A cover letter to Walt Disney Yellow Shoes
by Ashley Williams
(All photos by Ashley Williams unless otherwise indicated)
Once Upon a Time,
I was a merchandise host in a small market at Walt Disney's Caribbean Beach Resort. Because I saw many of the same guests multiple times in the same week as they came and went from the parks, I had the opportunity to build relationships with them and gain their perspective on their stay as it unfolded.
Of the guests I spoke with, I noticed a trend in negative sentiment toward Epcot. As my favorite park, I was curious to know what they did and didn't like about it. As one does when you're curious, I asked questions and made notes:
"It's definitely the most tame out of all the parks. My boys didn't like it as much as the others" -- A family of California AP's visiting Orlando resort for the first time
"There wasn't that much there for her," -- A dad pushing a sleepy stroller
"The front half of the park is very outdated. Our favorite thing there is the food in the World Showcase." - A young couple who lives in Orlando but staycations at Disney regularly
"She didn't start to like Epcot until she was a teenager, but when she was little she only wanted to go to Magic Kingdom. I guess it's because that's where the 'magic happens.'" - A mom celebrating her daughter's birthday
My main takeaway was that some guests felt Epcot wasn't as magical as it could be. The original vision Walt Disney had for Epcot's Future World was that it would be a glimpse into the future and show how progress shapes the world around us. Are guests today not seeing that anymore? Could it be that the future Walt envisioned is already here?
To put myself in the guests' shoes, I used some of my days off (and the best employee benefit ever) to go take a look at Epcot and view it from an analytical lens. I also knew that there are big changes coming to Epcot soon, so I let my imagination run wild with questions to figure out, "What could make this more magical?"
('Welcome To Your Future' still from YouTube)
I found the answer on a spaceship.
Upon entering even the parking lot, the first thing you see is Spaceship Earth.
This ride is a classic, and is the very symbol of Epcot. For a park whose purpose is to show a glimpse into an advanced future, isn't it curious that its most iconic ride immerses guests in the history of us?
I had been on this ride several times, except this time around I realized something I hadn't before. When you descend back into what feels like a sea of stars toward the unloading dock, you're shown a little personalized cartoon of what your ideal future society would look like - a Jetson-esque home, flying cars, and robot butlers - but what does this say about our actual future?
Is this a limited view of what our future could actually look like? Are guests bored with this idea, and is it too far out of reach to match the rest of Future World as it stands today? This image of 'the future' has been around for decades. Given all the dismal takes and post-apocalyptic societies, it almost feels as if no one is giving positive guesses to what the future would be like.
Where is the progress we have achieved today that gives us a tomorrow to imagine?
Instead of this cartoon, I wonder, where is Steve Jobs and the smartphone? Where is the boom of the social network connecting people all over the world? Where is the Internet of Things (IoT)? The development of 3D printed organs? The ride tells the story of our history and who we are now, but what could be said about the future we are headed toward?
If I were to reimagine Epcot, I would brand it around the story of Spaceship Earth. As its icon, wouldn't it make sense that Future World continues the story that Spaceship Earth quite literally introduces right at the gate - who we were, who we are, and who we could be - and immerses guests in the possibilities? What if Disney weaved its stories in with the possibilities of our future, given our reality today?
What would one of these stories look like?
For example, let's take a look at The Seas with Nemo & Friends. It uses a slow-moving dark ride to quickly rehash the story of 'Finding Nemo' while including his other friends, and ends with "A Big Blue World," a cutesy song which has never been used in the "Finding" franchise.
You're immersed in that story until you get off - as guests exit the bright and colorful ride, you empty out into the main atrium of the aquarium with stale lighting and no music or notable background noise. The blank walls, blue and grey color scheme, and wide, unused open spaces breaks the story into two separate pieces.
Where did the magic of the story go?
*special note that these were taken on a weekend late afternoon
Two things that the Disney Parks and Resorts does better than anyone else is dedicate itself to a story and provide an experience that guests cannot find anywhere else. How could that be done here?
In the queue, you discover Nemo disappears again. In place of the Clamobile, guests jump into the EAC (East Australian Current) where Crush and Squirt help Marlin and Dory to go on a totally tubular 3D journey.
Exiting the EAC, Crush pushes guests out at the Great Barrier Reef.
Vibrant 'coral' protrudes from the walls, makes up columns, benches, and even installations for little shrimps to play on. Guests walk through the ocean floor to meet new fish friends, and even look for Nemo, who likes to hide in different parts of the Reef. The awe-inspiring music from the films by Thomas Newman plays in the background.
Mr. Ray, as a projection onto the glass panels, can show his school of guests the progress that is being made to build a better future for the ocean, and teach us what we can do to truly live with the seas.
(Image from flickr)
This story flows from one part of the attraction to the next by immersing guests in the unique experience of exploring the ocean with Nemo and his friends, keeping the story alive. Imagine the stories that could be told about The Land (sustainability and agriculture with Pochantas, Wall-e, etc.), or Imagination (psychology with characters from Inside Out), and even more possibilities in what used to be Body Wars and Ellen's Energy.
Creating stories that illuminate parts of our world that were once mysterious to us can help us better understand who we were, who we are, and who we could be. With the help of characters we already know, Disney can use Epcot's Future World to show generations of today how far we have come, what progress is being made today, and how they can play a part in creating a future to look forward to - to be a part of the magical Community Of Tomorrow.
“Around here, ... we don't look backwards for very long. We keep moving forward, opening up new doors and doing new things… and curiosity keeps leading us down new paths.”
- Walt Disney