Tag Archives: EPCOT

Postcards From Disney World, EPCOT

Epcot World Showcase

“The true iconic Epcot experience comes in taking your time to wander through the 11 countries in the World Showcase, stopping to shop for Japanese etchings or Mexican folk art, going for a boat ride in the Mexico pavilion, watching a circle-vision panoramic adventure film in O’Canada, strolling through souks designed to resemble the real ones in Marrakech and Fes in the Morocco pavilion, watching nimble acrobats in China…and on and on.”                           Terry Ward (a man of obviously limited travel ambition) –   USA Today (2014)

EPCOT, it has to be said, is an odd place – at the same time both intriguing and disappointing.  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.

Read the full story…

United Kingdom

germany world showcase 1

ITALY EPCOT

Italy at World Showcase, Disney World Florida

ITALY EPCOT

“There are palaces to see everywhere, and precious churches, and bridges, and pictures by the thousand, and all the criss-cross pattern of antiquity that is picturesque Venice, mocked by the materialists, sentimentalised by the Romantics, but still by any standards an astonishing phenomenon.”                   Jan Morris – ‘Venice

For those people who have never been fortunate enough to visit Italy, to go to Rome, Florence, Palermo, to Verona, Pisa or Milan and have relied instead upon a visit to EPCOT to see the country then they might be forgiven if they believe that it all looks like the Venetian lagoon and is permanently under-water.  To be fair however World Showcase does a pretty good job of recreating St Mark’s Square and the Doge’s Palace – you can buy Italian ice cream and pizza and someone will be singing the inevitable ‘O Sole Mio‘ for sure.

Disney describes the visit like this:

“Enter this beautiful pavilion filled with architecture reminiscent of the city of Venice and feel the allure and romance of this remarkable locale. Find true attention to detail in the bridges, gondolas, colourful barber poles, the Neptune fountain in the central Plaza del Teatro and a stunning 83-foot version of the bell tower, Campanile of St. Mark’s Square. Buon giorno!”

But Disney, I have to tell you, cannot possibly be compared to the real thing:

The original concept for the Italy Pavilion was to have a rather obvious gondola ride through the canals of Venice but when the money dried up during the construction phase this idea was abandoned so the only place to take a gondola ride remains the real city of Venice – except perhaps for the Venetian Hotel in Las Vegas!

EPCOT gondolas and the real thing:

Italy EPCOT  Gondolas Canale di San Marco Venice

In October 2012 I visited Venice with the main objective being to take a gondola ride so after breakfast we made our way to the railway station for a second train ride to the city and after arriving there plotted a walking course around the northern loop of the Grand Canal in the general direction of Ponte Di Rialto.

The plan was to choose a gondola in San Marco but after a while the girls became impatient and spotting a handsome gondolier in his trademark black and white hooped shirt and straw hat with dangling red silk ribbons and after some sales talk and a little negotiation we had agreed to take the ride earlier than originally planned.

Venice Canal Italy

At €80 for forty minutes it was still ridiculously expensive of course but it was something that had to be done, there were six of us to share the fare and to be fair to the gondoliers, they invest a great deal in their boats, about €20,000 for a traditional hand-built wooden gondola with a life expectancy of about twenty years.

The handsome gondolier in the black and white hooped shirt and straw hat with dangling red silk ribbons then passed us on to a colleague who was not so handsome, wore a black fleece and didn’t have a straw hat with dangling red silk ribbons and the man who had done the deal went about finding more gullible customers.

The substitute gondolier led us to a sleek black boat (actually like a Ford Model T they are all black) with elaborate paintings on the interior and black velvet seats with crimson brocade and after we had settled into our seats we set off into the labyrinth of tiny canals slipping quietly through the water, boring into the network of waterways as he expertly paddled his way through the pea green water, barely wrinkling the surface as we slipped through.

Rather like a London taxi driver not just anyone can become a gondolier and the profession is controlled by a guild which issues a limited number of licenses granted after a long period of training and apprenticeship and a comprehensive exam which tests knowledge of Venetian history and landmarks, foreign language skills as well as the practical skills of handling the gondola necessary in the tight spaces of Venetian canals.

Venice Gondola

On a visit to Venice  Mark Twain wrote: “I am afraid that I study the gondolier’s marvellous skill more than I do the sculptured palaces we glide among” and I like to think that I understood that as our gondolier navigated tight corners and narrow bridges, slipping past brick walls within barely a hairs-breadth (which in a collision could strip the varnish down to the wood), skilfully avoiding other boats and never making a mistake as he rocked the paddle back and forth and from side to side in its intricate wooden cradle.

Our friendly guide took us first through some narrow back canals heading for the Grand Canal that without pavements or people were curiously quiet as we passed by the back doors and water garages of mansions, shops and restaurants but the main canals were busier, lined with cafés and restaurants and with crowds of people crossing the narrow bridges every few metres or so.

At water level there was a completely different perspective to the buildings and down here we could see the exposed brickwork and the crumbling pastel coloured stucco, sun blistered and frost picked and giving in to the constant assault of the waters of the lagoon as it gnaws and gouges its relentless way into the fabric of the buildings.

Our boat was in perfect condition and lovingly cared for from aft to stern.  Gondolas are hand made using eight different types of wood, fir, oak, cherry, walnut, elm, mahogany, larch and lime and are composed of two hundred and eighty pieces. The oars are made of beech wood. The left side of the gondola is made longer than the right side and this asymmetry causes the gondola to resist the tendency to turn toward the left at the forward stroke from the right hand side of the boat.

From the busy Rio di Noale we emerged into the Grand Canal where the gondolier had to have his wits about him as he competed for space with the Vaporetto the motor boat taxis and dozens more gondola each one full of gaping wide eyed tourists admiring the elaborate mansions and palaces that make this Venice’s most exclusive area.

The ride continued past rows of gaily coloured mooring poles and almost to the famous Rialto bridge but we weren’t going that far so we had to make do with only a look before he turned the gondola into the calmer waters of Rio dei Santi Apostoli and we began a new journey into the back canals of Venice which after twenty minutes or so returned us to the bridge where we had started.

From the Disney Web Site:

FUN FACTS: To say “hello” in Italian, say “buon giornio” (boo-on JOR-no)

Pinocchio EPCOT

Around the World in Eighty Minutes – Part Eight

American Adventure

So, that’s it, I started off with a simple recollection post about EPCOT World Showcase at Disney World, Florida and then I took off around the World to compare Disney with the real places that I have visited.

I have taken a look at the United Kingdom, GermanyItaly, France, Norway and Morocco but I can’t post about Canada, Mexico, China or Japan because I haven’t been to those countries yet.

In the course of writing, dragging up memories and doing some research I started to think more deeply about World Showcase and became intrigued by the rationale behind the concept, design and construction and in particular the reasons why these eleven countries in particular were chosen for inclusion in the park.

This is partly explained by the fact that the Walt Disney Corporation, strapped for cash, tried to find sponsors for the showcased countries and failed in all but one attempt – Morocco.  This in turn explains why some of the Pavilions are so disappointing, the absence of rides and attractions and the over reliance on shops and restaurants all designed to get visitors to part with their money.

But the failure to attract government sponsorship or private sector investment still leaves us with almost a dozen countries and no explanation why these eleven so I have been giving the matter some thought and whilst at first the inclusion appears to be rather random I think there is a credible reason for almost all of them.

The United States is of course obvious and requires no explanation for its inclusion or for the fact that it occupies the prime position on the World Showcase Lagoon and is the biggest and the most lavish and expensive of all the Pavilions.

Canada EPCOT Postcard  044 Mexico EPCOT

Canada and Mexico are easily explained.  It would be rude I suppose not to have your nearest neighbours ( it would be like EPCOT World Showcase in England without Wales and Scotland) but there are some important statistics that reveal that it is not just about being neighbourly.  In terms of tourism by international visitors these two countries make up over half of all travellers visiting the United States and according to official data in 2013* Canada with over twenty-three and a half million visitors provided 34% of all international visitors and Mexico with fourteen and a half million contributed 21%.  Way behind in third place was United Kingdom with 5.5%.

The inclusion of Mexico is even more easily explained by looking at population statistics that reveal that the second highest number of foreign born residents in the United States (by a very long way) is Mexican.

It is easy to see therefore that the inclusion of these two countries makes obvious commercial sense.  Strange however, and this is just a personal view, that the two Pavilions provide the contrast between the best (Mexico) and one of the worst (Canada).

EPCOT England   germany world showcase 1

And so we move on to Europe with five of the eleven Pavilions coming from the second smallest continent –  but why these five, why not Spain or Greece, Poland or Sweden and once again I am rather easily convinced that it is based on US ethnic ancestry and visitor numbers.

In terms of ancestry the top ten European nationalities (in this order) are Germany, Ireland, England, Italy, Poland, France, the Netherlands, Norway, Scotland and Sweden.  Germany (at 17%) genuinely surprised me and explained immediately why it is at World Showcase but (at almost 11%) why no Ireland? Why Norway and not Sweden? I suppose Poland, at the time of construction, was part of the Warsaw Pact alliance and that might have ruled it out but why not Holland because surely all of those windmills and canals would have made a great attraction.

Visitor numbers also explain why these countries are here because four of the five (but not Norway) are in the top ten of international visitors to the United States.

ITALY EPCOT  Boulogne Street Entertainer

Japan and China must be explained by visitor numbers.  After Canada, Mexico and the United Kingdom Japan contributes the fourth most visitors to the United States and China is also firmly in the top ten. Conversely, in the top ten but not represented at EPCOT are Brazil, South Korea and Australia.

Of all the countries at the EPCOT World Showcase I suppose the easiest to explain is Morocco and this is in part due to the fact that the Pavilion was the only one in which the country’s government aided in the construction and they did this so that they could retain some measure of Islamist control over the design of the mosaics and to ensure that everything was as authentic as possible in the representation of the Muslim faith.

I cynically conclude that any country could potentially be included if the government of that country was prepared to stump up the cash.

Epcot World Showcase

So who is missing?  Well, there is nothing from South America but the United Kingdom itself provides more visitors to the USA than the whole of Latin America combined so perhaps there is a clue there?  And apart from state funded Morocco there is nothing from Africa which might be considered surprising when 13% of the US population are of African descent but (and here is the crucial commercial factor) visitor numbers from the African continent are the smallest of all at only three hundred and twenty-seven thousand in 2013.

There is a small African Trading Post and Disney excuses the omission by pointing out that there is an entire African themed park at the nearby Animal Kingdom.

Finally, I have been giving some consideration to an alternative World Showcase and here are my suggestions:

Moscow Metro Park Pobedy

Parthenon Acropolis Athens

First, Australia with an IMAX film narrated by Mel Gibson and Kylie Minogue and a ride based on the theme of the World’s deadliest snakes.  Then Russia  because now the Cold War is ended there must surely be space for Red Square and the Kremlin and a Moscow Metro ride.  Next, Brazil, with a ride based on the Rio Carnival and then Peru because Machu Picchu would be a good replacement for the Mexico Aztec pyramid. After that, Egypt with a Nile Cruise ride;  India and a train journey ride to visit the Taj Mahal and the Golden Temple of Amritsar;  Equatorial Africa, which was once suggested but abandoned.  And from Europe:  Greece with a visit to Mount Olympus to meet the mythical gods in an animatronic show; Spain and the legend of El Cid and the Conquistadors and the Netherlands with a cruise of the Amsterdam canals (leaving out the red light district as not being entirely appropriate for children).

And finally, wouldn’t it be fun to include the World’s smallest sovereign state – The Vatican – with a roller coaster ride around St Peter’s Basilica!

Francesco Pizzaro Trujillo Extremadura Spain  Amsterdam by DelphSt Peter's Square, Rome  Ireland Cliffs of Moher

Whoops, Sorry, I nearly forgot Ireland, lets have twelve countries (it’s my list and my rules) and let’s  have a visit to the Cliffs of Moher (sponsored by Guinness).

Please let me know your suggestions, I would be interested in your views…

* US National Travel and Tourism Office.

Around the World in Eighty Minutes – Part Seven, Italy

ITALY EPCOT

For those people who have never been fortunate enough to visit Italy, to go to Rome, Florence, Palermo, to Verona, Pisa or Milan and have relied upon a visit to EPCOT to see the country then they might be forgiven if they believe that it all looks like the Venetian lagoon and is permanently under-water.  To be fair however World Showcase does a pretty good job of recreating St Mark’s Square and the Doge’s Palace – you can buy Italian ice cream and pizza and someone will be singing the inevitable ‘O Sole Mio‘ for sure.

Disney describes the visit like this:

“Enter this beautiful pavilion filled with architecture reminiscent of the city of Venice and feel the allure and romance of this remarkable locale. Find true attention to detail in the bridges, gondolas, colourful barber poles, the Neptune fountain in the central Plaza del Teatro and a stunning 83-foot version of the bell tower, Campanile of St. Mark’s Square. Buon giorno!”

But Disney, I have to tell you, cannot possibly be compared to the real thing:

The original concept for the Italy Pavilion was to have a rather obvious gondola ride through the canals of Venice but when the money dried up during the construction phase this idea was abandoned so the only place to take a gondola ride remains the real city of Venice – except perhaps for the Venetian Hotel in Las Vegas!

EPCOT gondolas and the real thing:

Italy EPCOT  Gondolas Canale di San Marco Venice

In October 2012 I visited Venice with the main objective being to take a gondola ride so after breakfast we made our way to the railway station for a second train ride to the city and after arriving there plotted a walking course around the northern loop of the Grand Canal in the general direction of Ponte Di Rialto.

The plan was to choose a gondola in San Marco but after a while the girls became impatient and spotting a handsome gondolier in his trademark black and white hooped shirt and straw hat with dangling red silk ribbons and after some sales talk and a little negotiation we had agreed to take the ride earlier than originally planned.

Venice The Gondoliers Gilbert and Sullivan

At €80 for forty minutes it was still ridiculously expensive of course but it was something that had to be done, there were six of us to share the fare and to be fair to the gondoliers, they invest a great deal in their boats, about €20,000 for a traditional hand-built wooden gondola with a life expectancy of about twenty years.

The handsome gondolier in the black and white hooped shirt and straw hat with dangling red silk ribbons then passed us on to a colleague who was not so handsome, wore a black fleece and didn’t have a straw hat with dangling red silk ribbons and the man who had done the deal went about finding more gullible customers.

The substitute gondolier led us to a sleek black boat (actually like a Ford Model T they are all black) with elaborate paintings on the interior and black velvet seats with crimson brocade and after we had settled into our seats we set off into the labyrinth of tiny canals slipping quietly through the water, boring into the network of waterways as he expertly paddled his way through the pea green water, barely wrinkling the surface as we slipped through.

Rather like a London taxi driver not just anyone can become a gondolier and the profession is controlled by a guild which issues a limited number of licenses granted after a long period of training and apprenticeship and a comprehensive exam which tests knowledge of Venetian history and landmarks, foreign language skills as well as the practical skills of handling the gondola necessary in the tight spaces of Venetian canals.

Venice Gondola

On a visit to Venice  Mark Twain wrote: “I am afraid that I study the gondolier’s marvellous skill more than I do the sculptured palaces we glide among” and I like to think that I understood that as our gondolier navigated tight corners and narrow bridges, slipping past brick walls within barely a hairs-breadth (which in a collision could strip the varnish down to the wood), skilfully avoiding other boats and never making a mistake as he rocked the paddle back and forth and from side to side in its intricate wooden cradle.

Our friendly guide took us first through some narrow back canals heading for the Grand Canal that without pavements or people were curiously quiet as we passed by the back doors and water garages of mansions, shops and restaurants but the main canals were busier, lined with cafés and restaurants and with crowds of people crossing the narrow bridges every few metres or so.

At water level there was a completely different perspective to the buildings and down here we could see the exposed brickwork and the crumbling pastel coloured stucco, sun blistered and frost picked and giving in to the constant assault of the waters of the lagoon as it gnaws and gouges its relentless way into the fabric of the buildings.

Our boat was in perfect condition and lovingly cared for from aft to stern.  Gondolas are hand made using eight different types of wood, fir, oak, cherry, walnut, elm, mahogany, larch and lime and are composed of two hundred and eighty pieces. The oars are made of beech wood. The left side of the gondola is made longer than the right side and this asymmetry causes the gondola to resist the tendency to turn toward the left at the forward stroke from the right hand side of the boat.

From the busy Rio di Noale we emerged into the Grand Canal where the gondolier had to have his wits about him as he competed for space with the Vaporetto the motor boat taxis and dozens more gondola each one full of gaping wide eyed tourists admiring the elaborate mansions and palaces that make this Venice’s most exclusive area.

The ride continued past rows of gaily coloured mooring poles and almost to the famous Rialto bridge but we weren’t going that far so we had to make do with only a look before he turned the gondola into the calmer waters of Rio dei Santi Apostoli and we began a new journey into the back canals of Venice which after twenty minutes or so returned us to the bridge where we had started.

From the Disney Web Site:

FUN FACTS: To say “hello” in Italian, say “buon giornio” (boo-on JOR-no)

Pinocchio EPCOT

Around the World in Eighty Minutes – Part Six, France

France EPCOT

For people who imagine that Paris is full of men in berets, black and white hooped shirts, a string of onions around their necks, playing the accordion and speaking like Peter Sellers in the ‘Pink Panther’ films then EPCOT  is wonderfully accurate but actually I think I have to say that it is probably one of the worst representations of all in World Showcase.

That’s because I believe that  the only way to see Paris is to do it properly as I did when I visited the French capital in 2002 and rather like EPCOT, where you can see a whole country in just a few minutes, I saw the major sites in a foot-slogging, energy-sapping half a day and invented what my son subsequently called ‘speed-sightseeing’!

We started at the Avenue des Champs-Élysées where the traffic circle surrounding the Arc de Triomphe was extremely intimidating.  There are no lanes and none of the usual rules of driving etiquette as hundreds of cars race and weave in and out of each other like dodgem cars at a fairground.  The French have a ludicrous driving rule called priorité à droite where vehicles from the right always have priority at junctions and roundabouts.

This rule is in fact so ludicrous that even the French themselves have seen the sense of virtually abandoning elsewhere in the country but it remains the rule here at the busiest roundabout in France (probably) and cars entering the circle have the right-of-way whilst those in the circle must yield.  Braking is forbidden and the use of the horn is compulsory, there is no apparent lane discipline that I could make out and entering the roundabout is an extended game of ‘chance’ where drivers simply waited to see whose nerve would fold and who would yield first.

  

We approached the Arc from the Champs Élysées and as far as I could see there was no safe way of crossing and getting to the monument until we eventually found the underground tunnel which took us safely below the traffic chaos above and into the Place de Charles de Gaulle. We shunned the elevator and climbed the steps instead to the top of the fifty metre high building (the second largest triumphal arch in the World) and enjoyed the views of the boulevards and roads converging and radiating away from this famous landmark.  Close by we could see the Eiffel Tower and this was where we were going next.

The Eiffel Tower is an iron lattice tower located on the Champ de Mars and has become both a global icon of France and one of the most recognizable structures in the world.  The tower is the tallest building in Paris and the most-visited paid monument in the world.  Named for its designer, engineer Gustave Eiffel, the tower was built as the entrance arch to the 1889 World’s Fair.  It is 324 metres tall, about the same height as an 81-story building.  Upon its completion, it surpassed the Washington Monument to assume the title of tallest man-made structure in the world, a title it held for forty-one years, until the Chrysler Building in New York City was built in 1930.

The tower has three levels but we didn’t have time to stand in the queue for the first stage elevator so we took all six hundred steps to the second level and we would have climbed to the very top if we could but the third level is only accessible by an expensive lift.  I have visited the Eiffel Tower four times now; in 1979 on a Town Twinning visit to Evreux in Normandy, in 1990 on a weekend trip with some work colleagues to celebrate a new career, this occasion and finally in 2004, the last time that I visited Paris.  Unfortunately on every occasion the weather has been overcast and I have never enjoyed the clear views that should really be possible from the top.

World Showcase Epcot

Our next stop was Notre Dame Cathedral but as we had walked quite a distance already we took a Batou Mouche barge ride the short distance the River to the Ile de Cîte and as the vessel made its way through the centre of the city we soaked up the historic sites along both banks from the viewing platform at the back of the boat.

Although we had already climbed to the top of the Arc de Triomphe and half way up the Eiffel Tower we bought tickets and waited in line to climb to the top of the Cathedral but sadly by the time we reached the top and walked around the external galleries the mist had returned and wrapped Paris in a gloomy grey shroud again.

We were beginning to flag by now and as it was late afternoon we walked a little further around the streets of old Paris and then took a metro back to Montmartre where we walked along the boulevard with its seedy sex establishments and grubby shops and into the touristy cobbled back streets of the district famous for painters, night-life and a red-light district.  I found a shop to buy some beer and we rested for a while at the hotel before going out again in the evening when we walked to the Sacré Coeur Cathedral which on account of it being built on the highest point in the city involved an energy sapping walk which more or less finished Jonathan off for the day!

The plan was to find somewhere to eat but he was so tired that he preferred my suggestion of returning to the hotel and like all good Parisians I would fetch a McDonalds meal from around the corner and we would just stay in and crash! So we did just that.

The real Paris is a much better experience than the EPCOT version except in one respect – EPCOT has no dog shit all over the pavements which is something that really spoils Paris and most other major cities in France.

EPCOT France

Around the World in Eighty Minutes – Part Five, Norway

epcot-norway-viking

The Land of the Vikings…

There is a lot more to Norway than men with beards and bloody axes but the Disney Website simply introduces Norway with the words “Welcome to the land of the Vikings!”

Whilst it suits Disney to retain the school boy image of them it actually becomes increasingly evident that Viking society was much more complex and popular conceptions of them are often in conflict with the truth that emerges from recent archaeology and modern research.

The traditional view of the Vikings as violent brutes and intrepid adventurers are part true and part fable but no one can be absolutely certain of the accurate ratio and popular representations of these men in horned helmets remain for now highly clichéd.  Disney of course had a Wooden Longboat (its gone now I understand) and a shop that inevitably sold Viking helmets based on the traditional image of the plundering Norsemen.

In Florida in October the sun was permanently shining and the Viking story was played out under blue skies but I visited Haugesund in Norway in January and this was a very bleak experience.  On one especially depressing morning with the city crippled under the weight of a leaden grey sky we set out in a northerly direction along the black granite coast towards Haugesund’s most famous visitor attraction, the Haroldshaugen Norges Riksmonument a couple of kilometres outside of the city.

At EPCOT the Norway Maelstrom ride is on water with the occasional splashes that leave a few damp patches on your summer clothes but Norway in January in the driving rain and penetrating drizzle is a much more authentic getting wet experience I can tell you!

We joined a handful of intrepid local people in brightly coloured ‘North Face’ kagools and sturdy hiking boots who were wandering along the coast line cinder path stopping occasionally for no apparent reason to stop and stare out into the grey nothingness of the North Sea as though searching the horizon for long lost Viking ancestors returning from a raiding expedition.

We found the monument and it struck me as a bit strange for an Anglo-Saxon to be visiting a memorial that commemorates the Viking Age and a starting off point for longships full of heathen bullies on their way across the North Sea to plunder and pillage a part of England where I now live.

Disney and the Real Thing:

Epcot - Norway   Haugesund Norway

Haraldshaugen

was erected during the millennial celebration of Norway’s unification into one kingdom under the rule of King Harald I and was unveiled on July 18th 1872 by Crown Prince Oscar to commemorate the one thousand year anniversary of the Battle of Hafrsfjord.  

Truthfully I found it a bit disappointing I have to say, a seventeen metre high granite obelisk surrounded by a memorial stones in a Stonehenge sort of way, next to an deserted car park, a closed visitor centre and an empty chained up vending machine but I’m sure I am being unfair because places such as these are not really meant to be visited on a cold, wet day in January.

We walked back along the same route and into the suburbs of the city which felt rather like a deciduous tree coping with winter; hanging on to life,existing, hibernating, waiting, watching and hoping for the first signs of Spring.  The people with hats pulled down low and pale complexions, weary streets, grass burned brown by frost and houses battered and besieged, paintwork picked bare by the frost and firmly closed to the outside world, a city beaten to the edge of submission by winter and still some way to go before it was all over.

By contrast, in Florida in October we wandered through Norway with the sun beating down and after the shops and the bakeries there was a water ride that took us back to a mythological version of Norway’s Viking days.

Norway Maelstrom Ride…

Boats passed through scenes of seafarers and 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.

I understand that the ride is soon to be closed down and later reopened as a new experience to exploit the popularity of the film ‘Frozen

I liked the Norway pavilion and I place it in third place after Mexico and Morocco.

Haugesund Norway

Read the full story of the Minnesota Vikings…

Around the World in Eighty Minutes – Part Four, Germany

germany world showcase 1

Continuing my comparison of EPCOT World Showcase with the real thing the next destination is Germany where, sad to say, EPCOT was my first visit to this country. Since this time however I have been to Bavaria, Friedrichshafen and to the Black Forest and although the Disney version is very picture book it seems to me that there is some creditable degree of accuracy in it.

EPCOT of course isn’t going to recreate the industrial cities of Dusseldorf or Frankfurt any more than it is likely to do Detroit in the US or Manchester in the UK but rather sets out to create the perfect German experience and describes it like this:

“The Germany Pavilion is a cultural area where Guests of all ages can experience the lively charm of a quaint German village….  Enter a charming cobblestone plaza designed after a 16th-century German town. A variety of shops, a clock tower and a fountain with a statue of St. George slaying a dragon lie within the castle walls. The oom-pah band music and elaborate German architecture make you feel like you’ve stepped right into the pages of folklore”

A busy market place is the centre piece of the cobblestoned German Pavilion where the architecture reflects a diverse cross section of regions, from the replica of the medieval castle to the fairy tale Bavarian style buildings and a clock tower that features a glockenspiel that chimes a Disney melody on the hour.  There is one part of the attraction where I can make a direct comparison because Das Kaufhaus in Disney is modelled on a real building in Freiburg which I visited in 2011 in the snow.

Freiburg Merchants Hall Münsterplatz  Das Kaufhaus

Disney’s version of Germany has pastel coloured buildings, carved balconies and timbered turrets and of all the places that I have visited in real Germany it reminded me most of Heidelberg where the market place was another of those German picture book town centres with half timbered medieval buildings painted in gay colours surrounding an immaculate cobbled square with a central fountain and statue.  On the northern side and facing the sun there were restaurants and cafés with pavement tables and chairs so we selected one and sat in shirtsleeves in a surprisingly strong February sun and we had a coffee and a beer and watched the World go by.

Heidelberg Germany  germany world showcase 2

In the Disney shops and restaurants the staff wear traditional German clothing and in Berchtesgaden in 2008 I found it interesting how real Bavarians people were quite prepared to wear traditional clothes in a completely unselfconscious way and at one point we saw a young lad of about fourteen in full lederhosen and braces, felt hat and cape and I wondered how difficult it might be to get a fourteen year old in England to walk around the streets dressed like that.  To be fair it wouldn’t be right to expect it because he would surely be beaten up within fifty metres of leaving the house.

Schiltach Germany

I have given this matter some thought and I have decided that, for today anyway, my favourite place in Germany is the village of Schiltach in the Black Forest which seems to me to represent faithfully everything I imagine Germany to be.  On a visit there we parked the car next to the river near the tanner’s quarter which is the oldest part of the town.  Here the timber framed buildings were built at the side of the Kinzig in the eighteenth century and were used by the tanners in the production of especially high quality leather goods, which the town was once famous for.

From the river to the Städle or Old Town where every building was half timbered with colourful facades and brightly painted wooden windows that created a fairy tale atmosphere.  If Disney needs inspiration then it should come here because there was simply nothing to spoil the picture book mood and character and in the pretty triangular market place at the heart of the town the fasnacht festival bunting hung high above the cobbled street and old town well, the merchant’s houses and the town hall with its striking Teutonic wall paintings.

Just behind the main street there was a warren of tiny crooked streets surrounded on all sides by the most picturesque half timbered buildings and it was almost possible to imagine that we had wandered into a secret fairy tale village of uneven cobbled streets, colourful houses and cottages and might at any moment meet Little Red Riding Hood or Hansel and Gretel just as at EPCOT where you bump into Snow White.

Germany Epcot  Berchtesgaden Bavaria Germany

Around The World in Eighty Minutes – Part Three, Morocco

Epcot World Showcase

Of all the countries at the EPCOT World Showcase I suppose I will have to revise my earlier judgment and say that Morocco was probably the best representation of them all.

This is in part due to the fact that the Morocco Pavilion was the only one in which the country’s government aided in the construction and they did this so that they could retain some measure of Islamist control over the design of the mosaics and to ensure that everything was as authentic as possible in the representation of the Muslim faith.

The Disney Web Site introduces Morocco like this: “A realistic Koutoubia Minaret leads the way into this faraway land of traditional belly dancers, intricate Moroccan architecture and swirling mosaics made by native craftsmen. The Morocco Pavilion has 2 fascinating sections: the Ville Nouvelle (new city) and the Medina (old city). Discover a bustling plaza with a variety of shops and be on the lookout for some familiar Arabian Disney friends throughout the day.”

Well, one thing that I can confirm is that they have certainly got the shopping bit completely right because Disneyland and the Souks of Marrakech certainly have a lot in common when it comes to trying to part visitors from their money as I found out when taking a guided tour of the Fez souk:

Disney (1992) and the Real Thing (2011):

Epcot Morocco Drinking Fountain  Fez Drinking Fountain

The guide, Hussein, took us first to a carpet shop where the owner gave a brief introduction to carpet making in Morocco and provided with a cup of mint tea and then the sales pitch began and the carpets started to come out as they were theatrically thrown down onto the floor accompanied by a bit of explanation about history, designs and methods of manufacture.

Soon there was a carpet barricade blocking our exit and I began to worry about how we might get away from here without buying a floor covering that we didn’t want and still the pile just kept getting higher and higher.  Eventually it only seemed fair to be honest with him and tell him quite firmly that we didn’t need a new carpet, Kim told him that we had bought a new one from John Lewis only a couple of months previously but being unfamiliar with UK department stores this information was meaningless to him, we had no intention of buying one today here in Fez and we didn’t really want the sales demonstration in the first place.

We finally moved on without any wallet damage but the relief from the hard sell routine didn’t last long because as we walked through the dusty back alleys Hussein suddenly declared that he knew a short cut and knocked on a wooden door with flaking blue paint and rusty red  hinges and as it creaked open and we were invited inside it was obvious that this was not a sudden short cut recollection at all and that we were inside another shop and I was beginning to detect a pattern here.

This time it was an antique and jewellery shop and the owner offered us mint tea and said that he would be offended if we said no and invited us to look around the shop while the kettle boiled.  I’d had enough tea already so wasn’t looking forward to any more but luckily Micky came to the rescue and after a bit of bartering bought some silver bracelets and after the deal was done we were allowed to leave and as the kettle whistled to an empty shop everyone seemed relieved to forget about the tea.

There was no attempt by Hussein to disguise the true purpose of our tour now as he rushed us past things that might have been interesting to see with indecent haste because there were no shops and presumably no commission to be earned straight into another shop selling embroidered table cloths and napkins which we escaped from quite quickly but only directly into another one selling bedspreads and brightly coloured scarves and handkerchiefs.

Here the owner had a more effective sales technique where he corralled us all into a corner in the back of the shop with no easy escape route and kept banging on and showing samples in the hope that eventually one of us would lose the will to live and get a wallet out and it worked because after a few minutes we felt obliged to buy a couple of inexpensive scarves before elbowing our way towards the door.

Outside there was a saddle makers shop but we didn’t stop and I can only assume that this was because Hussein didn’t have a deal going there because of the fact that not many tourists are in the market for buying leather saddles in Fez on account of the difficulty in getting them home because of the Ryanair personal baggage allowance restrictions.

The first stop after lunch was a spice and argan oil shop.  Argan oil is valued for its nutritive, cosmetic and numerous medicinal properties but is one of the rarest oils in the world due the small and very specific growing areas because it is produced from the kernels of the argan tree which are only found in Morocco.

Naturally there was a shop attached and after the lesson on argan oil production we were invited to look around and try some samples.  Actually it really was rather good but also terribly expensive so once again we apologised for not making a purchase and slipped out and away from the hard sell routine as quickly as we could.

Next it was a tannery and the price to pay for a rooftop view of the famous limestone dye pits was another difficult twenty minutes in a leather shop selling coats, jackets, slippers and bags. I didn’t think we were going to get out of there very easily but again Micky was our saviour when he negotiated the purchase of a belt and we were able to get away.  Abdul was waiting for us outside the tannery and he loaded us up into the taxi and we set off for the other end of the souk.

Disney (1992) and the Real Thing (2011):

003  Morocco Fez Blue Gate

We could have walked the short distance but this was no use to Hussein who really needed to keep us altogether because there was one last shop to visit.  Abdul dropped us off at Fez’s most picturesque entrance, the Blue Gate, Bab Boujloud, blue on one side, the colour of Fez and green on the other, the Muslim colour of peace.  We walked a short way into the souk which on account of this being Friday was disappointingly quiet and closing up for the day and then we ended up in a silversmiths shop where there were more invitations to look and buy but I think they sensed that we were all shopped-out by now and not in purchasing mood and so they let us go quite quickly.

Abdul drove us back to the Riad and then it was time to settle up with Hussein.  We asked how much and he said there was no set price and we should pay what we thought the tour was worth.  This was difficult for us because we had no idea so we pressed him for some clues on what he might expect and we decided on €60 which he seemed to be happy with.  We said goodbye and he hurried off presumably back to the shops and the restaurant to pick up his commission on the sales we had been tricked into.

Disney (1992) and the Real Thing (Marrakech 2010):

Disney Marrakech Entertainers  

Around the World in Eighty Minutes – Part One

epcot map 2

“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 self indulgent, too expensive and not commercial enough and everything was downsized until it became nothing more than an add-on theme park to Magic Kingdom without any of the Magic.

World Showcase Lake

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.

Mariachi

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.

World Showcase China

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 world showcase

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 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.

EPCOT USA

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…

…to Japan:

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.   The Fes House showed what was supposed to be a typical Moroccan house but since going to EPCOT I have been to real Morocco and I can tell you that it is about as authentic as powdered egg!

France EPCOT

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.

United Kingdom

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 Yorkshire 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 claim 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 thirty 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!

Gatorland Florida

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