Take equal parts Pirates of the Caribbean and Peter Pan's Flight, mix with EPCOT Center's original mission, stir gently, and bake at Walt Disney Imagineering for a few years ... and you've got what EPCOT Central considers to be a hidden gem of EPCOT: Maelstrom in the Norway pavilion.
When Restaurant Akershus was still operating in its original, princess-less incarnation, and the Norwegian government was still contributing to the operating costs, the Norway pavilion represented the very best of EPCOT. It had charm to spare, it was a convincingly authentic reproduction of its sponsor nation, it offered good shopping, had a terrific (and under-patronized) restaurant, presented cultural artifacts, provided tourism information that introduced guests to a relatively sparsely traveled country, and was anchored by an attraction that -- to top it all off -- even incorporated a travelogue-style film.
In short, it had everything you could hope for in a World Showcase pavilion.
Today, the Norway pavilion is missing some of those critical components. No longer partially funded by the Norwegian tourist board, there's no longer any hint of a tourism kiosk; you'd be hard-pressed to find any information about travel to Norway, actually. Restaurant Akershus, of course, is now a princess dining location that offers Disney princesses from Germany, France, the Middle East and other countries, but not from Norway. The little travelogue film is horrendously dated (though a few judicious cuts would actually make it more or less timeless).
But there's still Maelstrom. And despite its detractors, who claim it's too short and not thrilling enough, it's a ride that really works.
Yes, it's only about four minutes long -- but even there, that's longer than most Fantasyland dark rides at The Magic Kingdom. Maelstrom wasn't intended to be a destination, E-ticket-style attraction; it was designed to be a nice C- or D-ticket ride that complemented everything else the pavilion had to offer.
Heading into a fortress-style building, the initial queue area is without doubt charmless -- it's wholly functional, not particularly attractive, but it leads to a gorgeous, eye-catching, beautifully detailed mural depicting the history of Norway, from its earliest hunter-and-gatherer residents to the massive cruise lines and oil rigs of today. There might not be much to do in the Maelstrom queue, but it's never long and there's enough here to keep a guest occupied through repeated visits for the few minutes of waiting.
Maelstrom is dark and atmospheric. It promises the "spirit of Norway" and it delivers -- there's a bit of history mixed in with a bit of mythology. Guest who don't care a whit about the history or beauty of Norway will enjoy seeing vikings, polar bears and trolls. Those who have some interest in this ancient land can listen closely to the narration and dialogue (which could use some serious audio tweaking) and find enough to spur a desire to learn even more.
What Maelstrom does well -- terrifically well -- is take us away to another place, even for a few minutes. No, its "waterfall" isn't particularly thrilling, and it feels a little creaky 20-plus years after opening, but for those few minutes we're surrounded by Vikings, the Northern Lights, the crashing North Sea ... and we even get to speed backwards.
Today's EPCOT insists on big, big thrills. Maelstrom is a little thrill, a heart-lifter, a trip down memory lane to a time when the goal of Disney theme parks was to offer truly immersive experiences that could be shared by every member of the family.
When the brief ride is finished, it drops guests in a typical Norwegian seaside village -- one that will look remarkably, undeniably authentic to anyone who's walked the harbor streets of Bergen and seen the quaint, crooken buildings of its Bryggen area. Like the Mexico pavilion, it's eternally dusk here, and this little holding area is evocative and filled with detail.
It's always a shame to see 90 percent of guests head through the doors that open onto a theater and zip right out the other side. They miss a five-minute film experience (do they really not have five minutes?) that is rightfully maligned for a few shots that might even have looked dated in 1988, but otherwise captures the awesome majesty, simple charms and ancient legends of Norway. To EPCOT Central, the "Spirit of Norway" film is a must-see on every trip, a presentation that expands on the momentary charms of the ride that came before it to introduce us to a country that feels familiar -- but is actually astonishingly diverse and unexpected.
Of course, it doesn't help that most Norway cast members actually urge people not to see the film. "If you choose not to watch this presentation, you may exit the doors ahead of you," is more or less the announcement, and those who stay are in for a treat.
Together, Maelstrom and "The Spirit of Norway" still represent the World Showcase concept at its best, taking us out of the Florida heat and into a romantic, unexpected land. Despite the lamentable changes to the Norway pavilion, this pair is still classic EPCOT, through and through.