If you are reading this blog (and if you are, thank you!), then one of the first things you might know about me is my interest in Disney World in general, and my interest in Epcot in particular. I have been to Disney World a probably-excessive eight times, and from the very first visit when I was 4 years old, Epcot Center was my favorite of the Disney parks. (Of course, when I was 4, there were only two theme parks on the site, but I am dating myself here.) Initially, what appealed to me most was the visionary wonder of the Future World section of the park. This featured the magisterial geodesic sphere of Spaceship Earth, the impish purple dragon Figment at Journey Into Imagination, and the teleological optimism of Horizons. Each of these will, I’d imagine, be commented on at a later post. Nevertheless, when I was very young, I dreaded my parents taking me to the second half of Epcot Center, known as the World Showcase. If you’ve been to the park, you know what I am talking about. 11 countries circling around a massive lagoon: Mexico, Norway, China, Germany, Italy, The American Adventure, Japan, Morocco, France, the United Kingdom, and Canada. For me, this was valuable time wasted away from my favorite rides, full of unusual food I didn’t care for, and movies that compelled you to stand up.
It wasn’t until the trip we took in 1999, when i was 16, that I began to better appreciate the Showcase. Epcot is commonly thought of as a more adult theme park, and it’s certainly true that the World Showcase is, like coffee, something that reviles the young, but becomes a necessity for someone older. When I visited Epcot on my own two years ago (as a brief diversion from interviewing an influential former bishop for my dissertation), I spent most of my time in the Showcase. It is, indeed, ideally suited for the solitary traveler. With friendly cast members pleased to make conversation, less conventional (but still not wholly authentic) ethnic foods, and compelling cinematic travelogues, it made for a stimulating day.
So, I was stunned and pleased to find out that, according to a Brazilian newspaper, talks are concluding, which might very well result in a Brazil pavilion in Epcot Center.
For Epcot junkies, but also for historians, this is significant in a number of ways. Here’s the first: the World Showcase has not added a country since Morocco’s addition in 1987 and Norway’s debut in 1989. That means that the lineup of countries has remained stagnant for over twenty years. Why has this been the case? I think Disney’s ability to present compelling material has declined somewhat in these years, and the addition of the Disney-MGM Studios in 1989, and the Animal Kingdom in 1998 have taken attention away from the other two parks, slowing down the number of ambitious projects therein. Contrary to public perceptions, there is still plenty of room in Epcot for more World Showcase pavilions. As this map from Yesterdayland demonstrates, there is plenty of room for as many as 8 or 9 new countries around the World Showcase lagoon, which would almost double it’s current roster.
It is puzzling- since unlike a thrill-a-minute attraction such as Space Mountain, the World Showcase countries are there largely as opportunities for you to buy more stuff. They earn their keep quite easily. Several, especially Norway, have tourist kiosks where you can obtain information and assistance in planning a subsequent visit to one of the World Showcase nations. The point is– these aren’t especially costly to maintain, add to Epcot Center’s appeal, and are more inclined to pay for themselves than any other form of Disney attraction. Curiously, though, time and time again, ideas for new World Showcase countries have been shot down. Plans were decisively in the works for Spain and Israel at one point or other– Disney even advertised them as future additions in promotional literature in the early 80s. Most intriguing of all of these pavilions was to have been an Equatorial Africa showcase, which would have been located between China and Germany, in lot 2 or lot 3 in the map above. I recently bought an officially-sanctioned Disney guide to Epcot from 1982, and it includes some striking detail on Equatorial Africa, and is discussed with near-certainty that it would be opened by Epcot’s fifth anniversary. There were to have been two films (one on its human history, one on its scenic vistas and natural beauty), and a preshow, delivered by an African storyteller, about the history of the drum. Alex Haley, the author of the popular Roots book, was even hired as a consultant for the films. Outside would be a large courtyard for ceremonial dances. For reasons that have not yet been made clear, plans for this pavilion never materialized into the ether. (You can argue that giving a large region of Africa, rather than a specific country, a World Showcase pavilion is orientalist. You’d be right, of course, but that’s an entirely different post altogether.)
In a way, the World Showcase has been a graveyard for intriguing ideas. An entire warehouse-sized building still stands in Germany that would have housed a Rhine River attraction, but it was never built. Similarly grandiose plans were developed for Japan without avail– including a simulated bullet-train journey through the country, a Mount Fuji roller coaster, and Meet the World, an audio-animatronic show about Japan’s interactions with the rest of the world. (The latter, though, was eventually built for Tokyo Disneyland. And by interactions with the rest of the world, this would obviously exclude Pearl Harbor, Korea, and Nanjing.) A Soviet Union pavilion was designed and then shelved, after both the collapse of the Soviet Union and the economic turmoil it faced in 1998. Sometimes political turmoil, as the aforementioned Soviet Union demonstrates, leads to the shelving– you don’t want your countries giving you bad press! While some have suggested that a nation has to sponsor its own showcase, this isn’t true– only Morocco had its actual government pony up the money to get into Epcot. The others are hosted by a consortium of businesses that had something to gain from their investment. In the case of the United Kingdom, they received sponsorship from Bass Ale. The Mitsukoshi Department Store, which runs most of the shopping, gave money for the Japan showcase. So, what most pavilions need is not a willing or affluent government, but the partnership of various industries interested in either hawking their wares, or finding a way to bring Floridian tourists to their own country.
At any rate, while overcoming this Terry Gilliam-ish streak of bad luck and thwarted ambition, a Brazil pavilion would also be intriguing in a way of greater interest to historians and other literati. It also signals, however subtly, a shift in both how America and American corporations represent the rest of the world, as well as a shift in the global dynamics of power, influence, and demographics. As Philip Jenkins shows in The Next Christendom and Meic Pearse demonstrates in Why the Rest Hates the West, our world’s population is moving southward and eastward. While none can presage the future unerringly, it is likely that the nations of Africa, South America and especially Asia will play a very significant role as the 21st century unfolds. Yet, scandalously, the World Showcase is unrepresentative of large sections of the community of nations. Of the 11 countries currently exhibited, not a single one crosses or lies south of the equator. And only 2.1 intersect with the Tropic of Cancer (That would be Morocco and Mexico. China is the .1; it only barely, barely, intersects at its extreme southernmost point.) Brazil would break this trend, and hopefully this might pave the way for other nations outside of over-represented Europe and North America to be included. It is nothing short of outrageous that India, the second most populous nation on earth, has never been seriously considered for the World Showcase. Similarly, Thailand, Ghana, Turkey, South Africa, Indonesia, United Arab Emirates, and the Philippines would all be welcome additions. And such a move would be a symbolic recognition of greater engagement with cultures outside the West that will define our lifetimes in ways we may not yet fully understand. (the 2016 Olympics in Brazil will also be a fascinating foray into similar territory.) But we run into the same problem as before– can any of these countries secure the business partnerships necessary to fund a definitionally expensive foray into Epcot Center? And can they stay politically stable to avoid embarrassing their mouse-hosts? Time will tell.
It is entirely possible that the Brazil pavilion will go the same route as its ill-fated predecessors . But Epcot is a theme park dedicated to hope for the future, and it is in that spirit that I predict that such pessimism will be unwarranted. Hopefully in a few years’ time, we can enjoy some boisterous carnival performances in Epcot. And perhaps, by the end of the decade, we can carnival after some delicious Indian curry and some fine South African wine.