The folks at the Epcot Explorer’s Encyclopedia are an interesting lot. They are often able to detect what is happening in the Disney parks weeks ahead of anyone else by looking at who is filing legal paperwork, where packages are mailed to within the Disney premises, and at times, I think they may have used some satellite photographs as well. Recently, they have uncovered a piece by a consultant who was hired by Disney to critique Epcot in the early 1990s. The consultant, and his colleagues, lambasted the ideology that drove Epcot– it did nothing to challenge the guests and put the park in a philosophical straitjacket.
Part of the critique goes as follows: “The problem is not that Epcot has become more an amusement park than museum. The problem is that Epcot is providing a mistimed truth to a people in desperate need of moral and civic guidance. It is like trying to enlighten a miser by putting forward the idea that a penny saved is a penny earned. The miser already knows this, indeed lives by this philosophy. He will learn nothing from hearing it restated. What the miser needs to consider is something along the lines of the Robert Herrick poem that begins, “gather ye rosebuds while ye may”. To quote Andre Gide, “That education is best which goes counter to you.” He meant that we learn by contrast and comparison, not by redundancy and confirmation.
The unstated theme of Epcot is “technology uber alles.” In every exhibit, in every conceivable way, Epcot proclaims that paradise is to be achieved by technological progress. This message includes the idea that new is better than slow, that simple is better than complex…to the question, ‘what will it mean to be a human being in the future,’ EPCOT answers, ‘you will find fulfillment in loving your machines.’ People who flock to Epcot warm to this message, as a miser will warm to being told that a penny saved is a penny earned. But he will learn nothing from it.
Damn! As much as I loved the Epcot of the late 1980s and early 1990s, this is a harsh and forthright rebuke, and I am convinced by many of its arguments. The author of this piece, Neil Postman, correctly identifies some problems that I recognize in hindsight. Technology is, in fact, what elevates man. Communications and transportation developments sent humanity on an upward trajectory in Spaceship Earth and World of Motions— they allowed us to fulfill our dearest wishes, whether through the freedom of the automobile, or the accessibility of the microchip. Even in Journey into Imagination, imagination was valued not for its own sake, but for its real-world application. Numerous tableau showed its role in fostering scientific discovery, for example. Similarly, even Horizons, a family-oriented view of the future, granted new (and yet-undeveloped in 1983) technologies the role of savior, bringing a family separated by hundreds of miles together through the use of holographic video screens. I think that this argument does not hold as much water when applied to the World Showcase (which has similar themes of universal brotherhood, and often implies that cultural difference is superficial compared to humanity’s commonalities.) But when applied to Future World– the pavillions with lengthy rides and corporate sponsorship– it becomes more problematic. Postman goes on to contrast Epcot with the museum of immigration at Ellis Island, which argues for a polyglot, patchwork citizenship defined by a common commitment to American ideals, rather than the consumerist model of citizenship that derived from the 1950s, or the “yellow ribbon on your car” mode of citizienship that became en vogue after September 11th. A museum must alter our way of thinking, or as Postman puts it, “A museum must be in argument with its society, and what is more, it must be a timely argument.”
But this is precisely the problem. Who would go to a museum that remonstrates, or tells you that you are consuming too much, that you are besieging the environment, or that your country’s history is rent with racial baggage? And at Disney’s exorbitant theme park prices, such lessons would be particularly unwelcome– and indeed, this is one reason why its clientele pay $75 tickets to hear an affirmative message– they would be up in arms about paying $75 to be scolded or chastised.
But suppose, for a moment, that Epcot did in fact take Postman’s suggestion, and lived up to its promise to enlighten humanity by putting forth genuinely different worldviews that challenged its guests, rather than coddled them or convinced them to place their faith in the consumer society? What would such a park look like?
My guess is this— a World Showcase that featured national images and displays that its guests were more unfamiliar with. As it stands, the World Showcase is mostly routine Western Europe fair– Germany, Italy, etc., with heavy doses of other civilizations like China and Japan that are superficially exotic. a better display, and one which would challenge its guests a bit more, might include a country lineup like Vietnam, Haiti, Turkey, Israel, Indonesia, India, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Russia. The Future World section would be more than an extended commercial. (I remember how the Universe of Energy spent 5 seconds of a 40-minute show on global warming, telling us that it was “controversial.” Maybe in the Exxon board room, but outside of conservative think tanks, there is scientific consensus.) So– pavilions on the environment, world religions, and charitable activism would certainly rock the boat. The Land might have more work on sustainable agriculture in the third world. The Universe of Energy would address pollution more forthrightly. Wonders of Life would a) be open, and b) grapple with obesity, eating disorders, and communicable disease.
Nobody would pay good money to see this, perhaps, but it would be a fascinating experiment if Epcot could be temporarily tweaked for a short while to see how guests would like to be challenged, rather than placated. Cynics such as P.T. Barnum once said that nobody ever got broke underestimating the intelligence of the American public, but such a bizzaro-Epcot would put this idea to the test. Ah, well. My phone remains on its stand, waiting for the Imagineers to call.