The Vacation Kingdom of the World: O Canada!by Tom Richards, contributing writer
Reflecting on the benefits of travel, French novelist Gustave Flaubert once said, "Travel makes one modest. You see what a tiny place you occupy in the world." This sentiment aptly describes the experience of visiting Disney's tribute to Canada in Epcot's World Showcase. With its soaring mountains, cascading falls, towering totem poles, stately Hotel du Canada, and vast Victoria Gardens, the Canadian Pavilion certainly meets Flaubert's observation that travel reminds us of our smallness in comparison to the great, wide world. Join us now as we visit one of Epcot's original pavilions dedicated to our northern neighbor, Canada.
There are two approaches to Canada: one through the gardens and one through the more rugged northern lands. We'll start by the huge boulders, towering totems, and the rough-hewn timbers that portray areas of northwestern Canada, such as the Northwest Territories or the Yukon Territory. Guests stroll past groves of leafy trees as they approach the staircase that leads to the pavilion's first level. In addition to the detailed recreations of totem poles, the main attractions at this point are the two shops, Northwest Mercantile and the Trading Post. As their names imply, you can expect to find lots of maple syrup, some sweatshirts and t-shirts emblazoned with Canadian icons, and a fine selection of plush animals such as moose, bear, raccoon, wolves, elk, and eagles. The shop is attractive and cozy, but the selection of merchandise is sadly limited. Gone are the Roots brand clothes and fragrances, the authentic Inuit soapstone and marble carvings, the teepees and totem poles, and the selection of moccasins and leather goods. Still, my kids never fail to find something here—a plush Husky and an amusing book about Canadian Black Bears were our latest treasures.
Climbing further, guests encounter the Hotel du Canada, patterned after the Château Laurier in Ottawa built in the French Gothic style. This attractive building is particularly pretty at nightfall, when its many turrets and roofs are lined with white lights. At one time, in the mid 1990s, there was a small shop located inside the Hotel. It featured fine gifts like jewelry and designer fragrances in addition to a fine selection of Anne of Green Gables books and dolls. It was one of those little hidden gems that once graced so many of the nooks and crannies around the Walt Disney World property.
The rock-work surrounding the Hotel, fashioned to represent the Canadian Rocky Mountains, is superb. If the weather is temperate, this is a wonderful place to explore. The forced perspective works perfectly here. Despite the fact that the Swan, the Dolphin, and the Soarin' show building skew the perspective from far away, once inside the pavilion the unspoiled genius of the original designers shines. Climbing the many paths, narrow bridges, and waterfalls provides one of those "getting away from it all" moments so rare in theme parks today.
Tucked inside the rockwork, guests will find the CircleVision 360 film O Canada! The waiting area is cool, dark, and atmospheric—a welcome respite from the Florida heat and sun. The theater itself is much like the one in China and the one once found at the Magic Kingdom. While I prefer the original version of the O Canada! film, with its true 360 filming, the lovely scenes inside a cathedral in Montreal, the dazzling close-ups of flowers and wildlife, and its lack of forced humor, the newer version is not nearly as bad as I remembered it. There are still some memorable scenes of Canada's beauty and diversity, and there are many of the breathtaking 360-degree sequences from the original. Martin Short's tiresome foolishness didn't seem to bother my sons as much as it grated on my nerves. Luckily, the original song is included in the new version of the film. This time, it is sung by Canadian Idol winner Eva Avila, and it is almost as lovely as the original version.
Outside the theater, there's an inviting alcove where younger visitors are invited to interact with Canadian youth working at Epcot on the International Program. These KIDCOT areas bring the experience of international travel alive for kids. Be sure to allow some time for your younger explorers to color, chat, and learn from the young Canadian ambassadors here.
Continuing down the rocky paths, guests find themselves at the entrance to Canada's restaurant, Le Cellier. This intimate space is now one of Disney's Signature Dining Experiences, which means the prices are high and the service is superb. As its name suggests, Le Cellier is designed to resembled an old wine cellar complete with low ceilings, stone walls, heavy furniture, and warm colors and textures.
If you dine here, we recommend the hearty Canadian cheddar cheese soup, made with Moosehead Beer and applewood smoked bacon; it is filling, flavorful, and unique. When enjoyed with the complimentary basket of breads—four amazing varieties to represent four areas of Canada—this filling soup could be a meal in itself. Le Cellier's poutine is another Canadian comfort food that is salty, decadent, and delicious. The french fries are smothered in Canadian cheddar cheese, black truffle, and red wine reduction. A little bit of this side dish goes a long way; one order was more than four of us could finish. The entrees here—particularly the filet mignon and the pan-seared flounder—are pricey but excellent. The kids' meals are affordable and very good, particularly the grilled chicken and parmesan pasta.
The final stop on our Canadian tour is Victoria Gardens, one of Epcot's true marvels. Inspired by Victoria, British Columbia's Butchart Gardens, this is one of those places at Walt Disney World that exists simply for the sake of adding charm and beauty to the guest experience. It is, indeed, a thing of beauty. With its stunning flowers, charming waters, and endlessly photogenic angles, this little area provides a shining example of what makes Walt Disney World different from other travel destinations.
Far too often, the "ugly American" stereotype is perpetuated time and again by unthinking, manic American travelers rushing from place to place, expecting to find things "just like at home." Immersive visits to the pavilions of World Showcase provide opportunities to interact with the sites, sounds, tastes, and most importantly, the people from destinations far and near. After spending several hours in Epcot's Canada, my sons were so inspired that their bookshelves are now filled with books about Canadian history, geography, and wildlife. This summer we'll update our passports so should the opportunity arise, we can go to the real Canada, a place "too vast and beautiful for words to ever really tell."
That desire to experience the vast and wonderful world is, of course, the true miracle of the Vacation Kingdom of the World—it inspires our imaginations and connects us to the wider world.