‘ReInnoventing’ Epcot

Since 1982, Walt Disney World’s second theme park Epcot has been capturing the imagination through education and glimpses into the future. At least, that was EPCOT until the last few years. Starting in the early 2010s, the identity of then EPCOT (now Epcot) has been shifting away from education to food, wine, and a few thrills. With the recent closures at Epcot (Ellen’s Universe of Energy) and at Hollywood Studios (The Great Movie Ride and soon One Man’s Dream), it is clear that the leadership and Imagineers of Walt Disney World are moving in new directions compared to the legacy direction the park(s) have demonstrated over the decades. Although it mostly flew under the radar for a large portion of park one-time guests and even some regulars, over the last few years–and increasingly so, over the last few months–Future World’s Innoventions is, much like Ellen’s dinosaurs, extinct.

Innoventions (and the former Wonders of Life pavilion, home of the once-popular Body Wars) housed some of the most entertaining, educational, and interactive show offerings at WDW. The House of Innoventions (later Vision House), Storm Struck, Where’s the Fire, What’s Your Problem, and more struck a fantastic balance between education and entertainment (often referred to as edutainment). Now, all that remains of Future World is Test Track, The Living Seas with Nemo and Friends, Mission Space (recently refurbished), Soarin’, Living with the Land, and the iconic Spaceship Earth. Nearly half as many attractions exist compared to just five years ago. During this time,  Epcot also changed its official name from EPCOT to Epcot. What’s the difference, you ask? Originally, Epcot was an acronym that stood for the Experimental Prototype Community Of Tomorrow. With the reimagination of the park over the years, and furthermore, the movement away from education and the future, the park officially changed its name to Epcot (no acronym).

Although each of these closures could be analyzed separately, the long and short of it is sacrificing education for thrills and booze. And there is not anything innately wrong with that. Theme parks should be thrilling, and offer a wide array of food and drink options! But what made Epcot unique amongst other theme parks around the country WAS the educational component. Much like the “magic of the movies” and filmmaking was the essence of what made Hollywood Studios the park it was. The introduction of the new Guardians of the Galaxy based attraction in Future World (hmm…this area of the park probably needs a new name, now that I think about it), will undoubtedly breath new life into this waning area of the park, but at what cost??? On the plus side, WDW is able to finally integrate the Marvel property into the parks but it will be replacing a legacy attraction. Legacy. That’s a term you hear quite often when talking about the Disney and Universal parks. The term legacy can be defined as an amount of money or property left to an heir in a will. For theme parks, legacy attractions are those that often opened on the first day or have maintained a presence for a substantial amount of time–so long that generations of people enjoyed them. Waxing nostalgic is a popular pseudo-activity at many theme park attractions. There is no quantifiable means of attributing a value to the ability to experience that same attraction with your kids (or nieces/nephews/grandchildren) that you experienced as a kid, but it is invaluable in a theme park adventure. When legacy attractions are removed, the ability to experience childhood nostalgia dies right along with it.

One of the reasons that it is important for Epcot to innovate a new identity is because it was, and still is to an extent, becoming a museum of what once was. Future World used to be the place to experience emerging technologies and be mesmerized by what we now call STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics). When the park did not keep the sponsored attractions coming and updating, it lost that wow factor and was slowly allowed to go by way of the dodo. Since the educational element of Epcot was not continually reinforced or re-imagined, it is necessary to gut and refurbish. I cannot help but think that there was room at Epcot for both the legacy and the impressive new attractions for new and long-time guests to experience. In addition to adding new attractions to bolster Epcot’s offerings, the International Food and Wine Festival as well as the Flower and Garden Festival respectively now offer more food and drinks than ever before–especially Flower and Garden. It is easy to see where the park spends the lion share of its budget. Food and alcohol have been an Epcot staple since the beginning–there are few other places that one could experience food and drinks from around the globe without need of a passport. But over the years, the park has been funneling more money into the festivals and has allowed the attraction offerings to teeter on the cusp of closure.

One way that Epcot could remain connected to the ideas of the future, innovation, and communication that were once at the bedrock of the park itself is to introduce attractions and shows that capitalize on the future-fantasy, science-fiction, and other similar IPs that the Walt Disney Company holds. There are communications and artificial intelligence technologies that are showcased in many of Disney’s movies that could be translated into a theme park experience. Innoventions was not only a place to find the “house of the future” but it was also a place that offered interactive shows. Although park guests are increasingly interested in more thrills than learning, the beauty of what Disney has proven they can do is to merge the two ideas. Epcot is the perfect “experimental” place to continue to inspire park guests through a thrilling experience paired with an educational component as well.

Epcot has positioned itself to emerge as a new park. France is getting a rollercoaster based upon the movie Ratatouille, Norway introduced the Frozen Ever After attraction (that replaced Maelstrom)Soarin got a makeover, and Test Track re-emerged as a Tron meets Test Track, so to speak, a few years ago. It would appear that Future World will increase in its fantasy and science-fiction offerings whereas World Showcase will bolster its attraction offerings as well. Hopefully, there will always be a sense of the future or education at the core of Epcot, but I am scared that both components will continue to dwindle. They certainly don’t have to. There are a lot of emerging technologies in the Disney movie universe that could very well be translated into attraction offerings or even entire new lands (or areas) at Epcot–so “the future is waiting” as Spaceship Earth would put it.

 

“On Cinema and Theme Parks” (part 5)

My Book

Over the decades, there has been a strong convergence between cinema and theme parks. Studio executives, filmmakers, and theme park designers are working together in ways that serve to support both the movies and the parks that have rides based on the movies. Historically, the beginning of the convergence of cinema and theme parks became apparent in the late 1970s. Following the decline and eventual fall of the original Hollywood studio system in the 1960s, there are some areas that have changed in the production of films (and other entertainment media). According to Allen Scott of UCLA in the writings of Dr. Ralph Casady (1957), some of the changes and transitions dating back to the 1970s are: (1)The penetration of digital technology into all stages of motion picture production (2)The intensified geographic decentralization of production in the greater LA area (3)The proliferation of new markets based on the cross-promotion of intellectual property rights (4)The increased penetration into themed entertainment and video gaming and (5)The merging of, or buying out of major studios by giant multinational media conglomerates (2001). Along with anti-trust government regulation as a result of the Paramount Decision* and the reluctance of big banks to continue to finance motion pictures, film studios were forced to seek new revenues from other sources.

Inside the show building from the former Hitchcock: the Art of Making Movies attraction at Universal Studios Florida.

Inside the show building from the former Hitchcock: the Art of Making Movies attraction at Universal Studios Florida.

More than ever, filmmakers and attraction designers need to know what the cinema patron and park guest both want in order to create a synergistic and dynamic entertainment experience based on a single narrative. The idea is to generate a similar or complementary emotional response during the themed attraction to that experienced by the movie patron during the respective movie. According to researchers Enrique Bigne, Louisa Audreu, and Juergen Gnoth (2004) of Tourism Management, visitor emotions, in a theme park environment, influence satisfaction and behavioral intentions; and, emotions consist of two independent dimensions: pleasure and arousal (2004).  Theme parks are a form of leisure activity because they provide an opportunity for entertainment during an individual’s discretionary time (Milman, 1991). More specifically, movie-based theme parks provide live themed entertainment experiences that immerse the individual into the world of filmmaking or into the narrative itself. As media conglomerates continue to grow and acquire theme park properties (either through the development of new or re-envisioning of old ones) and intellectual property licenses, the popularity of movie-based theme parks will likely continue to grow.

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Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey at Universal's Islands of Adventure

Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey at Universal’s Islands of Adventure

The creators of theme park attractions from movies have to keep in mind two areas to communicate through the attraction: (1) selecting elements from the setting, characters, and narrative to translate; (2) Translating the aforementioned elements in a manner which can be communicated in a physical, tangible, multisensory way. Theme parks have traditionally used two models for cinema-based attractions. Examples of these models can be found at the Universal Studios Florida park (Failes, 2014). One model is the behind the scenes of movie-making and the other model is the ‘ride the movie’ concept (“ride the movies” is the original slogan for Universal Studios Parks). The former is traditionally more of a stage show that takes the park guests on a journey through the production process of a movie (i.e. Earthquake: Ride it Out or Hitchcock: The Art of Making Movies). The latter is usually a more conventional amusement ride that involves moving vehicles through the world and characters of the movie, often facing some sort of challenge within the narrative (i.e. Harry Potter: The Forbidden Journey and StarTours: The Adventure Continues). In recent years, there has been a move from the “behind the scenes” rides/shows to more participatory rides, placing the park guest into the narrative as a de facto character from the movie.

* U.S. V. PARAMOUNT PICTURES, INC., 334 U.S. 131 (1948) The US Government forced the eight major/minor studio players to end the practice of block booking (meaning, films would now be sold on an individual basis), divest themselves of their respective theatre chains (sell them off), and modify the practice of long-term employee contracts (though, this would continue until the 1960s). This marked the beginning of the end of the Studio System, AKA Hollywood’s decentralization.

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