Twelve months in the making and one unforgettable experience, in November 2014 I completed an enriching project that catapulted my Disney fervor into something quite scholarly. As a student of Arizona State University’s Barrett, The Honors College, I was to spend two semesters developing a thesis on a subject of my choosing. What better way to combine entertainment and education than to add some fantastic flavor to an academic endeavor?
An Epcot enthusiast, I realized I could translate my passion for the community-turned-theme park into a piece of research that would explore its evolution. More specifically, I wanted to identify the interrelations between technology and culture in this artificial, yet awesome environment. Thus I set off on a one-year journey that would be as amazing and personally fulfilling as venturing to Epcot for the first time some 15 years ago.
How do I develop a meaningful thesis that provides new perspective on the subject? More importantly, how do I make this fun? These questions entered my mind from the moment I decided I would center my research around something involving Disney. Immediately I scratched out a few ideas. Walt Disney Undiscovered, nope. Designing Disneyland, nada. Analyzing Disney Animated Film Characters, too clichÃ©d. I noticed some fellow students had explored various facets of Disney, but merely delved into the most banal subject matter. Everyone’s a critic. Observing others’ topics, ranging from the problems with Disney princesses to Disneyland analyses, was important. As I learned, though, the point of a thesis is to add something new. Tons of criticisms regarding Disney heroines’ portrayals flood the web. Would I really want to waste a year into just throwing in another perspective? Needless to say, that idea never came into the picture.
All of my concepts returned to one theme: Epcot. Its basis came from Walt Disney and his enthrallment in utopian settings, as well as world’s fairs. It was a project to revolutionize society, yet as we all know, Imagineers would eventually translate the model into an exposition-like theme park in Florida. How much research had scholars conducted on the topic? Not much. I discovered some theses on the web that scrutinized elements of Walt Disney World (with Epcot as a portion) and numerous chapters that interpreted various components of Epcot (from the international pavilions to the controlled setting). But nothing seemed to unite these disparate parts together. Even more, I realized that few or no individuals considered the connections between technology and culture, the two halves that complete Epcot. Here was my opportunity to create a thesis on just that.
When you spend a few hundred hours of your life concentrated on one topic, it’s pretty important to select something you love. I had heard countless anecdotes of fellow students who grew sick of their research. Many simply regretted tying in the project to their major. Others kicked themselves for not thinking their subjects through and then changed the focus completely several months into the research phase. I was not going to follow those paths. Disney symbolizes joy, though I would not let the happiness cloud my judgment in painstakingly attempting to see all sides of the Epcot story, which did not glean as brightly as the surface of Spaceship Earth.
Research can open up new areas of discovery, but sometimes the amount of dissent on the subject can ruin your spirit. I came across many scholarly articles that tore Epcot and Walt Disney to shreds. Undoubtedly some arguments are stronger than others, but after I set down each piece, I traveled back to that initial question. How do I add something new here? Simply stating their complaints — some legitimate, others trivial — would not provide weight to my paper. Instead I incorporated a mix of the pros and cons, aiming for a balance and constantly raising my questions about how technology and culture connect with one another. Much of the research I found explained historical context, corporate decisions, and other important factors. Yet I knew compiling all this served no purpose. Here is where my voice came in, as I had to form conclusions and reasons as to why this billion-dollar project failed to come to fruition. Additionally, I needed to delve into why The Walt Disney Company struggled to incorporate technical innovations and international depictions in a theme park setting, showing how they accomplished this to mixed interpretations.
You realize pretty fast in embracing an undertaking like this that you cannot use most of your research. Even half of your notes won’t make the final cut. From the start, I wanted to demonstrate how Disney is not the fluffy type of content some people ascribe to it. Epcot truly exemplifies the seriousness of an entertainment company attempting to set its place in educating and inspiring individuals. Not simply by any means. Neither was organizing all of my notes that numbered in the many tens of thousands of words. Yikes!
Seven months into the project, I finished my first rough draft, which, thankfully, was not as “rough” as I had envisioned it to entail. My thesis director, who guided me along the project with helpful feedback and support, pushed me even harder. I had initially rounded up much of the content, but lacked the essential segment in inserting my voice. Apparently Ariel was not the only one who experienced challenges in speaking. I grew to understand that it was not so much throwing in my viewpoint, but rather expose the conclusions I gathered and formulated. A few more drafts later, and this 100-page “dissertation-length paper,” as my director and fellow committee member said, was finished. “Epcot’s Evolution: Disney’s Ultimate World’s Fair of Technological and Cultural Synergy” was ready for showtime.
In a sense, this thesis was just around 50 years in the works. After all, Walt Disney began working on Epcot as early as 1964 through his participation in the 1964 New York World’s Fair. Five decades later was my time to share a bit of Disney magic in the heart of Downtown Phoenix, where I have been finishing my undergraduate degree. Along with the thesis paper, each student is required to present his or her research to an audience, whether it be just the committee or even community members. I was excited to provide the lecture to my thesis committee, family, friends, past professors and advisors, and others just interested in Disney.
I was also thrilled that Jeff Kurtti, a Disney historian, author, and communicator, could participate on my committee as an external examiner. He came in from the Los Angeles area to evaluate the thesis project and deliver his own presentation on Walt Disney’s role on screen, following my defense. This special evening also included refreshments (such as delicious Mickey Mouse chocolate chip cookies, see below) and an “exhibit” of my research, featuring posters I created, as well as some books I referenced in developing the project. It was truly a perfect event, as it wound up one year of hard work and effort. My thesis passed — no revisions necessary. I covered Epcot’s evolution, though I determined that I was the one who had evolved the most. I entered in as someone who had never conducted research to that magnitude and walked away with a project that made my committee members proud. I provided a new piece to the Epcot puzzle and educated individuals in the process.
Since its inception, Disney In Depth has attempted to deliver fascinating and eye-opening content. Sometimes I review new content from Disney, showcase spectacular Disney-themed videos circulating YouTube, and even share some analysis into issues facing the company. I also appreciate the opportunity to share the role of Disney in my own life, as this thesis project embodied for such a great period of time. Thanks for allowing me to present my thesis with you all. I wish you the best as you seek opportunities in your lives to integrate Disney into some entity that will enhance your existence, whether personally, academically, professionally, or perhaps all three.
This is Brett Nachman, signing off. Follow me on Twitter for alerts of new editions of Disney In Depth, Thursdays on Geeks of Doom.