Disney will pivot Epcot away from its "sponsored content" model

Epcot Center (now "Epcot") is a weird stepchild among Disney themeparks; it started as a kind of ghastly parody of Walt Disney's plan to build a totally controlled domed company town on the enormous tract of central Florida land that is Walt Disney World, and became a cash-cow-oriented park whose radical break with themepark design norms was a blessing and a curse.

The history of Disney is a kind of push-pull between people who wanted to play around with technology and entertainment and people who wanted to make sure the company was profitable, historically represented as "Walt people" and "Roy people." Walt went to enormous lengths to push the company toward a free-spending, technology-centered, gold-plated model of themepark design in which money was spent to "plus" the "guest"-facing elements even if only a few would notice.

The nominal theory behind this was that customers would subliminally pick up on this expensive detail (historically accurate hand-stitching on the robots in the Hall of the Presidents' costumes, for example), and it would contribute to an overall sense of excellence in the product.

But it's also fair to say that the artists and craftspeople who created the themed environments derived job satisfaction from their "plussing" exercises. It feels good to make beautiful things, and when the Walt people were ascendant, there was a lot of scope for the company's favored artists to express and stretch themselves.

It's tempting to see the artists as the soul of the parks and the bean-counters as their nemeses, and there's a lot of truth to this. But Walt's aesthetic priorities weren't big on democratic fundamentals (evidence of this is easy to find, starting with the disastrous animator's strike in which Walt nearly destroyed the company by refusing to expand the say that his workers would get over their labor). Like a lot of auteurs, he was a control freak who could lose all sense of proportion.

Enter EPCOT, the Experimental Prototype City of Tomorrow, which Walt wanted to place in his Florida property -- a property that was incorporated as its own special economic zone, with control over zoning, planning, and other regulation, up to and including the power to site a private nuclear plant to keep the power flowing.

EPCOT was to be a themepark and a functional city, with employees in place of citizens, whose employment contracts would overrule both the Bill of Rights and state and federal labor laws. Like Henry Ford's disastrous Brazilian company town Fordlandia, Walt could use his city to dictate behavior, dress, and living arrangements, on the job and off.

Famously, Walt demanded conditions of his employees that he would not tolerate. Walt swore like a sailor, smoked himself to death, and sported a natty trademark mustache. Disney "castmembers" were required to be clean of lip and vocabulary and smoke-free.

Walt died in 1966, and EPCOT was transformed into Walt Disney World (tip to successors: always name your betrayals of the dead founder's vision after the dead founder as a way of claiming legitimacy!). Nine years later, Walt Disney World's Disneyland-esque Magic Kingdom got a new themepark neighbor: EPCOT Center (later Epcot Center, later still, Epcot).

Disney parks have always financed themselves with a certain amount of corporate sponsorship. It would be ridiculous to claim that Walt had any animus towards this model: the plans for corporate sponsorship are literally in the first-ever document describing Disneyland.

But EPCOT Center ("Epcot" from here on in) took this to another level. It was the themepark version of those vanity magazines you could find in the lobby of Florida tourist hotels, a rack of things that looked like familiar objects, but, on closer inspection, turned out to be artifacts from a parallel universe in which the whole world was dominated by a single industrial giant: like a World's Fair with better sight-line management.

While Disneyland and the Magic Kingdom were both designed so that wanderers could always see something new to do from where they were standing, creating a kind of momentum that drew you through the space, Epcot's Future World was composed of "pavilions" -- literal enclosed buildings, each at the end of its own meandering track from which the sightlines were carefully managed, using landscape elements and other tricks to ensure that when you were standing on Monsanto or GM's doorstep, you wouldn't be distracted by Exxon or Nestle's pavilion.

Each pavilion hosted a mix of elements: rides, shows, interactive exhibits, restaurants, etc, all themed to the sponsor's tastes and budget. This fine-grained, deep-pocketed sponsorship model was a huge boon to Disney, which was reeling from a hostile takeover attempt a few years earlier.

Future World also sported two "Communicore" -- long trade-show buildings where companies with less money (or less confidence) could place more cautious bets, placing booths that were reminiscent of a pop-up presence at Comdex or CES. If the Pavilions were vanity magazines, Communicore let sponsors get their toes wet with some custom brochure work from Imagineering.

The other half of Epcot was no less sponsor-oriented: the World Showcase was a collection of national pavilions (another World's Fair stalwart), hand-sold to the tourism ministries of countries that were investing heavily in "soft power" diplomacy. The original World Showcase countries are a who's-who of economic anxiety and pride: think of Norway, recently transformed from the sick man of Europe to a wealthy power through the discovery of North Sea oil -- the only Nordic country to buy into the Epcot pitch.

The resulting park was...OK. Sometimes, the rides and shows were amazing, and even when they weren't, they could still be charming. World Showcase ended the stricture on booze sales, giving grownups a break from the Mormon-dry environs of the Magic Kingdom. Constraint isn't the enemy of art, it can also be its handmaiden, and at their best, the Imagineers involved did stupendous things.

But it hasn't aged well. Epcot is a leg-breaker, which long, long walks (on punishing, unshaded walkways that bake in the Florida heat, even with the late-added misters that only increase the unbearable humidity) and corporate sponsors whose enthusiasm for maintenance and upgrades has visibly waned.

There's been a decades-long effort to make Epcot more like the Magic Kingdom, upping the density, reducing the degree of sponsor control (and visibility), making cash investments out of Disney's own coffers. As the revenues from Disney's cable cash-cows (ESPN, notably) have dropped off a cliff, the themeparks are looking like the next growth frontier for the company, and the new upper-management enthusiasm for themed location-based entertainment is manifesting in some stonking huge investments in rides, many of which are coming to Epcot.

Epcot will always struggle, I fear. The deliberate isolation of its show-buildings can't be readily overcome, short of some major surgery. But the move to place successful showstopper rides from other parks in Epcot will certainly improve its image.

However, there's another possibility for Epcot, given all those huge, empty spaces: make it a lab for live, interactive, between-the-rides spontaneous entertainments -- mini-games, ARGs, etc -- that will keep people out of the ride queues and give them something to do that's not standing in lines or slogging between them. Epcot's already had some great experiments in this direction, but there hasn't been much noise about them lately (all the live interactivity action seems to be directed at the live-in Star Wars resort.

As queues at Disney Parks lengthen, building showstopper rides just makes them longer -- it's a Red Queen's Race -- but upping the density of personal, handmade entertainments can solve the problem.

Mr. Chapek also announced more than $1 billion worth of projects unrelated to Epcot. A version of the “Tron”-inspired roller coaster that has been a runaway hit at Shanghai Disneyland is coming to the Magic Kingdom at Disney World. Also coming to that resort will be a luxury hotel designed to make guests feel as if they are staying on an actual “Star Wars” starship. A ride called Mickey and Minnie’s Runaway Railway will replace the dusty Great Movie Ride, which is at another Disney World park.

“This is not going to be a small attraction,” Kevin Rafferty, a Disney ride designer, told the crowd of the Mickey Mouse offering. “It’s going to be game-changing.”

Mr. Chapek also said Disney Cruise Line will add another new ship, which will bring the company’s fleet to seven upon completion in 2023.

Disney is counting on its theme park division to help offset slowing growth at ESPN. Last year, Disney parks generated $17 billion in revenue, a 5 percent increase compared with a year earlier, and $3.3 billion in operating income, a 9 percent increase.

Disney Vows to Give Epcot a Magical, Long-Overdue Makeover [Brooks Barnes/New York Times]

(via Marginal Revolution)

(Image: Disney)