This recent post at EPCOT Central got me thinking about the role corporate sponsors should play there. Of course, during EPCOT’s “golden age” in the 1980s and early 90s, each Future World pavilion had its own corporate sponsor, and the countries in the World Showcase (most of them, anyway) were “sponsored” by their respective nations. The American Adventure had even had two corporate sponsors: American Express and Coca-Cola. The steady loss of corporate sponsors in the 1990s coincided with the decline of the park during that period, and both official and unofficial statements coming out of Disney during that time blamed the pavilion closures and lack of overall maintenance on the absence of those all-important sponsorship dollars. Curiously, during the late ‘90s a fourth gate, Disney’s Animal Kingdom, was added without any major corporate alliances being announced to help share the costs. Also, Magic Kingdom attractions like the Jungle Cruise, Pirates of the Caribbean, and Splash Mountain continued to operate without corporate sponsors. In 1994 Tomorrowland even received a huge facelift, complete with new attractions, without any new corporate sponsorship being announced to help pay for it. I think you see where I’m going here.
Disney does not need corporate sponsors to help them operate EPCOT. They might have needed them in the early 80s, when the company had just dropped a massive amount of money to build the park and the Disney brand was not as strong as it is now, but a lot of things have changed. The company is a global multimedia powerhouse, and it has maybe the strongest brand in the world next to Coca-Cola. The issue throughout the 1990s to mid 2000s was not that Disney could not afford to operate the park without sponsors, they just chose to spend the money on other things. Happily, things seem to be changing in that regard. We’ll have to wait and see.
A second reason why corporate sponsorships might seem vital to EPCOT is that without them, thoughtful-yet-entertaining presentations on some aspect of the future are given the short shrift in favor of stuff like this:
Whereas corporate sponsors can showcase their future-shaping innovations in an EPCOT pavilion, Disney’s main export is Licensed Characters. United Technologies provided a deep-sea diving suit for people to try; all Disney has is Bruce the Shark. However, remember that perhaps the most beloved EPCOT Center attraction, Horizons, was developed by WED with little to no input from GE, the pavilion’s sponsor. The design of that attraction’s immersive future sequences wasn’t outsourced to the sponsor. Clearly, Disney is more than capable of coming up with innovative and amazing Future World attractions, but the philosophy of the company since the Eisner years has been to tie everything into some licensed Disney property or other to create “synergy”. (That word should be taken out and shot) Again, there’s a possibility that things are changing on that front. The damage of the last decade won’t be undone in a year or two, though. I’m inclined to wait and see what kind of park we have in another ten years or so before passing any judgment.
So, what kind of role might corporate sponsors play at EPCOT in the coming decade? I’m no insider, just a guy with opinions, but I’d be shocked if we ever see another whole-pavilion sponsorship by a large company. Things like the Siemens sponsorship of Spaceship Earth will be the exception, not the rule. Innoventions will continue to be the main showplace for corporate wares, but most if not all of the real estate will be used by smaller, cutting-edge companies with which the general public is not extremely familiar. Large, familiar companies like Honda and Microsoft will likely choose to spend their marketing dollars elsewhere.
This will nicely eliminate one of the problems with the old EPCOT Center: large companies sponsoring a pavilion in which they have a vested interest in a certain point of view, like Exxon with the Energy pavilion or GM with the Transportation pavilion.
Still, I’d hoping for one more big corporate sponsorship: Apple in the Imagination pavilion. I can’t imagine Steve Jobs actually doing it, but I wish he would.