Halfway through our flight from Melbourne to Istanbul in 2013, as we waited in Kuala Lumpur airport for our onward connection, the girls were chatting about the downsides of long-haul travel. Then Queenie came up with what they both thought was the perfect solution. “There should be a giant theme park,” she said, “Which has a section for each country with all the best things from that country. That way you can just stay in one place, and see it all rather than having to fly so far.” She suggested you could travel the world without the long-haul flights.
I hated to break it to the girls, but Queenie wasn’t the first to think of this. The Walt Disney Company beat her to it. It’s called Epcot and is part of Walt Disney World in Orlando.
Epcot in Orlando opened in 1982, 16 years after Walt Disney himself had died. Walt had originally visualised Epcot (which stands for Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow) to be an actual city where people would work and live with new technology representing cutting edge industrial practice.
However, the practicalities of this vision took some ironing out. And by the time it eventually opened, the folks at Disney had created a theme park which had a dual focus of new technology (Future World) and international culture (World Showcase). It’s an odd arrangement, and to me, it felt like two separate parks which had been pushed up against each other and linked (which, apparently, is exactly what happened in the planning process).
When Epcot opened with much international fanfare in 1982, I was a teenager and I recall being fascinated by the idea of multiple countries within a mini-world – just like the girls were when Queenie thought she’d come up with this concept. It’s the World Showcase part of Epcot which takes Queenie’s idea (at least, she thought it was her idea) and creates something which brings to mind a world fair or an Expo.
World Showcase consists of eleven pavilions which surround a large man-made lake. It’s almost 2 kilometres to walk around the World Showcase Lagoon, and in clockwise order you’ll be visiting: Mexico, Norway, China, Germany, Italy, United States, Japan, Morocco, France, United Kingdom and Canada.
The World Showcase doesn’t normally open until 11:00am (two hours after the park opens), so it gives you time to do a few things in Future World, before wandering through to World Showcase.
As a theme park, World Showcase is less scream and more dream. In contrast to the frenetic pace of other Walt Disney World parks, Epcot’s World Showcase is more of a slow-down and stroll around type of experience. There’s no roller coasters or dropping-very-fast rides. The two ‘rides’ that do exist are gentle boat rides: Gran Fiesta Tour in Mexico and Maelstrom in Norway. Both are somewhat odd experiences which set a themed narrative against the culture and highlights of those countries. I’m not sure it really works. We were left shaking our heads.
The ‘attractions’ of World Showcase are shops, food outlets, informative movies and live entertainment which give a taste of each country as you visit. Elements of the country are recreated in Hollywood set-dressing style. Even the Cast Members in each of the pavilions actually come from that country.
The shops each have unique produce, gift items and/or clothing from that country.
Unlike the iconic Walt Disney World Magic Kingdom, which up until 2012 did not serve alcohol at all (and now only does so on an extremely limited basis), most shops and restaurants at Epcot serve or sell a variety of alcoholic beverages. Sake in Japan, beers in Germany, champagne in France, Australian wine in various countries (reflective of our strong export wine industry!). You could literally drink your way around the world. And it seemed some patrons were having a good crack at it too, starting late morning with the Tequila in Mexico.
For a pre-dinner drink, we checked out Les Vins de France. I’m sure les vins-makers de France never intended their products to be served in little disposable plastic wine glasses, but there you go, it’s a theme park. The French wines on offer ranged from US$5.87 to US$9.86, or you could splash out on a French champagne (Champagne Nicolas Feuillate) for US$12.21.
Of course, all that alcohol needs to be accompanied by some food. We had lunch in Japan and dinner in France. (Advance dinner reservations for table-service restaurants are a must. Do it through the Epcot website or by phone – see details below.)
Lunch was a sushi pack and an iced green tea at Katsura Grill, a counter serve outlet in ‘Japan’. The Tokyo sushi pack consisted of four pieces of California roll and three pieces of Nigiri for US$9.99, and the green tea was US$2.59. Quick, reasonably good value and fresh…but no different to what we could get in any food court in a shopping mall here in Australia.
Dinner was at the table service Chefs de France restaurant in (obviously) ‘France’. The menu covered all the usual French cuisine suspects, but with an Americanised flavour. Main courses (‘entrees’ in US-speak) ranged from about US$20 to US$35, but there was also a three-course Prix Fixe menu for US$34.99. These prices are, of course, before gratuity. It was not the most gourmet of French food, but a step up from the usual theme park fare.
At a couple of times each year, Epcot hosts two special events – an ‘International Food and Wine Festival’ in autumn, and in spring (which was when we were there) the ‘International Flower and Garden Festival.’ Topiary Disney characters dotted the park, and the flower beds were a spectacular riot of colour.
So all up, is ‘Queenie’s idea’ a good one?
Hmmm. I’m undecided. Perhaps there are people who visit Epcot, but would not travel outside the United States. Maybe seeing these glimpses of foreign lands is enough to promote international awareness and/or to give them an international experience they wouldn’t otherwise have. Anything which encourages an awareness of, tolerance for, and celebration of, our cultural differences is an admirable undertaking. So, on that basis, it’s a good idea.
For me, however…I’d prefer to set my feet on the real foreign lands any day. Even if it does involve long-haul flights.
200 Epcot Center Dr, Lake Buena Vista, Orlando, Florida, United States of America
Website: disneyworld.disney.go.com/destinations/epcot/ Tickets start at US$94 (adult 10+) and US$88 (child 3-9) for a single day park pass. Dining reservations phone:+1 (407) 939-1947 or on-line: disneyworld.disney.go.com/dining/epcot/#/reservations-accepted/
Would you like to go around the world in a day?
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