The Story of the Norway Pavilion: Before Frozenby Jim Korkis, contributing writer
For some readers who want to know where I find all the information for articles like this one on the Norway Pavilion, I spent several years as coordinator of Epcot's College and International programs, so I had access to material and people in the World Showcase typically unavailable to the general Disney fan.
In addition, I was also a frequent instructor of the Hidden Treasures of World Showcase tour, back in the day, when manager Kaye Bundey required an entire week of training for all instructors, as well as mandatory quarterly all-day update classes.
One of the gifts I received from a grateful participant was a little-known 64-page book, completely in Norwegian, titled Norge i Epcot by Kjell Brataas published in 1998 (Norbra Publications, ISBN: 82-992184-6-2), a very nicely done book and deserving of an English translation, as so many other foreign books about Disney are.
Fortunately, working at Epcot, I was able to get some translation help so that I can share some of that information with all of you here. While it documents Brataas' time as a cultural representative (including how to answer questions from guests like "Are all of you who work here really from Norway?"), it also covers the early history of the pavilion from a Norwegian viewpoint and is filled with full color photos.
This month, the Norway pavilion will be significantly transformed from its original design so I thought it would be nice to document the original pavilion.
On September 12, 2014, Disney announced the Maelstrom attraction in the Norway Pavilion in World Showcase would be closed on October 5 and renovated as a new attraction called Frozen Ever After, following the same general infrastructure of the original ride.
Frozen Ever After's story line is that Queen Elsa, now comfortable with her frosty powers, decides to playfully create a "summer snow day" for guests in Arendelle.
Queen Elsa, Princess Anna, Kristoff, Olaf, the trolls, and Marshmallow (the giant snowman) join guests on their boat journey through the frozen willow forest, past Troll Valley, and up to the North Mountain to Elsa's ice palace. The attraction ends in the Bay of Arendelle.
Along the way, state-of-the-art Audio-Animatronics, including Sven the reindeer, are in the new scenes, as well as elements from the animated short Frozen Fever (2015) including the Snowgies, the mini-snow creatures created from Elsa's sneezes.
Composers Bobby Lopez and Kristen Anderson-Lopez created new lyrics to the original Frozen (2013) film songs they wrote, and all of the original voice talent from the film returned and recorded new dialogue and songs for the attraction.
After disembarking from the ride, guests have an opportunity to meet the regal sisters in the cozy Royal Sommerhus. Inspired by a cabin in the countryside of Norway, as well as a hotel in Oslo where the Imagineers stayed, the sisters Elsa and Anna have opened their summer home filled with the folk art of rosemaling to greet guests.
"The original animated film was heavily influenced by Norwegian culture and the filmmakers conducted extensive research in Norway," said Imagineer Wyatt Winter, who worked on the new attraction. "Our team began our process in the same manner, visiting places in Norway that heavily influenced our work. While there's clearly a Frozen twist to our story, honoring the culture and traditions of Norway was always among our guiding principles."
Disney is emphasizing that while Arendelle is a fictional Scandinavian location (like the Arabian fictional city of Agrabah in 1992's Aladdin), the hope will be to inspire guests to become more interested in Norway by using Nordism details throughout the new areas.
The story behind Norway coming to the Epcot in the first place is fascinating.
As early as 1979, the Disney Company was in discussions with the country of Denmark for a pavilion at World Showcase. At one time, it was intended to be located in an area between France and the United Kingdom and then when the waterway canal was proposed, the potential pavilion was moved to approximately where China is today. As late as 1983, Disney was still in discussions with LEGO to help fund the pavilion.
For a variety of reasons, including avoiding political agendas and having access to a work force from a particular country, Disney sought sponsorships from companies that operated within the countries. Some sponsors for country pavilions were immediately found, while others dragged on for years and never came to fruition, including ones for Costa Rica, Spain, Equatorial Africa and Russia.
Still hoping that the negotiations would be successful, Disney went ahead and built the outdoors bathrooms for the Danish pavilion to be available at the October 1982 opening, since the plan was that every other pavilion would have an easily accessible outdoor restroom (Norway, Germany, American Adventure, Morocco, United Kingdom) skipping the pavilions in between (Mexico, China, Italy, Japan, France, Canada) that would only have restrooms in the restaurants.
In addition, it was necessary to have these bathrooms in the empty area open and operating, especially since the plumbing infrastructure was in place and it would be more expensive later to incorporate it. Those restrooms blended in easily when the area was transformed into a Norway pavilion.
In 1983, it was determined that the pavilion would be devoted not just to Denmark but to include Sweden and Norway and would open in 1987. However, Norway was the only country able to obtain the necessary funding.
It was the Norwegian company Selmer-Sande and Kloster that first started the work of a Scandinavian pavilion in Epcot. They established ScanShow (Scandinavian Showcase) and started working on the plans for a showcase that would celebrate Nordic culture.
The pavilion was meant to have architecture from all the three countries that were originally approached. Egeskov Castle and some houses from Odense and Copenhagen would symbolize Denmark, while Sweden would be represented with Stockholm Stadshus and buildings from the Gamla Stan.
Right from the beginning, it was clear that the buildings representing Norway were going to be the Bryggen i Bergen and Akershus Festning, and they were prominent in the pavilion when it finally opened.
The shareholders in NorShow were Aker, Norsk Data, Norway Foods, Den norske Creditbank, Det Norske Veritas, Frionor, Kosmos, Vesta Group, Selmer-Sande, SAS and VARD.
Norwegian Showcase was a consortium of these 11 companies established to pay for the pavilion and represent Norwegian interests. The Norwegian government also helped pay for the pavilion.
NorShow president Gunnar Jerman said his organization contributed $34 million for the pavilion. The figure included a $2 million contribution from the Norwegian government and an $8 million government loan to NorShow.
Basically, NorShow put up more than two-thirds of the construction cost for the pavilion with Disney picking up the tab for the rest or roughly one-third.
The company battled cost overruns because WDI designed and built the entire pavilion, even though Scandinavian architects were involved, as well, and in doing so, overhead costs became inflated. The final cost of the pavilion was estimated at close to $46 million.
Norway did not pay Disney the extra costs to hook it up to the grid for the night time fireworks extravaganza so the pavilion would light up. Norway assumed that the spilled light from Mexico and China pavilions would illuminate the pavilion adequately without incurring additional expenses to an already antiquated system. Disney refused to pick up the added expense either, assuming that NorShow would eventually acquiesce until it was too late.
Jerman said NorShow shared any profit from sales of food and souvenirs. The first $3.2 million in profit went to NorShow, and the next $400,000 to Disney. After that, NorShow kept 60 percent of all profit and Disney received 40 percent.
In December 1985 the final economical contracts were signed. On May 29, 1986 the foundation was laid by Minister Kurt Mosbakk. Architect Birger Lambertz-Nilsen had the responsibility for the exterior, while Ulla S. Hjort had responsibility for the interior design of the pavilion.
By the way, the first Norwegian to ever work in Epcot was Truls Christensen, the son of NorShow chairman Lars A. Christensen. He started in 1985 as part of the cultural representative program and sold pretzels in the German pavilion, then moved to working in the Odyssey restaurant, then Germany again, and he finished his year driving the double-decker bus around World Showcase Lagoon.
The Norway Pavilion was the 11th and final (so far) country added to Epcot's World Showcase. It had a "soft opening" on May 6, 1988 with the stores and the Akershus restaurant (on many days) open for business.
The roughly 90,000-square-foot site had 58,000-square-foot interior space for shops and restaurants. The Norway pavilion was designed to look like a Norwegian village.
The village included a detailed Stave church, based on one from 1212 A.D. that was preserved in the Norwegian Folk Museum in Oslo. In the 12th and 13th centuries, more than 800 stave churches were built eventually reaching a peak of more than 1,300.
Unfortunately, most were destroyed for a variety of reasons or fell apart from neglect, because the wood couldn't continually withstand the harsh Norwegian weather. Today, only about two dozen Stave churches remain.
The exterior of Restaurant Akershus resembled its namesake fortress in Oslo. Four styles of Norwegian architecture were showcased to represent the different areas of the country: Setesdal, Bergen, Oslo and Ålesund. The architecture of the Gallery and the Puffin's Roost show the inland farm log-construction of Setesdal. The Fjording shop with its gabled windows captures the spirit of Bergen; the Akershus represents Oslo and Ålesund is typified by the white stucco and stone trimmed Informasjon and Maelstrom buildings.
The official opening and dedication of the Norway Pavilion was on Friday June 3, 1988. Crown Prince (now King since 1991) Harald V and his wife Sonja of Norway dedicated the location.
There was a live prime-time television broadcast of the ceremonies to all of Norway on NRK (basically the Norwegian Broadcasting Company, the largest media company in the country).
"Ladies and gentlemen, wishing the best of luck to Disney World and those who will be responsible for the operation of the pavilion, I hereby declare the Norway pavilion open. Thank you," stated Crown Prince Harald to an enthusiastic crowd as he went to join the rest of the seated dignitaries.
To the pre-recorded sound of the song "When you Wish Upon a Star" (supplemented by a live chorus dressed in the pavilion's costumes and a marching band clad in black), the World Showcase dancers clad in white and gold costumes performed on the promenade in front of the pavilion.
There was the release of red, white and blue balloons (the colors of the Norwegian flag) from the top of the building housing the Maelstrom attraction followed by fireworks from the same location.
"We think the pavilion will make Norway much better known," NorShow president Gunnar Jerman said.
The much anticipated Maelstrom attraction did not open until roughly a month later on July 5 causing Orlando Sentinel writer Vicki Vaughan to write the headline story: "Norway Pavilion Opens--Without Viking Ride."
"A major part of the pavilion -- a Viking ship thrill ride -- will not open until midsummer because of unspecified problems, Disney officials said. Jeff Burton, project manager for Walt Disney Imagineering, Disney's design arm, would not say exactly what the glitches are in the ride, which will take visitors through a journey up and down water ramps through simulated Norwegian fjords, a Viking village, and a storm on the North Sea."
The glitches included the riders getting soaked during the North Sea storm and, sometimes, even thrown out of the boat, which happened to a Norwegian television reporter who fell out of the boat when he tested it at the opening day ceremonies.
Disney Imagineer Randy Bright stated, "Norway will present several firsts for this organization as a ride. It's the first ride that actually goes backwards, and the first ride that will utilize Audio-Animatronics in a black light environment."
An Epcot press release at the time described the attraction as "Visitors take a fantasy voyage that departs a modern-day village on a Norwegian fjord and journeys up a cascading waterway into the Norway of old. The trip is aboard small ships patterned after the dragon-headed craft of Eric the Red and his fellow explorers."
The boats were some of the first concept art work done by Imagineer Joe Rohde for Walt Disney World. It was also some of the last work done by famed Imagineer Jack Ferges, who built the model for the ride vehicle ship, which was replicated in fiberglass copies used in the attraction. Ferges also sculpted the polar bear maquettes.
Originally, the polar bear (who stood 11-feet tall) scene was going to feature extensive rockwork but, to cut costs, most of it was replaced with black-light painted flats.
At the end of the boat ride was a theater showing a six-minute film about the beauty of Norway. In later years, guests walked straight through the theater rather than watching the outdated film.
Embarrassed by the outdated hair and clothing styles in the original 1980s film, the Norway marketing group Innovasjon Norge took it upon themselves to prepare an updated film and offered to give it free to Disney to upgrade the post-Maelstrom film. However, Disney said that it was not up to their quality standards. Instead, Disney countered that they should pay Disney to make a new film.
Originally, the attraction was to be called "SeaVenture" and the concept was more mythological in tone. Guests would be riding along a 946-foot water flume encountering trolls and gnomes, and the legends about them. Another proposal was Vikings on their way to the Rainbow Bridge to Valhalla, nearly 15 years before the Mighty Thor trod upon it in a Marvel feature film.
The Sherman Brothers, well known for their many musical contributions to attractions from "it's a small world" to Journey Into Imagination, were brought on board to supply a memorable song for the experience. They were shown the models and heard the concept that emphasized trolls.
Before they could get to work on the song, the very next day, the NorShow sponsors were shown the model and immediately put a halt to that storyline. The Sherman Brothers were never called back for the new approach, probably in another attempt to contain costs.
The Norwegian sponsors wanted the attraction to be more of a travelogue to encourage increased tourism.
In fact, the first year the pavilion was open, there were, on average, 150 requests a week from guests interested in traveling to Norway. One source claimed that during the first year of operation, tourism to Norway increased by five hundred to seven hundred percent from the previous year.
NorShow gave the Imagineers a list of items they wanted shown in the attraction that they felt uniquely related to the story of Norway including Vikings, a fishing village, a polar bear, a fjord and an oil rig and perhaps, if there was room, a troll or two.
Attraction Designer Bob Kurzweil came up with the new approach that it would be a time-travel experience through the history of Norway, beginning with the earliest folklore and ending in modern day Norway to incorporate everything that the sponsors wanted.
Adding to the attraction's appeal would be various drops and visual effects, as well as the aforementioned direction change going backward. The new designs also called for a full-scale replication of a North Sea storm to include wind, waves, rain, thunder and real lightning.
Over the years, there were a few minor changes made to the attraction. The smoke effects in both the Troll scene and the reverse scene were toned down. The wave and rain effects in the North Sea Storm scene were also muted, and the Tesla coil that originally created the lightning effect was replaced with strobe lights.
The first full year of operations, ending in 1989, was a good year for the pavilion. Nearly 5.7 million guests rode the Maelstrom attraction and 89 conferences were held in the Norway Club, the VIP conference area above the attraction. The shop and food locations sold more than $10.7 million worth of items. The year 1990 proved similarly as profitable as 1989.
NorShow sold back its interest in the pavilion to Disney in 1992 for $26 million, a loss of more than $8 million on its initial investment of close to $34 million. The Norwegian government continued to support the pavilion for a five-year term from 1992-1997 with a contribution of $200,000 a year because they felt it was a good promotional tool.
They renewed again for an additional five-year term, but finally decided in 2002 to drop all financial support against the strong recommendations of their American embassy, feeling they were not receiving the same tourism benefits from having the pavilion at Walt Disney World.
Disney did make repeated attempts, even offering the opportunity to have Norway update the pavilion for a mere $9 million and contacting groups like American Norwegian Chamber of Commerce and the Confederation of Norwegian Enterprise for continued support from Norway, but to no avail.
Residents of Norway complained to their government to step up and continue sponsorship when the Frozen makeover for the pavilion was announced in order to prevent those changes and maintain the integrity of the Norwegian story, but the government felt it was not a wise investment.
With the Disney Company now responsible for the entire costs of the area starting in 2002, it looked for various ways to increase revenue and attendance.
In 2005, Disney introduced a Princess Breakfast experience in the Akershus restaurant, which guests always thought resembled a traditional fantasy castle. The character breakfast proved instantly popular and was expanded to lunch and dinner, as well, replacing the authentic Norwegian food offerings with a more Americanized menu for those who were participating.
In 2008, Disney removed the Viking ship replica near the restrooms. The ship had been installed there since 1998 and it was rumored that possible safety issues caused it to be dismantled. Some items from the ship still remained to decorate the area for several years.
In September 2014, a new attraction that "will take our guests to Arendelle and immerse them in many of their favorite moments and music from the film," was announced by Tom Staggs, then-chairman of Walt Disney Parks and Resorts. The four hour or more waiting lines to meet Elsa and Anna from the recently released Disney animated feature had an impact that this was something the guests really wanted.
Staggs said the pavilion would include a specially built meet-and-greet location (with unannounced additional rooms as in some meet-and-greet locations) for the film's Anna and Elsa characters, to accommodate more guests.
CEO Robert Iger said that Frozen was one of Disney's top five franchises. The Stave Church recently featured an exhibit showing the connections between the movie and the country. An abundance of Frozen merchandise found its way into the shops, as well.
"We think these Frozen elements are great compliments to the Norway pavilion, which showcases the country and region that inspired the film," Staggs said.
Previous overlays, like Finding Nemo to the Living Seas pavilion and The Three Caballeros to the Mexico attraction, have found favor with guests. In just a short time, we will all get to see if this new animated overlay increases the profitability and popularity of the Norway pavilion.