My Disney Top 5 - Things to Love About Epcot's Gran Fiesta Tour Starring The Three Caballerosby Chris Barry, contributing writer
Welcome back to another Disney Top 5. I hope that your summer is off to an amazing start. Up here in New York, it's been an interesting start to summer. We've had extreme heat. We've had a rain storm it seems like every day. Tropical Storm Elsa came tearing through with a vengeance last week. So far, the weather sure seems reminiscent of someplace much further south. Like, say…Orlando? I'm not even headed to Florida this summer, but I sort of feel like Florida has headed up here. Big difference is, of course, no Walt Disney World to escape to. To make matters worse, "my" Disney Store up here just shuttered its doors forever. From now on, it's going to be even harder to get my in person Disney fix that I so consistently crave. I will be there in October though, so I have that to look forward to.
With thoughts of Disney World in my head, and let's face it, those thoughts are pretty much omnipresent, it's time to keep going with my tour of each and every Epcot attraction. We finished with Future World a few articles back and now we're making our way around World Showcase. I stopped in Norway first, for some reason, despite the fact that the attraction we're talking about today comes first, at least that is, if you approach the eleven nations going clockwise. That's my typical plan of attack if I'm entering World Showcase from Future World. If we're staying at our beloved Yacht Club, then all bets are off as to which way we go first after entering through the International Gateway. At any rate, Mexico is either our first or our last stop, but it's always a guaranteed stop. It's one of our favorite pavilions and we always spend a lot of time inside that pyramid.
I've always been a big proponent of the wonderful Cantina de San Angel, the restaurant inside the Mexico pavilion. It's gotten to the point where I've actually had to defend my stance in a Top 5 article here several years ago. People seem very divided about this place, but we've always been big fans of the food and, perhaps more importantly, the incredible atmosphere. I don't think many of you could argue that. One of the things I cited as a top reason to love the restaurant was the fact that it's essentially part of an actual Disney attraction, the Gran Fiesta Tour Starring The Three Caballeros, the very ride that we're going to talk about today.
There's been a ride in the Mexico pavilion since opening day at Epcot back in 1982. Back then it was El Rio del Tiempo – The River of Time – and it was essentially a relaxing travelogue encouraging guests to learn more about and perhaps visit Mexico. It was well done. Never thrilling for sure, but it was a dependable, relaxing ride that got you off your feet, cooled you down and it definitely had atmosphere. El Rio del Tiempo closed in January of 2007 and, before you knew it, in April of that same year it reopened with The Three Caballeros. Most of the physical aspects of the ride were unchanged. This did, however, mark the first time that Disney characters were added to a ride in World Showcase. Some lamented the original loss because it was no longer really about the host country and its culture; it was about Donald Duck and his two pals and their hijinks. I, for one, enjoy the ride a lot more now than I did back then. What is it I like about this attraction? Let's take a closer look with my Top 5 things to love about the Gran Fiesta Tour Starring The Three Caballeros.
5 - There's Never a Line
I remember once, not too long ago, we were at Epcot for the final showing of Illuminations. The park was very busy as tons of locals came out to bid this venerable classic fireworks show farewell. That was the one and only time we have ever waited on a line for the Mexico ride. We typically don't ever travel in high seasons like Christmas or spring break. I don't know how The Gran Fiesta Tour does during those peak times, but when we have gone, it's always a walk right on experience. That makes the ride even better.
One of my favorite things to do was dine at San Angel and, when the kids inevitably finished eating well before us, we would just let them go on the ride without us. The grown-ups would stay finishing our mango margaritas and polishing off the last of the chips and guac while the troupe of kids went off on the ride. We knew it would be no wait and we would be seeing them in mere moments pass by us in a boat. We would always, of course, get our own ride in after dinner as well. After long, long waits and plans made months in advance for FastPasses, it's always nice to know that certain things just won't have a line and you can enjoy at your own pace, over and over again if you'd like.
4 - The Rockwork
Several times in these attraction countdowns I find myself bestowing praise on what I personally feel is one of the most underappreciated departments of Disney Imagineering, the amazingly talented crew that handles all of the rockwork throughout the parks and resorts. These incredible artists help transform attractions and other various areas of Disney property into completely believable landscapes where there once were none to behold. Think of places like the Canada pavilion, or the exterior of Seven Dwarfs Mine Train over at the Magic Kingdom. These are created landscapes and yet they seem 100% natural. You begin to see this detailed stone work on the exterior of the pavilion itself.
Once on board you pass by yet another pyramid, a massive feat of design in and of itself, and enter the indoor part of The Gran Fiesta Tour where you are treated to more of that intricately detailed yet natural looking rockwork that truly aids in the whole transformative nature of Disney's attractions. The goal is to make you think you're traveling along the coast of Mexico, or through a colorful Mexican town square, or though ancient temples filled with intricate carvings, and these gifted Imagineers carve and create all of this beauty out of nothing. They start with a blank slate and truly transform it into something so uniquely special. I don't think they get enough praise and I'll continue to sing it here in my Top 5's because they absolutely deserve it.
3 - The Volcano
One of my favorite attraction rooms on Disney property is the first huge room that you come to once you embark on you Gran Fiesta Tour. You slowly make your way into a dimly lit tropical setting with a towering pyramid to your left and the permanent nighttime atmosphere of the San Angel Inn restaurant on your right. The lighting is serene, just the soft colored lights on the pyramid and the lanterns above the dining area to light your way.
Off in the distance, you'll spot a smoldering volcano ringed with just a touch of lava and a consistent outpouring of smoke. if you stare at it long enough, you just might be thrilled to spot a classic Hidden Mickey shape in the smoke. It's one of those little Imagineering details that help to define the whole notion of the Disney difference. What a cool way to throw in a Hidden Mickey!
2 - The Three Caballeros Animatronics
When I first rode this ride it was El Rio del Tiempo and the animatronic characters were very simple, much akin to the dolls of it's a small world. I rode again shortly after it reopened as the Gran Fiesta Tour and the final scene with Donald Duck, Jose and Panchito performing their song was a cartoon on a screen. I was a bit disappointed with that. I'm a much bigger fan of actual physical elements in my attractions as opposed to video screens. Then, without much fanfare or notice, the screen went away and the three birds showed up in full blown animatronic form. That made me enjoy this ride a whole lot more.
When I learned that they were actually from the old Mickey Mouse Revue attraction over at Magic Kingdom, I was even happier. I do love when Disney repurposes attraction elements giving them a new life someplace else. I know these three guys had undergone some wear and tear recently and for a while got replaced with wood cutouts, but to my knowledge they had a thorough reworking and are back on stage singing for us all.
1- Jose and Panchito
Following up on my number two selection, the thing I love most about the Gran Fiesta Tour is that Jose and Panchito are even in this attraction with Donald Duck. As a Disney animation fan, I'm always thrilled when the company's history comes to life in the parks and resorts. Jose Carioca and Panchito Pistoles appeared with Donald Duck in the 1945 Disney animated feature film The Three Caballeros. Since then, the two birds have made rare appearances throughout the company's vast array of animated platforms. They appeared in a few House of Mouse episodes and the recent DuckTales reboot. Recently they have made brief appearances in the newer Mickey Mouse animated shorts and one episode of Mickey and the Roadster Racers. There is also a Legends of the Three Caballeros series that aired in the Philippines and eventually will air on Disney+. On Walt Disney World property you can find them over at All-Star Music Resort in the Calypso Pool and there is, of course, Panchito's Gifts and Sundries at Coronado Springs.
So they're around, but let's be honest. Thousands of guests float by these birds every day in the Mexico pavilion and I'd venture to guess that very few have actually seen The Three Caballeros. My kids know them because I made sure to show them all of the Disney animated classics, but that's me. Not everyone who rides The Gran Fiesta Tour is an obsessive Disney fan. So, the fact that Disney includes them as the stars of this attraction has always made me happy. There's always a lot of unofficial talk that the Disney/Pixar film Coco will make it's way from the wonderful window displays in the Mexico pavilion's lobby into the Gran Fiesta Tour and take over. I adored Coco as a film but I'd be sad to see these two characters from so far back in Disney's history get the proverbial boot. Hopefully that's just fan scuttlebutt. Until then, make sure you appreciate these stars from Disney's past and while you're at it, check out their actual film. It is a bona fide Disney classic.
Is The Gran Fiesta Tour thrilling? Not in the least. Does it dazzle you with the latest in Imagineering technology? Nope. Not really. Does that matter? It shouldn't and I hope it doesn't. When my kids were young we used to hit this ride up several times on a trip. It was kid friendly. There typically was never a line. They liked Donald, Jose and Panchito. They loved the Donald Duck pinata. Once they got a little older, it was a ride that, as I said earlier, we could send them all on while we were finishing our dinner nearby at San Angel. I used to love waving at them as they floated by. As an adult, I've always liked the peace and tranquility of this attraction. I think it's beautifully executed as far as design, color and lighting. It's an Epcot classic now and I hope that it stays that way for a long time to come.
That's all for this time. As always, I'd like to hear what you have to say. Click on the link below, share your thoughts on The Gran Fiesta Tour Starring the Three Caballeros. Stay safe and I'll see you next time with another Disney Top 5.