May 5, 2015

Celebrating Cinco de Mayo at Epcot

A day to celebrate and relax over a leisurely dinner and a frosty margarita should you choose! There's another way to celebrate, and that is to go to Epcot and visit the World Showcase of the country of Mexico.

My wife and I have always thoroughly enjoyed the Mexico showcase and its incredible mix of shops, restaurants, lively entertainment, historical artifacts, and of course, its main attraction: El Rio del Tiempo / Gran Fiesta Tour. The showcase and the focus of the park has changed considerably since our first visit in 1983. Not always for the better, but there's still quite a bit to enjoy. That is due to the original Imagineering team and their desire to bring the rich culture of each nation to guests.

By the time it opened in 1982, EPCOT Center was designed by the Disney Imagineers to creative a new standard for in theme parks for guests and for themselves. Walt Disney's EPCOT- Creating the New World of Tomorrow by Richard R. Beard details the creation and execution of this World's Fair type park. The first non-Magic Kingdom style playground ever built by the Mouse was full of cutting edge displays, technology used both on stage and off, and Audio-Animatronic shows on level with anything they had ever created in the past.

So, today, in honor of Cinco de Mayo, we'll look at a few pieces of concept art and photos of the splendid Mexico pavilion circa opening year. 

Photo by Mark Taft.
The detail created by those design geniuses was evident as a guest would first look at the beautifully created pyramid before walking inside to explore its treasures. The serpent head, above, shows a bit of the care taken. These heads are positioned quite a bit above the ground level, but there was no skimping on detail at all.

The lakeside view of the area (above) reinforces the fact that the majority of what was to be found was actually discovered within a darkened village inside the pyramid. If you're thinking California's Pirates of the Caribbean and the Blue Bayou here, you've only scratched at the beginning of that they created. The museum portion of the presentation opened up to an enchanting nighttime fiesta, a marketplace filled with sights and sounds pleasing to the eye- and not including the smell associated with a then first class restaurant.

The combination made this pavilion was an easy favorite among all the World Showcase countries represented. The France showcase, although extremely pretty and a close second, housed an admittedly wonderful travelogue. Yet it left us wanting- wanting to experience more. Much more. You cannot do that with a film! 

The quaint central plaza built in the beautiful Colonial style includes shops and a waterfront restaurant. Colorful lanterns hang in the air while mariachis play. We could have easily sat waterside sipping margaritas, making it tempting to stay here all day, but the boats cruising El Rio del Tiempo beckoned us to step aboard a small watercraft.

In contrast to the France showcase, here in Mexico, a different opportunity to explore was realized via that enchanting boat ride through a very mysterious environment. The story is begun rather uniquely. As guests glide along the waters through a Mexican jungle, we enter yet another pyramid as the adventure continues. In this attraction, a first for Disney, the main method for storytelling  was told through the medium of dance.

Photo by Mark Taft.

An enchanting village is contained within the pyramid.
Shades of the Blue Bayou at Disneyland.

From high priests to beautiful exotic dancers performing ancient routines, the opening scenes celebrate authentic Mexican culture with exploiting it; a goal successfully accomplished when the park first opened, later reversed by the Disney suits when it was easier to throw in Disney characters to take advantage of its guests.

Our excursion onto the river is at once peaceful and mysterious. We were so drawn into the story, mesmerized by this new way of telling an ancient story of an ancient culture. We knew so little about the history of Mexico. We came away having learned about and enjoyed every moment of it!

As the cruise continued into other regions depicting Mexican celebrations and modern life, something changed. Everything following the dance paled in comparison. It was as if something was cut short in the execution of the attraction- and in fact, it was. The journey should have been about another 5 minutes loner- on par with Pirates- but budget blowing construction and some fear from the suits cut the plans short. It was a method of delivery that would become all too common in the 21st Century. Fortunately, a lovely and playful song sets us in a joyful mood for the rest of our journey. 

The sweet and inviting theme song rang in our heads! Had we not wanted to move on to the other countries in the Showcase, we would have quickly turned around and ridden again. Not so in the more recent years when the Three Caballeros took over.

From the initial concept art to the final construction, the original Imagineers did an excellent job capturing the culture of our friends south of the border. This helped make Epcot an entirely different experience than visiting the Magic Kingdom. An adult playground with plenty for children to discover.

Unfortunately, recent revisions to the boat ride was a major misstep and an unfortunate foretaste of things to come. The dignity and sophistication imbred into EPCOT Center since its inception has been now replaced by a desire to please a less discerning crowd- and to increase sales of character merchandise at the cash registers. I hate to say it, but The Three Caballeros and their Gran Fiesta Tour helped pave the way for Nemo in the Living Seas, Martin Short in Canada, and eventually the Frozen takeover in Norway. It's no longer about learning culture and more about inserting the Disney brand into the heads of its guests. This trend which must stop if the Walt Disney Company wishes to capture the travel dollar of discriminating and aging adults.

In the meantime, enjoy Cinco de Mayo at Epcot and take time to explore all the cultural experiences offered in World Showcase. At the rate of things, Robert Iger and company seems determined to change the focus of the park and turn it into a money machine of wine and partying... instead of the enticing cultural showcase it once was.

(Art copyright The Walt Disney Company.)

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