Why has Walt Disney World, the nation’s premier vacation destination, seemed slightly more like Youngstown, Ohio with each passing year? So much of the luster and finesse has been compromised or streamlined; as much as I like visiting, it seems less special each successive time. And I know it’s not entirely a product of my getting older and more cynical. But it is curious, and unnerving, that ticket prices have risen to fully $80 for a single-day single-park ticket, even as the quality of the rides and the experience continues to dwindle.
The Magic Kingdom, home of most of the signature attractions like Pirates of the Caribbean and Space Mountain, continues to do brisk business and a massive overhaul of Fantasyland is in the works. But its sister parks are in some degree of peril: Disney Studios shed both its initial MGM co-sponsor as well as its conceit of being a working movie and television complex in the middle of the previous decade. Animal Kingdom, for its part, has sometimes been called the Star Trek: Voyager of the Disney parks in Orlando, the troubled fourth addition to a noble franchise.
But the theme park that is probably in the sorriest shape is, ironically, the park that has posited a teleological hope in human progress. That is to say, Epcot.* As every Disney buff knows, EPCOT is an acronym standing for the Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow. (Wags have subsequently suggested folk etymologies like Every Person Comes Out Tired and Every Pocketbook Comes Out Trashed.) In its design phases, it soon became clear that Walt Disney’s vision for an actual planned city without retirees, homeless, or invalids was an embarrassing combination of unworkable and sinister. As an alternative, WED, Disney’s design branch, went the route of making Epcot a second theme park. Its inspiration was not so much its elder sibling, The Magic Kingdom, but the great World’s Fairs of yore, with engaging pavilions from both major corporations and individual countries, showing of their wares, but more broadly, presenting a vision.
Epcot’s design, both in its corporate Future World section and its internationalist World Showcase half, clung to the World’s Fair vision and translated it into the 1980s aesthetic. This meant a lot of beige, a lot of stainless steel, spartan use of colour, and all of it manifested in conspicuous display. While the World Showcase’s theme of cross-cultural engagement and international harmony still speak to our better angels, Future World was more ambiguous and perhaps a bit more menacing in its implications. What it stood for was never made clear in a cogent mission statement. Instead, Future World became a word salad of vague progress: vision, progress, humanity, enterprise, exploration, wonder, possibility. The initial dark rides in Epcot have phrases like “bold new era”, and “if we can dream it, we can do it.” This vision was also emblazoned upon its architecture: the geodesic sphere of Spaceship Earth (the first ever built), or the cells on the Universe of Energy show that m oved the ride vehicles by solar power. Since a term for this worldview does not exist, I will try to give it a name, corporate humanism.
See, the visions were all designed in the boardrooms of Fortune 500 companies. World of Motion, a revue of transportation breakthroughs, was sponsored by General Motors. Spaceship Earth, a similar run through communications history, was picked up by the Bell System, and later its parent company AT&T. Journey Into Imagination was a boon for Kodak, who also got the lucrative exclusive rights to sell film in the Disney parks. Accordingly, the attractions in Future World reflect the wishes and the ideologies of their respective sponsors. It isn’t, in a meaningful sense, “the people” who contribute to tomorrow, its the innovator, the communicator, and above all, the dreamer. While the songs and the rides suggested that the future would be a collaborative effort (“new horizons for you and for me,” went the song of one ride), the nuts and bolts of Epcot’s design and finances suggested that this was not the case. Populism, this was not. Everyone would enjoy, profit from, and consume from, this futuristic world view, but not everybody could create it. Hence, the sponsors.
Initially, this led to concerns that the park was too lifeless, too staid. This was, to be sure, a departure from the colour and the childlike joy that permeated Disneyland, and its Floridian counterpart, the Magic Kingdom. Since opening day, it invited critiques that Epcot was too staid, there was too much stainless steel, it lacked expression and, ironically, imagination. No Disney characters and virtually no Disney character merchandise, were to be found in Epcot Center on opening day.
Disney soon adjusted, and for a good long while, Epcot found a golden mean between presenting information and showcasing near-future technology on one hand, and providing entertaining tableaux on the other. Rides like “Body Wars”, “Maelstrom” and eventually “Test Track” satiated the thrillseeker while keeping faith with Epcot’s instructive mission. Eventually, one might find Goofy in a space suit hanging around Future World signing autographs, or Minnie Mouse in a geisha costume in the Japan pavilion. Such altercations proved fruitful. Until the end of the 1990s, Epcot was a rousing success, at times rivaling the Magic Kingdom for visitors.
What a change since then. The Wonders of Life pavilion, which once housed “Body Wars”, the park’s most popular attraction in the mid-90s, sits vacant, used only for annual Food & Wine Festivals. It’s sponsor, MetLife, decided against renewing their sponsorship. Similar fates have befallen many of the other Epcot pavilions: AT&T declined to renew their contract on Spaceship Earth, although Compaq reached an agreement with Disney. Nestle got out of The Land, ExxonMobil withdrew from the Universe of Energy, as did United Technologies from The Living Seas. General Motors barely survived the near-death experience of Chapter 11 bankruptcy; how it will continue to sponsor Test Track remains unclear. Kodak seems on the verge of bailing on Journey Into Imagination, which it has sponsored since the park’s opening in 1982. While this trend started even in the prosperous 1990s, the latest economic crisis has caused it to speed up. More than this, though, the Great Recession has caused irreparable damage to the worldview that Epcot’s Future World tried to present.
What happened? These businesses were supposed to be guiding us into the future. Now, they can’t seem to get out of Epcot fast enough, like rats fleeing a sinking ship. Like the town of New Harmony in the 1830s, an expressive vision of a utopia became something like a ghost town in just a little over a generation. In an age of rising CEO salaries, outsourcing, subsidies, GE paying zero taxes for 2010, income and opportunity inequalities, the centre cannot hold. Even as sponsors flee Epcot, the idea that these businesses would be the ones that would guide us to a better and more innovative future has become laughable. It flies in the face of the lived experiences of the last 3 or 4 years for most of us. Not surprisingly, Epcot’s press material has not stressed its futuristic aspects; as such, the park seems to operate with a modus operandi, an overarching vision, or a mission statement. And where there is no vision, the people perish.
My favorite Disney attraction, Horizons, might point the way out of this conundrum. Although shut down and replaced since 1999, Horizons had an imaginative first third or so dedicated to how previous generations had conceptualized the future. The sequence was given the whimsical name “Looking Back at Tomorrow” but it was, in its own nascent way, a kind of historiography. Played largely for laughs, the dioramas included fantastical Jules Verne moonshots, the art deco futurism of the 1920s, and the loud, neon colours in the 1950s and 1960s immortalized by The Jetsons.
Perhaps, just perhaps, the 1980s view that Horizons and other Epcot attractions advertised was as myopic as the earlier visions of the future that Horizons lampooned. In other words, the business-friendly futurism of Epcot in the 1980s wasn’t visionary, it was acquisitive. Devoted almost wholly to profit, heedless of environmental damage, destructive toward labor, it is no surprise that these businesses bailed out of the “future business” when the going got tough. If we couldn’t expect regular moonshots, hoverboards, and robotic barbers, then it was equally ludicrous to expect our future and its benefits to be handed to us passively. If we were to construct a ride like Horizons today, to be taken seriously, it would need to account for corporate maleficence, backslides into declension, and perhaps even a more nuanced view of human nature than what was presented to us in the 1980s. This need not be nihilistic, but we must recognize that if we are to construct a better future, we must be mindful of our own limitations and weaknesses, both structural and spiritual, along the way. It may be difficult, especially in depressed times such as this, but it is surely not impossible. After all, as Horizons reminded us, “if we can dream it, we can do it.”
*the name of the park has itself gone through a few small, but instructive, changes. For the first 12 years of its existence, Disney marketed it as EPCOT Center. By the mid-90s, it was named after its year, to suggest that the park was in a continual state of improvement- hence, Epcot ’94, Epcot ’95, and Epcot ’96. Tellingly, the significance of the Epcot name was dropped and it lost its acronym and all-caps spelling. Today, it is just Epcot, neither an acronym nor a year, perhaps unwittingly suggesting a park dislodged of both purpose and chronology.