Thursday, September 20, 2012

The EPCOT30 Discontinuity Overanalysis

Corporations with long histories like Disney are usually myopically focused on the present. While they’re more than happy to use past successes to promote themselves, their image of the past is always very much a hazy, soft-focus picture that completely omits any of the company’s mistakes or failures. The continuing narrative they present about themselves in their advertising is that, while the past was glorious, the company’s present set of offerings is the best it’s ever been, and that there’s no better time than now to give them a whole bunch of your money.

Disney’s occasional theme park anniversary celebrations are a prime example of this. You can expect an anniversary celebration at Florida’s Magic Kingdom, for example, to include lots of talk about how many generations of children the park has entertained and maybe even some clever nods to old attractions that wouldn’t appeal to modern audiences, like If You Had Wings or The Mickey Mouse Revue. But there will usually be no acknowledgement of offerings like the Mike Fink Keel Boats that were removed just to cut costs, because that would be too much like admitting a mistake. And if there’s one thing that large corporations and third world dictatorships have in common, it’s an aggressive whitewashing of the past to eliminate anything that has the slightest potential to be unflattering.

Disney has been doing this for a long time. Heck, they spent most of the 1980s insisting that the Walt Disney World Resort was the Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow that Walt wanted to build in Florida, and that EPCOT Center was built exactly according to Walt’s vision. The trend has only accelerated since they became a multinational corporate behemoth, and it presents a special problem for EPCOT.

By any objective standard of measurement, EPCOT was way better before 1994. It offered more and higher-quality attractions, better food, and better shops with a greater variety of merchandise. More than any other property in the Disney empire, EPCOT has been diminished by eighteen years of mismanagement and a cynical philosophy that says it’s okay to save money by eliminating nice things because customers are too stupid to know the difference between filet mignon and a dirt sandwich.

Which is why the distinct EPCOT Center flavor of EPCOT’s 30th anniversary celebration is so surprising. Take a look at this piece of official artwork:


Notice anything strange about it? There’s nothing of present-day EPCOT there. It’s the same story with the anniversary merchandise; except for the execrable sight of Duffy in a Figment sweater and a strange-looking Mickey Vinylmation, all the 30th anniversary items are EPCOT Center-related. And from the information that’s been released, it appears that the special anniversary events focus entirely on pre-1994 EPCOT Center. Most of these theme park anniversaries focus on the present and ignore the past; this one is essentially ignoring the present. It’s certainly tempting to look at all this and see it as a tacit admission by Disney that they’ve botched the last eighteen years.

As I often say around here, I’m not a Disney insider, just a guy with opinions. But I read stuff written by people who do have inside information, and they’re all unanimous in pointing out how mistaken it is to attribute a singular corporate intent to everything that happens under the Disney umbrella. What we outsiders often think of as one monolithic Disney Corporation is actually a huge sprawling thing full of numerous competing factions and fiefdoms.

My own uninformed opinion is that the EPCOT30 celebration is the work of a pro-EPCOT Center faction. The fact that they seemingly are being left alone to do what they want (as long as they stay under budget, I imagine) suggests to me that they really aren’t on the executives’ radar. It’s kind of like how the creative staff of Deep Space Nine was able to get away with taking all kinds of interesting risks because the Paramount executives were ignoring them to focus on Star Trek: Voyager and the film franchise. So I’m certainly not taking this year’s EPCOT Center lovefest as a sign that Disney’s executive decision-makers have decided to start investing the money to reverse all their EPCOT-related mistakes of the past two decades.

But I’m hopeful that the EPCOT30 celebration brings in a ton of money and gives the pro-EPCOT faction within the company some more ammo to make the case for a little more reinvestment in what was once the crown jewel of theme parks.

Saturday, September 8, 2012

The EPCOT Logo Futurization Flub

The original EPCOT Center logo was great; futuristic and memorable:


However, that didn’t mean it should never change. After all, EPCOT itself was supposed to constantly change, always adding new things and updating existing ones. So Disney’s decision in the mid-1990s to change the park’s logo was not necessarily a bad one. Unfortunately, the mid-1990s were not a good time for visual design. This was, after all, the period where Batman’s costume acquired rubber nipples and the NBA’s Toronto Raptors played in ridiculous-looking uniforms with jagged pinstripes and a cartoon dinosaur in the center of the chest. So maybe it was inevitable that EPCOT’s new logo would be bad. But at least the person who designed the nippled Batsuit was trying. Whoever designed the current EPCOT logo . . . well, just look at it:


It looks like something a clueless management trainee came up with in 1995 about five minutes after they discovered the Microsoft Works clip art gallery. It’s not just a bad design, it’s a lazy design. At best, it inspired indifference. I’m not privy to Disney’s sales figures, but I can’t imagine that merchandise featuring the present logo was ever a big hit. And these days, you can hardly find it. Almost all the EPCOT t-shirts on sale in the park are of the retro variety, which to me is a tacit admission that the current logo is less popular than the Tonight Show with Jay Leno. Last week on Twitter I said I could come up with a better logo just by typing the acronym “EPCOT” in an appropriately futuristic font. So I went to, loaded up on some fonts from their Techno section, and came up with these alternate EPCOT logos:


Font: Vandiana Platin. I like this one because it’s basically a sleeker version of the typeface used in the original EPCOT logo. Even better, the park’s signage could also be rendered in this font (or a slightly narrower variant) and it would still be readable.


Font: Excelerate. We have to keep in mind that EPCOT’s logo was updated in the 90s, and the predominant design sensibility then was less about making things sleek and minimal and more about making them look “kewl”. Although this one isn’t my favorite by any means, I think it’s something that could realistically have come out of that decade.


Font: Phatboy Slim. Another generically techno-looking typeface.


Font: Metro-DF. The more I look at this one, the more I like it. I think one thing the designer/clip art selector of the present EPCOT logo was trying to do was represent the World Showcase and Future World in one design. This one does a good job of accomplishing that, I think, because it’s a little less futuristic than the other fonts we’ve seen so far.


Font: Prototype (the freeware equivalent of World Bold) Or they could have just rendered the “new” EPCOT logo in the font that’s been used on most of the Entrance Plaza and Future World signage since 1982. Even after all these years, it still looks pretty good.

And there you have it: five better-looking alternatives to the present EPCOT logo, created by simply typing the acronym “EPCOT” in a better font. Hopefully one day soon the current design will go the way of the Astuter Computer Revue, and a 21st-century version of the original logo will take its place.

Thursday, September 6, 2012

The Reality Rule

Last week when the five-year-old Cars Land-in-Florida rumor was resurrected by the Great Internet Speculatron, I got to thinking about the nature of reality.

I realize that sentence may raise some questions, like what does Cars Land have to do with the nature of reality? Also, what kind of chemicals are in the water where I am? So let me explain. For the last few years those of us who care about such things had resigned ourselves to the fact that there would be no Cars Land in Florida anytime soon, if ever, and that Disney’s Hollywood Studios would remain pretty much the same for the foreseeable future.

And then somebody on a message board who is generally believed to have inside information said that Disney was bringing Cars Land to Hollywood Studios. Some people loved the idea and some hated it, but for both groups Cars Land at the Studios was real. They were already picturing themselves walking down the Streets of America and seeing off in the distance a Radiator Springs Racers sign and those angled rocks from where Captain Kirk fought the Gorn.

KirkGornThe only difference is that the Cars Land rocks are more orange

And as things began to cool down with more rumors that maybe John Lasseter was against the idea and the realization that Disney’s thick-headed Orlando executives would rather surgically remove their own spleens than spend money on anything that’s not a DVC resort, plus the simple fact that even if Cars Land was approved it’d be several years before it opened, the orangey-colored rocks and Route 66 trappings began to fade from our mental picture of the end of the Streets of America. The Lights, Motors, Action stadium stood there again, just as it always had in reality.

This whole thing reminds me of the early years of EPCOT Center, and the excitement surrounding the World Showcase's most prominent "coming attraction", the Equatorial Africa pavilion. The definitive EPCOT Center tome, Richard Beard’s Walt Disney’s EPCOT: Creating The New World of Tomorrow, devoted a whole chapter to it, with a fairly detailed breakdown of the shows and experiences the pavilion would offer. Equatorial Africa was prominently featured as a coming EPCOT attraction in the park’s early years. Alex Haley even appeared on the EPCOT Center opening-day TV special in 1982 to talk about it, and his segment ended with him and Danny Kaye promising to visit the new pavilion together.

My point is that for a couple years there in the early 1980s, the Equatorial Africa pavilion was real. Buildings had been designed, shows had been written, concept art had been widely released, and there was a big sign on the expansion plot between China and Germany promising that Equatorial Africa was coming soon. How many people stopped and imagined that, on their next trip to Florida, the African pavilion would occupy that empty space?  And you can be sure that if today’s Internet had existed then, there would have been long debates about the new pavilion: whether it had too many attractions or not enough attractions or whether there should be a Mount Kilimanjaro coaster or flume ride to give the area some thrills. But all of those announcements, promises, imaginings and pieces of concept art were rendered moot when Equatorial Africa was cancelled and we were forced to face the fact that it was never real at all.

Over the years, Disney has announced a lot more projects that never advanced past the concept art stage: things like WESTCot, Port Disney, and Disney’s America. Other projects were drastically scaled down: only half the original Animal Kingdom concept actually got built, and the sweeping Project Gemini that would have remade EPCOT’s Future World ended up consisting solely of Soarin’. Perhaps you think this would make Disney fans adopt a “wait and see” attitude about any new rumors or announcements.

Don’t be silly.

The truth is that almost anything, be it an unsubstantiated rumor from someone who claims to have connections or a piece of concept art released on the official Disney Parks blog, is enough to whip the Disney fanbase into a frenzy of fiercely opposing viewpoints. Take Avatar Land, which is slated to open at Animal Kingdom at some point in the current century, unless it doesn’t. All that was announced was that there would be an Avatar Land at Animal Kingdom. That’s all. No concept art, no description of possible attractions, nothing. But that complete lack of data didn’t stop people from taking to the Internet to declare that Avatar Land would either be the best thing since penicillin or the worst thing since Rob Schneider’s career, and accuse the people who disagreed with them as being no better than the cowards who stood by and let Hitler overrun Czechoslovakia.

Now, the Disney fan community isn’t the only one that engages in this ridiculous behavior pattern. Right now there’s a segment of the online Superman fan community who has already decided that it hates the new movie Man of Steel, even though they haven’t seen it yet because it won’t be released until Summer 2013.

So, I’ve made a decision. By the power vested in me as a person who says things on the Internet, I hereby declare Kiri-kin-tha’s First Law of Metaphysics to be in effect online:

Nothing unreal exists, and no arguments about nonexistent things are allowed.

So, a Florida Cars Land? It doesn’t exist right now. It’s not real. So stop arguing about it. Avatar Land? It’s even less real than the Floridian Cars Land. No arguing about that either. If either of these projects actually gets off the ground and are actually built and opened, then they will be real and you can argue about them.

Okay, I’m going to get off my soapbox now. Later I’ll be back with a post about EPCOT’s logo, and as the 25th anniversary of Star Trek: The Next Generation gets closer I’ll have something about that.

Happy Internetting!

Monday, September 3, 2012

The Radiator Springs Backlash Brouhaha

On October 17, 2007, the construction of a Cars Land for Disney California Adventure in Anaheim was formally announced. About ten minutes later the Great Internet Speculatron generated the rumor that Cars Land would be cloned for Walt Disney World in Florida, and would likely replace the Lights, Motors, Action stunt show and maybe part of the Backlot Tour at the Hollywood Studios park. For its part, Disney was pretty much silent about the idea, but that didn’t stop people on message boards from exhaustively debating the merits and the drawbacks of an East Coast Cars Land, all before ground had even been broken on the original West Coast version.

Just as the Internet had begun to tire of this debate, Cars Land opened in California to instant popularity, which was not really a surprise inasmuch as California Adventure had pretty much been the Phantom Menace of Disney theme parks before this. And predictably, the Great East Coast Cars Land Debate was resurrected-this time with a twist: a message board personage whose claim to be a Disney insider was believed by other people on the message board said that Disney was definitely, for sure, bringing Cars Land to Florida. And the Internet totally took this guy’s word for it. My Twitter feed blew up with some people expressing joy that Cars Land was coming to Florida and others complaining that cloning a uniquely-California Adventure experience for Hollywood Studios would diminish both parks.

What’s my opinion? Honestly, I’m not sure I even have an opinion on a recently-resurrected five-year-old rumor about a hypothetical thing that may possibly happen at some point in the future, unless it doesn’t. However, I think we can all agree that Cars Land is a nice thing. And if, in the future, all the various competing interests within the Disney Corporation find it in themselves to replace the mostly sad and pathetic back half of Hollywood Studios with a nice thing like Cars Land, then I would certainly be in favor of it. I have a similar opinion about Animal Kingdom’s Avatar Land, which I understand is slated to open at some point in the 21st century.

What of the notion that this would somehow ruin the artistic uniqueness and sanctity of Hollywood Studios and California Adventure? Honestly, the artistic uniqueness and sanctity of Hollywood Studios and California Adventure is not really something I care about. I appreciate the Studios because it’s home to some genuinely cool things that wouldn’t fit into the Magic Kingdom or EPCOT. But I’m not emotionally invested in the purity of its theme.

My dearest wish is for Disney to give top priority and a huge budget to the goal of making EPCOT’s Future World awesome again. Until that happens, it’s really hard for me to get all worked up about anything that comes out of the Great Internet Speculatron.