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.


  1. Interesting take, David. I can't comment on the pre-1994 Epcot because I was never there till 2004, ten years after that point. And in the 8 years we've been going to Disney somewhat regularly (7 weeklong visits to Florida and 2 shorter jaunts to California), we have just recently seen a decrease in quality, albeit mostly in food.

    Jim Hill Media had an interesting article about why CA gets love in the form of that huge DCA makeover but Florida seems to not get as much love. I hadn't thought of it in terms of concentration of money spent and exactly what it gets spent on.


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