Monday, October 12, 2009

What Could Have Been

Germany and Japan have something in common -- and we're not talking about World War II here. At EPCOT's World Showcase, these two pavilions harbor remnants of an EPCOT that could have been ... and, tantalizingly, almost was.

Though it's difficult to make out when you're strolling around the World Showcase promenade, next time you're at EPCOT take a look at both the Germany and Japan pavilions from afar. You'll notice they're unusually large, particularly given that neither one houses a traditional attraction. Disney does its best to hide these structures and not call attention to them, but what's particularly sad is hearing the apparent fate of two impressively ambitious attractions.

As most EPCOT Center enthusiasts know, Germany was supposed to house the "Rhine River Cruise." One concept drawing in particular -- which you can find here -- was one of the first images I ever saw of EPCOT Center. At that age, I had no idea what a Rhine River was, but you can bet I immediately went searching for everything I could read about it. On a recent "Undiscovered Future World" tour, the tour guide explained his understanding of what became of the Rhine River Cruise: It was an approved project at WED/Imagineering, and was such an integral part of World Showcase that the full show building was constructed. Although a final ride concept was not fully conceived (according to this guide), the idea was close enough to being finalized that a few show pieces were even developed, but as the 1970s drew to a close and Disney found itself pouring virtually every extra dollar it had into EPCOT Center, some tough decisions had to be made for the company -- which was unable to secure further financing for the project.

Officially, the Rhine River Cruise got put "on hold," and the intention was to build it after EPCOT opened in 1982. But by 1983, partly thanks to the debt Disney had incurred to build the Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow, the company was in no position to add anything at all to its stateside parks. Names like the Bass Brothers, Arvida, and Gibson Greeting Cards became the talk of the town -- and as Disney sought desperately to save itself from being bought, broken up and sold off to the highest bidders, the urgency behind creating a big, new theme park attraction faded. So, by the time Michael Eisner and Frank Wells took over in 1984, plans for the Rhine River Cruise had met their Lorelei. Allegedly, some Imagineers still recall these plans fondly -- though exactly what they were isn't clear; a recent Google search turned up a multitude of alleged storylines for the Rhine River Cruise at EPCOT, but whether any of them are legitimate is hard to know.

Twenty-seven years later, it seems more likely that "Diff'rent Strokes" will have a place in NBC's 2010 fall lineup than it does that the Rhine River Cruise will ever make a comeback. The vast show building is used for show rehearsals and for storage -- and, astonishingly, most cast members don't even realize it exists. Sure, they see it frequently, but they don't know what it is or its history; to them, it's just another large warehouse-style building.

Personally, I've always been curious where the entrance for the Rhine River Cruise would have been. Was it intended to be on the other side of the Biergarten Restaurant? Or where the Sommerfest mural has been painted? Germany has such a fascinating, myth0logy-laden past that imagining what might have been for the Rhine River Cruise is both frustratingly unproductive ... and fascinatingly fun.

Despite Germany's shocking, shameful role in World War II, political reasons are never cited as a reason for not building the German pavilion's Rhine River Cruise attraction. But politics apparently played a heavy role in the 11th-hour decision not to install the "Meet the World" attraction at EPCOT's Japan pavilion.

"Meet the World" operated in Tokyo Disneyland until 2002. An unusual -- and by all accounts painfully dated by the time the 21st century arrived -- account of Japan's history, it combined film, music and Audio-Animatronics to depict key moments from several thousands of years worth of Japanese folklore and fact.

Set on a revolving stage like "Carousel of Progress," "Meet the World" had something else in common with that nostalgic look at American history (as filtered through the lens of electronic advancement): It featured a theme song written by the Sherman Bros. ... one whose lyrics were sung entirely in Japanese.

"Meet the World" was a decidedly traditional Disney-style attraction that had both its fans and its detractors. Given what has happened to World Showcase presentations and shows in the past 27 years, it's probably "Meet the World" would have been as untouched at EPCOT as Tokyo Disneyland and would have ultimately met the same fate. But we'll never know ... though we can speculate, as its show building still stands prominently in the Japan pavilion.

EPCOT Center had a lot of ambition -- ambition that Disney simply wasn't able to realize. It's just too bad that instead of ultimately following through on these exciting projects, Disney just gave up. World Showcase has always needed more rides and attractions, and to think that Disney once had grand plans that were simply never realized is disappointing. But the future is filled with promise and possibility, a lesson learned well at EPCOT itself. So, perhaps there's still some hope.


Airamerica said...

I know that both of these show buildings exist but I always forget about them, even when I'm stood in front of the country itself.

I think it's interesting that with a distinct lack of creative investment into Epcot that these 2 facilities are overlooked by the management too!

You have to wonder why no development ever happens, especially as the buildings are standing and would have no financial impact on any new attractions, after being built for all this time.

World Showcase is crying out for a 'ride' on this side of the lake, so what is stopping Disney from getting busy - it must be more than money????

Anonymous said...

Who needs updated attractions & necessary refurbishments when you can simply increase the size of the gift shops instead?

Welcome to 21st century Disney - Where the merchandising IS the attraction!

Unknown said...

Epcot 82,

Wasn't there also plans for a Bullet Train Style ride in Japan? I have always heard that there was.

The Germany cruise would have been cool to go on.

Maybe some day

Michael said...

The ride's entrance was to be where the Sommerfest mural is now. If you look at the area, it's a giant archway that's walled over. In the early years of the pavilion, there were two large wooden doors there that would have eventually opened onto the ride queue and load area. The wall with the mural was put up later, but isn't permanent.

How I'd love to see this ride, and the Italy boat ride too. I wonder if we'll ever see ANYTHING new in Showcase, aside from shops and restaurants.

In response to the question about Japan in the above post, there were plans for a bullet train travelogue at one point. There were even plans for an omnimover-style attraction, but those ideas were part of the original, separately-gated World Showcase that would have been built near the TTC.

David Landon said...

It kills me to see all that unused space at EPCOT, especially in the World Showcase, which probably has fewer attractions per acre than any theme park anywhere.

Still, by all accounts Disney is pumping more money into the parks than they have in years, so maybe there's hope that some of the World Showcase's Phase 2 projects will see the light of day eventually.

Michael said...

Well, they already have the plans ready to go. Just build the darn thing. I just love those boat rides, so I wouldn't care if they built one in every country.

Of course, I keep hearing that there were some plans for an attraction in Japan that were getting ready to go before the economy crashed last fall. It wouldn't been any of these previous ideas, but it would have been good. Maybe now that things are slowly rebounding?

rob said...

i always thought japan would have the mt fuji matterhorn-like style ride?

rob said...

great article. never looked at germany or japan that way and will look and see how big the countries are next time i'm at EPCOT.

Michael said...

Rob: The Mt. Fuji idea was much later than these plans.

Anonymous said...

good observation. looking at the aerials of the park earlier this summer, i noticed how big (nay, HUGE!!!) those pavillions are. i found it curious since both house only restaurants and shops.

i knew the italian pav was at one time going to be bigger (maybe 2x?), hadn't known they actually constructed anything for Germany and Japan.

the pace of world showcase is nice (i.e. subdued), but three more attractions would be excellent.

Michael said...

The Italian pavilion was supposed to be bigger. Not to self-promote, but I wrote about it here.

Anonymous said...

Don't get me wrong, I love Norway, but why did they build Norway if they suddenly had the money, instead of completing japan and Germany?

Michael said...

Anon: Because Norwegian companies were willing to cough up the money for the pavilion. By then, Eisner had taken over and if pavilions were going to get built then the money would have to come from sponsors and not Disney itself.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the info, Michael.


Anonymous said...

So if the governments of Germany & Japan came to Disney with a check for $50-100 Mil. & say "add an attractin to our pavillion", that's all it would take?

Michael said...

I'd say that would probably be 99% of what it'd take, providing they and Disney agreed on what the attraction should be...

Make some calls :)

Anonymous said...

I'm getting ready to write some letters to Iger about how I have faith in the change he'll bring. I'll allude to Germany and Japan... Last time I went to EPCOT I showed her the "temporary" wall behind the archway. I put my ear to it and knocked. The Berlin wall was just the beginning...I think it's time for another wall to come down. I'm writing to Iger.

Anonymous said...

Showed my sister*