Tuesday, November 17, 2009

EPCOT: What Works

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.


rob said...

norway is one of the best rides at epcot and the film, yes somewhat dated, is still a nice place to go, especially when the weather is so hot outside. in editing the film, i can think of the model scene and the teacher scene where the man has 80's hairstyle are all that would need to be cut out. it is such a nice film!

i haven't been to the restaurant so can't comment on that , but epcot did this attraction right.

now let's get to EPCOT bringing back Captain EO!!!!!!

Captain Schnemo said...

I agree that the Maelstrom is a solid C-Ticket experience, and one that I would rarely miss as well.

I still find it sad that proper exterior lighting was never added to Norway (or Morocco), so it is curiously dark during Illuminations.

You'd think by now they would have done something about that.

Blog said...

One question: if the Norway pavilion of old was something that "worked", then why would the Norwegian tourist board stop funding it? If it was doing its intended job of teaching the world about Norway and increasing tourism, then why would they not continue that arrangement?

That, more than any other Disney initiative, is probably the reason for the princesses in the restaurant today. If the Norwegian government no longer wishes to be involved, then how can Disney assume that it know how best to provide an "authentic" experience?

Epcot82 said...

Blog --

Two points: 1) A critical evaluation of whether something "works" is not necessarily the same as Disney's business evaluation of whether it "works." Horizons worked brilliantly, but it's gone. World of Motion worked better, thematically, than Test Track, but it's gone. The Living Seas worked better, thematically, than The Seas With Nemo and Friends, but it's gone.

2) Disney may very well have not pursued the Norwegian government to re-sign the agreement, or reset the price so high it was not attractive ... or simply didn't care to make the terms appealing to the government. Whatever the case may have been (and the above is speculative), it's clear that no one tried TOO hard to make this work. And that makes sense, because Disney saw this as prime opportunity to market itself rather than a country.

Disney is filled with some extraordinary creative minds, and if they had wanted to provide an authentic Norwegian experience, there's truly no doubt that it could have. But Princesses won out, because, at least for now, they're much more lucrative than a Norwegian restaurant.

Dylank said...

I love Norway Pavillion. It and Mexico are my favorites in World Showcase in part because of the nice dark atmosphere, which is very apropriate for Norway which is of course sunless for many parts of the year. My brother liked it so much it actually inspired him to go there on an exchange program! Now if thats not a WS success I dont know what is!

Anonymous said...

My family and I were unfortunately those people that always skipped through "The Spirit of Norway" back in the 90s when we never seemed to have enough time to see everything else. In a "recent" trip to EPCOT in 2007, we decided to spend 2 full days in the park so that we can do all of the "C" attractions since we had people with us that had never been there. And while the film was dated, it was absolutely beautiful! In fact it was just what we were looking for. Something that brought back the feeling and spirit of what EPCOT used to be like before Disney decided to strip it of all of its original charm and sophistication. I wasn't even bothered by the dated footage. I thought it was extremely nostalgic. As long as "The Spirit of Norway" is still playing at the Norway pavillion, I'll always take the 5 minutes to relax and view it.

I wish they'd get rid of the princesses at Akershus. Years ago in 1997, I went there with a friend and her family for breakfast for the first time at their suggestion, and was surprisingly impressed with the "chill" atmosphere, and the lighter healthier Norwegian food that was served in it's buffet. I never thought I'd like Norwegian food as much as I did. I had always wanted to take my family there in future visits, but now I have absolutely no interest.

I will say however, that the blood orange custard in the bakery is absolutely amazing!!! I hope they never ditch that recipe! I wish I could find it up here in Chicago!

Anonymous said...

Oh one more thing, on that last trip in 2008 (sorry it wasn't 2007), my stepfather and I stared at the huge Viking ship in absolute awe for quite some time. I also photographed it like crazy. Then we wandered through the mini museum in the replica of the stave church. I was so happy to see that while I knew Norway wasn't sponsoring it's pavillion in EPCOT, there was still an attempt by Disney to keep its history important to guests. Fast forward to a trip with my high school students a year later in 2009... The ship's gone-the museum is roped off. All that's left of the ship is the giant shield adornet with some shrubery. Oh, I'm sorry, was the museum not kid friendly enough? Was the big bad ship taking up too much space? Ooh! I know! Maybe now that it's gone Disney can use that space to build another invasive pastel colored Vacation Club kiosk! Yay!!! Give me a break! These Disney execs don't know what the heck they're doing! How long before they start calling it "Disney's World Showcase Vacation"?

Anonymous said...

I think I figured out the synergy in having Princesses in Norway. Cruise lines! There's the Norwegian Cruise Line and there's the Princess Cruise Line. So maybe the Norway pavilion can be used to promote cruise travel. Oh, wait, there's the Carnival Cruise. Maybe we can strip Maelstrom of it's Norwegian theme and make a carnival ride! And Mickey can be the lion tamer in the grand finale. And to cut costs they don't have to build animatronic figures, they can just make carboard cut outs. And at the end of the ride, there can be a kiosk to promote the Disney Cruise Line! Ooh! Now we're thinking!

The scary thing is that, I really do think that this is how the minds of the powers that be at Disney work. And something needs to be done to stop this madness!

Anonymous said...

Yes! Love this post. I used to LOVE going to Norway for its ride, the Stave Church, and its food. They gutted the church of all its sacred artifacts and displays. Simply miserable execs who don't know culture if it bit them in the arse.

Stainless Steel Rat

Anonymous said...

Agreed! Mexico and Norway are the two best pavillions at EPCOT CENTER(in my opinion). If only the rest of World Showcase were as great...

Josh said...

The Stave Church museum was merely undergoing an exhibit change. Now, the exhibit focuses on the Viking aspect of Norway's history, and it's actually pretty impressive. I don't know that I like it better than the previous exhibit, but it's still a must-do for me every time.

To answer a previous commenter, I can't speak to why Norway isn't lit up at night, but Morrocco is purposefully left dark for religious reasons, I believe.

Captain Schnemo said...

I don't believe the religious thing about Morocco. It seems much more likely that they just never got around to installing the lighting on the two "new" pavilions.

Even if it's something that they should have built in at the time of construction, they really should have come up with an adequate alternative by now. They are, essentially, glorified Christmas lights, which really shouldn't be that hard to install.

Anonymous said...

Given that the Empire State Building was lit up green a year or so ago in honor of a Muslim holiday, I tend to agree with Schnemo.

Aimee said...

It is a shame about the travel kiosk. When we were there as kids, my mom met the nicest girl at the desk who was from Norway. She took the time to explain to us which postcards showed the real country and which one looked the most like her hometown. Those are the moments that stick in your memory years later, more than fast thrill rides and shopping.

Anonymous said...


I like the Viking displays, truly I do, but in a medieval Church you'd expect (in my way of thinking) Church-related displays. To me it's like walking into a library and finding no books. Just counter-intuitive, 'tis all.

But, yes, Mexico and Norway are/were the crown jewels of the world showcase.

Josh said...

Agreed - and the Stave Church is uniquely Scandinavian too, which is quite interesting. Very few of the original medieval structures are left in the world (83 in total, I believe), but some are incredible specimens of architecture and history.

I'm a musician (vocalist), and I've long dreamed of visiting Norway and luxuriating in the rich resonance of the Stave Churches' wooden halls.

Hale said...

I've only seen this one from outside so far, as I've only been to WDW twice. I'm excited to see it on our next excursion to Epcot/EPCOT/EPCOT Center. The fishing village at the end looks amazing, and basically makes up for the queue. I love those indoor/outdoor settings, like the Mexico pavilion. I also, for some reason, really like it when Imagineers use attractions (especially dark rides) to add to the kinetics of an environment, like Alice in Wonderland in Disneyland, or Splash Mountain's exterior. I could watch the Maelstrom boats go by over the waterfall forever. I love Gran Fiesta Tour dearly: it's relaxing and well-made. I'd never seen El Rio del Tiempo, so I don't mind the characters. I'd be disappointed, though, to see Maelstrom changed in favor of shoehorning characters in. In The Unofficial Guide to Walt Disney World 2010, Jim Hill says that Imagineers are already looking into bringing characters from 2012's King of the Elves into Maelstrom. I may be okay with a cameo appearance in the Troll sequence, but that's it. There has to be some remainder of what World Showcase was meant to do, show guests the wonders of the unique cultures all around the world. At least Gran Fiesta Tour still kind of does that.

I'll bet, with a "renewal" and a little TLC, this attraction could really be a premiere attraction for Epcot/EPCOT/EPCOT Center. I don't want to see it deteriorate.

Hale said...

Excellent post, by the way. I really enjoy these What Works/What Doesn't. They're very concrete and they make it easy to understand where you're coming from. Sometimes these blogs can get a little ethereal and convoluted, but showing these cases and ideas are important.

(Please excuse my double-commenting.)

Mark B said...

The Norway Pavillion is excellent. Sorry folks the Maelstrom is not a great ride. It looks like a ride that was abandoned years ago and someone pulled the lever and realized it still worked. I actually wanted to learn more about Norway and was very intrigued and left disappointed. The film's photography was beautiful but told nothing of the history. I learned they like to sail.

not a gator said...

@Mark B,

Yeah, but you can buy Helly Hansen clothing in the gift shop, isn't that worth something?

I love the stave church but I've never eaten in 'Norway'. When in Orlando I usually make time for an IKEA trip and of course eat at the cafeteria, which is the best part. IKEA may be corporate scum but that cafeteria is the bee's knees.

Anonymous said...

@not a gator

Yeah, but the Helly Hansen clothing is about the only item in the gift shop that are acctually of norwegian origin. Most of the other stuff (like the children books, candy and cookies) are acctually from Sweden and Denmark.

(IKEA are by the way swedish as well.)

To me it's quite sad the Norway Pavillon isn't called the Scandinavian Pavillion, since that would acctually be closer to the truth.

Autumn Windwalker said...

August 28, 2019

And now, Maelstrom is gone. In its place?

A Frozen attraction.