Epcot’s World Showcase is often considered boring, unless you like to drink around the world or do some snacking. For its size, it has one of the worst ride distributions in all of Walt Disney World, and more “educational films” than most guests will tolerate. After Disney’s Animal Kingdom, it’s probably the second-most divisive large-scale area in Walt Disney World.
This is a follow-up of sorts to the “I was wrong about Disney’s Animal Kingdom” post, except in this case, we weren’t wrong. We have always (well, since being adults) loved World Showcase, and think it offers a great mix of architecture, details, entertainment, ambiance, dining, and attractions. We probably spend more time in World Showcase than any other area (for lack of a better term…it’s not a land, per se) of Walt Disney World. Others aren’t necessarily wrong for not liking World Showcase, as it isn’t for everyone. World Showcase is notoriously lacking for small children, and this reputation with families is a reasonably fair one (even despite the couple of rides, coloring station, and Phineas and Ferb game). However, we feel a lot of people who might be inclined to enjoy the World Showcase attractions skip them because of their reputation and the common sentiment that they’re “nothing but boring movies.”
Unlike Disney’s Animal Kingdom, World Showcase isn’t necessarily misunderstood. Most people recognize the beauty of the pavilions and enjoy the dining here, so there’s no point in fixating on how great each of these things are (actually, not to incite controversy or anything, but we think World Showcase has several good restaurants, but its dining is overrated as a whole). Even the atmospheric entertainment acts seem more popular than in other parks. In the case of World Showcase, it’s pretty much all about the attractions. In the vein of that Animal Kingdom post, we’ll start by looking at World Showcase’s attractions and then move on to where World Showcase is lacking.
We’ll start in Mexico and hit each World Showcase pavilion in order, addressing only the moderate to major attractions (skipping smaller exhibits and displays):
Gran Fiesta Tour Starring The Three Caballeros (boat ride) – This indoor boat ride that seems like a nighttime cruise through various parts of Mexico as Panchito and Jose search for Donald Duck. If there is one attraction in World Showcase that’s going to appeal to kids, this is it. Gran Fiesta Tour can best be described as a nice diversion with enjoyable music and fun character antics in a culturally rich setting. This attraction was updated from El Rio del Tiempo a few years ago to add the characters (in the process removing one of my favorite Disney theme park songs), and I think this is one instance of characters breathing life into a dated attraction, but it could probably use even more of an update. For what it is, it’s not a bad little ride, especially one that’s typically a walk-on. Just don’t go in with any sort of expectations.
Maelstrom (boat ride) – This boat ride is supposed to showcase Norway’s sense of adventure. I love Maelstrom for what it is: bizarre, campy fun that is clearly a product of the 1980s. It has everything: trolls, anorexic polar bears, an oil worker who looks like Chuck Norris, and Children of the Corn. It’s also infinitely quotable, with plenty of memorable lines that have great use in everyday life (such as “Back, back! Over the Falls!” and “You are not the first to pass this way, nor shall you be the last.”). I doubt Maelstrom aspires to be this bizarre, as it certainly doesn’t make me want to book a trip to Norway, and guests who lack nostalgia for the attraction or don’t have senses of humor similar to mine probably won’t enjoy it nearly as much as I do, but if you go in with the right mindset, it’s a lot of fun. In the past it has had a lot of issues with maintenance that hinder the experience; many of these have been resolved, but the ride still feels very dated.
Spirit of Norway (film) – This borders on minor/moderate in terms of World Showcase attractions, but we think it’s worth mentioning. For a while, this film was a running joke between us. If the doors to it were open when we got off Maelstrom, we had to race out of the boat to prevent being trapped. If the doors were shut, we were trapped because of the “[Expletive] Norway film!” The theater doors are now left open, but we recently stopped to watch it all the way through for the first time. Much like Maelstrom, parts of the Spirit of Norway are laughably dated, but you can tell the film was well done for its time, and it did make us more interested in Norway. It’s definitely the worst film in World Showcase, but it’s also the shortest, and you should get a chuckle out of some of the outfits and electronics. Not something we’d watch every trip, but amusing once in a while. I think just about everyone agrees that it needs to be updated.
Reflections of China (Circle-Vision 360 film) – This is a major attraction, but I’d hazard a guess that it’s one that most guests have never done. This Circle-Vision 360 film is poetically narrated, and features scenes in China where Western camera crews are not normally allowed. Much like Impressions de France, it’s beautifully shot and scored. You are enveloped in the action in a way not possible through traditional film, and this 360-degree approach also adds repeat-ability to the attraction, since you can’t possibly see it all in one viewing. We highly recommend Reflections of China to any discerning guest.
The American Adventure (Audio-Animatronics stage show) – The American Adventure has stood the test of time, with only minor changes since EPCOT Center’s opening. It still amazes me each time I see it as I am stunned that so many convincing scenes featuring Audio-Animatronics figures can simply appear out of the ground. The geek in me would love to see the “war wagon” that organizes and controls these scenes. It’s visually impressive and its take on American history might be a sanitized, CliffNotes version (what do you reasonably expect in a theme park?), but it’s a moving and powerful tribute. For me, this ranks as one of the all-time greatest achievements of Imagineering, and an attraction that always leaves me a little misty-eyed.
Impressions de France (film) – Impressions de France is a panoramic, 220-degree film exploring France. Besides The American Adventure, Living with the Land, and Spaceship Earth, Impressions de France is the only attraction at Epcot that we make sure to experience every trip. It’s one of our picks for “Underrated Walt Disney World Experiences.” In fact, I’ve argued that it’s superior to Soarin’ at Epcot, and I stand by that. The score is hauntingly beautiful, and the imagery as you swoop through different parts of France is stunning. Besides receiving a digital projection, it remains unchanged since 1982. With the exception of a few 80s outfits here and there, it has aged well. Thanks to its gorgeous footage and a great classical score, I think it’s fairly timeless and hope it isn’t tinkered with anytime soon (there are bigger fish to fry in Epcot, anyway).
O Canada (Circle-Vision 360 film) – O Canada is the newest attraction in World Showcase, and the differences between it and the other films speak to the current mentality of decision-makers versus the mentality in the early 1980s. O Canada is still a beautiful film with awe-inspiring visuals, but instead of minimal, elegant narration, Martin Short hosts with his over-the-top shtick. Don’t get me wrong, I think Martin Short is hilarious, but I don’t think this is the appropriate venue for his talents. O Canada is still enjoyable and those who find the other films boring are most likely to enjoy this one, but not everything should need to be ostentatious and flashy in order to be considered entertaining. We like it better than the Spirit of Norway, but far prefer Impressions de France and Reflections of China.
Overall, the attraction lineup for the World Showcase is different than what you’d find elsewhere, with the rides actually being the weakest part of the experience, in our opinion. World Showcase’s strengths are its live atmospheric entertainment, its beautiful and fully explorable environments, and its overall ambiance. Quite simply, it’s a fun place to be. However, since rides are what most guests are inclined to do, they form a negative opinion of World Showcase due to the relative dearth of them. It also doesn’t help that the two rides World Showcase does have are far from headliners. World Showcase might be a boring place for kids (depending upon what they enjoy), but it certainly shouldn’t be for adults. If guests take the time to experience the supposedly boring educational films, they just might find themselves enjoying World Showcase a little more, especially if those films are supplemented with exploring some of the walk-through exhibits, watching the artisans at work, enjoying the live entertainment, and doing a little snacking and drinking!
I don’t think Walt Disney World is all about rides, but I do think World Showcase could use at least one more ride “deeper” in it. Having another family ride that both kids and adults could enjoy would definitely give World Showcase better balance.
With that said, the most common complaint about World Showcase is the abundance of films, and we don’t see any problem with this, whatsoever. In fact, we love the World Showcase films. Not only are films like Impressions de France and Reflections of China brilliantly shot and scored, but these are actually attractions that will encourage guests to visit those countries. Since the goal of each pavilion’s sponsor is to promote tourism to the actual location, these films are more valuable to the countries than rides–even good ones.
Think about it…how many of you want to visit Norway after riding Maelstrom? Probably not many of you who don’t count yourselves as professional troll-hunters. Does seeing Impressions de France make you want to visit France? It made us want to visit, and before planning our trip to France last year, we researched some of the places in the film. These films are able to capture the actual beauty of a foreign country that encourages people to visit in a way that a ride simply cannot. Even the best ride has an attendant fantastical element to it that makes it less likely to convince guests to visit the country it represents. I’m certain that Rhine River Cruise and the Mt. Fuji Coaster would have been great attractions, but there probably would have been a disconnect between what you experienced on the rides and actual Germany or Japan, making these rides of lesser value from a marketing perspective. Certainly not every guest leaving the World Showcase films is going to log onto Expedia the next day and book a trip to a foreign locale, but I’d hazard a guess that more people visit France, Canada, or China because of those countries’ World Showcase attractions than visit Norway or Mexico because of their World Showcase attractions. I’d also hazard a guess that more people experience the attractions in Norway and Mexico each day than any of the World Showcase films.
The point here is not just that World Showcase films are a necessary evil from the perspective of the Epcot sponsorship model, but also that they play an important role in Epcot’s mission. Since they are (mostly) well made and show cultures with which many guests are unfamiliar in a light that encourages further exploration, they advance the “edutainment” goal of Epcot.
This isn’t to say each pavilion should have nothing but films; I just know that if I were a representative of the country or corporation sponsoring a World Showcase pavilion, I’d be quicker to write a smaller sponsorship check for a film than a larger one for a ride. Based upon the numbers the Parks & Resorts division of The Walt Disney Company does, I’m not so sure the “sponsorship model” is actually necessary. Sponsors are great, but where they are available, Disney should open up the coffers and build as necessary. A ride in Japan, Italy, or Germany might qualify as such a “necessary” addition. I think it could also use a daytime show on World Showcase Lagoon or even a pre-Illuminations parade, like fan-favorite Tapestry of Nations.
Beyond the attraction balance, my qualms with World Showcase are that it has been calculably adjusted to be a food and beverage cash cow. Flower & Garden Festival was turned into Food & Wine Festival light this year, and new restaurants and bars have been built in World Showcase at a far greater rate than any other refurbishments, let alone additions. More and more of World Showcase real estate (and waterfront views!) is disappearing in favor of restaurants, and for nearly half the year, temporary kiosks selling expensive snacks and booze clutter up the place. Entertainment doesn’t seem as prevalent as it once was, and fall weekends are intolerable because management seems fine allowing World Showcase to turn into a satellite frat party for UCF–so long as it means plenty of liquor sales!
Ethnic cuisine is an important part of the World Showcase experience, but it isn’t the only important part, and for the last few years, it seems that has been the sole focus of adjustments and additions to World Showcase. Beyond balancing out the attraction lineup, it would be nice to see Disney recognize that World Showcase is a part of a theme park, not a fancy setting for a fancy food court, and make improvements and changes to it accordingly.
Overall, World Showcase is an incredible place to just pass time and enjoy “other” elements of the theme park experience besides attractions, but it’s not too shabby when it comes to attractions–just not rides–either. Kids are least likely to enjoy it, although we think there is a reasonable number of things for them to do in World Showcase, too. We think World Showcase is probably best for couples, especially those looking for the adult side of Walt Disney World, but any adults should be able to find ways to have fun in World Showcase!
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How do you feel about World Showcase? Have you done all of the attractions listed here? What would you like to see added to World Showcase? Hearing from you is half the fun, so share your thoughts in the comments!