Fix this theme park: Epcot
Today, we're starting a short series looking at how a few popular theme parks could better achieve their potential. We're starting with Walt Disney World's Epcot
, a park that's beloved by a few, but that's failed to earn the widespread praise that's needed to push more of its attractions toward the top of our reader ratings.
Epcot might be the world's most unique theme park. Its theme is nonfiction, after all - a Future World devoted to science and technology, and a World Showcase themed to several nations around the planet. But while this unique nonfiction approach creates enormous potential, that difference carries risk. Many visitors simply don't know what to make of a nonfiction theme park. And given the changes Disney's made to the park over the years, I suspect that, at times, Disney doesn't know what to make of it, either.
The people are the only lively things in this picture.
So how to fulfill Epcot's potential? What can be done to help more people love this park? I'd like to start this discussion by highlighting three fundamental problems I see with the park, and suggesting potential solutions.
1. The entrance looks like a mausoleum.
2. Xenophobia and opposition to science have become socially acceptable in America.
3. Disney can't predict the future, anyway.
I'll be writing about Future World today, because, to me, there's no major problem with World Showcase that a new country pavilion with a well-designed narrative ride wouldn't fix. (The xenophobe Disney fans whose "love" for America causes them to hate all things "foreign" can just shove it, as far as I'm concerned.)
So let's start our analysis of Future World, appropriately, with the entrance. The addition of Buena Vista Street to Disney California Adventure illustrates how a new entrance can reset the tone for an entire theme park. Unfortunately, the "Leave a Legacy" blocks Disney installed at the front of Epcot years ago left the park's entrance looking like a graveyard. Many fans have cracked jokes about the dark granite monuments being a tribute to "all the people who died" in the park.
Many of the people who do love Epcot love it because the park actually represents quite the opposite. At its best, Epcot is and has been a tribute to discovery, opportunity, and the eternal possibilities that life offers us. The park's entrance ought to reflect that optimism. But it won't until Disney find a way to remove or relocate Leave a Legacy and to remake the entrance into the type of inviting space that Buena Vista Street now provides for California Adventure.
I'd suggest that Disney look to its best theme park, Tokyo DisneySea, and borrow the name of one of its lands, "Port Discovery," for the new version of Future World. Instead of funneling all visitors through a pinch-point under Spaceship Earth, where you can't see the thing, let's remake Epcot's entrance into a grand semi-circle plaza, with Spaceship Earth in its center. That way, people can flow around the geosphere, seeing it the whole time as they walk through the plaza and into the park.
That redesign would open up space for the highly-themed cafes, shops, and the small performance and meet-and-greet spaces that can make Epcot's Port Discovery a living invitation into the world of Epcot, instead of looking like a closed, ossified monument to the dead, as it does now. The southern edge of the plaza, behind Spaceship Earth, would then open up to the pavilions, making clearer pathways into the park that we have now with the Innoventions buildings blocking the way.
A warmer, more lively entrance to the park is essential because Disney can no longer assume that people are excited by science and world culture, as they were when the park opened 30 years ago and before. When Walt Disney was dreaming up his "Florida Project" in the 1960s, America's corporations eagerly spent millions of dollars to promote science - in schools, in media and even in theme parks. When Epcot opened, it drew upon major sponsorships from companies eager to attach their name not just to Disney's, but to the ideals of progressive science.
Today, some of America's largest corporations spend billions of dollars to deny science. Cable TV networks embrace anti-science viewpoints, and state legislatures are being lobbied to spend education funds on curricula that distort or deny scientific research. Disney could use its influence in popular culture to help defend science, but this isn't a company that's ever shown the stomach for overt social action. (See Habit Heroes.) Disney simply doesn't want to risk offending a significant number of customers by fighting the political war over science.
Frankly, I don't think Disney would do very well in that battle, anyway. You see, Disney's got a lousy track record trying to depict the future. Whether it's Epcot's Future World or the various Magic Kingdom Tomorrowlands, within 10 years of opening any of these lands, they look foolishly out of date. Disney's designers and storytellers do their best work not when they try to guess the future, but when they tell the stories of people who showed us the way forward in the past. Let them stick with that, instead of wading overtly into current debates.
Here's where Disney can solve the last two problems at once, the hostility toward science and looking toward the future. When dealing with a controversial issue, it's often best not to take a confrontational approach, but to take a step back. Find a common point of agreement, then take your audience down a different path from there.
So let Disney use Epcot to tell the stories of past leaders such as Hypatia, Omar Khayyam, Galileo, Newton, and even (pushing public resistance a bit) Darwin. Acknowledge that science and discovery have always come with conflict, and inspire us with the triumphs of science over fear and ignorance. Find the drama in discovery, and wow us with stories about that. Create a new characters, if they must, but tell stories that spring from science's history. And don't forget to bring us into the narrative, giving us a chance to feel like a hero, as well. (Then let us take the lessons of the ride from there, and apply them to our lives as we see fit.)
Don't neglect to show us the beauty of science as well. My favorite moment at Tokyo DisneySea was walking through the park's Fortress Explorations, and discovering the Chamber of Planets within it.
What a beautiful place! An Renaissance model of the solar system, one that you can turn yourself, placed in ornate room, topped by an intricate map of the heavens. I found beauty on that intimate scale through DisneySea. Epcot deserves the same. While many of Epcot's pavilions look spectacular from the monorail berm, they lose that beauty close up.
Beyond the entrance make-over, Disney ought to target several of its most underperforming pavilions for replacement, starting with the Universe of Energy pavilion. From there, attack the (ironically dead) Wonders of Life, and the Imagination pavilion. I'd love to see a ride using Pooh's Hunny Hunt local positioning system technology from Tokyo. But whatever technology Disney employs, it should be in service of emotionally engaging stories about the advancement of human knowledge and technology, set in beautiful detail. No sitcom stars. No pop culture references that won't stand the test of time. (Anyone remember Hans and Franz?)
And don't make the mistake Disney made with Mission: Space, which reduces the wonder of astronomy and space exploration to its most mundane element: Not throwing up during spaceflight. Epcot's pavilions should inspire us to wonder about our potential to discover more of the world. They never should leave us clutching our stomachs and muttering to ourselves: "this stuff isn't for me."
What would you like to see Disney do to improve Epcot?
Next week: Disney's Hollywood Studios
I've said this too many times before, but:
Robert made a good point earlier this month about film studio parks being flawed because it highlights the most boring part of the whole process, the same can be said for Test Track.
Robert, you have to know that promoting science and evolution while casting doubt on xenophobia is going to anger an unnamed someone.
While I agree with your idea about the park's entrance, I doubt that Disney would ever do anything about it. A lot of people paid money to put blocks up where everyone would see them, but no one would ever look at them.
This was a well written article. It is nuts how people have become shadowed from the truth with science again. I'm an astrophysists major, and see this problem accure way too often. We are on the verge of HUGE HUGE HUGE science break throughs, but because of people being about God again, the government could care less. I still believe in God, but people really need to realise that we have had some really amazing people in this earth's history that have really pushed us forward. Disney really does need to bring to light these individules, so the world can know how we got to this point with science.
Your comments about corporations being anti-science are a bit over the top.
Man, Robert, I don't think I could do any better than you did in terms of how to fix EPCOT. I would add it really badly needs a coaster (it is one of those rare theme parks that have none) but only if it is Disney quality of course. Other than that, Disney might as well hire Mr. Niles here, he knows exactly what to do!
98, in some cases you're right that its not a valid issue.
@Jack Curley .... is going to anger an unnamed someone.
Dont really care about those rateings, Epcot is my favourite theme park, and that is sure not because of that French pavillion movie that gets the best rateings )-:. Havent seen Disney Sea however.
A great article, and well worth the wait! I agree with all the points you raised. One thing I'd really like to see in a redo is something to replace the old Horizons ride. That one was really a history of futurism, and it's a good way to "future-proof" a ride, by making it intentionally about how our visions of the future are always changing, really telling us more about the present. Now, this is some wild, far-out thinking... but what if you have a really engaging, intense dark ride about futurism that takes an apocolyptic, distopian turn when talking about our current view of the future (robots taking over, or the results of global warming, or all of the above, like so many current movies). That could serve as the conflict for the ride, which could then be resolved with a more utopian vision (our fears of the future vs. our hope for the future). This could even be a somewhat thrilling ride in the sense of HPFJ, with robot arms, etc. but it would actually fit the theme of Epcot. As to where the ride itself would physically fit (unless WOL can be repurposed), I don't have a good answer for that, which is why I think this may be more of a pipe dream than a feasible reality...
I love the premise of the article, and agree with most of it... BUT (of course there's a but, right?)
My only experience with Epcot was a trip there in 2002, and the world showcase was my favorite part of the whole Disney World Resort. And I was a Disneyland annual passholder who could find my way around Disneyland blindfolded. I love The WS, is is immersive and themed. Love the idea of shopping and dining (and a few rides) around the world. Just from my distanced perspective, I think the whole future part should be thrown out, and something similarly (to WS) immersive and narrative should be put in. Like take out the American Experience part of the WS and make an expanded America land where Future is. I know that the magic kingdoms have some American themed lands too, but this can be more historical and patriotic. Things that do attract so many Americans. Even if you have to move some attractions from MK to Epcot.
Of all the US parks, I love Epcot the most. There is more to see, do, and eat at Epcot than at any other theme park in the states, and at night it doesn't look like a carnival, it looks like Heaven. Sadly, it is also the most underutilized park in the Disney arsenal. What to do...
EPCOT has always been my favorite Disney park. However, I do agree about the entrance, but it's hard to move or divert guests around the dedication stones that so many people paid oodles of money.
My wife and I enjoy many aspects of Epcot, but I totally agree with the need for changes.
"Why not change test track so that it's a trip through the history of the modern car, travelling back to the great innovators like Henry Ford before swooping into the narrow streets of rural Italy for a segment on Ferrari."
Good points, Russell, and I know I was doing some wishful thinking with the country additions, but I think Disney needs to push an agenda of park improvements rather than depend too heavily on foreign interest and what "they" want to do. In essence, Disney should get the "rights" to use a country then do whatever they want with it, within reason, of course.
EPCOT is my families favorite theme park also. We don't have kids so we enjoy the "adultness" to the park. However, I do agree it needs help. Somethings do need to be changed, updated, and brought into 2012. After reading all the comments I agree with James Rao. I love his ideas the best. Maybe we should contact Disney and see if we could get him on staff ASAP. :)
People do so love it when you ask for EVERYTHING - which is basically what I did! =) Thanks for the support, Melissa!
I know I already put in my crazy idea, and I like so many of other folks' ideas. (Thank you, James, for your insistence that no coasters ought to be at EPCOT!)
^That...and put something in Wonders of Life besides the occasional convention gathering.
My wife visited Epcot and WDW for the first time in her life in January. It's her favorite WDW park followed by Animal Kingdom. I think it was my fifth or sixth visit to Epcot.
Is it just me or would anyone love to see a Hunchback of Notre Dame ride in the France pavilion?
Regarding country sponsorship/participation in WS and available space for expansion:
James Rao's list was great, I second all of it except he left out a Muppet ride here and there but I am sure that was only by accident. :)
I have a suggestion for "Fix this theme park": Busch Gardens Tampa. Sure, it's fun and all, but it doesn't quite compete to its sister park in Virginia. Now, it's a clean, safe, family-friendy park compared to its teen hangout past under Anheuser Busch. Some improvements would be more indoor attractions (dark ride, simulator, etc.), Timberliners on Gwazi, and faster loading of rides.
You're right, Don. There's nothing like a talking sock to liven up the park! ;p
I love the idea about the entrance, which needs help.
I will respectly ask why Robert is intentionally insulting its readers.
Anon: I tend to agree with most of your ideas. Your concepts are workable with a reasonable investment by Disney. Some of the other posters have excellent grandiose ideas, but the downside is that they are certainly cost prohibitive and therefore unrealistic.
I love the idea of renaming Future World to Discoveryland or something similar. I wouldn't say Disney is particularly bad at predicting the future, just that the future often comes faster than the money to update things. 1 Tomorrowland is fine for WDW. The apparent theme of Future World is more about discovery than the future anyway.
What I find interesting is that almost everyone agrees on the key aspects to fix:
The next Olympics is at Rio. Hint Hint!!!
I'm all for a new country in World Showcase along with a few upgrades to the existing ones. But if I were head imagineer in charge of the overlay of Epcot, I would focus all my money and creative attention to Future World. As much as I love Epcot, I know that it is only because of sentimental reasons and memories of going as a child. If I had not seen first hand the amazing period of Epcot's glory years, and had visited it for the first time now, I probably wouldn't be so anxious to see it as often.
Good point Amanda,
for all the hate mission space gets, its one of my favorite rides anywhere.
I agree EPCOT (Experimental Community of Tomorrow, Every Polyester Costume of Torture, Every Paycheck Comes On Thursday, Every Patron Comes Out Tired) needs an upgrade. It doesn't even match it's name.
Ugh! I completely agree! Epcot is outdated and needs to be updated! I love WDW, but Epcot is my least favorite park there.
Epcot as a theme park is so fatally flawed that short of bulldozing the whole thing, it is almost impossible to get a coherent theme to the whole mess, but in order to be realistic, I’ll suggest a few more patches to the quilt that might help it reach its potential.
I have a bold idea, kill Epcot.
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