Thursday, May 03, 2007

Selling the Dream: Part Three

The dream waits to welcome you here!
Enchantment is just up ahead!
The star of all stars is preparing to take a part!
You'll see what the genius has created here
And the magnificent sensations related here
And if you seem more delighted and elated here
It's because Disney people know how
To present the 21st Century!
Hooray for the 21st Century!
The 21st Century begins right now!

You are reading brilliant spin. No really, it's brilliant. For a company which I often say couldn't market its' way out of a paper bag, Disney really had all her ducks in a row twenty-five years ago, when they had to answer to the collective universe what they had just spent over a billion 1982 dollars doing in the swamps of central Florida. They did. They wrapped up one of the most astonishing intellectual arguments ever made by a collective entity in a giant Broadway musical spectacular and broadcast it all over the television for everyone to see. Watching The Grand Opening of EPCOT Center is often saccharine, sometimes infuriating but mostly awe-inspiring - even after 25 years we're still amazed that anybody could pull together such an amazing and accessible articulation of abstract concepts and transmute them into something marketable. Disney had its' best people on this one.

EPCOT is a tough sell, let's face it. Tourists were expected to get to the middle of nowhere down in Central Florida and spend a few days learning things. Thinking while being entertained? For a culture that still snickers and/or is aghast at the idea of watching a subtitled movie (because having to read - work - while being entertained is stupid), Americans hardly deserved the astonishing achievement EPCOT represented. That Disney did not shy away from the humanitarian, intellectual, and conceptual concepts at work in the park is even more astonishing.

Where a "Small World" route could have be taken ("Did you know more than 67 cultures are represented in 'It's A Small World'?" / "Did you know that 'World of Motion' is the largest Audio-Animatronics attraction ever created?"), Disney instead exceeds the abstraction of physical space seen in The Grand Opening of Walt Disney World and actually does almost nothing to sell the various attractions and their interiors. When an attraction or eatery interior is seen, it is often in a montage of other, undifferentiated images which are cut in such a way to allude to a certain theme or concept. There is no moment where host Danny Kaye stops and says "This is Spaceship Earth, which traces the history of blah blah blah." Making such a statement is one, specific kind of sell. He does, however, tell us that Spaceship Earth is, essentially, a monument to man. That is another, very different kind of sell.

With such a rosy view of the future being presented in the Future World segment, the writers of the show seem to have developed a terminal case of the cutes. Drew Barrymore is dragged in and Kaye proceeds to tell her that she'll probably be living in space one day, and that's what Future World is all about.

It's bearably sweet and stagey until they introduce a white robot who later goes to Communicore to try pickup lines on SMRT-1 (wish I was making this up, folks). The robot introduces Dreamfinder and Figment and, in a jawdropping moment, actually tells Kaye as he and Barrymore head for Journey Into Imagination "Follow her - for when it comes to imagination, a child shall lead them." Although postmodernism is a crime in EPCOT, one of the greatest modernistic constructions of the latter 20th Century, this moment is so casually didactic while simultaneously being obnoxiously affected that it seriously strains credibility.

And speaking of straining credibility, a special level of incredulity must be reserved for Disney's convoluted rationale/excuse for why Walt Disney's E.P.C.O.T., so aggressively marketed by the very same people between 1971 and 1975, was never built:

EPCOT isn't just an anything
It's everything and more!
A great deal more than anything
The world has seen before!
The perfect planned community
The splendorific sprawl
And EPCOT Center is the heart of it all!

And then, this astonishing torrent of rhetoric unleashed by Kaye in the opening minutes of the show, which really must be seen to be believed:

"What's an EPCOT? Well, that's a good question. Is it just another amusement park? No! Number One: EPCOT is the Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow, and Number Two: EPCOT isn't just an 'anything'! Oh, no... ...EPCOT Center is located in the center of EPCOT. And EPCOT Center is made up of two parts, which is Future World and The World Showcase. It's 2.5 miles from The Magic Kingdom, which is also part of EPCOT, which is what the entire 2700 acre area known as the Experimental Protype Community of Tomorrow or EPCOT or Walt Disney World is called. Just so there's no confusion!"

Remember when I said this was brilliant spin? So it turns out all along that we don't actually need to build Walt's crazy city because we did such a great job with Phase One, right? Albeit, Walt Disney World's master planning is nothing to sneeze at, and calling it "the perfect planed community" is not far off base. The Magic Kingdom's Utilidors, AVAC system, and technological infrastructure twenty years ahead of its' time is still much celebrated. Disney's 911 emergency number was later adopted by the rest of the country. Even the Shopping Village was designed to be pedestrian and economically friendly, deploying Walt's "greenbelt" idea to great effect and adding a lake, to boot. So while it's not out of line to claim that many of the key concepts of E.P.C.O.T. were deployed at Walt Disney World already, it's head spinning and maddening to claim that E.P.C.O.T. was already built.

Things immediately improve once we get to World Showcase, where the writers prove their skill by effortlessly selling the essential concept of why all those cute little countries are there in a theme park devoted to futurism. Although it's been much contested in print and online, it's hard to argue with:

The fragments of a miracle are falling into place
In this showcase of the entire human race...

People to people, culture to culture,
Nation to nation coming forth and joining hands
This is World Showcase, the substance, the essence,
The coming together of youth from distant lands
Growing and learning from each other
Sensing the needs of one another
A fellowship of youngsters with a special dream to share
Their different customs blending in a mixture rich and rare
The need was never greater for all people everywhere
So the Imagineers devised this wondrous plan:
The World Showcase... of the family... of man.

It's still an astonishing claim: World Showcase is a step towards world peace. Yes, you heard it folks. And it's not necessarily an invalid claim. Much time and energy is spent on portraying the still vibrant World Showcase Fellowship program, which is exactly what the song claims it to be. Although the staging of the musical number and Kaye's performance unfortunately often undercuts this message by adopting accents and wardrobe pieces which tend to make (still funny!) stereotypes of the nations presented, it's impossible to not be impressed. World Showcase is still Disney's most potent entry into the world of high culture offerings, and the writers do not sell it short. Although today most often used as a backdrop to get very drunk in, the shops and eateries are still unique and almost subliminal learning experiences.

The show cannot be accused of being subtle, but it also cannot be accused of being wrong. Twenty-five years later, EPCOT Center is undergoing a massive identity rebranding because it did not stay in step with the culture it was meant to enrich, but in 1982, EPCOT could change the world.

By the end of the show we have Kaye conducting the West Point Glee Club in "America the Beautiful". Remarkably enough, by this time the show has earned that ending, and all in a brief 50 minutes. There are missteps, there are some questionable moments, but there are, remarkably, some moments which almost reach the sublime if you let them.

What we see here is that Disney has gone from selling the park's existence and the excitement of being there (Dateline: Disneyland), to selling the entertainment appeal of the park (The Grand Opening of Walt Disney World) and finally on into selling the thematic and intellectual concerns of the park. Never again. By the time Disney got around to opening another park, post-Eisner, it was Disney-MGM Studios in 1989, where the formula had devolved into a format more like the '71 venture, of entertainment and nonsense, and the programs would continue to devolve, as we shall see. But for now, here, in 1982, the Disney promotional television program finally began to scrape the underside of art, before sinking without a trace.

The 21st Century's Now!
There's history happening here!
Before you you see how the dream
Reached its culmination
The most thrilling sight one could see
With visions of things yet to be
A brilliant design of incredible scope
Constructed of miracles, magic and hope
A new kind of joy for this weary old sphere
And the 21st Century begins right here!