Treasures of Epcotby Jeff Kober, contributing writer
In a previous article, I showcased the Treasures of Disney's Hollywood Studios. There is an impressive array of artifacts and memorabilia at the Studios, but Epcot has an even more formal showcase of museum-worthy pieces. Remember that what we're referring to here are not just props and replicas—but very much real artifacts—treasures left from centuries ago. We'll look at five of those pavilions and their offerings: Mexico, Norway, China, Japan, and Morocco. You could spend hours carefully studying the works that are offered in these five countries. Let's take a look.
Mexico – Aztec Pyramid (La Vida Antigua: Life in Ancient Mexico)
The iconic pyramid that marks the entrance to the Mexico pavilion is home to a gallery that is probably visited by more guests than all of the other galleries combined; but is still seen by as few. That's because everyone is rushing through it on their way to Plaza de los Amigos and Gran Fiesta Tour starring the Three Caballeros. All are worthy attractions, but don't miss this exhibit in passing.
These words were originally from the El Rio del Tiempo: The River of Time attraction, and means, "Welcome to the Mexico of Ancient Times." That's the focus of this exhibit, entitled La Vida Antigua: Life in Ancient Mexico. The exhibit that opened in the summer of 2012 is fairly new, but at least there's an exhibit. For a time, the gallery was gutted and given to a retailing of Oaxacan wood carvings. The carvings are now largely sold in the Plaza de los Amigos. Beautiful as the carvings were, it was a loss of an amazing space, so it's very exciting to see this space being turned back over for more important purposes.
The focus here is the lives of the people: How they raised crops, measured time, clothed themselves, built cities, and even played games—in a deadly style. Most of the displays are static, but some take you from one display to another through lighting and scrims.
Admittedly, the display is more educational than ancient. Although there are only a handful of earthen ware or figurative items, there's plenty to study. The exhibit only occupies half of the cavernous space, with a Kidcot space taking up the other half. That means that if you have small children, you can let them color while you take the exhibit in.
Developed over 3,500 years, this was known as the first team sport in history. The heavy ball thrown during the game was made of rubber, and could be deadly, if not painful, when a player was hit where their gear did not protect them. Photo by J. Jeff Kober.
Norway – Stave Church Gallery
While this is the smallest of the exhibit galleries, this is, in truth, one of the largest when you consider the facility dedicated to its use. The church is a stunning replica of the kind of medieval, wooden, Christian, church buildings of old. There are only 30 in existence today, so it's worth studying all on its own.
Inside is a current exhibit, "The Vikings: Conquerors of the Seas." From 793 until 1066, seafaring warriors from Scandinavia set sail in longboats to raid, plunder, and trade their way across Europe.
The exhibit focuses especially on three Norwegian leaders whose actions reshaped both the era as well as the social and political systems that changed the face of Europe and have survived to this day:. Erik the Red, who established the first European settlements on Greenland; Olaf, Rognvald, a raider that plundered throughout, including deep into central France; and Olaf, another raider who turned Christian and unifed the country, becoming Saint Olaf.
Additionally, there are a handful of tools on display, as well as examples of how the vikings were not only skilled warriors, but master shipbuilders. This may be a small exhibit, but is a world unto itself when you step inside the quiet, cool surroundings.
China – House of the Whispering Willows
By the time you see Wonders of China and this exhibit, you may be tempted to buy a plane ticket for China. There's so much to see, all of it fascinating. As one quotation on the wall states, "Hearing something 100 times is not as good as seeing it once."
The life-size warriors were not discovered until 1974. It's a form of funerary art that was buried with the emperor when he passed away in 210-209 BC. There were four pits excavated to hold the army, but only three were filled by the time construction ceased. Only about 1,000 soldiers have been excavated so far. The scaled presentation is only a sampling of what was created during this time.
Most of the exhibit is a scaled replica. But there are ceramic, clay and other pieces which are authentic and help paint an understanding of the China during those early dynasties. It takes patience to stop and study these pieces when so many attractions are awaiting your time and attention at Epcot. Still, if you're waiting for the next showing of Wonders of China, use it well by walking through this exhibit.
The three-story defenisve tower from the Han Dynasty rises from a moat inhabited by ducks. Archers man each corner of the middle level. The upper floor is well guarded by six bowmen, with two officials (hands clasped) standing in the doorways. Photo by J. Jeff Kober.
Japan – Bijutsu-kan: A Collection of Japanese Art
Part of the fun of this exhibit is that it's so tucked away in the back of the pavilion, so most stumble upon it unknowingly. It's a great place to get out of the heat or a summer thunderstorm. Because so few enter, it's often very tranquil. Smaller children may want to take advantage of having their name signed in Japanese by hosts and hostesses located outside of the exhibit.
The current exhibit is "Spirited Beasts: From Ancient Stories to Anime Stars," which focuses on heroic animals and magical creatures that have appeared in traditional Japanese myths, stories and art for centuries, and which in recent years have become very popular as the heroes and villains in a variety of Japanese manga comics and anime. This exhibit celebrates these "spirited beasts."
A little-known fact is that the back of this pavilion was originally dedicated to have an attraction named "Meet the World." Due to limited resources in labor and money, that pavilion ended up going only to Tokyo Disneyland, where it remained for many years. It was sort of a Japanese-style Carousel of Progress with the host being a magical crane who takes two children on a journey through time. The Japanese crane, or Tsuru, is one such celebrated creature, and is a symbol of happiness, prosperity and world peace.
Like the Mexico pavilion, surprises come from behind the scrim as the light changes. Here the painting of a Japanese tsuru unfolds to a display of paper origami cranes. It is believed that by folding 1,000 paper cranes you will be granted a wish. Photo by J. Jeff Kober.
Morocco – Gallery of Arts and History
There is a sign to this exhibit, but it may be the the most missed piece of real estate in all of Epcot. Still, the hidden gem is worthy of inspection. The current exhibit is "Moroccan Style: The Art of Personal Adornment." If you're into henna, you'll love this. but it's much, much more.
The first thing you'll notice is a horse and owner. It's called Fantasia, the name given to a equestrian extravaganza held during Moroccan festivals. Their clothing is on display.
It's fascinating that the clothing, jewelry, and adornment all have purpose and meaning. Yes, there is great craftsmanship here, but these items can also hold a more personal meaning. In one display, a red and white, hand-woven garment is tied onto a woman's body as a way to hide money or other precious items. In another, you see triangular dangling of jewelry hung around a women, which suggests the freedom found in the tail of a bird that can fly away at any time. And the art of henna? An older woman paints the hands and feet of a bride and her party while they share wisdom about married life.
Customers can easily find the water seller in the marketplace by the sight and sound of his costume. Metal cups, worn around the chest, clank so as to attract customers. The same attention is demanded by the multicolored hat with fringe and pom-poms. Photo by J. Jeff Kober.
When you're done, you may want to stop by at the Fez house out the back door. It's another location people miss, but it's a great spot to relax during the heat of the day.
Five treasures—and not one of them is quite like the other. But all are edifying and are worthy of your time. In the Imagineering Field Guide to Epcot, it was noted:
"It is imperative to us that any exhibit installed in a World Showcase gallery tell a story. It might be an important period in the history of a country. It mightbe a journey taken by a people centuries ago. It might tell us something we don't know about a particularly vibrant time ina country's history. Our curatorial focus is definitely on finding a story around which to build an exhibit. This is not a practice unique to Disney, but it is one we hold particularly valuable, and from which we never waver. Combining these two elements so central to our nature enables us to create experiences for our Guests that add layers of richness to the World Showcase."
Richness, indeed. I can't pretend that I would head to any one of these over Soarin' or TestTrack. But don't discount them—they are pearls of a great price.
If you're a fan of World Showcase, you will have noticed that we missed one of the really great—and the newest—museums of Epcot: The American Heritage Gallery. We'll cover that in another article along with the Magic Kingdom's only real gallery. Do you know what it is?