”.

  • Kris

    The technology that they are using looks like it has a lot of potential to be really fun… but I agree that the messages that they are pushing are overly simplified, and the exercise segment could be seen as an affront to guests who are struggling with weight. It seems to me that there are many reasons for weight (ex. inflammation). I was only slightly overweight, but I wasn’t able to shift it until I found out that I was allergic to foods. Then, it was nearly effortless (except for the diet change). I can imagine that there were complaints from people about the undercurrent of messaging in this exhibit. People must be looking at this stuff and be thinking, “I’ve tried that… this makes me just feel like I haven’t tried hard enough, but I’ve put all that I can into doing better!”. Not really how you want the audience to feel coming out of an attraction… I went to a panel last night, with a bunch of theme park designers talking about their work, and one of the ideas that came up a few times was to think about how you wanted the audience to feel when you build a show or attraction, and then build the attraction so that it has that “heart”…

    While the intention is good, I think that with the wealth of information out there, audiences can handle a more complex message that they can learn something from (ex. with the example of the shooting gallery with the bicylist, you could teach an audience about how proteins, fats and sugars fuel the body — long-burning fuels vs. slow-burning fuels — and how to balance the types of foods you take in for maximum and stable energy…). I am sure that the games could be more educational, less personal, but still fun for audiences… The exhibit could also be something that inspires people to find what uniquely helps them in their quest to be more healthy… every “body” is different…

    I used to wonder where the “whimsy” had gone in new attractions — a lot of attractions seem to be more serious about their subject (ex. Test Track, Mission: Space, Soarin’, etc.). Even things that are meant to be playful seem to miss that humble, self-deprecating humor of the old attractions, which didn’t necessarily even seek to be realistic (ex. World of Motion, Horizons, Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride). Not that every attraction has to have “whimsy”… I just was feeling like that old sense of “fun” was missing. But I can’t deny that Journey Into Your Imagination or Habit Heroes are an attempt at whimsy. Maybe the difference is that these attractions are “personal” — it’s “your imagination” or “your habits”… which kindof takes some of the playfulness out of it, because now you’re not a spectator on something fun… that fun is a reflection of “you”… which then invades on you, as an audience.

    If I understand the original spirit of Epcot, it was meant to be inspiring… which means showing us amazing possilities, interesting things about the world around us (even if we don’t fully understand it — that means that we will learn something new each time we view it), and giving us things to look forward to… Every designer will have a mis-step or something that doesn’t work. Last night, when the designers were asked how they know that an audience is really going to love an attraction, every single one admitted, “We don’t…”. Hopefully, the new revision will be great, and designers will grow to understand the needs and desires of the audiences more and more, so that new attractions will increasingly have the “fun” and “heart” that the designers probably intend for them to have… As they say in music, everyone plays a wrong note at some point — it’s how you recover that matters.

  • RO93461

    I was told once that John Hench said in response to making EPCOT more entertaining
    “There’s nothing funny about the future!”. They took him seriously..

  • FigmentJedi

    The thing I’ve been taking more from Habit Heroes isn’t just the whole offensive parts of it, but how hilariously bad the character designs in the attraction and on the web version are. Like they put the Incredibles into a blender with a “How to Design Unsubtle, Over the Top Edutainment Villains The Captain Planet Way” book and that a character representing insecurity is literally a pink and black repaint of Violet. And that’s among characters representing not brushing your teeth to drinking too much caffeine, sharing personal info online, not stretching before exercising and all sorts of After School Special messages.

    I can only imagine what sort of a different cheesefest this thing will be after the rehaul. Either way, the only interesting draw in Innoventions will still be Sum of All Thrills

  • Lem

    Great post, Michael.

    Walt was the real master of edutainment. For example, his True-Life Adventures were all about the beauty and wonder of the natural world, and would inspire feelings of conservation without having to even utter the word. Contrast that with the heavy-handed, guilt trippy, “humans are the scum of the earth” feeling you get when watching that awful “Circle of Life” film at The Land.

    It’s all about presentation and being able to convince and inspire. It’s more virtuous to convince that force it.

  • [...] Goofy About Health over at Progress City USA: The real reasons for this perceived shift are hard to single out; [...]

  • Oh and just so you know, Habit Heroes has already reopened roughly one and a half months ago with drastic changes, so you might want to do something about updating this post somehow. Or something different and analytic. That’s up to you.

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