Does Epcot have to be for everyone?

This is a question which I obviously know the answer to for many different reasons.  Of course a company like Disney wants one of it’s main theme parks, second in attendance next to Magic Kingdom, to be a park that everyone is interested in attending.  I know the answer to that question is a resounding YES.  For business reasons, for marketing reasons, for optics, for a million other reasons.  It’s stupid to even consider the alternative.

So, let’s take up way too much space in “The Cloud” discussing just that.  Why not?

When I ask the question “Does Epcot have to be for everyone?”, what I mean is this.

It’s a general assumption that Disney should make sure that it’s theme park has something for everyone, that millions upon millions of happy travelers and locals want to spend their hard earned money to visit.  In so many ways I second that thought, it makes sense in so many ways.

But wait, why am I even asking this question?  What even prompted this? 

There is a line of thinking that Epcot had to change because it was “boring”.  I still remember watching The Simpsons and being a bit hurt at how they treated Epcot Center

The edutainment aspect of Epcot Center certainly may not have been for everyone in the country.  I’m sure the Homer Simpsons of the world were bored senseless at all the learnin’ and just wondered where them rolla-ma-coasters were.  Sure, there were probably plenty of folks that didn’t want to learn on vacation. 

I think that this is likely a mischaracterization though.  I think that most people would have been fine with Epcot, education and all, had Epcot continued to change and grow throughout the years.  That is a story for another time though.  I’m going to run with the idea of Epcot = Boring for this.

I have to assume that if this was a problem, either a perceived or a real one, it at least held enough water that higher-ups at Disney made sure that when it became time to update their attraction lineup, the longer educational experiences were slowly replaced with shorter, more intense, less thought-provoking attractions.  Horizons made way for a glorified carnival attraction, World of Motion for a bumpy fast car ride, Seabase Alpha became a barely-thought-through dark ride.  I could go on, in fact, a lot of this blog is just that.

Right or wrong, edutainment went away for a more “crowd-pleasing” series of attractions.  Ones that they figured would require less frequent updating.  Less thought was required to get into the attractions.  Skip the part where the sense of discovery is put in the hands of the guest and just beat them over the head with the vague point you’re trying to make and spin them around really fast to send them off with a smile.

If it’s a correct assumption that the dumbing down of Epcot Center was a specific targeted goal, then I want to question if this was a correct move, and if the motivations behind it were justified.  Of course, if you’ve ever read anything I’ve written, you know that I do not feel that it was a correct decision.  But just because I do not agree with it personally doesn’t mean that I can’t explore the topic semi-objectively.

Plus, you may have had the misfortune to read some of my previous posts on ideas for revitalizing Epcot.  I’m suggesting ways to get back towards the original intent of the park.  If I’m going to suggest that, I’d better be sure that I’m doing so in a way that doesn’t doom the park.

Once again, I’ll ask, does Epcot have to be for everyone?

Modern society, for better or worse, has increasingly become one where people are finding their own niche and staying close to it.  When Epcot debuted, there were likely about 4 classifications of popular music: Pop, Rock, R&B, Country.  Maybe there were a few more, but for most cases, music was binned into a very few, larger groups and consumed in that way.

Today, I can classify the kinds of music that I’m into by slicing into much smaller categories: Americana, Alt-Bluegrass, Singer-Songwriter, the million different versions of electronic dance music, etc.  I can (and do) for the most part listen to things like that which I currently like, and ignore the rest of the musical spectrum with impunity.

Netflix can do the same for movies, news aggregators can not only target only the kinds of news I care about to me, but based on my interaction with sources, serve up only those with viewpoints that mostly match mine.  People are more used to consuming the things they like and ignoring the things they do not.  The benefit of this could be argued more surely, but for the sake of this argument, let’s just leave it as fact without putting opinion onto it.

Could Disney allow Epcot to be more of a niche park? 

When Epcot Center was initially built, it was a bold expansion, turning a resort of one park into two, effectively doubling the vacation opportunities for guests.  Epcot had to appeal to many, but more importantly, the designers truly believed that their mix of entertainment, optimism, and education, would appeal to everyone.  

With today’s perplexing anti-science movement, it’s not a stretch to assume that refocusing Future World on science would have the potential to reduce the guest pool for Epcot.  Maybe I’m wrong, and that is a conversation for a whole other time, but for now I’m going to run with the assumption that bringing back the edutainment focus would reduce the attendance.

Would that be a bad thing though?

Epcot Center has a very devoted fanbase, one that gobbles up retro-merchandise, and attends every anniversary and speaker series that Disney puts out there.  This was built based on the park that was.  Could Disney not survive on a slightly reduced visitor base, but one that is more likely to visit, to bring their friends, to bring their children, to spend their money on the Epcot brand? 

What impact would a 10% reduction in guest attendance have on Disney Parks if the brand loyalty of the smaller population of guests was stronger?  Today, a large group of people love to come to Epcot to visit the festivals, to drink, to eat, to shop.  That extra money is currently the only thing that is keeping Epcot from being a money-losing park.  So, in this experimental case, a 10% reduction in guests would have likely somewhere near a 10% reduction in revenue.

It would be an interesting effort in forecasting (and stereotyping) to guess what percentage of the total revenue would be impacted based on the kinds of people that might not go to Epcot if it were to take up a much more scientific / edutainment tone again.  Would the people turned off to the point of not attending the park be the kinds of people who are less educated, and therefore more likely to have less disposable income to spend, and therefore the bottom line would be impacted less?  Would the kinds of people who would be more likely to stay be the more educated, and more fiscally responsible and therefore less likely to spend their money on merchandise and booze, and the impact would be greater?  I’m not going to speculate too much on this (but I’d be willing to bet that Disney has done analysis like this on their demographics related to spending patterns).

Still, with Disney at the point, specifically in a few years when Hollywood Studios and Animal Kingdom have both received major updates, which should draw people to those parks at a higher rate, I’d be willing to put my betting money on the fact that Epcot is going to be the park that suffers the most from those parks’ attendance gains.  Epcot will be the one that loses customers more to the other parks, as I feel that it currently gains the most from nighttime “Animal Kingdom is closed, let’s go to Epcot and have dinner”, or “We’ve done everything at Hollywood Studios has to offer and it’s 4:00pm, let’s go get drunk at Epcot” crowds.  Their turnstile numbers are impacted by them being one of two parks that have a solid nighttime lineup and enough to do during the day that they can have both day-visitors and park hopping visitors coming in.  And based on recent attendance numbers, it doesn’t look like Magic Kingdom is going to be one to suffer, because no matter what happens, how expensive tickets get, Magic Kingdom keeps outpacing the other parks for attendance gains.

That means that in a few years, Epcot is due to suffer a loss in guests, my estimates would put it at a few percentage points decrease as soon as Avatar opens, a few more for Star Wars Land.

What would happen if Epcot rebranded itself at this point?  Instead of doing things like ramming Frozen in haphazardly in order to try and bring guests, refocus on what once made Epcot Center great.  The wonder, the awe, the science, the learning, the inspiration.  What if Disney just accepted the loss in turnstile clicks that might be expected for people who don’t want Science in their Theme Parks?  What if they steered into that loss a little more, instead of made the park more generic to meet a wide audience, what if they made it more specific to reach a narrower group of people, but a group of people who would be the kinds of folks who are brand-devoted.  The kinds that drag their friends to the little indie-band’s show in order to get them to see what is cool about what they love.  The kinds of people who would drop serious coin on merchandise that inspires them, in the hopes that it inspires people around them.  What if Disney let it’s park speak to a smaller audience, but speak the language that really appeals to that smaller audience and encourages them to be devoted. 

I’m not the only devoted Epcot Center fan out there.  I’m not the only one who longs for the days of Epcot Center that were spent learning, thinking, dreaming, and engaging with a high-quality product.

And what if this actually encouraged more people to dream big, to think about things they never had before, to pursue those dreams beyond the gates of WDW?  Higher education has a direct impact on lifetime salary expectations.  By “breeding” a devoted fanbase who may have a longer term income potential, who would be dying for the first time they could take their kids to Epcot, to get the same feeling they had as a kid. 

Behold, the lines for the 30th anniversary merchandise

Behold, the lines for the 30th anniversary merchandise

I know that for the longest time I dreamed of the day my kids would look up at me with the same look I’m sure I gave my parents once we stepped off Horizons or World of Motion.  Now that day has come, I can take my kids to the park, and I’m embarrassed.  My kids have no idea the love I have for Epcot Center (though one of these days they’re going to start paying attention to all of the Epcot decorations on the walls of their playroom) because it’s not there with Epcot.  Epcot is my lowest priority park, and the one we spend the least amount of time in.  Animal Kingdom lets us, as a family, learn through experience, provoking questions and conversation. 

This shouldn’t be the case.  Epcot Center was once more than a theme park.  It was an experiment in how far the boundaries of a theme park could be pushed. 

Now, again, I know that this is something that would never happen in today’s world.  There is no way that Disney is going to specifically set out to spend millions of dollars on attractions that will not appeal to a huge percentage of the population.  There is no way they will greenlight attractions that have the potential to drive away customers.  I realize this.  It doesn't mean I have to agree with it though.  Oh well, I'm sure Finding Dory characters will really liven up The Seas with Nemo.