“Taking a trip around the world can be easier than you’d think at Walt Disney World’s EPCOT World Showcase. Visitors can drink a margarita in Mexico, eat traditional German bratwurst in Germany and encounter Norwegian trolls in Norway, all within a few steps of each other. Eleven countries are represented in the showcase, each with a wide variety of food, rides, attractions, shopping and culture that can only be experienced Disney-style.” – USA TODAY (Angela DeFini)
Whilst it is true to say that I almost certainly wouldn’t go back again, twenty-five years ago I did enjoy three trips to Walt Disney World in Orlando, Florida in the USA.
The memory of these visits has mostly disappeared into a blur of credit card debt, white knuckle rides, the quicksand of commercialism and the exploitation by the Disney machine but one experience that I do remember was a visit to the World Showcase at EPCOT.
This, it has to be said, is an odd place – at the same time both intriguing and disappointing. In the beginning it was the vision of Walt Disney himself – to build a new twentieth century city but after he died the Disney Corporation accountants gained control, declared it too expensive and everything was downsized until it became nothing more than an add-on theme park to Magic Kingdom without any of the Magic.
Without Walt, Disney tried to turn it into a future world experience but couldn’t help sliding back into the present when they built World Showcase which promotes eleven countries from around the World. Eleven itself seems a strange number and I can’t help thinking why not ten or twelve which seems to make a lot more sense in a logical sort of way. I always like even numbers.
We entered World Showcase from Future World and for no real reason took a clockwise route around the countries and started with Mexico. The entrance into an Aztec temple was through a display of ethnic artwork and then into the main exhibition, a twilight-lit Mexican marketplace, Plaza de los Amigos with a Mariachi band playing folk music next to a restaurant, the San Ángel Inn. This was next to an indoor lagoon and a boarding area leading to a boat ride El Rio del Tiempo, which carried us on a slow boat ride through various scenes from Mexico’s history with audio-animatronic figures clad in authentic folk clothing, singing, dancing, and playing music. Rather like the ‘Small World’ ride in Magic Kingdom.
We enjoyed our visit to Mexico and looked forward to more rides around the World.
After Mexico we were transported to Scandinavia and to Norway which is designed to look like a traditional village that includes a replica Viking longboat but then there was a restaurant and here things started to deteriorate because much of Norway was simply shops decorated with large wooden trolls and selling assorted Norwegian goods, including clothing, sweets and a bakery featuring assorted pastries. Luckily however not at traditional Norwegian prices!
But after the shops there was a water ride that took us back to a mythological version of Norway’s Viking days. Boats passed through scenes of brave seafarers and bearded Vikings and then through an enchanted swamp and was then forced backwards down a waterfall by angry trolls. The boats floated rapidly past scenes of polar bears and living trees, before coming to a stop on the edge of another waterfall and after again rotating to a forward-facing position plunged down into the stormy North Sea. It then passed dangerously close to an oil rig before coming to an abrupt end in a calm harbour and after that there was an obligatory film about the history and folklore of Norway.
Next came China which we entered through a large gate that reminded me of China Town in London into a courtyard dominated by a replica of the Temple of Heaven, which contained the entrance to a Circle-Vision 360° film exploring China’s history and scenic landscape, as well as a museum containing several ancient Chinese artefacts. Decorated with ponds and crossed by bridges the courtyard was inevitably bordered by shops selling Chinese merchandise and two Chinese restaurants.
After three countries I was beginning to get both disappointed and bored in equal measures!
It was back to Europe next and on to Germany which was designed to look like a typical German town but with architecture from different eras and regions which made it all rather comical. The Platz was decorated with a statue of St. George and the Dragon and a clock tower and the Biergarten at the rear of the courtyard sold traditional German food. The pavilion also had inevitable shops selling German goods, including dolls and cuckoo clocks and outside adjacent to the pavilion was decorated by an extensive model village with working model trains.
Germany was a real let down and this is because the original design of the pavilion included a boat ride along the River Rhine that was to have focused on German folklore, in a similar way to the Mexico and Norway rides. According to the Walt Disney Company’s 1976 annual report, the ride was to be “a cruise down Germany’s most famous rivers – the Rhine the Tauber the Ruhr and the Isar. Detailed miniatures of famous landmarks will also be seen, including one of the Cologne Cathedral.”
Though the building was built, Disney did not complete the ride construction by opening day. It was announced to be part of “phase two” of expansion but to cut costs, Disney dropped all phase two attractions and decided that any expansion projects would only be allowed if a host country funded for it. Germany declined to stump up the money and the ride was never completed.
We stayed in Europe for the next stop which was Italy where the Disney interpretation featured a plaza surrounded by a collection of buildings rather badly resembling Venetian, Florentine, and Roman architecture.
The original plans for the pavilion called for an expansion that once again would be built in “Phase II” of construction, thus leaving a wall with nothing behind it at the rear of the pavilion. The expansion would have included a gondola dark ride and a Roman ruins walk-through. When “Phase II” was cancelled, the pavilion was left incomplete and later inevitably franchised to a pizza restaurant chain.
Surely the USA attraction would have a ride? Sadly not! Instead “The American Adventure” is a colonial-style mansion surrounded by gardens planted in hues of red, white and blue and with rose varieties all named after U.S. Presidents. It took us on a trip through America’s history narrated by Benjamin Franklin and Mark Twain and was little more than an outrageous show of unashamed jingoism designed to make everyone else in the World feel grateful and inferior.
“Mr. Twain, pride is one of our nation’s passions.” – Benjamin Franklin – The American Adventure
The show was presented in an auditorium with sets and characters rising out from the stage floor to represent scenes from different historical periods and the characters provided skewed historical insight into American life of the past through conversations in which they discussed the current events of their time all of which left me desperate for a bucket and then to move on…
The Japan pavilion is one of the original World Showcase attractions and had been in planning since the late 1970s. Many attractions have been proposed for the pavilion and one show building was built, but left unused because management thought that the Japanese film’s omission of World War II might upset many Veterans and it was dropped. The whole experience was becoming tedious but at least there was some entertainment in Japan and there were some traditional Japanese Matsuriza drummers who performed a time-honoured form of very noisy drumming.
By this time I was beginning to wish it would all end but there were still four countries left to go beginning with Morocco. The Moroccan Pavilion, designed to look like a Moroccan city with a realistic Minaret, features the only pavilion in which the country’s government aided in the design. Guests to the pavilion are supposed to gain an insight on the lifestyle and culture of the Moroccan people through the Gallery of Arts and History and the Fes House showed what was supposed to be a typical Moroccan house but since going to EPCOT I have been to Morocco and I can tell you that it is about as authentic as powdered egg!
And so to France which had another boring film about how wonderful the place is and some external sets representing Paris with an elusive Eiffel Tower in the distance from every angle and authenticity provided by men in striped shirts and berets and playing the accordion.
There were the obligatory French restaurants, a patisserie and an ice cream parlour and a stroll along the Seine lined with shops and hand carts. My only recollection is that I was seriously underwhelmed. I had only recently been to real Paris and that had been far more satisfying.
Next to France was the United Kingdom, designed to look like a typical British village with shops, thatched cottages and gardens. The shops sold British goods, such as tea, Winnie the Pooh toys, clothing, and Beatles merchandise. I was fed up with it all by now and bypassed Hampton Court and the Cotswold village and aimed for The Rose & Crown Pub which at least served English beer. I ordered a pint and so did an American guest but he took one sip and his face distorted in agony at the taste (English beer has flavour whereas American beers do not), he said ‘What the hell is that?” and slammed it down on the bar and left. I was tempted to take it but the bar staff, obviously used to this reaction, swiftly took it away and poured it down the sink.
Thankfully it was nearly all over and only one country left – Canada. Sadly after the colourful entrance of totem poles and ethnic art all that there was another boring 360° film about the great outdoors and now I was really ready to leave.
Disney World Showcase might be better now (my visit was twenty years ago) but my assessment is that this was the best/worst attraction in my fourteen day holiday to Florida – and that, let me tell you, includes Gatorland!
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