“I may not care for Nemo, but my 5-year-old loves it.”
“When my teenagers go to EPCOT, they’re bored silly and want to leave.”
“EPCOT needs more rides for kids.”
These are some of the comments (some real, some paraphrased) that EPCOT Central readers have offered recently, and it’s an interesting observation — because it assumes that Walt Disney World as a whole and EPCOT specifically need to appeal to kids.
“I thought,” Walt Disney said back in the 1950s, “there ought to be a place where parents and kids can have fun together.” The result was Disneyland, a place with a carousel and a (now-defunct) tobacconist, a place with a treehouse and a (now-defunct) silent-film cinema.
Walt Disney, thankfully, didn’t think, “There ought to be a much cleaner, better-run amusement park where my kids can have fun.” He knew the joy of an amusement park ride so cleverly conceived that guests of every age enjoyed it.
Disney has long marketed Disneyland and The Magic Kingdom to kids. There’s little arguing with the success of that — though an effective debate could be made that Disneyland was just as popular when its marketing was aimed at both kids and adults.
But EPCOT Center, from its inception, has always been a different story. EPCOT was a decidedly, almost unashamedly, adult park, and that concept certainly made as much sense in 1982 as it does today: A day or two at the Magic Kingdom to entertain and bring joy to the little ones could be followed by a day or two at EPCOT, where the discoveries and pleasures were directed at older guests. After all, not everyone who visits Walt Disney World is an 8-year-old kid … and many, many guests don’t even bring kids — a fact that Disney, over and over, seems to ignore.
But being “grown up,” Disney-style, somehow quickly got equated with being “boring.” Imagine a family of four visiting Paris or Rome or San Francisco or New York and saying, “Well, there wasn’t much for the kids to do.” Imagine spending a day at the Louvre or the National Gallery and saying, “I loved it, but we left early because my little boy was just so bored.”
EPCOT isn’t for children only, and that’s not a bad thing. It’s designed to spur the imagination and a sense of discovery. To some people, unfortunately, that means it’s boring — just as some people could walk among the pyramids of Egypt, perhaps, and find nothing to interest them. Not everyone needs to love EPCOT, and not everyone does. That’s OK, because there are three other theme parks, two water parks and a whole host of activities at Walt Disney World to occupy a day that might be spent at EPCOT.
Disney, though, doesn’t seem to see it that way. Like most entertainment companies, it’s obsessed with numbers: If EPCOT’s attendance falls, if its exit polling data isn’t as high as every other park, if EPCOT is perceived as “less popular” than the other parks, then it must be a failure. We’ve seen that mindset in play at Disney’s California Adventure — which, it shouldn’t be forgotten, got rave reviews from most mainstream media when it opened, and wasn’t quite as much a creative failure as revisionist history holds it to be, but is now the subject of a billion-dollar makeover that emphasizes kid-oriented fun, not California-themed discovery.
In this new “kids at all costs” Disney era, it would indeed be interesting to see what might have become of the never-built Disney’s America, which probably would have been considered a catastrophic creative disaster, rather than an interesting, offbeat foundation on which to build.
Which gets us back to EPCOT, a park that was built not to entertain the younger set, but to inspire all ages. EPCOT’s deck has long been stacked against it — it is virtually impossible to take a subject like “the history and development of energy technologies” and make it understandable, palatable for guests of every imaginable age, education level and language. But the Imagineers saw that as a challenge, not necessarily a problem, and tried their best to create something that would work for everyone. Some results were better than others. But they were always fascinating.
The same, unfortunately, can’t be said for the once-is-enough Seas With Nemo and Friends, or the surface-only thrills of Mission: Space or Test Track. They’re cute and fun rides, there’s no doubt, but they are designed to appeal primarily to younger visitors, and to amuse, not inspire.
A revised, revisited, renewed EPCOT — should such a thing ever become a priority for Disney — can take its inspiration from the original concept of a park that would engage every age. No, it wouldn’t be as universally well-received as a park dedicated to Disney characters, or a park about the movies (if it really is that anymore) or about animals. It would be almost a “niche” park.
EPCOT would appeal to a particular sensibility. Not everyone would love it … but those who did would adore it. They’d visit it again and again, and like a museum or a science center or a grand city filled with opportunities for discovery, it wouldn’t be just for children. And that would be OK. Because EPCOT would appeal to the curious child in all of us — and open a child’s mind to the opportunities of adulthood.