The plastics industry entered Walt Disney World on Oct. 1, with the opening of an exhibit that melds the marketing prowess of corporate America with the idyllic family vacation. The end result, the industry hopes, will be a lot of kids tuned into plastics.
Disney World opened its long-awaited plastics exhibit at its Innoventions attraction in Orlando, Fla. The industry put up $6 million for the part-educational, part-entertainment ``Fantastic Plastics Works'' exhibit, with the idea of presenting a plastics-sympathetic message to the millions of visitors who go through Epcot Center each year.
The overall goal is to show the industry as important, as technology driven, as vital, even while a tough economy and global competition have cost plastics plants 100,000 jobs since 2000.
The exhibit is in the same vein as the industry's multimillion-dollar ``Plastics Make it Possible'' advertising campaign, but with a twist: enticing kids into seeing plastics manufacturing as a career path worth pursuing.
``In the initial entree to the exhibit, there are lots of fascinating things that smack of high technology,'' said Don Duncan, president of the Society of the Plastics Industry Inc., the Washington-based trade group that organized the exhibit.
``There are walls made out of high-tech materials,'' and parts of the exhibit feature some of the latest uses of plastics, like cars with interchangeable plastic body panels that don't require painting, Duncan said.
``They all bring in the idea that plastics are part of the high-tech arena.''
The exhibit is in three sections.
First, kids can build a virtual plastic resin based on properties they want, and then design a robot on a computer and use an electronic dance pad to move their creation through an obstacle course.
Finally, they're ushered into a room with a working injection molding machine - a 110-ton press - that makes parts for a toy robot that the kids assemble. It's the first time Disney's put a working piece of manufacturing equipment in Epcot.
``If we can spur curiosity in young minds, that's a very positive outcome,'' said Tim O'Brien, vice president and general manager-Americas for GE Advanced Materials, Plastics, in Pittsfield, Mass. Also, he said, ``each of those kids has adult parents, many of whom may be in a business that uses plastics or could use plastics.''
The exhibit also shows plastics pushing the envelope in product design, for example, in kayaks, motorcycles and cars. Disney staffers guide people through and are given scripts to follow to get the industry message out, said Bonnie Limbach, SPI senior vice president of public affairs and communications.
It's all carefully choreographed. Those Disney staffers get about 60 hours of training in the basics of polymers, and have to follow their scripts very closely so they stay within the confines of what the corporate sponsors want, said Stacia Wake, Epcot business relations/marketing manager.
``We have a lot of message points that are very important for our clients,'' she said.
Not surprisingly, those points don't touch on things that might reflect badly on the industry, or that curators at a more science-minded museum might want to explore.
The exhibit, for example, does not mention environmental questions surrounding the fluoropolymers and polycarbonates produced by the two main sponsors, DuPont Co. of Wilmington, Del., and Pittsfield, Mass.-based GE Plastics, respectively. DuPont currently faces high-profile charges by the Environmental Protection Agency that it withheld health-related data for fluoropolymers, and polycarbonate has generated concern among environmental health groups.
But SPI officials said they think it's unlikely that even a precocious 12-year-old would ask about that.
An Epcot exhibit sponsored by St. Louis-based Monsanto Co. discussed genetically modified food and biotechnology, and Disney said it got only one challenge in three years, according to Limbach. She said Disney exhibit staffers are told not to get into such discussions. Wake declined to comment.
The plastics exhibit is slated to run for three years, although Duncan said SPI will be trying to raise the $2 million to $3 million needed to keep it running for a fourth and fifth year. The group still is looking for $1 million to complete the initial $6 million, as well, he said.
The exhibit took about two years to plan, after Disney initially approached SPI. Coincidentally, the trade group had been looking to place a similar exhibit in a science museum, but jumped at the chance for a slot at Epcot, given the huge numbers of visitors Epcot gets.
Beyond DuPont and GE, the exhibit includes a host of smaller donors, including Plastics News, that provided money or in-kind services. Duncan said the American Plastics Council of Arlington, Va., recently joined.
The exhibit can be modified at the 18-month mark, and SPI said it is open to ideas. For now, the exhibit will offer the 5 million visitors a year who pass through Epcot a look at the diversity of plastics, and do it in a way that organizers hope sneaks in learning without kids realizing it.
``We want to make it entertaining, and educational in a way that would be invisible to the guest,'' Wake said. ``We want people to understand the magic of plastic.''
SPI and Disney held a grand opening Oct. 1 with industry officials as the exhibit opened to the public.