The 1.2 Mile Death March

Epcot’s World Showcase. One of the few places where you can drink around the world and never get on a plane. The World Showcase offers 11 different countries, each a cultural tribute to exotic locales around the globe, surrounding the majestic 40-acre World Showcase Lagoon. Traversing our big, blue world without leaving Florida, these countries are authentic examples of cultural immersion, offering shopping, quick- and table-service dining, entertainment, and more, jam-packed into one non-stop cultural shop. Or so it is billed.

What started as a wonderful integration from the original World’s Fair concept that had launched Walt’s career in animatronics (not to mention amusement parks, in general) has dwindled through the years to something of a worn down shadow of its former glory. No longer do the countries seem fresh and exciting; they have devolved into dated caricatures of their past selves. Everywhere within this made up world, dated theming, lackluster cuisine, and shabby decor tattle on Disney’s forgetfulness, having abandoned Epcot to rest on its nostalgic laurels. Disney has far too long relied on cheap gimmicks of food, garden or art festivals to entice visitors. In this elaborately made showpiece, the seams are starting to show- and those seams are looking a little threadbare.

To be blunt, the World Showcase needs a freshening, a complete rebranding to capture the original concept that sparked the park itself- the World’s Fair. World Fairs are known for their innovation, for highlighting the technology and culture of countries from around the globe. The original design for Epcot’s World Showcase is heavily influenced by these innovative cultural meeting places. And since this was its original conception, it seems only fitting that the World Showcase reclaim its true form, and embrace a fresh World’s Fair concept that immerses the guest in a truly inspiring global snapshot. Including a new logo, modern concepts for ambiance, and a focus on displaying each country’s innovations, the World Showcase will reinvent itself into… well, what it actually was supposed to be.

World’s Fairs have been around for quite some time. The earliest World’s Fair took place in 1851 at the Crystal Palace in London. This grand exhibition featured over 13,000 technological and scientific achievements from around the world, many of which stood as the forerunner of modern inventions in use today. Since this first fair, hundreds have taken place, each celebrating particular themes focusing on technology. These can be themes in food, transportation, computers, and more. One notable fair was the 1893 Chicago’s World’s Colombian Exposition, a utopian fantasy that featured fantastical architecture and immersive themed spaces devoted to countries from around the world. Because of the deeply intricate and immersive quality of this particular fair, Chicago transitioned the Colombian Exposition into a permanent tourist attraction, creating one of the first theme parks. These examples, as well as the many other World’s Fairs that followed, formed the basis for the technological advancements that would one day become the modern amusement park.

Walt Disney was an avid fan of World Fairs, and frequently displayed his latest and greatest innovations to delight people from all over the globe. Some of those shows became permanent exhibitions at his theme parks, the most notable being The Hall of Presidents, Carousel of Progress, and It’s A Small World. Coincidentally, Walt Disney created the concept of the “modern” amusement park when he created Disneyland in 1955. Disneyland and Walt Disney World would never have been created without Walt’s initial exhibitions at the World’s Fair.

To return to the World’s Fair is a return to Disney’s history, to Walt’s true vision. The countries of the World Showcase have been stagnated in time, a living time capsule to the 1980’s vision of world cultures. Few of these countries feature any sort of technology, and little innovation. Some updates have made through the years. The countries have had fresh paint, some new exhibits, and even a few new shows. The Norway pavilion recently undergone a complete fantasy face-lift to become the land of all things Frozen, though it is still not known if this was indeed an improvement or a force-fed character parade. But these small additions do little to reclaim the glory of what Epcot was meant to stand for. By integrating more technology and providing an authentic refashioning to these countries, Epcot is poised to reclaim its power seat as one of the top theme parks worldwide.

In addition to an infusion of technology and innovation, cohesive theming and branding is needed throughout the World Showcase to create a sleek look and integrated feel. Epcot is a bit of a mess. It has no clear vision, no cohesive ground to walk on. With a complete rebrand of the World Showcase, it will pull the countries together to create one piece, rather than a disjointed collection like it’s a world culture curio case. Looking back to the World’s Fair concept, each separate Fair featured a yearly theme and logo. Why not embrace this and drop it into Epcot? It need not last only a year, rather until the next necessary nip and tuck (so long as it is sooner than the current time line for improvements Epcot seems to utilize). By featuring a new logo and brand that can be situated boldly throughout the Showcase (in contrast to the current minimized and hardly noticeable compass rose and world plaque), there will be a cohesive integration and overall theming that presents the World’s Showcase as a unified exhibition. A fresh, modern take on the classic World’s Fair is a sure way to turn this lackluster park into an innovative gold mine.

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Salt and Pepper Shrimp Lo Mein and a Mango bubble tea from the Epcot Food and Wine Festival 2015

One of the World Showcase’s crowning glories, and really the one thing that they capitalize on for three festivals throughout the year, is the food. Each country presents their cultural dishes as an enticement not just to visit but to taste the world. And, during these festivals, food booths are added, bringing even more dishes and more countries to the original 11 country lineup. Though food is a top priority for most guests when traveling, as evidenced by many tourism studies (including my own academic work), the cuisine here remains a reminder of early theme park takes on ethnic dishes, many giving little resemblance to their real world counterparts. Some are quite close, particularly the food found in sit-down dining. However, most of what remains in the quick-service lines is far removed from “authentic.” Featuring Westernized takes on traditional (or even not traditional) dishes, many of the World Showcase’s dining remains heartless, especially when compared to their real world counterparts.

Epcot, in this one instance to give credit where credit is due, has labored to make vast improvements to their food choices. While in the past, much of the food consisted of fried, American-type foods, even within the countries themselves, now many of these areas have enhanced menus and more eateries to provide a richer food experience. Though much of it is heavily influenced for the American palate, during the food festivals in particular you see an upswing in haute cuisine throughout the World Showcase. The food served at these food festival booths is inspired by the countries from which they originate, and offer a deeper look at the individual country’s national specialties.

However, in terms of both the booths and the standard World Showcase dining itself, there is still a need for returning to traditional foods. To have a truly “authentic” food experience, guests must experience the actual food from these countries. With so many talented chefs from these represented cultures, it would be no large feat for Epcot to update their menus for the new palate, using traditional and new recipes from around the world. If the popularity of the many food festivals is any indication, this sort of authentic update would kick Epcot into the next level. More so, if these dishes are incorporated into the everyday menus of the quick- and table-service dining locations, guests would leave having a fuller, more immersive cultural experience.

With all this food in the bright Florida sun, the mixtures of alcohol and heavy foods may make people rather queasy. Which brings me to what is considered the absolute worst feature of Epcot’s World Showcase. Any guest who has ever death marched around the World Showcase can venture a quick guess at what really needs to be fixed and fast. It is hot. Blisteringly hot. Looking at the overall construction, the World Showcase spans 1.2 miles of scorching, unfiltered direct heat. What is a hearty jaunt in the cool, northern forests becomes a concrete oven in the hot, blaring Florida sun. Why more reports of heat exhaustion have not come out of Epcot is astounding. This loop is almost pure full sun exposure. And, since so many of the guests that frequent the Disney parks are children, elderly, or those who simply do not want to be fried to a crisp, it stands to reason that perhaps Disney may want to correct this potential health hazard, and offer some relief. In other words, put up some awnings.

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One area of particular note is the Italy pavilion, with its gondola bridges that are in full view of the noonday sun.

Now it stands to reason that one likely (and rather manipulative) reason for not having sun protection is to encourage guests to spend more time in the air-conditioned restaurants, shops or shows, thereby increasing revenue among these streams. Following simple logic, the longer a person stays inside a shop or restaurant, the more they will purchase. The more they purchase the more revenue the establishment makes.

Disney uses subtle manipulation techniques to encourage guest behavior. Rather than always relying on direct signage, they increase foliage or decrease lighting in off-stage areas to encourage guests to feel that certain areas are forbidden to tourists. In another classic example, Disney publishes padded wait times, where they add time to the wait time shown. They do this so that guests feel a sense of relief when the wait is actually shorter than listed, and are therefore happy with the “efficiency” and “speed” of Disney’s magic. These are just a few of the many techniques Disney has in effect, so it is likely that the unabated sun exposure is simply another, albeit dangerous, manipulation by the Disney puppet masters.

Awnings in this case are not the awnings found on the side of a Winnebago. In the example suggested, these awnings are sweeping works of art, focusing on movement, color and theming. Each country would have uniquely designed shading that matches the intricate theming of the space. Norway would have Viking or traditional Sami carvings. Mexico can feature Mayan or Aztec inspired works. Each country would be represented in their respective canopy. This is not to say that these awnings would cover the expanse of the trek around the concrete jungle. Rather, they will be placed appropriately throughout to offer subtle shading without altering the overall ambiance of the location.

Night brings an enchanting expansion of twinkle lighting within the coverings as only Disney does best, incorporated into a carpet of stars in the sky above as guests stroll through the structures around the lagoon. During the nighttime fireworks show, these lights would interact with the show, adding another, deeper level of wonder to the already fantastic experience. With so many LED options already utilized by Disney, the lighting can illuminate in waves of colors to reflect the countries they represent, correspond to the show, or even mimic fireworks. The inclusion of these awnings provide the much needed shade during the day (complete with solar powered fans, strategically positioned so as not to obscure views), and a majestic, immersive experience at night.

By making a few key upgrades, Epcot would be poised to, once again, stand the test of time. This park remains a favorite among guests. But without change, Epcot’s nostalgia will remain in the past. The idea of the incorporating a World’s Fair atmosphere unites the countries by showcasing their innovations, cuisine, art, music, and more. Making a cohesive brand within Epcot’s World Showcase would connect these countries into one piece, while maintaining the innovative individuality of each host country. Moreover, by improving the food through providing authentic cuisine in a pleasantly cooler walking environment, Disney would stand to increase both their overall appeal and their bank account. By embracing and updating the World Showcase, Disney would bring Epcot into the future, by returning to its original concepts from the past. A sight that Walt would certainly enjoy.

Adios, mi amigos! See you next time! Hasta la vista!”- ending dialogue, Gran Fiesta Tour Starring The Three Caballeros in the Mexico pavilion.

See ya’ real soon!

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