Why America needs Epcot... and other 'non-fiction' theme parks
Written by Robert Niles
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?Tweet
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.)
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