Monday, January 15, 2007

Epcot as a Science Center

This research article[1] studies the function and effectiveness of "Science Centers" around the country in providing science education to the public. One of the location that it studied was Epcot. This is what it had to say:

At EPCOT, Florida, the Walt Disney Corporation say they mix 5 percent of learning with 95 percent of fun. Visitors have a lot of fun at EPCOT and a lot of people go there: does this 5 percent make EPCOT a science center? Arguably so! But EPCOT is so exceptional that it is out on a very long limb from the body of the science center movement—placed there by its commercial imperative. Experiences happen to the visitor under Disney’s control—this assures high visitor throughput. If visitors want to go back and look more closely they can’t; they’re on the ride and have no choice. Even the interactive exhibits in Wonders of Life and Imagination are either automatically guided or short, single-outcome interactions. Many exhibit concepts have been drawn unacknowledged from science centers, but the balance of the EPCOT experience is tipped by the need for the visitor to get a quick pay-off and move on.

The boundaries between leisure attraction and science center are blurring as the leisure market adds “edutainment” to its offerings, yet the distinction remains clear—to professionals if not to first-time visitors. In a leisure attraction, the interactive experiences offer visitors far fewer degrees of freedom; there are no seats to encourage contemplation, for the next experience beckons just round the corner; the level of staffing is lower than in a science center—throughout, the emphasis is on commercial operation rather than informal education.

I think Epcot is in a tough situation. It is catering to visitors on vacation. The last thing they probably want to do is learn something. Yet, if it tries to stick to Walt's original vision of what Epcot is supposed to be, it has to have some degree of "education", at least as far as envisioning the world of the future. So it ends up not pleasing everyone. The casual Disney fans want it to have more rides and more entertainment, while the Disney fanatics want it to stick to Walt's vision.


[1] J.G. Beetlestone et al., Public Understand. Sci. v.7, p.5 (1998).

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