Wednesday, October 17, 2012

An EPCOT Generation Manifesto

"If we build all this correctly, if we build it beautifully, if we can set an example for the world, we can change the whole damn country." - Ray Bradbury
There are no photos of me at EPCOT Center.

There are photos of me at Epcot '95 and Epcot 2000 and just plain old lower-case Epcot - that lower case is so appropriate, so pallid for a diluted theme park - but my time as a youth in EPCOT Center has left no physical trace - no maps, no pictures, and it's all receded into my memories. It may not have ever happened at all.

Actually, there is one signifier of the impact EPCOT made on me, and it's this blog. I clearly remember returning home from EPCOT in 1990 with "One Little Spark" on a loop track up in my head. The part I remembered best was:

"Imagination! Imagination!
A dream can be a dream come true
With just one spark in me and you!"

I wrote that out of a sheet of paper in crayon at a cheap plastic "art" desk my parents bought me for Christmas. I had been told at EPCOT that one little idea in my head was the start of everything new in the world. I suddenly realized that I could create. I started to draw things. I drew lots of Haunted Mansion, another formative influence. I drew lots of stuff from Who Framed Roger Rabbit?. A few years later, I was turning microwave boxes on their side, elevating one panel up into the interior to make a slope, and hanging little handmade targets inside the box. The targets would be made of cut-up cereal boxes. You'd throw marbles at the targets, which I controlled with string. The sloped interior floor naturally returned the marbles to you, saving me the need to obtain more than the four I was working with. I made ten of these little shooting galleries. Many were themed to movies, like Gremlins or The Goonies. From there, I started building walk-through haunted houses in my basement. I was a backyard Imagineer before I was old enough to know what the internet was.

At the same time, I kept writing, and drawing, a reading, and eventually I cultivated a sensibility which motivated me to move across the country to Orlando, get a job at Disney, thereby enabling me to start writing this blog, which set in motion a chain of events which spiraled into the widening circles which bring us together today.

This blog is one of the children of Journey Into Imagination. The closure of that attraction in 1998 was absolutely devastating to me. Coupled with the shock of losing two other personal favorites, Mr. Toad and Dreamflight that same year, I withdrew from all Disney topics with the exception of Haunted Mansion for almost four years. This coincided with the typical disastrous "too cool for Disney" phase all teenagers eventually contract. Once I returned, the rules on the ground had changed. EPCOT Center was just a memory. A wand loomed over Spaceship Earth. Guys in kilts were the big thing to see in World Showcase. I kept asking myself: what happened to this place?

EPCOT Center turned 30 this month, and it is sad to report that the greatest single act of themed design in the history of the form has been reduced to a pin stand and a well-themed bar district. We can argue semantics about Walt Disney's original vision for E.P.C.O.T., the political and cultural reasons these were transformed into a theme park, so on and so on but the fact remains that the guiding principle behind E.P.C.O.T. and EPCOT Center remained the same; like Captain EO, it was here to change the world.

And EPCOT did change the world, actually. This is no lie. Very soon hand-wringers would surround the project and announce its' impending doom: EPCOT was out of touch, outdated, uncool, not right for kids. And, to be completely honest, Disney had made many mistakes in the creation of EPCOT Center. They had grossly overspent despite obtaining the economic assistance of around twenty companies, including one major corporation in almost every sector of the American market. They had grossly overspent so much, in fact, that the company's value was destabilized and the regime in power was swept out. Some EPCOT attractions were too vague in some ways or too specific in others; half of the statistical information presented in The Land pavilion was outdated in just months. Disney formed alliances with regimes of corporations on their way out, assuring that the support for these highly expensive attractions would be but short-lived. Truthfully, EPCOT was a mad grasp for the brass ring that was already a cultural dinosaur - the very last gasp of old-fashioned optimism before mass culture went permanently ironic.

Look at it this way: Walt Disney gambled that the public would want something they had never before seen in 1955 at Disneyland. They did, and so Walt Disney Productions survived. Had Disneyland failed, Walt Disney's personal wealth and company would have ceased to exist. Walt Disney gambled, and Disneyland became a household name. Walt Disney Productions gambled just as large on EPCOT Center - a theme park unlike any built before or since - and their big gamble meant that EPCOT Center became a household name - but even they were finally swept under.

But every child of the eighties or early nineties who passed through those wide turnstiles and squinted up at the glare of the Florida sun off that big geodesic sphere left the park permanently marked with its message. Those catchy theme songs, so easy to dismiss as irritating simplifications, got into our DNA. They became homilies. How many kids eventually discovered the name Buckminster Fuller and connected his writing to the social concerns espoused by the theme park just because Disney name-checked one of his most famous ideas as the title of the park's iconic attractions? How easily we can come up with phrases like "nature's plan will shine above", or "the future world is born today", or "if we can dream it, then we can do it", or "one little spark of inspiration is at the heart of all creation" - all genuinely good advice, and all from EPCOT? These sound like notations not from a theme park, but from something like "Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth".

Oops, I made the connection clear, didn't I?

Just as Magic Kingdom and Disneyland taught us how to be savvy navigators of cultural mythology, EPCOT Center was an indoctrination into world citizenship. How many have been introduced to the writings of Steinbeck, Twain , Wolfe or Franklin, to the ideas of Frederick Douglass, Theodore Roosevelt, John Muir, Will Rogers and Susan B. Anthony through the American Adventure? How many have thrilled to the conceptual beauty of Ray Bradbury's immortal opening line "Like a grand and miraculous spaceship, our planet has sailed through the universe of time - and for a brief moment, we have been among its many passengers"? Once you open up the doors on things like that - even if it's things in the form of a fun and fast theme park experience - the flood gates have already opened. The thing about learning is that once you have a little of it, you want to have more.

In short, EPCOT Center was training for the forthcoming Information Age - before it really even started to get underway in mainstream society. Millions of children exited EPCOT better equipped than when they entered it, and they had fun. Most of us first handled things like computers, portable phones, and face-to-face video conversations at EPCOT - what is Skype or FaceTime but the newest version of WorldKey? Allow for a generational shift - and one happens about every twenty years - and these same kids have now grown up, had jobs and kids of their own, and they all see that EPCOT Center has not kept pace, but fallen into a sort of coma.

It's easy to retrospectively take the micro view - that the Universe of Energy was beholden to the corporate demands of a crude oil corporation, that the end of World of Motion was problematic, that Journey into Imagination eventually ran out of ideas - and lose track of the macro view, the big picture. And the big picture is that EPCOT Center was mission accomplished. We aren't living underwater or building big glass pyramids everywhere, but EPCOT Center did change the world, and if you're reading this, chances are very good that you are part of the EPCOT Generation, the swath of kids who were deeply personally affected by their experiences there.

The public discourse about EPCOT Center has for the last twenty-plus years been largely dominated by its many hiccups and failures. Many of these reflected the fact that an entertainment company was tackling very big issues in what was (and still is) seen as a disreputable media format: the amusement attraction. The distance between a carousel and the ennobling American Adventure could not be greater, but still, EPCOT was seen as a dumbing down of material, much as films which deviate even slightly from source novels are still scowled upon. Both of these attitudes proceed from the unspoken cultural assumption that one media "text" is intrinsically inferior to others.

Yes, it had problems. Yes, it was a huge success. There's no faster way to become the fodder of critical disdain than to be populist, flawed, and hugely successful. But to continue to debate how successful this attraction was or what caused that to close is to continue to obsess over trivia. What's really missing from EPCOT today isn't just Horizons, it's the whole package of information, of inspiration, the message of hope which cumulatively moved us all.

So it's time to change that discourse after 30 years. We are the EPCOT Generation, and we know that the park was not a failure, because it was absorbed into us on some deeply felt level into us. After thirty years, it's time to collectively stop apologizing for what the park has meant to us and start re-committing to a brighter future for the "21st Century of 1982".

The simple fact is that nobody has walked out of an EPCOT Center attraction in over a decade. The park has experienced massive identity shifts since 1994, pulling it further and further away from the ideals it began with - the ideal to make the world a better place through education, art, and culture. The issues that EPCOT Center tackled in 1982 - communication tools, energy conservation, man's frontiers, transportation technology, human creativity, land use, sea exploration and global culture - all of those are things we see in the newspaper every single day. After thirty years, we're still chasing the same ghosts as we were in 1982. It isn't that EPCOT Center was outdated, it's that it was ahead of its time. In an era when American politics and culture were sinking into hedonism and corporate enslavement, EPCOT Center reminded children that they didn't need to make the same mistakes their parents had.

What's "not right for kids" about that? Isn't that a message we all want to pass on to the next generation? And what better media format to tell it in than a place where you can be inspired and have fun - not a museum, but a theme park? With a singing dragon?

As an EPCOT child, that's what I find most troubling about Epcot The Theme Park - not that X or Y specific component is now missing, but that the message of the theme park isn't getting out there. That enrichment is fun. Learning is lifelong. That we are all "tomorrow's children".

That's why I'm most crushed that Journey Into Imagination closed - because I'm a real life example of the power that attraction wielded. That the next generation of creative children won't have their "little spark" awoken by such a rich, sumptuous experience.

That's the real tragedy of what Epcot has become - once the name signified something, all capital letters, bold and burdened with significance. Now it's been demoted to a noun. It's no longer about the idea behind EPCOT Center, but the place itself, another place to ride thrill rides and drink heavily. Just because it says "Epcot" doesn't mean that it means EPCOT.

It's time to stop committing to Epcot as a system and embrace it as a sign - as an idea. For eighteen of the park's thirty years, the mission has wavered. The park has been cluttered with neon and metal debris. The attractions have been content to gloss ideas and images or present uninformative, pedestrian amusements. And the EPCOT babies have all vanished along with the acronym.

This needs to begin somewhere. If not with a re-commitment to the ideals of the park itself, than perhaps starting just with the name: EPCOT Center. It was never an easy name, not at all like "The Magic Kingdom". EPCOT Center makes you think as you say it, the acronym hints at a larger context, the "Center" implying something both important and grand. Epcot is a person, place, thing, or idea; you smile when you say it. EPCOT Center is a bar to reach, a title worth living up to. Perhaps if the park were once again called EPCOT Center, the various units, attractions and displays would once again strive to be worthy of the name. Bit by bit, the components of the park could once again lock in step and flow and move and spin and circle their message of harmony, peace, and idealism.

Yes, I'm a dreamer and an idealist. EPCOT taught me to be this way.

This blog and this writing and my whole creative core is a product of the EPCOT generation, and the EPCOT generation is all of us who were moved by that park, and now we are the ones in a position to vote with our money and write with our voices and tell Disney what a EPCOT Center is and should be. Because EPCOT, as a creative entity, has moved us all. One of the greatest theme parks ever built was also, in the final assessment, amongst the most successful. It actually achieved its' laudable goals.

We are the EPCOT Generation. And it's up to Disney and it's up to us to make sure that we won't be the last.