May 5, 2012

Cinco de Mayo EPCOT Center Style

Today, May 5th, Cinco de Mayo celebrates Mexico's conquest of the French during the time of the Civil War in the United States. Its the perfect day to be with family and friends over chips, salsa, and frosty margaritas celebrating... at Epcot's gorgeous Mexico World Showcase!

This one pavilion has the unique distinction in all of World Showcase of being mostly indoors. From a casual view, all guests can see is a waterside restaurant, a small taco stand, and a large, imposing pyramid. Once inside the pyramid, it's a showstopper! In shades of Disneyland's Blue Bayou, night skies dominate, and the music of mariachis fills the air. The quaint central plaza built in the beautiful Colonial style includes shops, a small museum, and a waterfront restaurant. Colorful lanterns hang in the air while mariachis play. A distant volcano spews smoke, and a smaller pyramid just on the far side of the river beckons further exploration. 

Although the very charming, dignified, and mysterious El Rio del Tiempo attraction has now been replaced by the escapades of three fowl friends, the pavilion is still a cause for celebration. Margaritas, anyone? No? How about a boat ride through history instead?

At the opening of EPCOT Center in 1982, the Disney Imagineers set a new creative standard for themselves. Walt Disney's EPCOT- Creating the New World of Tomorrow by Richard R. Beard details the creation and execution of this cutting edge park- the first non-Magic Kingdom style playground ever built by the Mouse.

Let's look at a few pieces of concept art and photos of the splendid Mexico pavillion circa opening year. (All images are able to be enlarged.)

When we first visited EPCOT Center in 1983, this pavilion was a clear favorite among all the World Showcase countries represented. The main medium for telling the story of the country was a Disney first: a large part of the signature attraction was told through the medium of dance, but any Disney fan will also see the strong influences of other attractions, most notably If You Had Wings, and old Magic Kingdom favorite.

Inside the large temple, a small Mexican village is darkened by eternal nighttime, and there is some celebration happening!  A perfect afternoon lunch sitting waterside sipping margaritas and eating Queso Fundido made it tempting to do nothing else, but the boats cruising El Rio del Tiempo got us get out of our seats.

The boat cruise was designed to be much more grand, closer on the scale of Pirates of the Caribbean in length and immersion. However, the budgets were blown, time was short before opening day, and adjustments had to be made. Such is the life of an Imagineer! Their accomplishment still impresses, so on with the journey!

Once aboard, our departure onto the river is at once peaceful and mysterious. As  we enter another temple, and our adventure begins with a dose of Disney magic: Encountering a high priest, dancers soon surround, moving to ancient rhythms. In its original form, this section was the showpiece of the attraction. The history of the people makes for a stunning story, and here, it was told in an equally stunning presentation.

The doll filled celebration of the Day of the Dead startles with the flavors of It's a Small World, but it's only a small segment of the ride. The contrast from one style used to tell the story to another is almost jarring, but it does keep the guests from getting bored! 

We continue into other regions depicting the Mexico of the Travel Channel: Beaches, parties, and tourist sites. It's a step down from the elegance of what we saw earlier, but it is playful and enjoyable. The music is memorable, and any EPCOT Center lover worth his title as fan can hum the song even while reading this post!

The Imagineers did an excellent job capturing the culture of our friends south of the border. The end result reflected a true labor of love even if doused with a shot of economic reality. It was a beloved attraction that only needed a tune up. However, the suits at Disney were looking for a new way to make a buck once sponsorship had ended, so in came the movie tie-in.

Recent revisions to the boat ride employed an insertion of The Three Caballeros film and Donald Duck and friends. It's sassy and kid-friendly, but just plain wrong. This major mistake stripped the dignity and sophistication imbred into EPCOT Center since its inception. It is a trend which must stop if the Walt Disney Company wishes to capture the travel dollar of discriminating guests looking for something different than a new style Magic Kingdom.

There's plenty of reasons to celebrate Mexico and her culture today- and I wish that I could do it by going back in time to ride Epcot's gorgeous but long gone, El Rio del Tiempo.  There are dozens of YouTube videos, but one of my favorites is here.

The past is the past, but what a glorious time it was back at EPCOT Center's opening...

 Vaya con Dios!
(Art copyright The Walt Disney Company.)

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