July 31, 2014

The World in a Day

When it comes to the state of Walt Disney World these days, count me among the first in line to complain about all the changes. There is, in general, a downgrading of quality. Exceptions exist but they seem to be just that. You see, I remember Walt Disney World from 1975, when it consisted of a freshly minted Magic Kingdom, a couple of beautiful hotels, and not much more.

Then in 1982 came the once amazing EPCOT Center. An incredible place previewing the future with attractions that were almost entirely "E Tickets", a place you could spend days exploring. And we did just that. Usually, it took us one whole day to see Future World and one full day to see World Showcase.  Anyone else remember beginning their days with breakfast at The Good Turn restaurant and booking dinner reservations at a World Key kiosk before heading off to the World of Motion or the original and best Journey into Imagination? Everywhere I looked, I seemed to be surprised that the Imagineers at the Walt Disney Company could pull off such a feat of imagination and engineering. The thoughtful detail throughout the park brought such a welcome picture of the future and our world.

Yes, it's all in the details. In the years prior to the opening of EPCOT CENTER, I began to collect everything I could find about the place. Newspaper articles, magazines and books kept this incredible project in front of the public. Keeping my eyes open, it was easy to recognize rarer pieces of concept art when I saw them. Sometimes, they were seemingly hidden from view as they appeared in small scale renderings. Here's a few of the lesser seen:

Leading off this article, we discover Morocco. Fans of the film Casablanca finally had the chance to explore the country in which the film was represented- even if it was only the work of a backlot studio in Hollywood! The pavilion is the most unique and unexpected in all of World Showcase. Back alleys, shops, and scents from the area's restaurants create an atmosphere like none other to be found on Florida soil.  It's as close to going to the real thing as can be found. One of the places where it's pretty easy to forget you are in a theme park. This is something that is becoming harder and harder to do with Vacation Club booths popping up in unfortunate locations.

China was one of the original World Showcase countries. On opening day, it was instantly a place that drew me in. Even after 30 years and counting, it remains one of my favorite pavilions.  The Circle-Vision 360 attraction is a must-see. The visuals, the narration, and the delicate music make for an experience worth standing for. I am generally not a big fan of the growing use of film in theme park attractions. It seems like mostly a lazy excuse for creativity by the Disney Budgeteers- to the dismay of most old school Imagineers- but in this case, nothing can capture the beauty of one of the largest and most diverse countries on the planet.

I travel quite a bit to Asia but have not yet made a trip to the Chinese Mainland. Shanghai Disneyland could make that change, however. It's probably one of my favorite countries in which to snack! Sitting at a cafe table along the winding street and taking in the sights is just something I really enjoy. The shopping here is pretty good too. Filled with items that range from expensive to very affordable, it takes about an hour to go through it all.  My favorite pieces? They certainly have to be the authentically reproduced Terra Cotta Warriors. At least until I get to photograph the real ones.

Once my favorite World Showcase location, Mexico is still beautiful even if it is now home to the dumbed down and uninspired Gran Fiesta Tour. But I so miss the exotic and mysterious El Rio del Tiempo. Stepping into the temple and discovering a small town lit by the moonlight still surprises and delights me. 

The food at the San Angel Restaurant is no longer top-notch and even more pricey than ever, but it is a good place to sit with an appetizer, (do they still serve Queso Fundido?) and a big margarita to take it all in. When it's really nighttime outside, the temple lighting adds to the mystery. And this is where Disney Imagineering completes the illusion with mariachi music, lush landscaping and nice sightlines.The lagoon is harder to see with the new full service restaurant now lakeside, but what are you going to do? It's all about the bucks now at Epcot, and they seem to think nothing is faster at creating cash than selling liquor and overpriced food. Oh, and shopping. If you think I'm kidding, just keep your eye on the official Disney Parks blog. Generally when Epcot is mentioned, it is about food, booze, festivals, and merchandize. Sad.

Take a good look at this next miniature sized piece of art. You've got Italy on the left and Japan on the right. Due to overspending at the creation and construction of the park, they are still without the attractions that were once planned. Having been to both countries, I can tell you with authority that the representations are pretty accurate! Venice is the inspiration for the Italian showcase and scale aside, the Epcot version does a great job of bringing it to Florida. It could be so much more, especially if they would recreate the gondola ride you can find at Tokyo Disney Sea.

My wife and I find Japan's gardens to be especially beautiful in the evening, a favorite place to wander long after Illuminations and the crowds have departed. Hiding just outside the teahouse with our small plates of food, it feels as if we are on the other side of the world.  The quiet surroundings- so quiet you can hear the crickets- lit by small garden lamps transport us to the back streets in old Kyoto. 

We've taken many trips to Walt Disney World. We do not travel there as often as we used to now that there's just the two of us and going overseas is less expensive than a Disney World vacation.  But the ability to travel the world in a day at Epcot is still very appealing. 

I love the new and improved California Adventure. The incredible Cars Land alone is worth a visit. Clearly the best thing Disney's built stateside in at least a decade. But the Disneyland Resort will never be able to compare to what can be found on Florida's soil. They had their chance to do so when they created Westcot, but blew it by being cheap and abandoning the plans. 

Now, with land for the third theme park seeming to be set aside for Marvel adventures, I will be forced to go to Florida to see World Showcase. It's too bad as I may not go back for awhile. Epcot, especially World Showcase is stuck in the past. Nothing new aside from a few restaurants has been built in decades. (Sorry but character overlays to international attractions do not count.) Shame on the Walt Disney Company for letting Florida's jewel lay dormant!

Will the suits ever allow the Imagineers to create more attractions or pavilions for Epcot's World Showcase? Who knows. But I can tell you they would be fools not to. Who else can give us the world in a day?

(Concept art copyright The Walt Disney Company.)

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