Edutainment vs. Entertainment: An extended rambling

1 04 2011

For those of us that feel like we’re getting old (20-somethings that look back on the 1990s like they’re the 30s and 50s, like I do), and those that are actually older, what are some of the moments, activities, and places that make you feel like a kid again? I know that for me, almost every single instance has happened during some form of “edutainment.” In case you haven’t heard that word before, it is a combination of “education” and “entertainment,” something meant to stimulate our thought process while entertaining us at the same time.

There are many places that attempt to pull off “edutainment,” some more successfully than others. Within the amusement industry, it seems to me that edutainment is now often overloaded on the entertainment aspect with a very minimal amount of what might be considered “education” which is thrown in really as a dog bone to get it into that classification. Instead of trying to make learning fun and interesting – which can take a lot of work for some subjects – we have moved to making it fun first, and then trying to make sure the information doesn’t ruin the fun. If it sounds like I am describing a particular park, I am…but not completely, because the issue goes beyond the park itself, to you and I, the people asking for the entertainment.

As I said above, I am describing one particular park, EPCOT at Disney World, which also happens to be my favorite park that I have ever visited. I’ll tell you why it is my favorite park, because of the fantastic edutainment aspect of it. Now, you might be a bit puzzled as to how EPCOT can be my favorite park because of the edutainment aspect while I criticize the loss of that very aspect to pure entertainment, and I can certainly understand your confusion. Even though EPCOT is starting to seemingly be overrun by entertainment, it has still managed to retain a few key edutainment aspects that are some of the best out there. The biggest of these is the World Showcase, which allows you to experience a world of cultural experiences in one day. Another part of the park that has managed to keep its strong educational aspect is the iconic Spaceship Earth. Unfortunately, the rest of Future World has largely been lost to entertainment with the exception of three holdout attractions; Living with the Land, Universe of Energy, and the Circle of Life (formerly Symbiosis in the Land Pavilion).

For those that may not be familiar with EPCOT’s Future World before it became what it is today, the Future World name fit the nature of the area, and it was one of the highest forms of edutainment around. Communicore was a showcase of new and developing communications technologies, many of which we now use without a second thought. Instead of Communicore we now have Innoventions, which is an unseemly collection of partner attractions consisting of educational games that don’t really create a cohesive environment. Around the edges, one pavilion has been completely replaced, and two have received large-scale interior changes that have resulted in a much more entertainment focused experience; The Living Seas is now The Seas with Nemo and Friends, and World of Motion has become the GM showroom and ride Test Track. Thankfully the transformation of Living Seas into the Nemo-themed pavilion did not affect much more than the Omnimover ride, but Test Track created a virtual sales floor for GM while providing a marginally educational experience.

As you can see here (and have experienced if you have visited recently), the focus has appeared to start shifting much more strongly towards an entertainment experience with education becoming more of an afterthought. Here is where I let loose and start bashing EPCOT and Disney, right? Actually, that would be wrong, and here is why.

Disney is reacting to a change in its consumers, a change that has shown that, by and large, instant gratification and mindless entertainment is what most of us desire. The result at EPCOT in Future World is exactly what we have asked for, and while I still find the experience immensely enjoyable, I cannot experience the attractions without the thought of how the technologies that were showcased and explained in those very buildings has resulted in the mind-numbing entertainment that has become so popular. It really is ironic when you think about it. What made the park so cool, fun, and interesting in its beginnings has started turning it into entertainment with an afterthought of education, a complete 180 from what it was originally; education that was entertaining.

You have probably heard similar rants before, certainly about how our society has become an instant gratification society, filled with mindless entertainment thanks to the Internet. Considering that, if you have gotten this far, thank you for staying with me, and I would be very surprised if anyone reached this point. If you have, please continue to stay with me for just a touch longer.

As much as I have experienced that feeling of being a kid again at Disney and EPCOT in particular, I always find myself having much stronger experiences at places like SeaWorld, the Columbus Zoo, and the Chicago Museum of Science and Industry. As my girlfriend can confirm, I turn into a little kid the moment I walk into SeaWorld and see the animals. She has to practically drag me away from the dolphins and orcas. I’ll crouch down in front of the glass wall of the tiger exhibit at the Columbus Zoo and stay there watching the tiger pace back and forth right in front of me for a half hour or more. When I visited the Chicago Museum of Science and Industry I was interested in everything, even if I had fallen asleep in classes attempting to learn about them. Education is fun at these places; they immerse you in the environment and experience in such a way that makes you want to learn. This is what is starting to disappear from Future World, but thankfully remains in the World Showcase.

If I have a point I want to make in writing this; I wish we could find a way to pull back from the ledge of instant gratification and mindless entertainment, and I hope we will. I have contributed and continue to contribute to the mess (and future articles will likely prove as much), but every time I have one of those “kid moments,” I realize how entertaining education can really be. I’ve had a few “figments of imagination” about a re-imagined Future World, and more than most, I think one particular Figment would be the “spark of imagination” to really push it along. The only way that will happen, though, is through a demonstration that we no longer seek the mindless entertainment as the majority of the experience.

Thank you for tolerating my overly long ramblings, and hopefully a little spark of inspiration will inspire a figment of your own.