It’s no secret that Epcot needs help. I visited Disney World and Universal Orlando in January 2016 and Epcot was without question, the worst of the six parks I visited on that trip. At that time, there was no Frozen Ever After or Soarin’ Around the World. There was no food centric festival, just a piecemeal shell of EPCOT Center’s former greatness.
Since that trip, I’ve returned to Epcot. While I’ve been against Frozen Ever After in World Showcase since the announcement, the Imagineers did as good a job as they could have given the circumstances. Similarly, even though Soarin’ Around the World has received some criticism, it’s a worthwhile attraction that improves the park. Epcot may have improved this year, but it still needs help.
Last month at the D23: Destination D event, Bob Chapek, Chairman of Disney Parks and Resorts, announced that changes are coming to Epcot. The problems are clear: park attendance is driven by festivals, many pavilions feel stale and outdated, character integration is loose fitting and ill conceived. Perhaps more importantly, according to public attendance reports, Epcot’s attendance peaked in 1997 whereas all other Disney World parks peaked last year.
I was a fan of EPCOT Center. Like many childhood memories, I remember it fondly. I am among those that romanticize what it was and imagine what it would look like today. The problem is, we do this so often in our society. We can’t help but reminisce about the past when “things were better”. Sometimes these feelings are tied to a moment in our own lives or another seemingly arbitrary point in time, but we still romanticize things that occurred before them.
Whatever that point in time may be, there was a time when things were better for Epcot. Now, we as fans need to recognize a few things about the future of this once great theme park.
EPCOT Center is dead.
We will not see a return to the EPCOT Center that myself and others hold so dear. However, that doesn’t mean the thoughts and principles of the original EPCOT Center can’t be respected. Chapek stated at the D23 event that the changes to Epcot will be “Disney, timeless, relevant, and family friendly”. He also insisted the changes would somehow stay true to the park’s original vision. This could have been lip service to appease the audience, or it could have been a genuine awareness of this park’s history. I’m actually hoping for a little bit of both.
Personally, I think it’s possible to satisfy both the corporate need for intellectual properties as well as the creative need for a cohesive theme in a reimagined Epcot. If you’ll indulge me in some Armchair Imagineering, I have a proposal that I feel satisfies both. However, before addressing my proposal, it’s important to understand the roles that characters and theme play within a Disney theme park.
Characters Outside the Castle
EPCOT Center was the first “non-castle” park Disney ever built. When it opened it lacked classic Disney characters, but that was quickly rectified within the first year of operation. While no attraction featured a classic character or known intellectual property, Mickey, Minnie and many other characters quickly found their way into Future World and World Showcase in both futuristic and culturally relevant costumes.
In 1989, MGM Studios opened as the next “non-castle” park with the majority of its attractions and entertainment based on intellectual properties as part of its overarching original theme. When its sister park opened in Paris in 2002, it shared many of the same concepts.
Disney’s Animal Kingdom opened in 1998 with a healthy blend of intellectual property and original concepts. Since the park’s opening, a distinction was established where the traditional animated characters wouldn’t overpower the themes of Africa or Asia.
When Disney California Adventure opened in 2001, it was largely free of intellectual property. It required a significant, character heavy overhaul from 2010-2012 in order to further balance the park.
When Tokyo DisneySea opened in 2001, it too had a healthy blend of intellectual property and original concepts. Indiana Jones and The Little Mermaid anchored their own lands while the rest of the park had many original concepts. As the park evolved, more intellectual property based additions were distributed throughout the park.
The problem these parks all have is that the original concepts of the parks are difficult to sustain. As these parks evolved, the original themes were further diluted. Never has this been more apparent than in recent years when intellectual properties were added in places where the thematic tie was loose at best.
Fans often fail to realize that the Disney Parks need characters. EPCOT Center and Disney California Adventure are the only two parks that opened with little to no characters and both immediately felt the need for the familiarity that characters bring to the average guest.
There is no version of Epcot’s future where characters and their intellectual property do not play a part.
Disney excels at non-linear storytelling. This concept is at the root of their best themed attractions, lands and parks. This is more than just a backstory of a land, but a genuine understanding of why anything and everything is done the way it is.
Disney’s Imagineers will conceptualize an area in its entirety and then years later be asked to put something else in that area. It’s a difficult task to handle, and Disney’s Imagineers do it better than any other group on the planet. However, this retrofitting is a very inexact science and one where there have been both recent and historical missteps. So often the source of this problem is that the retrofitting is suggested by executives, not creatives. When non creative people drive creative decisions it’s increasingly more difficult to avoid diluting the original theme. The resulting problems of this dilution may go consciously unrecognized by many guests, but it is a very real issue.
A recent example of this can be found at the new Harambe Market in Disney’s Animal Kingdom. This intricately themed outdoor restaurant features incredible detail that makes it feel like it was always a part of Africa. However, when Imagineer Joe Rohde walked through the land he noticed something wasn’t quite right. He looked at the different types of tables and chairs across the seating area. They were all properly aged and weathered to fit the surrounding area, but Joe still saw a problem. In his mind, in a true African marketplace like this, the chairs wouldn’t match the tables. It was a quick fix, but he went around and mixed the chairs so that each table was mismatched. This wasn’t part of any written backstory, but it had a purpose.
When themed areas are created, the non-linear storytelling has to be a part of the process. When a new attraction is added, it can call into question some of that original storytelling. Having said that, there are certainly ways to fully integrate characters where appropriate. The problem becomes understanding what is and isn’t appropriate.
From the exterior, Frozen Ever After in Epcot’s Norway Pavilion blends into the surrounding area beautifully. However, the attraction itself does little service to the Norwegian culture and ultimately dilutes the pavilion. Alternatively, the nearby Royal Sommerhus meet and greet offers a story that explains why Anna and Elsa are visiting the Norway Pavilion in a logical way.
When a new attraction is added to an existing area, several components contribute to its quality. The appropriateness of the attraction’s theme has to be a significant factor. If it isn’t, the concept of a “theme park” ceases to exist. So often, Disney is conceptualizing the attraction first and the placement second. This dilutes the theme and weakens the guest experience.
In the case of Harambe Market, I suspect a need was established for additional dining in the Africa section of Disney’s Animal Kingdom. From that point, Imagineers created an outdoor market that further developed the existing non-linear story telling of the land. Conversely, I suspect that a need was established to quickly bring a Frozen attraction into Walt Disney World and its placement decision was made out of convenience as opposed to theme.
There is an over correction taking place right now. Disney wants safe attractions that are easy to market to the public. This means intellectual property driven attractions that pray on familiarity. It’s no surprise that this is being pushed, because Chapek used to head up Consumer Products at Disney. An attraction built around a known intellectual property is simply easier to sell to the casual guest.
The problem with that line of thinking is that quality should be the motivating factor, not familiarity. A known intellectual property might get somebody to visit once, but it’s the quality that gets them to return. The two certainly don’t have to be mutually exclusive, but neither does the choice of intellectual property vs. original concepts. I said it in an article in May of 2015 and I’ll say it again: The Disney parks need both.
Chapek has asked Disney Imagineers to “Dream Big” for Epcot. It gives fans hope that the park will return to its former glory, but how it gets there remains to be seen. Rather than get into my previous hair brained ideas of relocating attractions, I’d rather focus on the general themes and concepts of my hope for Epcot’s future.
Like it or not, Epcot has intellectual property driven attractions in its future. There is no single “right” way to do this, however there are countless “wrong” ways. What I don’t want to see is more of the same piecemeal approach that has failed for two decades. I want to see a cohesive theme to Future World as well as a cohesive theme to World Showcase. The permanent World’s Fair concept needs to be changed. Rather than gradually move away from that concept, a new unifying theme needs to be established.
The unifying theme I want to see is Discovery.
Discovery has long been rooted in the history of EPCOT Center and I think it can be brought back to the forefront. The biggest take away I have from EPCOT Center is the iconic line penned by Imagineer/beach boy Tom Fitzgerald: “If we can dream it, we can do it.” This line from Horizons plays up the human desire for exploration, adventure and discovery. A re-imagined park that plays up the human desire to dream, discover and explore is certainly a unifying theme that is both specific in framework yet grand in scale.
This concept was already at the forefront of a previously proposed Future World overhaul that was to take place over a decade ago. That concept, dubbed Project Gemini included attraction changes as well as a new name for the land, “Discoveryland”. While I’m not in love with the name itself, Discoveryland as a concept is extremely intriguing.
By shifting focus to “Discovery” and away from the future solves an additional problem that EPCOT Center faced from day one: the future gets old really quickly. As a concept, discovery is broad enough to allow for things in our past, present and future. Existing attractions like Spaceship Earth and Living with the Land address all three, but new attractions don’t always have to look forward.
The other motivation for Discoveryland is it allows for the further expansion of a great Disney concept: The Society of Explorers and Adventurers. To those unfamiliar with this, it is a unifying framework that includes real and imagined explorers and adventurers throughout history. These are people that genuinely subscribed to the Horizon’s principle “If you can dream it, you can do it.” The group includes real people like Da Vinci and Galileo as well as Disney creations like Harrison Hightower and Albert Falls. It’s used in Disney parks worldwide and can play a significant role in the future of Epcot.
I’d like to see The Society of Explorers and Adventurers open its doors to our modern day dreamers, explorers, and technology innovators. Seeing the likes of Elon Musk, Neil deGrasse Tyson, Bill Gates, and Steve Jobs represented as “members” in a cohesive Epcot is extremely intriguing. Alternatively, Disney could create fictitious characters that parallel these modern intellectuals to help tell the story of the land. Should he return in any form, it’s also not unreasonable to see The Dreamfinder join The Society of Explorers and Adventurers.
The concept of discovery doesn’t have to end in Future World. World Showcase has largely been about discovering aspects of different cultures. While I don’t think Frozen Ever After fits this description, there are other concepts, both original and intellectual property based, that can work in World Showcase. The most obvious option preys on the culinary culture of France with the addition of the Ratatouille ride from Disney Studios Paris. Similarly, Pixar’s upcoming Coco movie is heavily themed around Mexico’s Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) celebration.
Big dreams are at the root of any and all discovery. If Bob Chapek truly wants Imagineers to “Dream Big”, what better way than a focus on discovery? I’m cautiously optimistic about the future of Epcot, and it’s because of the lessons learned from EPCOT Center. I want Disney to dream big, because if they can dream it, they can do it.
How would YOU fix Epcot?