Fix this theme park: Epcot
Written by Robert NilesToday, 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.
Published: August 14, 2012 at 1:35 PM
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.
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
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