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What Marketers Can Learn from Walt Disney's EPCOT Project

by Paul Barsch  |  
May 19, 2009

Walt Disney's Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow (EPCOT) was a project of grandiose scale and lofty ideal. And while Disney passed away before his project became reality, EPCOT offers marketers four key takeaways (maybe more) in how to define problems, build on success, maintain flexibility and overcome obstacles.

Walt Disney was a man with bold dreams and the willpower to make them happen. After completing Disneyland in 1955–a huge undertaking in its own right–Disney turned his attention to his grand masterpiece; EPCOT. According to the site, "The Original Epcot Project", Disney said, "EPCOT will take its cue form the new ideas and new technologies–emerging from the forefront of American industry."

EPCOT was intended to be a "community of the future" that would be a demonstration for best-in-class design, ecology, technology and even citizenry. In a utopian vision, Disney had dreams that EPCOT would be a, "planned, controlled community, a showcase for American industry and research, schools, cultural and educational opportunities."

There would be no slum areas and there would be full employment. No one would own private property and apartment rents would be economical. Cars would be relegated underground and EPCOT citizens would be transported by monorail or automated "people movers". It was a sweeping, breathtaking ideal.

Unfortunately, Disney died in the planning stages of his final masterpiece. And while the vision of EPCOT was carried forward by his brother Roy Disney, it never quite became the paradise community envisioned by Walt Disney.

Conceptually, EPCOT was breathtaking in its audacity and scope. The fact that it was never completed as intended shouldn't detract from some powerful takeaways for today's marketing executive:

1. Start with a problem. Walt Disney looked around at American cities and noticed that some were disorganized, squalid and plagued with crime. He thought he could do better. Disney started with a problem and then looked for a solution. Marketers know that too many companies build products or services "in search of a customer", instead of a customer driven approach. Start with a problem to be solved–ideally one that belongs to a customer!

2. Dream big and bold–with purpose. A man of tenacious resolve, there's few that doubt Walt Disney would have at least come close to his ultimate vision had he lived another decade. About his ambitions Disney said, "We know what our goals are, what we hope to accomplish. And believe me, it's the most exciting and challenging assignment we've ever tackled." In today's "Great Recession" economy, the easy route is to play it safe. However, bold marketers know that now is the time to start laying the groundwork for your most ambitious plans to connect with customers.

3. Build on success. Walt Disney created EPCOT on the back of a successfully completed Disneyland. He built credibility for an even larger vision and likely had investors falling over him to fund EPCOT. The consultant's mantra of "eating the elephant one bite at a time" applies here. When planning marketing programs, think incremental value, one step at a time, instead of big bang approaches that can lose their energy, funding and sponsorship.

4. Flexibility is paramount. When the EPCOT concept was presented to Walt Disney's Board of Directors, some balked and demanded Walt also build a new Disney World theme park in Florida. While Walt wasn't interested in re-creating Disneyland, he acquiesced in order to gain approval to build EPCOT. In fact, he warmed up to the idea of building Disney World as a "draw" to get visitors to visit EPCOT. Today's marketer works within tough confines of budget cuts and limited staffing resources. Work must be balanced with the right resources working on the right priorities within limited timeframes. Intransigence is out–flexibility is in.

EPCOT was "one man's dream" to build a prototype community of tomorrow that would inspire its own citizens and guests to think about not what is, but what could be. If tough economic times have you downcast, be encouraged by Walt Disney's boldness and enthusiasm for the next big thing. Then, go make it happen!

* Did you know the history behind the EPCOT project? Has Walt Disney inspired you? If so, how?
* Walt Disney said that EPCOT would be an experience people can't find anywhere else. What other things about the Disney experience are unique? How does Disney maintain the magic?
* What other marketing takeaways can be gleaned from Walt Disney's EPCOT project?

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Paul Barsch directs services marketing programs for Teradata, the world's largest data warehousing and analytics company. Previously, Paul was marketing director for HP Enterprise Services $1.3 billion healthcare industry and a senior marketing manager at global consultancy, BearingPoint. Paul is a senior contributor to MarketingProfs, a frequent columnist for MarketingProfs DailyFix, and has published over fifteen articles in marketing, management, technology and healthcare publications. Paul earned his Bachelors of Science in Business Administration from California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo. He and his family reside in San Diego, CA.

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  • by Lewis Green Tue May 19, 2009 via blog

    Paul, I am the one person in America to have never visited any Disney properties. It's just not my thing. However, one can shun the experience yet still appreciate the genius of it all. Thank you for sharing.

  • by Ted Mininni Tue May 19, 2009 via blog

    Good post, Paul. What this points to for me as a design principal is this. It takes vision, guts and meeting the complex, evolving needs of people today for businesses to be successful. Great visions need solid design if they are to be successfully executed. But daring to act boldly on these kinds of visions can help us solve some tough problems. Walt Disney was a creative who dared execute his dreams and that should serve as an inspiration to all of my fellow designers. It should push us as a community to find better and better solutions for the complex problems we face.

  • by Claire Ratushny Tue May 19, 2009 via blog

    Loved the four takeaways you cited in this post, Paul. I concur completely. The hardest thing for most businesses to do when the economy goes into a downturn, is to dare to dream and then dare to act on a bold plan. Many companies are risk-averse in general and especially so when the economy goes sour. However, without risk there is no reward. Taking a "customer-driven approach", seeing a problem through their eyes and offering a bold, fresh solution elevates one brand above its competitors. This creates true value in the eyes of consumers. As you point out, major projects can be executed one step at a time, and should be so tweaks can be made along the way. The alternative: to stand by and wait until things improve and budgets are reinstated, is not an option. We all have to continue to grow and move forward, or we'll wither away. The worst of times like these are the best of times to find new paths into the future.

  • by Lauren Vargas Tue May 19, 2009 via blog

    In conjunction with Point #2 and Question #2, Disney understood, valued and embraced childhood innocence. Step back from your project and look and question as if you were still a child. Cannot? Ask a child then! I guarantee the simplicity of their outlook will make your project a success!

  • by Paul Barsch Tue May 19, 2009 via blog

    Lewis, having worked at SBUX for 3 years, I know you understand the value of the customer experience. That said, you need to do yourself a favor and visit a Disney property. The attention to detail and the overall focus on the customer is a fantastic case study that should be "experienced". Plus, since you live on the Eastern sea-board, I bet you could get a cheap flight to Orlando!

  • by Paul Barsch Tue May 19, 2009 via blog

    Ted, I knew there were more than 4 takeaways! :) Thank you for lending your expertise on design to the conversation. The sites I reviewed on Epcot and DisneyWorld showed that Disney was focused on design at an architectural level but he was also very concerned with the details--down to the paint colors on the carousel horses. I would imagine there's a post or two just in the design principles used in the many Disney properties and how they enhance the overall customer experience. Might you be the person to write it?

  • by Paul Barsch Tue May 19, 2009 via blog

    Claire, thank you for taking the time to comment. Most companies have significant lead time in bringing new products/services to market, and so now is the time to be tinkering with innovation and culling the R&D pipeline for the most promising solutions to customer needs. With the windows for product launch shrinking and customer needs rapidly changing, now is the not time to sit on the sidelines and wait for the economy to get better. Disruptive change is all around us, how many companies have an educated guess as to what that change will be and are positioning themselves to capitalize?

  • by Paul Barsch Tue May 19, 2009 via blog

    Lauren, thanks for the reminder that in complexity there can also be simplicity. How so? It was quite fascinating to research the operations (behind the scenes) of a Disney park. Most of us have seen the In Search of Excellence video on Disney properties, but it's also quite amazing to understand the amount of costumes, laundry facilities, food shipments, vendors and of course employees that make the Disney experience happen. The complexity--below ground--is well managed so that the customer has a consistent and differentiated experience. When complexity is made effortless, it's something to commend and possibly emulate!

  • by Cam Beck Tue May 19, 2009 via blog

    I just got Jim Collins' new book, "How the Mighty Fall: And why some companies never give in." I'm only 50 pages in, but if you decide to get it, I think you'll find that it offers an interesting perspective on the attainment of big ideas and why it's important to develop them only within the framework of the company's values. In Disney's case, EPCOT seems to be an audacious and presumptuous goal, but in the pursuit of a simple and unassuming vision to "make people happy." This idea is flirting with the line between reckless, arrogant overreaching and the complete fulfillment of the company's ideals. If I had to guess, I'd say that's probably where a lot of good innovation lies.

  • by Michael Doornbos Wed May 20, 2009 via blog

    I think the audacity of his ideal community is the kind of perspective we need to explore in everything. Why can't we look at things this way? Serious problems get solved by thinking big thoughts and dreaming big dreams.

  • by Paul Barsch Wed May 20, 2009 via blog

    Cam and Michael, thank you for taking the time to comment. Walt had vision, boldness and imagination didn't he? Combine those traits with attention to detail and tenacity in execution and you can see why he was successful in getting much of his concept implemented. I believe that Walt Disney, Disneyland, Disneyworld, EPCOT and even global Disney properties are classic case studies for the ages.

  • by Paul (from Idea Sandbox) Fri May 22, 2009 via blog

    Not only do I know the history... but I created and maintained a website called for many, many years. I'm a history of EPCOT expert. And a huge Walt fan. From a man who said, "If you dream it, you can do it" - it always bothered me that they didn't do it. I did all sorts of research and build the site in the 80s... long before Disney actually ever "admitted" that EPCOT wasn't actually what Walt had planned. The reason it didn't happen was because it would have been a major challenge and a major risk. When the champion (Walt) passed away... the dream passed away with him. Directly out of college, I went to work for Disney in Florida. I wanted to be a part of Disney's attention to detail and magic creation founded by Walt and delivered by the Company. I use what I learned at Disney at my own company - everyday! And... if you're a marketer... you MUST visit and experience Disney. Never been to Disney is like saying, I've never used an iPod.

  • by Paul (from Idea Sandbox) Fri May 22, 2009 via blog

    BTW... you can see what is called "Walt's Last Film" - a film he made about EPCOT just before he died. This was a tool meant to sell government officials and potential partner companies on the project. YouTube has it in two pieces:

  • by Paul Barsch Fri May 22, 2009 via blog

    Paul, thank you for lending your considerable insight and expertise regarding Walt Disney's EPCOT. It sure is interesting to see where our travels take us and the learnings that we takeaway for future endeavors. I imagine you learned a lot more about the customer experience from Disney than your brief comments let on. Maybe subject for a post if you haven't already? Again, thank you for commenting!

  • by Ray SanFratello Fri May 29, 2009 via blog

    Paul - Interesting article providing detail on Walt's early thinking I was not aware of. As I walk thru the Disney Company created City of Celebration, I see some of the utopia minded concepts you allude to in your article made manifest. Have you been there? It has a very livable small town America feel to it. I love to bring Walt Disney World visitors there to let them see some of the vision once they've done the theme parks themselves. Everyone gets a kick out of it.

  • by Luis Maimoni Fri May 29, 2009 via blog

    The original concepts from Walt were the product of an entrepreneur's passion. His vision was unsullied by Wall Street's relentless pressure for growth and profits. Sure, Walt was a capitalist. But, it was his vision that drove him. Certainly, Disneyland (the first theme park) could have been built less expensively, and with more retail and dining. But it wasn't. The parks focus was family entertainment, storytelling, etc. So, how did the company that created EPCOT also create Disney's California Adventure? That's what happens when too little entrepreneurial passion starts chasing too much Wall Street. Ironically, the Disney brand lost $billions in value because the company chose to pursue profits rather than adhere to the principles that made it great. For more discussion, see my blog:

  • by Stacy Lukas Fri May 29, 2009 via blog

    How awesome it was for me to read this. Much like Paul from Idea Sandbox, I am a former Disney Cast Member, and not only do I know the history of EPCOT and WDW in general, but I'm lucky enough to have become a Guest Service Trainer, which means I was responsible for teaching Disney's award-winning guest service to new hires. I made sure that the magic was maintained and "spread pixie dust" every day. It was awesome. A big part of the Disney experience is that cast members are encouraged to always go the extra mile for the guests and do unexpected nice things for them. To me this is just common sense, but you'd be surprised at how foreign of a concept this is for a lot of people. Most of my time on the clock I spent giving tours of the tunnel "backstage" system of Magic Kingdom, but on my days off I spent most of my time at EPCOT, because they have the best food and the best fireworks at night. It's funny the things I took for granted when I worked there - the "secrets" of the backstage area, the magic, the parades . . . all of it became so commonplace and every day for me that now I have "Disney expectations" everywhere and am continually disappointed. Yet when I do notice somewhere with exceptional guest service, I always go out of my way to tell the managers and make sure good customer service gets recognized. Here's a marketing takeaway from EPCOT: Embrace, celebrate, and encourage diversity and culture not only within your company culture but outward toward your prospects. The World Showcase wasn't in the original plans, but it's there now, and cast members from all over the world work in their respective country's pavilions. Yes, some are rather stereotypical portrayals, but the overall message to guests is to try new things and embrace other cultures, esp. foods ... which, did I mention, was amazing?

  • by Paul Barsch Sun May 31, 2009 via blog

    Ray, thank you for bringing the City of Celebration to my attention. I must confess that while I have visited Orlando (too many times to count) and DisneyWorld, I have not made the trek to Celebration.,_Florida Now I know where my next stop will be after my stay at the Swan, Dolphin or Yacht Club. Thank you for commenting!

  • by Paul Barsch Sun May 31, 2009 via blog

    Luis, I appreciate your comments and I did look up your blog post from 2006 on Disney's California Adventure (DCA). Not having ever visited DCA, I'm probably not qualified to offer an opinion on whether it's a "glorified shopping mall." I will ask the following however... 1) The link to the Bus Week article in your post was broken, so when you say, " the value of the Disney brand dropped 3%, or $962 million" I don't know if by "brand" you mean, market cap, or brand value as measured by InterBrand. 2) Can we be completely sure that DCA opening (and that alone) was the cause for Disney's brand dropping in value? What other things were happening with Disney from 2001-2002 that may have also contributed to this drop?

  • by Paul Barsch Sun May 31, 2009 via blog

    Stacy, as a former cast member, thank you for adding your valuable experience to this post. A couple of things popped in my mind as I read your comments: 1) The EPCOT fireworks are amazing! I organized an event at EPCOT for some customers where the finale of the evening was the fireworks show at EPCOT. It was more than expected and customers walked away really impressed! 2) The Ritz Carlton provides training and workshops for companies to learn from how the Ritz provides service. Does Disney offer anything similar? I'm sure there are plenty of consultancies from former cast members, but curious if Disney offers seminars on the "Disney Way"... 3) Diversity is important- not only in race, religion etc, but in the life experiences that each of us brings to the table. We can learn SO much from other people if we just take the time to listen--and I mean really listen!

  • by Hugh Fri Sep 16, 2011 via blog

    Actually I was the CBS reporter for the ground breaking of Walt Disney World and met Roy Disney his brother. Walt had always been my hero and is today. Pat Williams who wrote How To Be Like Walt and I have become friends and he shares my dream that you will see at the web site for building Walt's biggest project. What most people don't know is that Walt had planned to build a one mile wide DOMED city! I was trained by the right hand man to Bucky Fuler about domes and now have a team of dome builders that believe we can finally build the one mile wide domed city! Unfortunately it could not have been done back in Walt's time.

  • by Paul Barsch Sat Sep 17, 2011 via blog

    What a day Hugh! A special memory to be sure, and it appears you are ready to embark on your biggest project yet. Thanks for sharing your perspective and memories!

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