• It was a surprise to walk up to The Land pavilion at EPCOT recently and discover that Nestle was no longer the presenting sponsor.
  • The Seas With Nemo and Friends has a beautiful VIP lounge (complete with circular logos for “The Living Seas”) that mostly sits empty.
  • GM has emerged from bankruptcy, leaving EPCOT lovers to wonder how, if at all, the struggling company can justify or afford continuing Test Track sponsorship.
  • The Universe of Energy has no sponsor, while Wonders of Life is empty lacking corporate backing.
  • The Norwegian government no longer sponsors the Norway pavilion, which has led to little authenticity (unless you believe princesses based on Middle Eastern, German and French stories belong in Norway).
What’s going on at EPCOT?
Was it really that long ago that both American Express and Coca-Cola were sponsors of The American Adventure?
EPCOT, or more precisely EPCOT Center, was conceived as a way for both major corporations and individual countries to showcase their new ideas and products, as well as their cultures and tourism potential, to tens of millions of guests every year. On a sociological level, there’s little doubt that the Eighties and Nineties left us scarred and less trusting of corporate behemoths. And yet, they didn’t go away. The economy is just as ruled by corporate culture as it ever was, we’re just a little more loathe to admit it. Scandals, bankruptcies, failures and broken promises left us doubting the collective wisdom of corporations to guide us into the future.
And yet, pessimism has rarely been welcome at Disney. Walt Disney believed that the research-and-development work being done by American corporations was some of the best, most valuable in the world. Now, those corporations are multi-nationals, and America may not be the shining beacon of optimistic progress that it once was. Still … it’s hard to deny that Coca-Cola, Apple, Toyota, Starbucks, Google, Nike, Kellogg’s, Colgate, Nestle, Kraft, Ikea, UPS, Citibank, FedEx … that these brands aren’t so powerful that they don’t move and shape the world. They do.
It’s just that in 20 years, Disney has become one of those powerhouse brands. It has as much power, if not more, as others … and the last thing you want to do when you’ve got money is give it to someone else who has money. That’s what seems to be happening here. Disney used to have a major “Corporate Alliances” group whose primary job was to develop and work these big-brand relationships. What happened?
How come an EPCOT cast member told me recently, “No one wants to sponsor these pavilions, and without sponsors, it’s hard to operate them?”
That comment is problematic on at least two levels:
1) Why don’t major corporations want to be sponsors of EPCOT attractions anymore?
Is Disney underselling EPCOT? Or is it overpricing its sponsorship package? To continue achieving its vision — even in a watered-down form — EPCOT needs to be a showcase of ingenuity and progress. And to do that, its managers need to be able to articulate that vision. EPCOT affords an opportunity for immersive brand exposure unlike anyplace else in the world. So, why is it that companies don’t want to buy in?
2) If corporations aren’t going to come to the table, why can’t Disney go it alone?
The visionary ability of Walt Disney Imagineering is unparalleled, and Disney could present its own unique vision of the future at EPCOT without the need for sponsorships. Does the $10 million or so a sponsor gives really add to the experience? Or is Disney artistically incapable of creating a traditional EPCOT pavilion run without a sponsor?
Does Disney actually need sponsors to effectively run EPCOT and its other theme parks? Or is Disney overpricing and under-servicing potential sponsors in an effort to ensure that EPCOT, like other Disney parks, simply becomes a showcase for Disney movies, Disney cartoons and Disney merchandise?
Of course, sponsorships do still exist at EPCOT, most notably GM and Siemens. But they seem lately to be the exception rather than the rule, which waters down the experience of EPCOT and its positioning as a place to view and experience the developments that will fuel our future. More and more, it’s just an odd, disjointed theme park now.
Given that Tokyo Disney and the Universal parks seem consistently “full-up” on the sponsorship level, you have to wonder if the stateside Disney motive isn’t just to get rid of the sponsors altogether so that the only sponsor that matters is the Mouse himself.