Friday, September 26, 2014

The Totally Unrealistic EPCOT Center Restoration Idea

People say to me “Hey Dave, you talk all the time about how the people in charge of Disney World are complete idiots who make the wrong decision every single time, especially where EPCOT is concerned, but what would YOU do differently? Huh?”

Okay, actually that’s a lie. No one ever says that. I don’t follow any of the strident Everything-Disney-Does-Is-The-Best-Thing-Ever crowd on Twitter and they don’t follow me, so most of what I say just fades into the electronic aether. I just needed a way to introduce the premise of this article, which is basically what I would do if I had a completely free hand to remake EPCOT as I see fit. In a future article in this series, I’ll tell you what I would do if I could fly to Mars on a giant winged hedgehog.

I think what EPCOT really needs—in fact, what the entire Disney enterprise needs—is to be run by a visionary George Lucas-type person. I don’t much care for the Star Wars prequels. But I massively respect how Lucas, secure in the knowledge that the films would make tons of money no matter what, carried out his own creative vision and gave exactly zero craps what anybody else thought. “Hey, wait a minute!” you might be saying. “Disney should give people what they want!”

No. No, they definitely should not, especially where EPCOT is concerned. People shouldn’t be given what they want, they should be given what they ought to have. Why do I say that? Let’s consider an example. Think back to the mid-2000s, when the rumors first started to swirl that Apple was developing a mobile phone. The Great Internet Speculatron started churning out renderings of what this rumored mobile phone might look like, and all of them looked like Apple-ified versions of existing devices:



The phone that Steve Jobs unveiled in early 2007 was nothing like the vast majority of people had imagined. Simply listening to what people wanted would not have resulted in such a revolutionary device as the original iPhone because most people had no idea that such a device was even possible.

Another example: the third Star Trek spinoff, Deep Space Nine. Prior to that show, the only Star Trek anyone had ever seen was about a group of Starfleet officers flying around the galaxy in a starship. DS9 was totally different, and shortly after it hit the airwaves people were complaining that it was set on a space station that didn’t go anywhere and that it’s characters were not all nobly heroic and didn’t always get along with each other. In short, they were unhappy that it wasn’t like the previous Star Treks they were used to. A direct result of that criticism was the creation of Star Trek: Voyager, a show that hewed closely to the established Star Trek formula and took absolutely no chances. Over a decade after both shows ended their 7-year runs, DS9’s popularity is actually rising thanks to its complex characters, well-plotted storylines, and prescient tackling of post-9/11 issues, and Voyager is generally regarded as an empty piece of fluff by everyone apart from a tiny and fiercely-devoted fanbase.

Bottom line: if you do nothing but chase after the ethereal magic unicorn of What The People Want, you’re doomed to mushy mediocrity. It’s much better to have a clear creative vision and stick to it. That doesn’t mean you can’t bend to people’s tastes when you have to (the way Disney did in the mid-80s when Mickey & friends began making appearances in Future World wearing their silver spacesuits) but you can do it within the framework of your vision. That way your creative endeavor doesn’t devolve into an unfocused mess.

So, all of that being said, here is what I would do with EPCOT. First, I would fix Future World. There would be no more empty pavilion space. Wonders of Life would return in a modernized form. Innoventions would again become CommuniCore and would get exhibits to fill all that empty space. And the refurbished and updated Journey Into Imagination pavilion would bring back the upstairs ImageWorks. New pavilions would be built in the expansion pads. (A new, updated Horizons would definitely be one of those) And every pavilion would be reworked to conform to EPCOT’s original vision: education, entertainment, and inspiration. There would be no pavilions devoted to cartoon characters. (So The Seas with Nemo and his Computer-Generated Friends would become The Living Seas once more) And then, once Future World had been updated and expanded so you could spend a whole day exploring it, I would close World Showcase.

No, not permanently. It’s just really hard to massively rework an area when you have customers walking around in it. One of World Showcase’s big problems has always been its lack of rides. So it would get one. Specifically, the World Cruise. You may recognize the World Cruise as a piece of the sadly-abandoned WestCOT Center concept that was progressively scaled down and chipped away until it became Disney’s California Adventure. WestCOT’s version of the World Showcase was called The Four Corners of the World, and was devoted to different regions rather than individual countries. The World Cruise (also called The River of Time) would’ve been a dark ride that flowed beneath the area with a stop in each “corner” of the world plus a fifth stop in Future World. In between stops, there would be show scenes devoted to whatever themed area the ride was passing under.

Imagine something like that for EPCOT’s World Showcase. True, it couldn’t be done exactly the same way. For one thing, it couldn’t flow beneath the World Showcase without razing the existing buildings, building the World Cruise at ground level, then rebuilding the World Showcase on top of it, the way the Magic Kingdom is built on top of the Utilidors. The most logical thing would probably be to have the World Cruise run behind the existing World Showcase. Also, you couldn’t have a stop in every World Showcase pavilion, especially since part of my plan would be to use every expansion plot. Maybe there would be a stop in every third country. Some of the pavilions might have rides of their own, but each one would at least have a show. And of course there’d be the normal assortment of shops and restaurants. But, like Future World there would be no shows or attractions devoted to Disney films or licensed characters. That means no character dining. EPCOT is not the place for that stuff.

Finally, after the big EPCOT restoration was completely done, there’d be a dedication ceremony officially renaming the park EPCOT Center.

One of the things that the original EPCOT Center did really wonderfully was to use the Disney brand name as a springboard, not a straitjacket. It took the chance of being more adult and educational, of not having any attractions devoted to licensed characters. It took those chances because the people behind it knew that the Disney brand name gave them an automatic audience. People would come just to see the new Disney thing, and once they were in the park, even though it was nothing like the Magic Kingdom, EPCOT Center’s designers bet that they’d like what they saw. And they were correct. Yes, some people complained that there were no character meals or roller coasters and they were offended that Disney would dare expose them to educational content on their vacation. But a lot of people liked EPCOT Center very much. It’s not like the place was a ghost town while the Magic Kingdom was packed. EPCOT Center was legitimately popular. The only reason the place depends on the Flower & Garden and Food & Wine festivals to support it today is because of two decades of executive ineptitude.

Obviously, all of this is just pie-in-the-sky fantasy on my part. Disney apologists on the Internet are fond of pointing out that it is a business, and therefore cannot afford to spend any of the billions of dollars it rakes in per year making improvements to its theme parks, even though doing so is a proven way to make even more money. And from what I’ve heard the Orlando arm of Disney’s theme park division is a dysfunctional miasma of incompetence and petty office politics that couldn’t muster the collective will to open an umbrella if it was raining. So I have zero confidence that anything positive will happen at EPCOT ever again. I wish I didn’t have to be so pessimistic, but that’s where the facts lead me.

But maybe, at some point in the future, if Disney is led by a strong creative person with the courage to put forward a creative vision and carry it out without being paralyzed by what people might think, things could turn around.

Monday, September 15, 2014

The Maelstrom Desecration Response

If you have the Internet and use it to keep up with Disney-related things, then you know that this past Friday afternoon the official Disney Parks blog finally confirmed a months-old rumor; that the Norway pavilion’s Maelstrom ride will be converted to a Frozen-themed attraction.

One thing I love about Twitter is that it allows us to react to things in real time before we’ve really had a chance to think them over. Then we can scurry over to our blogs and write up a more thoughtful reaction, then go back to Twitter and tell everyone to check out our blog. It’s a circle of some kind.

CircleOLife“Hey, Internet! Here’s this thing I wrote!”

The first thing I tweeted in response to the news was this:


Then I tweeted this:

And finally I tweeted this:

And that’s pretty much where I am today. Putting a Fantasyland dark ride into EPCOT is a terrible idea, but at this point it doesn’t matter because almost everyone who really appreciated what EPCOT Center stood for doesn’t go to the park anymore. I realize that last sentence may be a bit controversial, so let me elucidate.

The generally accepted way to create a successful theme park is to take a bunch of preexisting intellectual properties that people like and build a bunch of rides, shows, shops, and restaurants devoted to them. As time goes on and your company churns out new pieces of intellectual property (or acquires them from other, more creative companies) you replace old rides and shows devoted to things that are no longer popular with new rides and shows devoted to your popular new stuff. EPCOT Center was something totally different. It was built around, not intellectual properties, but ideas like futurism and the joy of experiencing different cultures. People came to EPCOT for one of two reasons:

  1. Because they already enjoyed Disney’s other offerings and wanted to check out this latest one.
  2. Because they had a preexisting interest in one of the topics presented at EPCOT. Maybe they were especially interested in ocean life or wanted to eat at a Moroccan restaurant.

The people who loved EPCOT Center but still come to the park anyway belong to that first group. If you asked one of them, they’d probably tell you they’re a Disney fan. Understand I’m not criticizing these people. I’m just pointing out that they’re there. They keep coming to the park because the nostalgic feelings it gives them and their affinity for most things Disney allows them to enjoy themselves there. And that’s totally cool.

I belong to the second group. Yeah, I grew up with various Disney-related entertainment, but it didn’t inspire me or capture my imagination the way other things did. I loved EPCOT Center because of my preexisting interest in science and futuristic technology. When EPCOT moved away from those things and it became clear to me that the people in charge of the park did not care about them anymore, my interest in it declined accordingly. The fact that today’s lowercase Epcot occupies the same physical space and has a bunch of buildings that outwardly resemble those EPCOT Center pavilions I once loved is not enough to make a visit there enjoyable for me.

Now let’s talk about World Showcase for a bit. When I was a kid, I had no use for the place. Sure, part of this is because like most kids I was a cultural Philistine and World Showcase was too adult-oriented for me to appreciate yet. But Future World dealt with some pretty advanced topics, too, and it was my favorite place on the whole planet. The difference between the two was that Future World had rides and World Showcase didn’t. That wasn’t by design. There were always supposed to be more rides; a Rhine River Cruise in Germany, some kind of gondola ride in Italy, and unbuilt pavilions like Spain, Venezuela, and the Soviet Union were also supposed to contain rides. But for various reasons the plans for each of these fell through. As a result, World Showcase has always been kind of dysfunctional. Adding the Norway pavilion with Maelstrom in 1989 was absolutely a step in the right direction. Changing this fanciful but mostly reality-based tribute to Norway into a showcase for a cartoon just because that cartoon did Avengers-level business at the box office is a massive step in the wrong direction.

At this point you might say “Dave, I see where you’re coming from. Disney should using one of those empty World Showcase expansion pads for their Frozen ride!” If this is your opinion, let me respond thusly:

A trait that all the very best EPCOT attractions shared was their refusal to talk down to the audience. They managed to handle complex grown-up topics in ways that were entertaining but also assumed that you had a brain. What message does plopping a Frozen ride into the Norway pavilion send? This: “Hey audience, there’s no way the country of Norway could possibly interest you because all you care about is stuffing your face with mass-market entertainment! So here’s another helping of that!” Putting a Fantasyland ride into World Showcase goes against everything that World Showcase is supposed to be.

I’ve heard some people argue that it’s okay because Frozen was a good movie that they personally enjoyed. Those people are missing the point. The Emperor’s New Groove was a good movie that I enjoyed, but that doesn’t mean that the Yzma’s Secret Lab Roller Coaster belongs in the Mexico pavilion.

There have been some efforts to get Disney to reverse their decision by using the hashtag #SaveMaelstrom, apparently because if you can get a hashtag trending on Twitter it somehow bends the fabric of the space-time continuum and makes the thing you’re trying to accomplish magically happen. These efforts are not going to work any more than the hashtag #LessExplosionsAndSexismPlease would move Michael Bay to completely change his style of filmmaking. The people who ran the Walt Disney Company when EPCOT Center was being designed and built are not there anymore, and the people in charge now have absolutely no allegiance to their ideas or set of values. It’s sad, but that’s the way it is. No social media campaign can induce the leadership of a Fortune 100 company to fundamentally change the way they do things. Heck, as of this writing it hasn’t even been able to shame NFL commissioner Roger Goodell into resigning for looking the other way when the people in his employ violently beat women and children.

Now, after saying all of that I have to admit that while I’m opposed to the Frozen Maelstrom replacement, I’m not too worked up about it. It’s like if the Peruvian government started selling billboard space on the buildings at Machu Picchu; it’s a horrible, crass decision and I don’t like it, but it doesn’t directly affect my life in any way.

[A clever concluding sentence goes here]