Why America needs Epcot... and other 'non-fiction' theme parks
Should Disney replace Epcot's Maelstrom with a Frozen
-themed attraction? Should it put a clone of Disney Studios Paris' upcoming trackless Ratatouille
ride in the park's France pavilion? What about an Alice in Wonderland
ride for the United Kingdom?
Many Disney fans have tried their best to fuel rumors about each of these ideas, no doubt reflecting a frustration with a park that's not added a new national pavilion since before the collapse of the Soviet Union. But beneath the issue of whether Disney should develop these specific attractions lies a deeper question: Should Disney develop Epcot as a non-fiction theme park?
The Mission: Space pavilion at Walt Disney World's Epcot
Epcot was Disney's first theme park that didn't copy the original Disneyland "Magic Kingdom" template. Inspired by World's Fairs, Epcot offered a blend of corporate-supported, forward-looking exhibits promoting technology coupled with national pavilions celebrating the cultures of selected nations around the world. What Epcot didn't offer was Disney characters. The stories Epcot told were non-fiction. Sure, the national pavilions might reference their nation's folk tales, but that was done within the context of a non-fictional look at each nation. (Disney created new cartoon characters for Epcot's Imagination pavilion, but imaginary characters are as necessary in an Imagination pavilion as plants in The Land and fish in the The Living Seas.)
Not long after the park's opening, Disney accommodated visitors' many requests, and scheduled regular appearances by Mickey and friends in Epcot. But the non-fiction focus of the park remained otherwise non-diluted until the Finding Nemo overlay of The Living Seas pavilion in late 2006 and Gran Fiesta Tour Starring The Three Caballeros revamp of El Rio del Tiempo in 2007. Still, these fictional characters served as "hosts" of what remained, at their heart, non-fictional tours of real places.
While a Frozen ride might fit well thematically within Epcot's Norway pavilion — and any well-executed new attraction would provide a welcomed upgrade from the unloved Maelstrom — Epcot would cross a line that separates it from other non-animal theme parks by introducing an attraction driven by a fictional narrative, with fictional characters, in a fictional setting. That's the realm of the Magic Kingdom, Islands of Adventure, and all other narrative-driven theme parks.
Why is this important? Wouldn't fans love the introduction of additional wonderful stories and characters in complementary settings within Epcot? Of course they would. But there's an opportunity cost to those additions.
A devil's advocate might consider non-fictional themed entertainment to be the work of museums, not theme parks. And many museums have hired creative design firms that have worked on theme parks to develop exhibits for their facilities. (Look at BRC Imagination Arts' award-winning work on the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum for one example.) But museums' first responsibility is to educate —, to engage the mind, even if it sometimes goes for the heart to get there.
Theme parks flip that script. They work first to entertain, and that allows theme parks to serve a complementary role to museums. Talking with many people who worked with Walt Disney, it becomes clear that one of Walt's distinguishing characteristic was an insatiable curiosity. Walt loved science and technology. The world fascinated him. He devoted episodes of his Disneyland TV show to space exploration, working with rocket scientist Wernher von Braun. Disney produced more than a dozen True-Life Adventures nature documentaries. Disney both reflected and helped cultivate a Modernist viewpoint in popular culture that inspired curiosity about the world around us as well as the belief that we, collectively as a human race, could help make that world better.
Of course, Disney didn't create these projects just to satisfy his curiosity. Those projects created IP [intellectual property] that helps populate the Tomorrowland and Frontierland sections of Walt's Disneyland park. As Imagineer and Disney Legend Tony Baxter said in his interview with Theme Park Insider last fall, everything that went into Walt's theme park reflected some company IP. If the park designers wanted to do something original, Walt and his team worked to create some IP in other media to support the project in the parks.
Such as it should be (and, financially, would have to be) with any new "non-fiction" attractions in Epcot. Any new project in Epcot, or any other theme park, needs to make money for the company. But producing non-fiction entertainment lies within the Walt Disney Company's DNA, from yesterday's True-Life Adventures and Disneyland episodes to today's DisneyNature feature films and ESPN "30 for 30" documentaries. If the Walt Disney Company wanted to create non-fiction IP to support a complementary attraction at Epcot, it employs and contracts with the talent to do that.
And it should. Why? Because we don't live in Walt Disney's world anymore. Popular curiosity in, and support for, science and culture can't be taken for granted, as it could in the United States more than a generation ago. While Walt Disney's passion for science and culture reflected his Modernist era, public figures today too often embrace hostility toward science, education, and multi-culturalism — the thematic foundations of Epcot. Just look at the increasing number of attempts to attack the teaching of science in our schools, the harassment of climate scientists, and, most recently, the xenophobic freak-out over a mere soft-drink ad, for heaven's sake.
Forget about teaching people about the world around them. We need someone to step up and help people fall in love with the very idea of learning something about that world, first. Unless people open their minds to discovery, they'll never bother to listen and learn. And the best way to get people to open their minds is to start by touching their hearts. Love, then learn.
That is why we need a non-fiction theme park. A society where science, education, and cultural diversity are under attack needs a place where people can fall back in love with the wonders of discovery. Museums can teach, but theme park entertain, and in doing so, have a wonderful opportunity to create emotional connections between people and ideas. (Update: I first decided that I liked history not because of any class in school, but because of Mr. Peabody and the Wayback machine. And my first thought of science being something cool was when the Mighty Microscope "shrunk" me in Disney's Adventures through Inner Space.)
No company has done a more effective job of that over our lifetimes than Disney. Walt Disney knew that his creative team could make people fall in love with Mary Poppins, Winnie the Pooh, Peter Pan, and Mickey Mouse. But he knew that team could make people fall in love with space exploration, nature, chemistry, and other non-fiction topics, too. We could use a little bit more of that love in America today. A reinvigorated Epcot could help cultivate that love. And that is the opportunity cost of letting Epcot slide into just another cartoon-character theme park.
Update: [Feb. 5, 5:22 pm] I chose in this piece to make explicit some example of how modern American society disrespects science rather than just playing it vague. Aaaaaand, predictably, some Theme Park Insider readers who get their information from people who don't stand on the side of science have reacted negatively in the comments.
Theme parks, obviously, don't want such conflict among their fans. They want happy customers, spending money. So ditching non-fiction themes in favor of cartoon characters allows them to keep everyone happy and spending. That gives Disney many millions of reasons to bring in Frozen and let the World's Fair stuff go.
But if I could quote a Universal-licensed property for a moment and reference Harry Potter: "We must all face the choice between what is right and what is easy." Those who oppose science can't win because they have no evidence on their side. They can, however, gin up an ugly "controversy" that kind, reasonable people would rather avoid. And by conditioning people to avoid all those "controversial" things that science discovers, they turn a society away from science. Mission accomplished.
So Disney faces a choice with Epcot: To do what is right, or to do what is easy. The easy thing is to bring in the 'toons, and quit talking about science. (As the easy thing for me to do as a publisher would be to avoid this issue altogether.) But that, alas, is not the right thing to do for a society that needs to reconnect with the enlightenment of great science, once again. That's why I wrote this post. And that's why I hope the Walt Disney Company rediscovers its founder's love of science and world around us and starts using its theme park story-telling talents in the non-fiction realm once again.
(And, by the way, we love *all* our readers here. Everyone is welcomed to participate in the community. Just play nice, as Woody says.)
No thank you to Frozen. While on Maelstrom I thought about how it could be altered for thrill-seekers, but that's not the point of the ride. Anyway, it should stay the same, unless they add more trolls and stuff. That would be fun.
My goodness, Robert! First you slam the anti-animal captivity crowd, and now you're after the folks who dare to question the motives of the global warming crowd and the evolutionists. That's kicking over ant nests on the left and the right. Some people try to have all of the fun. ;)
Colbert is awesome…. Funny, intelligent, light hearted… No need to be serious all the time..
I am exasperated by the attack on people who have an opposite opinion. Post 2 said it well and I'm not going to add more.
EPCOT has not been about technology or information for quite some time. Disney's few lame attempts to "freshen" it gave us Fast Track 2.0 (a huge decline from 1.0), a Nemo overlay for The Seas, 3 singing birds making fun of Mexico, and an ancient Captain EO.
I really like this article. One of my favourite rides is Spaceship Earth. This is largely because it explains the history of human communication in a very interesting and fun way. By the time I reach the top I am always excited about what humans have accomplished and what the future holds for us. I think more rides that use history and nature as the narrative would be a benefit to Epcot.
I, for one, agree with Robert completely. I hate the Nemo overlay at Living Seas--it really takes away from the original research and education feel of the original pavilion. And the 3 Caballeros in Mexico are just annoying. I would love to see Epcot put more effort into original rides and pavilions -- there's enough of the Mouse and his animated brethren in the rest of the parks :-).
The Food Kingdom comment made me laugh. I have to say, the restaurants are some of Epcots biggest appeal.... and its kind of funny that we pay a theme park admission to then pay like $50 for a meal.
You are SO right.
Also, they can put attractions that may be somewhat educational in without it having to be focused on subject matter that a large group of Americans may see one way and another large group may see another. This is why the Sea exhibit is a great exhibit to me. It allows you to appreciate the animals. The thing I enjoyed about Living with the Land was how it showed interesting ways of Farming (nothing really controversial there). Test Track, is a great attraction at Epcot because it fits the whole technology and learning.... but it does not really go into subject matter that I'd consider controversial. Bottom line, Epcot just needs some new fun attractions.... and if you happen to learn about something non-controversial, or not trying to focus one groups opinion down the throats of the riders, then fine. If they can't figure that out, then just give me the Matterhorn under a different name in the world showcase (as I have heard suggested and discussed many times in the past).
I adore Robert Niles and think he's bar none one of the best, if not the best, writer covering theme parks...but I disagree with him on the "Global Warming Crowd". Robert, these people have been lying and fudging data for years. The carbon credits thing is a giant scheme cooked up by a few people to drain a lot of money from the West and put it into the hands of unscrupulous types abroad. These "global warming experts" are con men and they set out to find data they could warp and twist until it met their conclusions. Go watch the movie Pleasantville. In the first ten minutes something really interesting happens. The movie was made in 1998. In one of the first scenes, there is a classroom scene...and a science teacher tells the kids that global warming will have melted all the ice in the Arctic Circle by 2012 and then goes on to describe all these other disasters that were supposed to happen within the next ten years (meaning, up until 2009 or so). Watch that movie...it was deadly serious when it was made and Hollywood really believed what that teacher was saying was true. But here we are in 2014, and the Arctic ice is thicker than ever.
Interesting article and some well constructed and considered comments (here's looking at you, Mr. Hillman). Thanks for sharing Robert.
I've never been a fan of bringing cartoon characters in Epcot. When you think about it, there's plenty of good places in the rest of the parks where they can go. Besides, Frozen is so more deserving of a ride built from scratch rather than an overlay of a good, but way too short ride that most people overlook in favor of their next thrill and/or meal.
I think they should create an event such as the flower and garden festival, only geared towards science. For example, with special exhibits, experiments, and guests such the Mythbusters and Bill Bye! This would make for great field trips for kids. Another idea that came mind is the Doctor Who franchise, let's face it with Universal's Harry Potter expansion, Disney is up against some serious competition. That is a successful franchise with a huge fan following. They really need to amp their game. I personally adore Epcot,for what it represents, but it is "stuck" right now, it needs to be brought out into a brighter and more exciting future. And they really should add more countries, and as well as special experiences representative of each one.
"The big difference is that now people are able to express their thoughts and opinions about science and our society more easily"
Thank you, Robert. Well said. And I'm laughing at the comments illustrating exactly what you mean, attacking science and getting offended. They're probably lost causes, but I hope future generation aren't!
I'm sure Robert doesn't want this to derail into political speak but I am surprised at the amount of science doubters on a theme park website. I like to think science is pretty spot on when strapping into something 200 feet tall with 7 inversions and pulling 5gs. I want science on my side!
Great article Robert - I would just like to add that at one time Epcot inspired my family, I hope that someday it will again..........
Global warming is the best...I love beach weather!
^Hey, I need new tires, Phil... hold on!! Hilarious.
Disney needs to ca$h in now with Frozen because WDW is reclaimed swamp land that will go back under water with global warming.
Wow, lots of polarization in the comments! I find the responses confusing. One quick comment in the entire article about Global Warming and that is what most of the commenters latch on to.
Hey no problem James, I actually finished up in the yard, but I have a few more I dumped down by a fresh water stream where I usually get rid of all my used motor oil ;o)
Even with the current EPCOT, it still is pretty void of Disney characters. Personally, I think Nemo is fine at the Living Seas. It seems that the changes were only made to attractions that were pretty much empty.
I think a weather pavilion is a great idea. Robert mentioned Port Discovery. That land has the perfect ride to bring over for it already: StormRider!
So then what was the last nonfiction attraction added to ANY theme park in the last 3-5-10 years?
Of the four main Disney parks in Orlando, I think EPCOT has the least distinctive theme. Magic Kingdom is all about glorifying popular Disney stories and characters, Hollywood Studios is all about looking into the movies, and Animal Kingdom is pretty self-explanatory. But what is EPCOT? A world showcase? A focus on science and technology? A case for the environment? A park encouraging thinking and discovery? Maybe all of these things combined? I challenge anyone (in a positive way) to describe the purpose of EPCOT in four or five words.
One simply question, Why do all of the Fox news watching Rush Limbaugh loving right wing nuts jobs post on a Theme park insider web site while pushing their Christian book is irrelevance on us?
Well-expressed, excellent analysis and writing. Too bad such skills are taught to fewer and fewer children and the abilities to analyze, critically think about things from all angles, and express opinions logically and completely garner little respect today. The peak of respect for learning and curiosity and openness to different ideas is, sadly, long past for America as it continues on its downward spiral. Thank you for the fine article.
Brian, your latest comment has no basis in fact. The discussion has been mostly high minded (except for me of course) and all view points have been expressed with sensitivity. Your latest post is more trolling than anything else. I expect more from a seasoned TPI veteran not named James Rao or TH Creative!
@Nick McKaig, the central theme of Epcot in my opinion is Discovery. Discovering other cultures. Discovering technology. Discovering space. Discovering the ocean. Discovering your imagination.
Sorry James…. These right wing nuts shoving their religious crud down my throat pissed me off… There is no place for it on an Epcot thread. So I let them have it….
I just don't see where anyone was shoving anything down your throat... but harassment is in the eye (throat?) of the beholder, I guess.
IN the 80's I loved Epcot Centre. The whole world fair vibe was fun. To call it education is a stretch. If it was perceived that way there is something very wrong with the educational system in the US. It were views of the companies that sponsored the pavilions. But after 10 years it got old and at the moment it's just sad. No pavilion shows new technology or anything. The tweaks even dumbed things down and watered down the original vision into a more entertainment focused way (all done very poorly).
I think this is why we're all here. We love to celebrate the hopes and dreams of the future. We love to learn knew things and we are curious about our natural world.
The idea of putting a Frozen attraction in Norway is just so appalling that I was shocked to discover they were actually considering it. Someone should get the Norwegian media all riled up about it - replacing Norwegian culture with a marketing ploy for something that has nothing to do with Norway besides snow.
"I challenge anyone to describe the purpose of EPCOT in four or five words"
Can Disney copy the best attractions from overseas and put them in the Orlando parks? Journey to the Center of the Earth, Aquatopia, Stormrider, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, Mystic Manor, etc. How many Americans ever visit Tokyo DisneySea? Or Hong Kong Disneyland? Or Disneyland Paris?
Brian, I suggest that you go back and read Robert Niles original post on this topic. He was spot on for his analysis of Epcot and the problems that exist as to the identity and condition of the park. There were also three links included in the post that led to a Colbert site, a site in defense of evolution, and a site where a global warming scientist was whining about receiving unfair scrutiny from the global warming skeptics. (Thanks, Robert. :/ )He based a fair portion of his analysis of the problems that Epcot faces on the material in those links.
I'll just jump in with one comment:
I completely agree with you Robert! With every word!!
Epcot is the poster child of neglect. "Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow" as imagined by people living in the 1960s. It's a joke.
I dunno, Robert, if these topics are really settled "like evolution, and the fact that vaccines don't cause autism" then they are really not that settled at all.
Fox News is a very dubious news source. Generally, their extreme one sided simplistic perspective gives me a good laugh. Simpsons, on their basic network, has more credibility in my eyes. It's probably more of an opinion network. That said, even in it's present state, I still really enjoy Epcot. But it can be so much better with a little loving care.
^What 24 hours news source is not dubious, biased, and simplistic? Besides TPI, I mean.
James, yes, those items that you mention are settled. The research is as conclusive as possible. Some kids get autism after having a vaccine, but the evidence has not been able to prove any link. Similarly, some people get heart attacks while walking around a theme park, but you can't prove that the theme park caused the heart attack.
James: You have a good point on the cable/internet news, especially in reference to TPI !
I have enjoyed TPI for many years and even purchased your fun 1st book, why ..because it represents a closer look into the theme park world.. Great insights , great theme park opinions and Robert's history in the industry make this sight special. BUT WHEN IT TURNS POLITICAL..it loses its whimsical escape from the real world that theme parks give me... I don't want to read about Fox vs MSNBC,,, commercials are shown and people have opinions, people are for it and people are against it ..that is America,,, opinions are allowed... that is life... but leave it for the political sites... This is a theme park site... I went to Disneyland in 66 and Disneyworld on Opening weekend, I was a preferred vendor, supplying Epcot and was at the Inaugural opening.. ditto Hollywood Studios, and Animal Kingdom...I knew Kissimmee before and after Disney.... Just saying - I have a history with theme parks , I enjoy them ... But I am sick of politics...
So, Jonah, you're saying that these things are settled and that 50% of the population is just too stupid to know it? So let it be written and so let it be done. The ruling 50% has spoken! =)
World Showcase should be split off from Epcot and built into a separate theme park with it's own E-ticket attractions.
Robert said " that "news source" (I'm betting, Fox News?) is lying to you and you really need to stop watching/reading/listening to it. Please."
I added this as an update in the main post, but I'll post it down here in the comments, too, for anyone missed that:
I like you, James! I'm not in any way arguing that 50% of the population is stupid, or that there is anything wrong with being disturbed by scientific findings. Lots of research uncovers uncomfortable truths that force us to grapple with how we view our world and our place in it. Darwin did this with his ideas. But you best believe his ideas would have just gone away within science if they weren't shown to be true over and over again. As someone who also views the Bible as a true document, I have had to figure out how I can square the two. Living and working within the research community, I can tell you with a high degree of confidence that there is simply no debate among scientists about whether evolution exists, and functions in basically the way described by Darwin. That's why he is famous. Call me a snob, a radical, an intellectual, whatever you want. That doesn't change the science. Public opinion, as I said above, doesn't have anything to do with it. The controversy is a culture wars creation, not a scientific discussion.
I like you too, Jonah. And I have largely tried to stay out the the real debate, keeping things as light as possible. However, with this discussion of Galileo, you force my hand. From a strictly religious perspective, I am puzzled how anyone would think the sun is NOT the center of our universe as it is a type and shadow of the love of Christ. Just as the sun sacrifices itself each day to give us mortal life, Christ sacrificed himself that we might have immortal or eternal life. As for the debate on evolution vs creation, my "science" book says God formed man out of the dust of the earth and *pop* he was created. Now whether that creation was instant or over years and years, I don't know. And I don't really care. Furthermore, science doesn't make me uncomfortable, but killing God does. When we try to remove him from the equation and instead put man's intellect on a pedestal, that's when I get a little worried. As a race we seem to spend an awful lot of time
For those of you who are somewhat new to the site, I would like to welcome you to Theme Park Insider circa 2003. Back in the rough and tumble early days of TPI we used to have some pretty heated discussions between our well-meaning but misguided resident liberal (Mr. Niles) and our opinionated but always right conservatives. ( I think I may be the only one of those dinosaurs left. Anon Mouse may be another one. (Whoops! That's evolutionary! Dinosaurs never existed!)) After repeatedly beating each other over the head with our best and most righteous arguments, we all pretty much agreed that we disagree, and tacitly chose to avoid discussing politics, religion, and anything else that would bog down the pleasure of sharing our enthusiasm for all things theme park related.
James, your articulation of your faith is poetic and beautiful and I have absolutely no beef with it. I'm not sure what it is about science that makes you feel that it is putting human intellect on a pedestal. I certainly try not to do that. But I may just read the Bible differently from you. And that's okay. Agree to disagree.
Eh? What's that, laddie? You say I am pathetic and boastful? Well, I never! I may be
I love this site… I wrote 3 rebuttal lines of truth and all of the Tea party fools come out swinging….. Yes Tim’s comments were political and religious… And righteous for that matter.
Brian, it is interesting how you decided to quote scripture in an effort to bolster your point. But do you even know what that scripture means? It means that if you know truth, all truth, yes, even God's truth, you will be free from the bondage of sin and temptation. How can you be tempted when you can't be deceived? The knowledge of truth prevents deception.
Um, Brian, I'm not sure who you are referring to as "the Tea party fools come out swinging" but the only people that have openly disagreed with you are James Rao and me, and I've never been to a Tea party event in my life, so I guess that you are referring to James.
I don't even like tea, and I am too old to party.
Wow you guys are easy, That time I used a back spinning bait…
Sure do – Much more believable than an ark with 2 of every species and somehow got them all to fornicate…..
"Much more believable" (which I don't necessarily agree) does not make it true. And getting animals to do that which is natural, should not be too difficult (not sure how "fornicate" applies to animals, anyway).
Well James, I guess you are correct… Noah knew just which 2 of every species to pick; he knew which ones were fertile and healthy. I bet he even played some Johnny Mathis to get the in the mode.
You know not of what you speak. If you are truly interested I suggest a reading of Genesis chapter 7 (KJV, is fine), and then follow it up with three verses from Matthew, 7:6-8. Regardless, this debate is fruitless. We can pick at individual or collective beliefs all day long and never get any closer to the truth.
Thanks James, have a great day…. I am not angry or hold no ill will to anyone who is honest…
James, you just had a classic Matthew 7:6 encounter. Congratulations on maintaining your dignity.
I'm all for new science exhibits at Epcot. The thing is Disney abandoned them. More than 10 years ago, Bill Nye the Science Guy was featured prominantly in the park. Disney and Bill Nye discontinued their relationship and then science wasn't much on the plate at Epcot. Instead "Food and Wine" are on the plate.
Fantastic post, Robert — all of it — I recall the early years of Epcot when there was a Teacher's Resource center full of free lesson plans and the like -- that space is now occupied by the Disney Gallery store, and in a way that's as much an indicator of Epcot's educational "fall from grace" as anything: profit over purpose. Parts of Epcot Center's spirit still live on; Living With the Land is probably the best survivor of the original lot of attractions. But much has been sacrificed for the "easy" route as opposed to the much more interesting.
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