Saturday, September 30, 2006
No, No, Norway
Let me first say: I love Norway.
Thanks to my visits to the Norway pavilion at Epcot, it's one of the countries I most want to visit in my life, and I've spent time learning about its culture and people.
The Norway pavilion at EPCOT Center inspired and intrigued me perhaps more than any other.
The Norway pavilion at today's Epcot stinks.
It's poorly conceived, poorly staffed and poorly maintained. It is an enormous disappointment desperately in need of re-thinking. First, let's remember what the Norway pavilion used to be like. Opened in 1988, it was the last of the World Showcase nations to be constructed (hopefully not the very last!).
Though many people feel they "know" Norway since it's a Germanic, European country (and, therefore, must be like Germany, Sweden and Holland, right?), the Norway pavilion proudly offered a Viking ship and stave church at its entrance, as if to say, "This is not the Europe you think you know."
Maelstrom, the pavilion's centerpiece ride, revolved around Norwegian troll mythology, and though the ride was (and remains) disappointingly short, it managed to pack into a few minutes some exciting new technology. Upon its conclusion, riders were invited to watch a short "travelogue" on Norway, focusing on the people whose spirit makes them different than other Europeans. After exiting the ride and the film, a travel kiosk staffed by a Norwegian student offered details on touring the country for those who were inspired to know more after the immersive experiences.
Shops featured Norwegian clothes, crafts and snacks. For a dining experience, Norway offered both a traditional bakery and an unusual smorgasbord buffet at a restaurant called Akershus. While most of those elements are still in place, it's what has happened to the in the past 18 years (and particularly the last five) that is devastating.
The Viking ship, once a play area, has become a static "photo opp" thanks to the overzealous Disney attorneys (who would probably shut down all theme parks if they could -- lest someone fall or get sunburned!). Seizing on this now-kidless area, mangement decided to put a heavily traveled smoking area next to the ship.
The stave church is mercifully still in place and currently offers a fascinating (albeit tiny) look at Viking history -- I actually learned a bit looking at this little exhibit. Unfortunately, instead of trusting inquisitive guests to open the door and explore themselves, Disney management has hung an obtrusive banner over the two entrances ... though I seriously doubt a colorful marketing banner would ever hang over the doorway of an authentic church.
Maelstrom is still around, but it seems the ride has hardly been touched by Imagineers over 18 years. It's creaky, it's jarring and its Audio-Animatronic figures look like wax dummies more than ever. Is it fun? Yeah, a bit. But it sorely needs to a full rehab; when your boat comes to a sudden stop and turns to go over the waterfall backward, the experience feels labored and difficult, not surprising and fun.
No one even bothers to try to get guests to stay for the five-minute film after the ride. Guests brazenly march through the auditorium, determined to see the next thing instead of look at some lovely images of Norway. (And they are very lovely indeed.) The cast member working the attraction during a recent stay actually encouraged guests to leave by saying that the movie was "a little boring." It's not -- not in the slightest. But it is horribly outdated. Watching a modeling session in a Norwegian shopping center is like reliving your senior year of college: shoulder pads, garish eye makeup and vaguely "futuristic" haircuts. In one scene, a scientist works on a computer -- but it's a terminal from the mid-1980s that bears little resemblance to the thing I'm using to write this. It's laughable.
Norway is hoping this will make the country look exciting and progressive? During my recent visit, the Kringla og Kafe bakery and its little seating area looked like they hadn't been cleaned for days. There were empty tables, but no one wanted to sit at them they were so sticky and dirty. For a country that prides itself on cleanliness, Norway's Disney incarnation gives the impression of slovenly grime.
Worst of all is what has happened to Restaurant Akershus. If you've been reading my blog for a while, you already know my thoughts on this. But my recent visit provided me the opportunity to see it first hand, and it was genuinely sad. The restaurant has become an all-princesses character dining location, completely removing any semblance of cultural authenticity or appeal for adults without children. Indeed, it's difficult even to get in to the Norway pavilion through the sea of strollers that now clogs the entry! The restaurant is now the "Akershus Royal Banquet Hall," and exists solely for little girls and their accommodating parents.
Please understand, I am not a curmudgeon, a fuddy-duddy or a mean adult. I think kids should have an opportunity to have fun while at Walt Disney World. (Though being screamed at by my mother or father for being a little cranky in the heat, as I have so often seen, is not my idea of fun at any age!) But to take a truly unique and unusual culinary location, particularly one where the food was as fine as it was at Akershus, and turn it in to Princess Central -- despite the fact that, when I last looked, the number of Norwegian princesses in the Disney Hall of Princesses was exactly zero -- is really unpardonable.
It showcases Disney's brazen desire to make money at all costs and to "monetize" everything they possibly can. It is a cynical restaurant location, one that undermines the basic concept of Epcot's World Showcase and that is, by all accounts, a very unpleasant place to be even for parents of young girls. But it makes money, and that's Disney's sad raison d'etre these days. "Screw creative integrity, let's make a bundle!"
Akershus and Norway display that mindset brilliantly.
One area inside its Puffin's Roost store is now filled with all sorts of Disney Princesses junk that has nothing to do with Norway. A cart with even more Princesses stuff is set down in the middle of the pavilion, lest any father or mother walk away with a few bucks still in their billfolds.
Most distressing to me is the fact that Disney has shut down Norway's tourist kiosk. There's no information on traveling to Norway, no cast member stationed there to talk about his or her home country (during my last visit in 2001, I spent about 40 minutes talking to a cast member about my desire to visit Norway), not even a simple brochure with lovely photos. There's still a sign overhead claiming to offer travel information ... but when I asked a cast member if the kiosk would ever open, she not-so-helpfully responded, "Oh, I think that's just there for decoration."
Ironically, next to the now-shuttered travel kiosk is a plaque that states the Norway pavilion was opened by Crown Prince Harald in June 1988. The opening was broadcast on national Norwegian television. No doubt the prince and his subjects were tremendously proud of the pavilion -- and justifiably so at the time.
I wonder what they'd think of it now.
Postscript: After writing this, I read on Wikipedia that the Norwegian government, "against the recommendations from their American embassy (sic)," stopped making payments to Disney in 2002. That may explain the loss of the travel kiosk. If this was another of the "we hate Eisner" scenarios, let's hope Bob Iger's diplomacy can work with the Norwegians as well as it did with Roy E. Disney.