Review and Guide
For those of us used to west coast Disney, we’re quickly aware that we’re not in Anaheim anymore as soon as we step foot outside of the Magic Kingdom. The Seven Seas Lagoon, immense resorts, buses, boats, and monorails as far as they eye can see, and not a single neon sign in sight – just like Walt always wanted. His dream went way beyond cloning his world-famous Magic Kingdom with a little extra buffer room, however. The highlight of the Florida Project was his “City of Tomorrow”, which is half of the original EPCOT Center acronym, and is half of what the current park is today – sort of.
The “blue sky” plans he had for is experimental prototype community are considerably different than the second Disney World theme park that opened in 1982. In fact, it wasn’t a theme park at all. Walt wanted to build an actual city, a city for the 21st century, complete with a downtown business center, high-density urban housing, green space, suburbs, mass transportation, and the entire infrastructure necessary to keep it running. To Walt, it would be a test bed for city planning and the real-life model for his vision of living in the future.
When he passed away in 1966, the focus shifted to merely making Disney World and the Magic Kingdom a reality, let alone creating an entire community. Years later, when the company was in a better place to expand the resort, these original plans were cast aside for somewhat obvious logistical and financial reasons.
In an interesting revisit to Disney’s original dream, the company did get into the business of creating a community, though drastically less ambitious in theme and scope. Celebration, Florida was their attempt at low-density suburban development, and while moderately successful, the company eventually pulled out of that too. I think it’s worth commenting that Walt’s true legacy for creating a community is Walt Disney World itself, the dream and execution of acquiring the land, taming the natural ecosystem in order to develop without damaging it, and doing so with enough foresight to enable future expansion for decades to come.
The question then became, with the name EPCOT already visible, what could this new park be? It had to be a completely unique entertainment experience, but still retain the high standards the public had come to expect. A number of ideas were in play, among which were both an exhibition of technology and innovation featuring rides and attractions from corporate sponsors, as well as a collection of countries and cultures from around the globe hosted by the nations themselves. These clearly contrasting visions were eventually, though somewhat awkwardly, combined in a marriage rumored to be as literal as pushing the two scale models together.
What we have today is Epcot, no longer an acronym; instead its very own word for what is most certainly a one-of-a-kind park. This two-parks-in-one starts in Future World, and then opens up into the World Showcase. Both are visually stunning in their unique ways, the former with its visions of the future from the 80s, and the later with its collection of landscapes, icons, and architecture from a cross-section of the world. As you can imagine, this park is big, and the wide gap between the two areas greatly lessens the awkwardness of the transition.
Most visitors will be arriving at the park via the monorail, and I would highly recommend taking the trip at least once even if you drove to the park. A highlight of the Monorail at Disneyland is the tour of Tomorrowland, and the quick trip around the iconic Epcot geosphere is the only spot where the Florida incarnation actually goes into a park. These last few hundred yards (of the MK to Epcot route only) take you atop Future World, and provide a great view across the lagoon to the World Showcase. Not only are the vistas nice, but a sharp eye will be able to notice the wait times for Mission Space and Test Track, two of the most popular headliners in the entire park.
Pass through the entry gates, and you’re immediately in the future – or at least it’s the future as it was envisioned in the late 70s and early 80s. Nothing will amp you up for your visit more than seeing that enormous silver golf ball towering just ahead. Spaceship Earth - it’s officially named for the attraction it encloses - is what is known as a geodesic sphere, a rare piece of architecture as you probably figured. Beyond and around it are a handful of pavilions that highlight realms of human endeavors, including Land, Sea, Motion, Energy, and Imagination. These are something akin to the various “lands” and the Magic Kingdom park, but not exactly. As you will see, there is little about this place that is easily describable in terms of typical theme parks.
While Spaceship Earth isn’t technically a pavilion, this attraction marks the center of Future World, and is immediately flanked on both sides by Innoventions. Also in the area are shops and restaurants. Why you would eat or buy souvenirs here when an assortment of cultures from all over the world is but a mere few hundred feet away is beyond me. Then again, this is central Florida.
Coming off a somewhat recent and certainly major overhaul, this ride is ready to impress for another generation. Although it’s located front and center, I’d suggest holding off on this until later in your visit. Not only can a small wait form thanks to collective impatience, but it also takes time away from more popular and lower capacity attractions. I know it’s tough to fight the urge, but imagine walking into the Magic Kingdom and going right onto It’s a Small World. Do your best to delay, at least until the late morning if you can.
Assuming you’ve done that, you will likely find it to be walk-on, its high capacity is thanks to the beloved Omnimover ride system. The first thing you may notice as you sit down though is a nice little touch screen monitor. You are asked a few questions, but attention immediately shifts to the elaborate dark ride scenes as you ascend into the sphere. The theme of the ride hasn’t changed, as it highlights the interconnection of humanity through the existence of our species, focusing primarily on communication and the technology that has enabled it. From cave paintings to the printing press to text messaging, the ride really covers the gamut, and the animatronics and set design are on par with anything you’d find in the Magic Kingdom.
At the apex, the cars rotate around, briefly viewing a projection of Earth amidst a field of starts on the ceiling of the sphere. Completing the rotation, the decent is taken backwards at a surprisingly steep angle, into an impressive array of tiny blue lights. Here Dame Judy Dench wraps up her spiel, and we get to focus on those touch screens and make a future for ourselves.
This part of the ride seems the most drastically different to me. I realize the AT&T-centric story line left along with their sponsorship, and I can’t entirely recall what used to be here, but if you take your eyes away from the screen and look around you may be surprised how bare everything is. That’s not to say the video monitors are meant to distract you from drab set design, but it’s certainly the most unimpressive on-stage area I can think of. That being said, it’s best to focus on “your life in the future”, and the results can be hilarious. I’m sure the novelty of this would wear off after multiple visits, but it was quite entertaining for both of our rides.
Like many of the pavilions, there are a wide variety of activities and booths in the post-ride area. There were games, interactive exhibits, even kiosks to email your video back home. We didn’t spend any time here beyond sending that email, though it looks like you could entertain yourself for more than a few minutes. If you time it right, there’s no reason not to enjoy Spaceship Earth and I know that I wouldn’t consider my tour of the park complete without a visit to this landmark attraction.
Did not experience:
Innoventions – While we did cut through the western wing on many occasions to get back to both The Seas and The Land, it would be a stretch to say we “experienced” much. We paused briefly by a bank of video game systems because someone had to play Ratatouille, and I watched jealously as people zipped around traffic cones on Segways. (I must ride one, I don’t know why.) Supposedly there was a charge for even this lesson, though we never found out for sure. Also remaining in the dark was some sort of Disney Visa cardholder exclusive experience which we saw folks lined up for. Again, no idea about the details.
Perhaps we could have been a little more deliberate and taken our time to enjoy Innoventions (especially because our local Disneyland version pales in comparison – even with that House of the Future), but it just wasn’t a priority. We also got repeated glimpses of robots playing music, fire safety, and the Kim Possible mission control, the last of which was quite popular and players were visible on many occasions throughout the entire park.
The Seas with Nemo and Friends
In years past, this was just an aquarium. You would hop aboard an undersea elevator and be taken into the depths of the ocean. There, you would find marine life from all over the globe. Today, the aquarium is still there at the end, but you’ve got some of the characters from Finding Nemo along for the ride. You board annoyingly-named “clam-mobiles” and take the trip under the sea as, you guessed it: everyone tries to find Nemo.
For what it’s worth, Nemo is not exactly my favorite Pixar production, but that hasn’t seemed to stop the Imagineering team from blitzing the parks worldwide with this apparent goldmine of a theme. In Disneyland, we had the great fortune of getting back into the submarines, though the Nemo treatment isn’t exactly loved by all. The kids seem to go nuts for it, and maybe that’s all that matters. Over at The Disney Studios in Paris, they got their very own heavily themed spinning wild mouse, which puts Primeval Whirl to shame, Nemo or no Nemo.
So here it’s been crammed somewhat effectively into the aquarium setting. The queue is terrific, though strangely extensive. I’m sure there was a major clamor for this when it first opened, but the capacity of the omnimover system is enormous and we would hate to see the day the queue was actually needed. Yes, this is the main entrance to the aquarium, but it’s not something people will rush to first thing.
The ride is fun enough, the projection technology is cool, though I feel the story isn’t quite compelling enough to supplement a “sit and look at” ride system. The subs and spinning coaster cars add excitement to what is by now a more than familiar story to most. Still, despite the fact that there is a non-ride entrance to the pavilion, we took the trip on both visits. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t a little disappointed by this. Oh well, at least they have the sea gulls out front.
The aquarium is great – who doesn’t love sea creatures? Between the manatees, dolphins, rays, sharks, sea turtles, eels, and a whole ton of both interesting and boring fish. I wouldn’t say it’s exactly on-par with the famed Georgia Aquarium, but the fact that this is within an already amazing theme park makes it all the more impressive. Those who enjoy this type of stuff could easily spend hours there, and those who don’t will still enjoy a quick visit.
Did not experience:
Turtle Talk with Crush – This falls in the same category as Monsters Inc., Laugh Floor – audience participation with other peoples’ kids? No thanks. Besides, if we did ever decide to go for it, we’d hit the version at the Animation exhibit at California Adventure – though we’ll more likely be on Tower of Terror instead.
I never imagined this pavilion could be so popular, but it goes to show what putting in a headliner can do. While the other Future World favorites Mission: Space and Test Track are essentially the entire pavilion themselves, Soarin’ shares the space with two popular eateries, a classic boat ride attraction, and a theater. As you can imagine, the combination of all this stuff makes this place a mad house.
A simple description and review of this ride will not do it justice. The film and ride system is exactly the same as the original at California Adventure. The queue is significantly less remarkable. In fact, there is barely a lick of themeing whatsoever. But there is no more sought after attraction in all of Walt Disney World. This ride opened some three and a half years ago, but if you enter the pavilion and push your way through to the entrance area, you’d think it premiered just last week. People are crawling over their grandmothers to get on this thing.
It’s hard to blame them for the most part. The ride is unparalleled. For decades the amusement industry has flailed with the concept of simulators. Usually they can get one of two things right – the ride vehicle or the movie screen. Simulators with great big screens have awful ride vehicles, and vice versa. Most of us remember the defunct Body Wars – great simulator, awful screen. The advances that Universal’s Back to the Future attraction pioneered have been leapfrogged by Soarin’, and it truly must be experienced to be appreciated.
The key to Soarin’ is its simplicity. It doesn’t try to do too much. It combines the best of subtle but effective ride motion with an IMAX-like film experience, and throws in a few extras like smells and wind. It’s not a thrill ride, but it’s also not for the faint of heart. It offers a scenic flight over the Golden State, set to the tune of one of the most powerful ride scores ever created. I would never go so far as to suggest that any one ride is or will be popular with every single guest, but the mere fact that I have to mention this disclaimer should give an indication of how highly I regard it. Its execution is remarkable, and it easily one of the most noteworthy “new classics”.
That being said, this fervor seems a little funny to me, and perhaps to other Disneyland regulars. Don’t get me wrong, we love Soarin’ Over California. It is one of the most popular rides in the entire resort, let alone California Adventure. But this is one of those rare instances where a clone is perhaps more beloved than the original. I certainly don’t have any ridership data to back that up, but if you just walk into these two parks, you’ll see what I mean. Soarin’ in Anaheim is beloved, but Soarin’ at Epcot is apparently blowing peoples’ minds.
The best indication of that is the extensive wait time you’ll almost always find here. No Fastpass is more sought after than this one. You’ll be lucky if you find a wait less than an hour, and even luckier if you find a Fastpass available after 3pm. Fortunately the Epcot wait time boards helpfully also list the return window if they are, so you can plan accordingly before you trudge your way to the pavilion and descend into the madness.
We ended up getting “only” a few rides throughout the week. Usually it was just too much to contend with unless arriving for the opening of the park. Flying standby can supposedly be pretty tortuous, thanks mostly to the bare (the immersion doesn’t start before you’re in your seat) – and long – queue. We tried that once during a morning EMH and it was quite the trek even when walk-on. The rest of the time it was Fastpass, which saves a good chunk of time, as you would hope. I can’t say this version is any better or worse, but I feel like I’m fighting twice the crowd for essentially the same experience. I wouldn’t dare make the trip to Epcot without a couple of rides, but I’ll be extra grateful the next time I’m making an evening visit to California Adventure, and there are Fastpasses available at 6pm.
Living with the Land
In something of a stark contrast of new and old, Living with the Land is an example of what Epcot seemed to be all about when it first opened – learning. Fortunately, that has gone by the wayside to some extent, and throwbacks like this attraction are regarded as a welcome change of pace rather than another boring lecture ride.
The slow moving boat ride is all about agriculture and mixes both dark ride elements at the beginning with an automated tour of a series of greenhouses. There’s nothing especially compelling about the attraction, though it’s a pleasant ride being both scenic and informative. It’s a must for anyone who has (or wants) a green thumb, and if nothing else is a chance to literally see your salad before it’s on your plate. I wouldn’t make a special trip just to see this, but if you’re here for lunch (or, yes, Soarin’) it’s a relaxing respite, even if you have to drag your kids on. It’s safe to expect little to no wait.
Did Not Experience:
Circle of Life – This is apparently a film with our friends from the Lion King teaching us all about how to treat the environment well. I don’t have anything personally against the promotion of conservation and symbiosis; we just didn’t get around to it. During our early visits to the Land, there was too much else to see in Epcot to spend time here. Later in the week, we were a bit “filmed-out” thanks to World Showcase. Maybe we missed out, and maybe we’ll catch it next time, but I’m doubtful on both.
Sunshine Seasons Food Fair – We caught a late lunch here and were surprised to see the place still hopping. It had come recommended, both for the food quality and variety. Both were up to par, as I hit the grill and had some rotisserie chicken and Megan had a tuna salad on a croissant. Not the cheapest meal, but a huge step up from both the usual fast-food places and other cafeteria-style eateries.
Journey into Imagination with Figment
It would seem that I missed out on quite the Disney controversy. Down for refurbishment during my previous visit in early 1999, it was apparently being changed into an attraction that eats babies and steals your wallet. The original version was a lighthearted and memorable tour of imagination led by the Dreamfinder and accompanied by his friend Figment. Both were gone when the “upgrade” opened in late 1999, and guests were not happy, or so I hear.
What you will ride today is a redo of the redo, an attempt to appease Disney purists by returning Figment and his catchy tune, while still awkwardly tying the theme to the Imagination Institute from the attraction next door. That tie-in is so convincing that I had to ask a cast member in the middle of the queue to make sure I was headed for the Imagination ride, and not the theater.
What remains is an interesting take on a classic, though I get the feeling many would prefer the original. Besides that weird purple dragon guy and the song, you’d barely recognize the place. I don’t know that there was anything particularly redeeming about the ride that would justify such an ado, but not every Kitchen Kabaret can be replaced with a Soarin’. It wasn’t bad, and it did have a few redeeming elements (especially the unloading station, seriously). It’s worth a ride, though steer clear of guests in the queue muttering on about travesties and abominations. Assuming there’s even anyone in the queue, that is.
The only thing I’m upset about is that the Rainbow Corridor is no more, along with a lot of the original post-show elements. There are more than a few in its place today, but they’ve all been update along with the ride and have little regard for nostalgia. I’m not sure what it was about that tunnel, but it stood out in my memory more than anything else at Epcot for decades. As a matter of fact, it still does.
Did not experience:
Honey I Shrunk the Audience – We don’t even see this anymore when we visit Disneyland.
Universe of Energy
This pavilion and its sole tenant, Ellen’s Energy Adventure, were down for refurbishment. A minor bummer, though it’s only slightly greater in scope than Living with the Land on the other side of Future World. Not a headliner, but another “edutainment” option for those looking to learn while on rides. I find they’re usually worth a spin.
Wonders of Life
Wiped off the face of the map. That’s right; this former pavilion isn’t even listed, and has gone from seasonal operation to non-operation. In fact, rumor has it that attractions are being pulled out, and it’s only used to meeting space for special events. I vaguely recall (and even more vaguely miss) Body Wars, which was Star Tours meets Innerspace. The fate of this pavilion is still unknown, though it doesn’t look especially promising.
On the site of what used to be the Horizons pavilion, M:S is Epcot’s second foray into the realm of thrill rides, and for some people, it may have hit the mark a little too hard. Quite possibly the most infamous Disney attraction, it has seen thousands of guests become sick to their stomachs, and even a pair of deaths (due to pre-existing conditions, mind you). In fact, part of the thrill for new riders even today is the fear of nausea. As you can imagine, this ride is obviously not for your average Disney guests, and it took both Disney and guests an unfortunately long time to figure that out.
The ride premise is simple, and not all that different from Space Mountain – you’re going into space. The difference is that the focus is on simulating the experience, instead of “pretending.” The Magic Kingdom is for suspension if disbelief, Future World is for modeling technology. Instead of coaster cars on tracks, your mission is taken in a cramped capsule attached to a centrifuge, not unlike the training equipment for actual astronauts. Spinning is the name of the game, and it’s done so in sync with the action on your personal video screen. The voyage is made somewhat interactive by a slew of buttons and switches, though they don’t do a thing, and each ride is exactly the same.
Some two and a half years after opening, Disney wised-up and began offering a non-spinning version of the ride. Same story, same film, same buttons, no nausea. This was a huge benefit for everyone. Non-thrill seekers could finally experience without fear, and the adrenaline junkies among us could now ride without the frequent delays to “swab the deck”. You’ll still find the “space sickness bags” in every cabin, but now that folks appear to realize what they’re getting into, there is significantly less of a need for them.
The ride itself is certainly intense, and it’s intense in an amazingly novel way. The point of the spinning isn’t to get you dizzy like the Teacups, it’s to recreate the tremendous G-forces that would otherwise be completely impractical. If you follow the instructions by keeping your head back and not looking to the side, you’ll probably be in good shape. Disobey, and you will feel the spinning for sure.
But before this low-intensity option, everyone unwittingly hopped aboard for this novel thrill ride. And I sincerely think that was the primary problem. It’s not as though the intense side is too intense, it’s that the average rider couldn’t handle it. Imagine the average guest going on Rock n Rollercoaster with no understanding of what the ride entailed. People know what looping rollercoaster means. They don’t, however, quite get the picture of exactly what an industrial centrifuge can do.
The distinction is now made perfectly clear, and we were gleefully sure to avoid the non-spinning side. This is one of those attractions that is best the first time around thanks to the impressive story immersion. That, and there’s no way to describe the feeling until you’re strapped into your seat. The initial lift-off was very disorienting for a fraction of a second, but soon became the fun (and not nauseating) launch into space we were hoping for. You get a couple hits of some impressive G-forces, and if you’ve correctly gauged your body’s tolerance, you’ll want to do it all over again.
This was the first ride to take over an entire pavilion, the former World of Motion. But no sponsorship issues, here General Motors wanted to work with Disney to bring some excitement to Epcot. There’s no better example of thrills meeting education, though neither is taken to any extreme level. It’s Disney’s version of both, and that makes it quite popular.
GM is kind enough to take us along for a ride through one of their vehicle testing facilities, and rarely will you find a more elaborate queue. Of course, bypassing it via the Fastpass or single rider line is highly recommended, we did the former for both rides, though the 40 standby minute wait may have been made a bit more bearable amidst all the testing equipment and active displays. Through the pre-show room and into the ride queue, and you’re aboard a high-tech six-seater for a unique ride.
You’re pretty much told exactly what’s to come in the pre-show, some performance tests - hills, bumps, brakes, some environmental tests, hairpin turns, and a trip outside through some high-speed banked curves. The education is minimal, and while windy, the speed loops are more “driving with your windows down” than “extreme thrill ride”. It’s an exhilarating trip that’s suitable for pretty much the whole family, and hopefully thrill seekers will be able to appreciate the impressive ride technology even if they have to settle for the Disney take on an adrenaline rush.
Back to the top
Once you’ve had your fill of cutting edge technology and corporate tie-ins, it’s time to take a trip to a more laid-back place, a land of culture, history, and circle-vision theaters. Here in the adult-swim portion of Disney World, you can find fine dining, street performances, musical acts, and more funny hats than any normal person would care to wear. In what leans slightly more towards stereotyping than outward racism, we can get a brief glimpse into everything you’ve always wondered about some of our international neighbors, or at least whatever you catch in the 20 minutes it takes you to finish your drink.
Apparently Disney has a standing invitation to nations to join their hallowed Showcase, and a couple have joined since the park’s opening in 1982. What we have today is a tour of the countries which have decided to participate in this exhibition, any of which is worthy of a real-life visit in its own right. In fact, most are sponsored at least in part by their respective tourism councils.
Now some may scoff at the idea of a visit to Epcot as exposure to any real international culture, and that’s certainly a fair criticism. Taking this tour here is in no way like visiting these countries and exploring them first-hand. It is not as meaningful, it is not as authentic, and it is not as dynamic. But on the other hand, it is not as expensive, it is not as dangerous, and it doesn’t require taking a slew of vacation days. In reality, no one should treat this as though they are literally stepping onto foreign soil – much in the way no one thinks they’re stepping into the past in Frontierland. It’s all for show, and at least it’s a good show. The cast members are all natives, the food is as bona fide as the international chefs who created it, and the music and dance capture much of the cultural authenticity.
Once you make the surprisingly long walk out of Future World, you will find that you didn’t actually go that far, stopping first at our neighbor to the south. The centerpiece is a Mesoamerican pyramid directly across from a cantina on the edge of the lagoon. The Cantina de San Angel has typical Mexican counter fare, though we visited only for margaritas and churros. If a frozen adult beverage is all you’re after, there is a quick-service hut a further bit down on the left, and they come in a variety of colors and flavors. Sorry to report, while they give you the option of salt, everything comes frozen, nothing on the rocks.
Inside the pyramid is a very convincing marketplace shrouded in twilight, overlooked by (another) pyramid and a smoking volcano. Knick-knacks aplenty here, including sombreros, ceramic skulls, and everyone’s favorite: ball in a cup. Also inside is the San Angel Inn, a more upscale sit-down eatery. One of only two pavilions with an actual ride, you can hop aboard the Gran Fiesta Tour, a slow moving boat dark ride.
You set sail past the restaurant, not unlike how Pirates charmingly passes the Blue Bayou in Disneyland, and you help the Three Caballeros (Donald Duck and two other bird characters you won’t recognize) track each other down amidst all the excitement that Mexico has to offer. The grand finale is something almost out of Small World, but exponentially more tolerable. No reason you shouldn’t stop by and walk right on, but make sure you finish your frosty beverage, as I learned there are no drinks allowed in the queue – not that you’d have any more time to finish it there.
I’m not sure why, but this always seems like the natural place to start. Something about going counter-clockwise through the World Showcase feels wrong, but that may just be because the rides are on this side, and who doesn’t like starting a walking tour with a salty beverage. No one, that’s who.
From the sunny south to the wintry north, we head to Scandinavia (though no mention of Denmark or Sweden). A quick stop in Kringla Bakeri og Kafe will score you a sweet treat, though we settled for a Carlsberg (though technically Danish). There are, as you will come to expect, quite a few shops along this street scene, and a character dining experience we wanted nothing to do with. Instead we would spend our time on Maelstrom, the more elaborate of the two World Showcase boat rides.
We queued up standby for this twice, thanks both times to Future World Fastpasses, but found a manageable wait. While it’s not the most captivating experience in the park, there’s not much else to choose from ride-wise on this side, so keep an eye out for wait times not uncommonly up to and even over 30 minutes.
The boat journey begins up an ominous lift hill, though with a humorously accented narrator. Speaking of humor, check out the impressive mural over the boarding area. I try to fight these insensitive thoughts, but those sure are some serious beards. The rest of the ride is a mildly thrilling dark ride past trolls, living trees, and an oil platform. There is a drop or two, and part of the trip is even taken backwards – almost out onto the street. But don’t worry, you’ll end up safely back in a quiet harbor town, where you’ll have to wait up for 5 minutes to see a post-show film. Uh, Norway, if you want to force people to watch a film, I suggest you do it before the ride. Most people walk right through the theater, past the uncomfortable chairs and out the exit. We watched it the first time and skipped it the second, and were ok with that.
I suppose there was one small detail that I thought a bit strange. There is barely a mention of snow or cold, other than a polar bear and a selection of winter coats in the ride exit shop. I suppose they expect people to visit during the two warm weeks of the year. Otherwise, they may be severely disappointed (and frostbitten).
One of the more scenic of the already beautiful pavilions, China has a few impressive views to offer. Not only are the gardens and ponds beautiful, but the detailed temple (which serves as the entrance to the theater lobby) is quite impressive. Here we find our first of several films, Reflections of China, which is in a circle-vision theater, meaning you stand between (or more likely lean against) handrails in the center of a 360 degree screen. The film is very nice, and captures much of the stunning vastness and variety that this country has to offer. Like all of the World Showcase films, they are most certainly recommended, at least if you’ve never seen them before. Odds are you likely won’t find a wait.
We visited the Lotus Blossom Café, which is a great counter-service option for grabbing a snack and a drink if you’re on the go. Nine Dragons is a full-service restaurant that comes highly regarded, though we settled for some egg rolls and plum wine instead.
No special attractions here, just the usual food and shopping options. There are plenty of great shops, and the platz will make you feel like you’re in Rhineland. For those looking for a little entertainment with their sit-down meal, there is the Biergarten Restaurant which features live music, dancers, and is probably just like Munich. Again we settled for lighter fare, some brats, beers, and pretzels at Sommerfest. Don’t forget to take a moment to check out the model train village. It’s a very nice touch, though they don’t let you play with it.
Much in the same vein as Germany, you’ve got shops and eateries here too, and monuments that help set the scene. While they don’t let you climb the bell tower, you are more than welcome to toss a coin into the Neptune Fountain. Tutto Italia is one of premier restaurants in the park, but we spent our quick visit sipping on Prosecco and Pinot Grigio. Yes, we’ve got a theme going – don’t be so surprised.
The America Adventure
Not just another country, but a whole adventure waits here. Sort of. Here we see the good ol' USA in colonial form, complete with militia bands and a cappella singers. The main event is one of the more impressive and complex animatronic stage shows you will ever see, but before you check it out, there are some other diversions. You can shop it up at Heritage Manor Gifts, or get a quick meal at Liberty Inn – both of which offer ridiculously American fare. We caught a beer – a surprisingly good special brew from Anheuser-Busch – at one of the many drink/snack stands that every country seems to graciously offer.
In the elaborate lobby of the theater, the Voices of Liberty help pass the wait until showtime. They’re not a bad choir, about as good as you would expect from “theme park” singers. The crowd will gather up by the rope in the back right portion of the hall, climb some stairs, and form another line at the theater doors upstairs. Don’t worry about getting a seat; it fits over 1000, though you might want to do the usual pushing-and-shoving if you’re picky about it.
The show is impressive, at least from a technical standpoint. Each scene is a set of animatronic characters reliving important milestones of American history. Ben Franklin and Mark Twain introduce us to icons from the Revolutionary War, through the Industrial Revolution, and almost up to today (which is actually a film montage in the end). It really takes Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln and The Hall of Presidents to a whole new level, and this certainly will amaze you if you enjoy either of those attractions. And for those who can take or leave the “you sit, animatronics perform” type of attractions, I still think you’ll be impressed.
The plot itself is adequate enough; it has the usual World Showcase treatment of glossing over some of the low points in history but captures much of the essence. I can only imagine what foreigners must think of the whole spectacle though. It is by no stretch of the imagination over the top. But we wouldn’t have it any other way, would we?
In the mold of Germany and Italy, you’ll have to settle for food, drink, shopping, and street performances here. The Mitsukoshi department store is quite extensive and worth a peek, even if you have no clue what all the weird characters are. Teppan Edo is the full-service restaurant, though our visit comprised of grabbing a Kirin at Yakitori House.
No film here either, but some impressive themeing and detail of the only African country in the Showcase (you can blame Animal Kingdom for that). You can try on a fez in one of the shops, or try some great shawarma at Tangierine Café – both of which come personally recommended. Heck, have a glass of Moroccan wine while you’re at it, and keep an eye out for Jasmine and Aladdin. If you’re brave enough for a more formal meal, try Restaurant Marrakesh, complete with Belly Dancers. We didn’t go, but we’re hoping they discourage audience participation.
Of all the countries in Epcot, we had most recently been to France, so it was something of a homecoming. Great food, amazing wine, and waiters who seem vaguely annoyed by your presence. In addition to the shops, they have a theater, though with a more traditional flat screen. It’s a terrific film highlighting much of the countryside – beaches, mountains, river valleys – showing there’s a lot more to the place than just Paris. The footage is superb, and may be our favorite of the three, even if it doesn’t go the full 360 degrees.
Your dining options are just as terrific, try the quick Boulangerie Pâtisserie, the quintessential Parisian café, Chefs de France, or aim for some high cuisine at Bistro de Paris. Climb the spiraled stairs and you’ll feel like you’re entering Club 33, a pleasant, but not snobbishly formal setting fancier than anything in our budget allowed while we were in France. Check out the restaurant reviews for the details of our dinner there. Exquisite.
Finally, back to a country where they speak English (sort of). Just kidding, while we heard many a native language spoken around the lagoon between cast members, everyone was more than happy to point you to the bathroom in good old English. See how unauthentic Epcot is? Either way, the highlight of the UK is much the same as the highlight of actually being there – pulling up to the bar and having a pint.
Of course there are customary shopping and dining options, but the Rose & Crown Pub is definitely the place to be. You’ll find eager visitors just starting their international alcoholic trek, or others who are winding it down. Either way, you’re amongst friends, and while you may have to fight for a chair, you’re free to put your beverage in a to go cup and take a stroll. Just note, this is one of the few spots in the theme parks that actually has a full bar. You can choose your poison, but do keep in mind you’re still at Disney World. For what it’s worth, I never did see anyone overtly or excessively intoxicated, but if there’s one place I’d think they’d be, it would be right here. Oh, and another reason it’s so great – no kids allowed.
Finishing up the grand circle tour (or starting it out, if you’re completely backwards), we have our neighbor to the north. The main draws are O Canada!, the other circle-vision film, and La Cellier Steakhouse, another prime Epcot eatery. The movie is in the back of the pavilion, amidst a rugged recreation of the Canadian Rockies. It’s been recently redone, and now stars Martin Short (an Ontario native himself) as the host. Lots of great landscape to see, but it also highlights a handful of urban centers. While I recognized most because of their NHL teams, it’s a good film and a bit more light-hearted than the other entries.
La Cellier is up there with the best of the World Showcase, and will most certainly be on our itinerary for the next visit. This time around, we had a Labatt and listened to the rock stylings of Off Kilter. I’m not sure of the connection between kilts and Canada, but it was pretty interesting to hear a bagpipe in a rock ‘n’ roll band.
IllumNations: Reflections of Earth
After you’ve traveled the world and been to the future, it’s time to bring it all together by, what else, watching some awesome fireworks. While this nighttime show has gone through a good number of changes over the decades, it remains true to its original design – fireworks, music, lasers, and that weird globe video screen in the center of it all.
IllumiNations is easily on par with the other nighttime spectaculars. It’s not nearly as story-driven as Fantasmic, or pyrotechnically impressive as the fireworks at the Magic Kingdom, but there are a handful of show elements that makes it completely unique. First is a relatively new addition, a flame spewing Inferno Barge, which is said to provide the campfire for the evening’s tale. Even the fires I’ve started with gasoline don’t look like this, and on the cold night we had it was a welcome burst of warmth even from halfway across the lagoon.
You’ve got impressive water fountains, great lighting effects, and some nice fireworks, all synchronized perfectly to a musical score. As I said, the tunes and choreography have changed a great deal over time, but it still packs quite a punch, and the Earth Globe has come a long way too. It’s still a ways away and not exactly huge at that distance, but the new LED screen offers a much more vivid picture. It’s a great way to end your day, and a more than fitting finale for such a unique place.