All About China in Epcot
China is an Epcot World Showcase pavilion at Walt Disney World featuring the Reflections of China film, two restaurants, and gift shops. In this post, we’ll share some tips and info about shopping, dining, attractions, and entertainment in the China pavilion.
Our intention here is to mostly focus on the China pavilion’s shopping and architecture, since we cover Reflections of China, entertainment, and dining in other posts. We think shopping is one of the overlooked aspects of World Showcase; many guests assume that if they don’t want to buy anything, the shops don’t hold a lot of appeal.
Let’s get started with a look at the China pavilion’s architecture and the story behind its presence in World Showcase; we’ll also cover Disney’s long history with the People’s Republic of China, which culminated in the opening of Shanghai Disneyland just a couple of years ago…
Architecture & Backstory
Many of you indicated that the architecture section was your favorite part of the All About Norway at Epcot post. Unfortunately, we don’t have the same firsthand experience with China, as we’ve only visited Shanghai.
The China pavilion is separated from the main promenade by this archway, which is based upon Yunhui Yuyu Archway (or Glowing Clouds and Holy Land Archway)at the Summer Palace, an imperial garden and palace complex in Beijing. The faithfulness of the reproduction is uncanny.
Within the pavilion, you find a lotus pool surrounded by an intimate Chinese garden. While these gardens are said to be inspired by those in Suzhou, we were reminded of Epcot’s gardens when we visited Yu Garden in Shanghai. Imagineering did a great job of evoking the spirit of a traditional Chinese garden in this design.
The highlight of the China pavilion is a half-scale reproduction of the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests from the Temple of Heaven complex near Beijing. The details inside and outside of this building are stunning, and incredibly meticulous.
We haven’t visited the real world Temple of Heaven, but it’s high up on our Disney-inspired travel bucket list. Based on comparison photos I’ve seen, it appears to be the pinnacle of Imagineering’s work on World Showcase, with a tremendous amount of attention paid to every little aspect of the real temple.
The China pavilion’s main thoroughfare is “Xing Fu Jie” or the Street of Good Fortune, which was inspired by streets in Beijing and Shanghai. This looks pretty lived-in if you pay attention to the upper level balconies and little details.
It is very idealized, akin to places like New Orleans Square. While there are instances of this architecture in Shanghai, the city’s rapid development in the last three decades has resulted in clashing styles, with only brief flashes of traditional architecture like this. Perhaps there were preserved residential areas we missed, but we suspect this was inspired by historical photos and a heavy dash of creative liberty.
One aspect of the China pavilion’s design that is easy to overlook are the artificial rock formations on the lagoon side of the pavilion. The artificial mountain (jiashan) or rock garden is an integral element of Chinese classical gardens, as these symbolized virtue, stability and endurance.
During the Tang dynasty, the rock was elevated to the status of an art object, and rocks with the “right” characteristics became highly prized for gardens. This trend has continued through the present, with artificial rocks used to create grottos, and rows of rocks representing mountain ranges, such as Zhangjiajie National Forest Park, which served as inspiration for Pandora’s floating mountains.
Aside from all of this, there are a ton of design flourishes and specific works of art inside the restaurants and gift shops that very much seem like they are nods to authentic Chinese works of art and designs, but I’m not sufficiently well-versed in Chinese architecture or art history to identify them. If you are, by all means, share in the comments!
Like most World Showcase, there isn’t much in the way of contrived backstory at the China pavilion (save for Proprietor D.C. Ying), but the “backstory” that’s most interesting here is the evolving relationship between the People’s Republic of China and the Walt Disney Company.
This saga begins back in the late 1970s as Disney was courting nations to join World Showcase in Epcot. China had just instituted its “Open Door Policy” of economic reform, introducing Western technology and investment while also bringing China to the world stage. It seemed like a perfect fit.
Wonders of China was the original film to debut in the CircleVision 360 theater, and it encountered difficulties in filming over the Great Wall of China and Tibet. Ultimately, Disney was given more access than any other Western film crew had received, and spent months scouting and filming scenes during 1981, with some reshoots to capturing winter scenery in early 1982.
Even after EPCOT Center opened, the saga between Disney and China does not end. To no avail, Disney continued to push for the Disney Channel to establish brand awareness. A successful but lesser-known venture, Disney English, debuted in 2008. Everything was to pave the path for the main event: Shanghai Disneyland.
Former Disney CEO Michael Eisner began evaluating the viability of Shanghai for a Disney Resort in the 1990s, and got serious with a letter of intent in 2002 before Hong Kong Disneyland even opened. (By some accounts, Hong Kong was a “consolation prize” for Eisner to gain a toehold once he realized there was no easy path to bringing Disney to mainland China.)
Getting a deal done with the Chinese government was no easy process, and it took his successor, Bob Iger, roughly two decades after the initial idea of entering the mainland to sign a deal to build Shanghai Disneyland, with partner Shendi owning a majority stake in the project. Construction started thereafter in 2011.
The Shanghai Disney Resort project had some rough patches along the way–concerns over how it would fulfill its mission of being “authentically Disney, distinctly Chinese,” going (at least) $800 million over budget, and having its debut delayed by one year—before finally opening in 2016.
We were present for the park’s opening day, and in our Shanghai Disneyland Grand Opening Review, we called it the best opening-day Disney park in decades. (Our Shanghai Disneyland Trip Report features even more detail, if you’re curious.) There have been some hiccups since opening, but Shanghai Disneyland is already exceeding expectations and is moving forward with expansion plans. It would seem, thus far, that the relationship between China and Disney has blossomed.
Attractions, Entertainment & Dining
The major attraction in China is Reflections of China. We covered a snippet of the film’s history above in its prior incarnation, Wonders of China. Due to Shanghai’s growth, and the return of Hong Kong and Macau to China’s authority and sovereignty in the intervening years, portions of that film were reshot.
Existing footage from Wonders of China was combined with the new scenes and revised narration, and condensed into Reflections of China, which still runs today. Sometime before 2021, a new China film will debut; this is undoubtedly influenced by the opening of Shanghai Disneyland.
Here are some of our other posts about China that will serve as helpful resources for dining in China:
- Lotus Blossom Cafe Review – Probably one of the least-exciting World Showcase counter service restaurants, Lotus Blossom Cafe isn’t bad, but it’s nothing special, either.
- Nine Dragons Review – Unlike Lotus Blossom Cafe, we really like Nine Dragons, finding it to be among Walt Disney World’s more underrated restaurants. Lunch specials are inexpensive, and the food is pretty good!
- Snack Around World Showcase Tips – If you don’t have time (or stomach space) for a full meal in Epcot, all is not lost! This ‘culinary world tour’ includes a stop at Joy of Tea, which offers solid smaller and cheaper options.
- Drinking Around World Showcase Tips — Not “about” China, per se, but a primer for one of the most popular unofficial endurance events at Epcot.
Unfortunately, China was not one of the countries offering the type of inspired new merchandise designs that led to me creating this series of posts. Interestingly enough, the new merchandise was confined mostly to European nations, plus Canada and the United States.
My guess as to the reason for this would be that Epcot sees more visitors from these countries plus more Americans who have family ties to them. There could be other explanations, though. Either way, it’s a bit odd that some countries have a ton of original Disney merchandise, and others have none whatsoever.
The good news is that China still has some cool merchandise, such as the following:
You’ll notice the Shanghai Disneyland items, which I guess you could say is Disney’s “replacement” for World Showcase merchandise. In reality, this is overstock from Shanghai Disneyland that didn’t sell.
These same items were deeply-discounted in Shanghai Disneyland after those anniversaries passed, and have since been relocated to Epcot…and priced higher than their full prices at Shanghai Disneyland!
Overall, the China pavilion is another one I love. (Spoiler: I love most of World Showcase.) Temple of Heaven is the obvious high-water mark of the pavilion, but there are a lot of elegant, under-appreciated details in the shops. The outdoor promenade is likewise underrated, as are the quiet pathways around the lotus pond. As with so much of World Showcase, the more time you spend in the China pavilion, the more it reveals itself to you.
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Did you learn anything about the China pavilion at Epcot from this post, or about Disney’s relationship with the People’s Republic of China? Thoughts on attractions, merchandise, or dining in Shanghai? About the pavilion’s architecture? Any questions we can help you answer? Hearing feedback about your experiences is both interesting to us and helpful to other readers, so please share your thoughts below in the comments!
My wife and I visited the Temple of Heaven and the Forbidden City in Beijing when we adopted our children. We both felt surprised by how unimpressed we were when we got there. We couldn’t really put a finger on why we were feeling that way, and the we suddenly realized that we had already seen these things in Epcot. The detail is so exact in the China pavilion that when we got to the real thing in China, we both felt like we had already been there.
That realization has made me value my time in the other pavilions so much more because I realize how detail oriented the original creators were.
Love your posts. Epcot is my favorite, especially the countries. Just a tip, if you purchase a fan in China, the employees will write your name in Chinese for you on the fan. Makes a super gift for someone and it’s inexpensive.
My favorite part of the pavilion was the Chinese acrobats. We always stopped to see them perform at least once if not twice a visit.
Honestly I’m surprised by how overly kind this review is. The China pavilion is visually stunning but it is consistently the most disappointing pavilion at Epcot.
The shopping is one of my favorite things about the World Showcase, and the House of Good Fortune is hands-down the worst shop in Epcot – gorgeous to look at, yes, but the shop wouldn’t be out of place in the most touristy parts of San Francisco’s Chinatown. To me, the best approach to the World Showcase shops is a combination of three kinds of merchandise: merchandise inspired by traditional/folk culture, higher-end modern brands, and country-specific Disney IP merchandise. The traditional/folk culture merchandise is the sort of stuff you’d find at the most tourist-trappy of all Chinatown gift shops, mixed with an assortment of Japanese goods. We were there in February and they literally had a section of wall space devoted to katanas.
I was surprised to see the small section of old Shanghai Disneyland merchandise, which was a step up from our previous trip were there was no no Disney IP merch at all. But the most surprising mistake this store makes (and the whole pavilion if you ask me) is the complete lack of Mulan (other than a character meet-and-greet). I know the amount of space devoted to Frozen in Norway is controversial, but when you’re talking about Disney films based on actual legends and fairy tales from those countries, i.e. Mulan with China, Robin Hood and Sword in the Stone with the UK, Snow White in Germany, Beauty and the Beast with France, etc., it’s hard to argue that those films (and their related IP merch) have no place in Epcot. In my opinion, merchandise for those films should be given higher priority than merch with the Mickey & Friends characters (and I do say that as someone who loves the Mickey & Friends world merch).
I do want to say that the new exhibit on Shanghai Disneyland was fantastic, and I encourage everyone to check it out!
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The different countries in Epcot have always been a favorite of my kids. They love the movies, learning about the countries and most of all eating dinner/lunch around the world. They have always deemed it their favorite park. We usually spend at least as much time in Epcot as we do Magic Kingdom, if not more. For our upcoming 6 day, five night trip – 6 meals are in Epcot :).
Thank you for this post – I love the architecture in China too, but I will look more into the detail this trip. I feel like I have missed things now.
Anyone else find it weird that they’re selling maneki-neko in the Chinese pavilion?
I assume you’re asking because it’s typically considered a Japanese thing?
It’s also quite popular in China, and the practice was at least partially inspired by Chinese proverbs. (I’ve noticed a lot of things in Asia have hybrid Chinese and Japanese origins.)
I wondered when I saw that picture as well, as I remember an exhibit int he Japan pavilion talking about their origin.
Considering that shop also has a whole section of katanas, it’s probably better if you don’t try to think too hard about it…
Nice post about the China pavilion. I should venture into the pavilion more rather than ignore it when I walk between Norway/Mexico and Italy/Germany/America Adventure. I have been really slacking because I havent seen the CircleVision movie since the 1990s.
Loving these Epcot posts, I’m very glad you decided to continue them! My mother robbed me of experiencing the original EPCOT Center (I will never understand why she never took us there as it seems like it was a giant children’s museum- educational and fun!) so I’ve been backtracking, filling in missing information about the different pavilions and the World Showcase. We visited WDW every four years or so through the late 80s, 90s and 2000s, and I believe our first stop in Epcot was not until 2000- shame! The more I read and research about the original park the more irked I am at her! (I mean, not really, I was a lucky kid who visited WDW multiple times, no real room to complain here.) At least I have YouTube videos of the original rides and exhibits. And your informative posts!
Well, the good news with the China pavilion is that you’re not really missing much. Most of what’s present today was also there on opening day. It’s changed a bit over the years, but nothing as dramatic as any of the Future World pavilions!
I can’t even fathom visiting Disney World back in days before Animal Kingdom & “not” visiting Epcot.
I’d also be pretty “irked”.
(first world problems…..I guess)
Exactly!! Completely a first world problem!