Saturday, September 12, 2015

Epcot Poll: A Remembrance

When I started my countdown of my favorite Disney songs on this blog a few months ago, I said that I would include some posts on other non-music topics related to Disney that interested me. One thing I've been especially fascinated to learn more about is the Epcot Poll, which was officially known as the Electronic Forum.  The Poll was located in a small theater in Communicore East (now Innoventions).  On the left armrest of each seat were five red buttons (A, B, C, D, and E) that glowed in the dark.  A Disney cast member hosted the show and would ask the audience questions, and each person would respond by pushing a button on the armrest.  The results would be instantly calculated and displayed on the screen, and it was fun to see where your answer stacked up to everyone else's.  

I remember as a very small child loving the big red buttons and having a great time pushing them -- so much for accurate polling data!  There really was something magical for me about those buttons -- in fact, my mother claims that it was the Epcot Poll that got me over my fear of the dark.  And as I became a little older, I liked how my opinion was being asked for and valued.

According to this D23 article, the Epcot Poll was open from December '82 to March '91, but there wasn't much else online that I could find about it.  I wanted to learn more about this underrated Disney attraction that I loved as a kid, and so I reached out to Arthur Shapiro who worked at the company which supplied Disney with the questions.  Arthur was really friendly, fun to talk to, and generous with his time.  Check out his blog about the wine and spirits industry and also a short 7 minute dark comedy he wrote and produced called "Bereavement" featuring Mark-Linn Baker from "Perfect Strangers."

AS: Let me tell you the story.  I don't remember what prompted Disney to do the Poll -- I wasn't really privy to that stuff.  I was a survey pollster/market researcher for a company called Yankelovich, Skelly and White which at the time was one of the foremost polling and consumer marketing research companies in the country.  I believe that Time Inc. was going to be the sponsor of the Epcot Poll, but as I recollect, Time changed its mind and bowed out even though it was their idea to do the Poll.

At the same time, I left Yankelovich and formed ASK Associates which was an acronym for the founders: Dwight Allen, Arthur Shapiro, and Ed Keller. Our business was primarily trying to find new ways to gather information other than paper and pencil.  We had something called "The Polling Poll" which was a freestanding kiosk that collected surveys -- we did it for Newsweek on campus, for instance.  Yankelovich decided that the Epcot Poll didn't fit their image or perception as a legitimate polling operation. Despite the fact that I left the firm, they asked me if I wanted to take it on.  I said, "Are you kidding?  Of course!"  So off we went, and we became the engine and the driver of the Epcot Poll.

We worked with the PR people at Disney, and I can't remember the one guy's name -- he was an awfully nice guy and sort of became the shepherd of this concept.

NS: Was it your company that came up with the questions?

AS: Yes, we came up with all of them.  We would suggest topics and then the folks at Disney would say yea or nay, and then we would go off and write the questions.  There were always 5 choices, and I remember what a pain it was to come up with the questions. I don't remember the exact number of characters we had to work with, but it was something like a 64 character field.  And we had to write the questions in such a way to fit in the space and have 5 responses.

The questions ranged from worldly matters to more frivolous things, like if you preferred to bathe in the morning or the evening. The idea was not to be serious -- in no way, shape, manner, or form was it a scientific survey.  It was open for kids, for instance.  But I always thought that it had incredible potential as an alternative method of finding consumer information.

NS: I can remember reaching over to an empty chair and pushing more buttons, and sometimes I just pushed buttons at random if I didn't understand the question. 

AS: Yes, it was a skewed sample, so we just had fun with it.  I do think one of the outlets for the data was USA Today which had just gotten started. We would collect the information, tabulate the results instantly, and then aggregate them.  Then we'd pass them on to this fellow at Disney who would issue a press release on the Epcot Poll.

NS: What was the public reception like?

AS: People absolutely loved the Epcot Poll.  We did something that was fun and entertaining.  The first thing we did was tee up the subjects, which is something that traditional pollsters don't like to do.  We picked topics well in advance and sometimes had one of Disney's people shoot footage on the topic and show it before the questions.

What people liked the most was seeing where their answers fit in.  After they entered their choice, the answers would be shown on the screen and there would be a buzz in the audience.

NS: How did the Epcot Poll fit with what was happening with the polling industry as a whole?

AS: What was happening 30 years ago in the polling and market research field was that people didn't want to be bothered by having the intrusion of a phone call or a knock on the door.  As a result, the industry began to lose participation rates to the point where scientific surveys were starting to lose their scientific credentials.  So they began looking for alternatives, and that's why we went into business.  Since then, the market research industry has gone from surveys to focus groups.  

NS: As I got a little older and more able to understand the questions, I liked how in the Epcot Poll they asked me for my opinion -- it made me feel valued and more grown up. 

AS: I remember hearing that comment from a lot of teens, that they really felt good about being asked their opinion.  It was a grown-up kind of thing to do.  

NS: What was your company's motive in being involved with the Epcot Poll?

AS: We were a startup and didn't get paid anything for it, as I recall.  They may have paid airfare and expenses for us, but it wasn't about the money.  We did it because we thought it would be great experience for us, and it fit our mission of finding different methods of alternative data collection.  And imagine you're a startup today and you get a subcontract with Apple -- you'd do it in a heartbeat to be able to showcase and market yourself.  It was something we talked about with clients -- having Disney on our client list was a great thing.  

NS: I don't remember much about the specific questions, but one question I do remember was when they asked what new country should be added to World Showcase.  I thought that was a fun question and thought it was so cool that they were asking me about that.  

AS: At times, Disney used the questions for their own purposes like in that example you mentioned.  They would ask questions about popularity of things, potential changes in the parks, etc.  But they never wanted to have the questions exclusively about that.  

NS: How often would the same set of questions be used before they were replaced with newer questions?

AS: As I recall, it was a 14 day cycle.  The subject matter and questions were put in and remained the same for two weeks, because I remember every two weeks I had a headache as a result of having to come up with more questions.  

NS: I feel like the whole concept of having an auditorium that instantaneously calculates and displays opinion metrics from the audience is a brilliant one.  I think it'd be great for something like team building or having fun in a corporate setting.  Have you heard of anything similar to this being used elsewhere?

AS: Yes, I believe something similar has been used at meetings and conventions, though I don't remember the specifics.    

NS: Do you remember why it ended?

AS: The guy who was the champion of it at Disney moved on to other things, and the people who took over just didn't have his same passion and drive.  For me, that time period was a very special moment in my life because I was recruited to be head of market research at Seagram Spirits and Wine Company where I stayed for 14 years.  It was a movement away from small companies and into the world of suits, as I like to call them.  

NS: I read on your bio page that you're active in a lot of different things, from blogging and marketing to photography, writing plays, and producing films.  

AS: I like to describe myself as a part-time marketing consultant with a full time passion for telling stories. 


  1. I worked at Electronic Forum from about 1987 to 1990. It was one of my favorite attractions to work, because you had to think on your feet--every show was different. You had to be able to do math on the fly, as you would group responses--for example, you'd say something like " I see two-thirds of you agree on that". It was always a challenge to get people into the show--because, let's face it, it wasn't the most exciting offering at Epcot!

    1. That's interesting -- thanks for reading and sharing your comment!