It took a few million dollars' worth of fund raising, and a madcap, four-day dash through 15 cities by a team of amusement park designers, but a new plastics-themed exhibit at Walt Disney World's Epcot Center is getting ready to open.
Disney and the Society of the Plastics Industry Inc. have spent the better part of the past year developing the exhibit, which will be called ``Fantastic Plastics Works.'' The industry plans to spend $6 million to turn part of Epcot's Innoventions attraction into what it hopes will be a fun introduction to polymers.
Dropping that kind of money at an amusement park may seem strange at a time when manufacturers bemoan the loss of more than 2 million jobs since 2000 and fret about business going overseas. But SPI officials say it's a small price to pay for the opportunity to present a sympathetic industry message to the millions of visitors that go to Epcot each year.
For the industry, there are two goals: to help the general public better understand plastics and to show children career opportunities.
``We've got to keep this feeder group coming along that wants to get into plastic and that wants to make a difference,'' said SPI President Don Duncan.
Washington-based SPI held a soft launch with its board Jan. 15 at Epcot in Orlando, Fla., and plans to have the exhibit up and running by summer. SPI officials spoke Feb. 4, providing details for the first time about the exhibit's design and updating progress.
The 5,000-square-foot exhibit will be interactive, featuring games in which children learn about plastics and use that knowledge to build virtual robots. Then, the robots will compete in a computerized obstacle course, controlled by a child's movements on an electronic dance pad.
After that, visitors will be ushered into a working injection molding room, with robots and materials-handling equipment designed to appeal to children by showing a lot of movement, said Bonnie Limbach, SPI's chief communications officer. The children will get to take away a small toy that will be created on site at the Epcot ``factory,'' she said.
``It's a great environment to let people learn more about you, in a fun way,'' Limbach said. ``Ours is interactive on more levels than anything else that is there at Innoventions.''
The work started in early 2002, when Disney approached SPI about doing something with plastics, along the lines of other industry-funded ``infotainment'' splashes at Innoventions, like ``Beautiful Science'' by Monsanto Co. and ``Networked Living'' by IBM Corp. After SPI committed last year to raising the money, Disney designers accompanied SPI officials on a whirlwind tour of 15 cities, covering seven states in 80 hours.
They followed that up with a visit to the June NPE trade show in Chicago, where in the excitement of the event, ``Something made it click for them,'' Limbach said.
Duncan said SPI has raised about $4 million and anticipates getting the other $2 million. DuPont Co. and GE Plastics are the largest donors - the anchor supporters - but there's a long line of other firms from many segments of the industry giving both money and in-kind contributions. (In the interest of full disclosure, Plastics News is a contributor.)
The exhibit will run for three years, and Duncan said SPI hopes to extend it by two more years. The design will be tweaked at the 18-month mark, and SPI said designers still are looking for ideas.
For example, Limbach said, during the exhibit, Disney may have its staff explain to children plastics' role in medicine by showing them how an artificial heart works, or ask visitors if they know how much technology is involved in keeping lettuce fresh, and then talk about plastic film technology.
``As we get good ideas, there's going to be chances to get them in,'' Duncan said.