The folks who run Walt Disney Productions are pretty conservative in their ways. You won't hear a four-letter word or see nudity in a Disney movie, and you can't buy a beer in Disneyland. Still, they're not above gambling a bit.
In 1955, they threw the dice and hit the jackpot with Disneyland. In 1971, they bet that a much bigger amusement park could bring the Disney magic from California to Florida, and Walt Disney World was the payoff.
Now, the people who run Disney are betting the house. The company has just opened its latest wonder, a 550-acre playground about three miles from Disney World bearing the unlikely name of Epcot -- an acronym for Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow.
The total cost of the project is about $1 billion -- roughly equivalent to Disney's revenues last year. And the company is taking the plunge at a time when the economy is gripped by recession, attendance at both Disneyland and Disney World is on a downward slope, and the investment community and Hollywood are skeptical of Disney's ability to make another wildly successful motion picture. Corporate earnings were down 10 percent in fiscal 1981, and that trend continued into fiscal 1982, which ended Sept. 30, the day before Epcot's opening.
So it's not the time a lot of people would pick to take chances with a big new resort. But Disney executives think that this time around they've loaded the dice.
"Anything in life is a risk," says Card Walker, Disney's chairman, dismissing suggestions that Epcot is a particularly major gamble. With the optimism that is characteristic of Disney employes, whose fresh-faced smiles seem to be corporate issue, he ticks off the reasons the company is so confident that Epcot will be a huge success. And just in case, the company is hedging its bets by getting a few other major corporations to foot part of the bill by sponsoring pavilions -- including General Motors, American Telephone & Telegraph, Exxon and Eastman Kodak.
A major part of Disney's optimism stems from what Epcot is. Although it's a long way from the utopian city that Walt Disney envisoned for the project just before his death in 1966, it's almost as far removed from the concepts of Disneyland and Disney World.
There are no thrill rides at Epcot, although there are plenty of rides. The idea here is more educational, to instruct while still giving pleasure.
The park is divided into two parts. By the entrance is Future World, a grouping of modernistic pavilions that explore issues such as transportation, communications, energy and computing. Beyond that, separated by a lake -- and a long walk -- is World Showcase, a collection of international pavilions constructed to recall some aspect of each host country while offering a smidgen of its culture in shows, shops, food or rides. Italy, for instance, is represented by a re-creation of St. Mark's Square, and Britain's pavilion includes a pub that serves Bass Ale (a break from Disney's previous no-alcohol rule for its amusement parks).
The philosophy behind Epcot represents a canny move by Disney, amusement industry analysts say, at a time when the demographics for amusement parks are showing some alarming trends. With the baby boom generation maturing, the number of kids who ride the scary roller coasters is dwindling and amusement parks have had to go after an older market.
Disney officials say they hope Epcot will tap into the vast market of retirees in Florida that so far has shied away from Disney World. "We're going to get a lot of new people at Epcot who wouldn't go up there," Walker says.
Disney also is hoping that Epcot will act as a magnet for foreign guests, who company officials say have never quite descended on Disney World in hoped-for numbers. The countries represented in World Showcase -- China, Japan, Great Britain, Germany, France, Italy and Mexico, with more to come--are promoting their participation to their citizens, giving Disney all sorts of free publicity.
Disney also hopes to capitalize on Epcot's educational aspects. Company officials are working on a program that would give credit to students who visit the park while school is in session, thus attracting attendance during the slow times between winter, spring and summer vacations.
All of those schemes should attract more visitors to central Florida, providing a shot in the arm for Disney World attendance, which has fallen each of the past four years. Disney World's Magic Kingdom, as it's known, drew 13.2 million people last year; Disney is projecting first-year attendance for both attractions at 20 million. They won't make specific breakdowns on attendance figures, but say a first-year addition of 8 million attendance to the previous one-year Disney World total would be good.
And Disney officials don't expect Epcot to divert people from Disney World. Their expectations are that visitors will buy $35 three-day passes good for both parks, perhaps cutting down on side trips to the other attractions that have sprung up in the Orlando area in the wake of Disney World.
But Disney is not just counting on the people coming through the turnstiles to make the Epcot investment pay off. Company officials hope that Epcot will provide a major part of the programming for the Disney Channel, a cable venture due to start next spring. "I think Epcot will contribute tremendously to the success of that channel," Walker says.
The Disney Channel is being counted upon heavily for the company's future growth. "The Disney Channel is a little like the opening of Disneyland in 1955," Walker says. "It's a whole new way of broadening our base."
The success of the Disney Channel could prove to the investment community that Disney can do something well besides design theme parks. The company's movie division has produced one clinker after another lately, and only re-releases of Disney classics like "Fantasia" and "Mary Poppins" have kept the division in the black. So notorious has the movie division become that when securities analysts panned an advance screening of "Tron" this summer, Disney stock slumped. But Walker insists that the movie division can be revived.
It's hard to understand, on the basis of Epcot, how Disney could have trouble in any venture to which it applies its creative talents. The park is a wonderland of information, special effects and new technology, presented in an unfailingly entertaining style.
That's what the corporate sponsors of the pavilions in Future World are betting on. At an investment of about $30 million each over 10 years, they get to put their name on pavilions and reap any goodwill resulting from what's inside. Occasionally, they make the sell a little harder -- you can't get out of GM's World of Motion without going by a small showroom of the company's cars.
The corporate sponsors -- there are about 10, with more participating to a lesser extent in World Showcase -- seem enthusiastic about their chance to rub shoulders with some Disney magic.
"It looked to us like a great, great opportunity, one that we just could not let slip away," says General Motors Chairman Roger B. Smith. "We certainly know a first-class organization when we see it."
Walker boasts, "We offer something very different from ads in newspapers, ads on TV." And Exxon spokesman Ames Smith says, "Where else could you reach the public so efficiently?"
The slow economy, among other factors, has scared off some sponsors, leaving Disney without backing for at least two planned pavilions. But Disney officials think they will have an easier time wooing sponsors now that Epcot has opened and corporations can be shown what they'll get for their money. "We have a lot of confidence that it will be an easier sell now," says Richard A. Nunis, a Disney vice president who oversees operations of Disneyland, Disney World, and Epcot.