Is World Showcase Finished?

by David Koenig, contributing writer

“Disneyland will never be completed, as long as there is imagination left in the world.”

These, of course, are among Walt’s Disney most oft-quoted words, regularly trotted out by Disney and its defenders whenever the company makes a significant change at one of its theme parks.

Conveniently, however, they usually omit the middle of the quote. Walt’s actual words were: “Disneyland will never be completed. It will continue to grow as long as there is imagination left in the world.”

Typically, Disney dusts off this abbreviated old acorn to justify its removal of some beloved yet creaky old attraction. Heaven forbid they use it to inspire efforts to “grow” or increase the overall size of a park. Changing a restaurant’s menu or slipping Disney characters into decades-old attractions isn’t growth.

And there’s no clearer example of suddenly stunted growth than Epcot’s World Showcase. The area basically reached maturity at the age of 6.

EPCOT Center opened in 1982, with nine World Showcase pavilions spread out across 19 building pads. At the time, Disney envisioned adding a new country every few years, until it had surrounded the lagoon with 18 countries side by side (a mega-pavilion for Africa was to consume two pads).

But even that wasn’t to be the end of the expansion. Branching out from the top and two sides of the lagoon, they also built three rivers that one day could lead to other lagoons, around which even more countries could be positioned.

Sure enough, in two short years, came country #10, Morocco. Four years later, #11 Norway moved in. Unfortunately, that was 20 years ago and, despite increasingly infrequent promises and recurring rumors, there hasn’t been a new country added since.

Will World Showcase ever added another pavilion?

Space isn’t a problem. To the naked eye, there don’t appear to be huge vacant lots in World Showcase, thanks to perfect foliage placement by the park’s designers and landscapers. Yet, seven of the eight unused pads can still accommodate expansion. (The pad between France and the U.K. was used to create the International Gateway side entrance in 1990.)

All it would take is relocating some temporary buildings and trailers. Sites are available on either side of Morocco, between Mexico and Norway, in place of the Millennium Village between Canada and the U.K. pavilion, and on either side of Germany (the China side has the large double-pad originally reserved for Africa).

The stumbling block, of course, is money. Peter Clark, retired senior vice president of Participant Affairs, explained: “Pavilions cost so much to design and build, that I doubt that any country will pony up the money. If Disney can get some sponsors to put up some of the money, maybe. If, however, Disney felt added pavilions would bring enough new guests, a stronger maybe. The way the ticket media is designed, most guests can visit all the parks, [so] adding attendance to one park may not be important, unless it’s to spread the crowd.”

For World Showcase’s nine opening day pavilions, foreign countries contributed no significant funding. The only sponsorship deals were with companies from those countries, such as beer producers, restaurant operators, and knick-knack manufacturers. The lion’s share of World Showcase construction costs came right out of Disney’s pocket (unlike for Future World, where primary sponsors each paid $3.5 million a year for 10 years).

Any additional countries would have to pay their share. The Kingdom of Morocco pledged $7,750,000 up front, plus $775,000 a year for 10 years, for a total of $15.5 million (plus several million more from concessionaires). Soon after, Norway kicked in $10 million for its own pavilion, in addition to $20 million from Norwegian businesses. 

But nowadays, the price tag for an international pavilion would be “at least $100 million,” estimated Steve Baker, a top Orlando-based theme park consultant and former Disney executive. As director of Participant Affairs for Walt Disney World, Baker oversaw the World Showcase country recruitment drive from 1978 to 1988. Weighing the gigantic costs of a new pavilion versus its modest potential payback, he sees expanding World Showcase as a lose-lose proposition for Disney and any sponsoring country.

Like Clark, he agreed that it would only make sense if the new pavilion was so elaborate and marketable that it could draw hundreds of thousands of additional guests to Epcot.  Something like the mega-pavilion planned 25 years ago for Equatorial Africa might qualify, although Epcot lost any hope of that when Animal Kingdom opened, with its huge African presence. “Russia, perhaps…” Baker mused, echoing the rumor leaked earlier this year by blogger Jim Hill on his blog (link).

Still, even if Disney could come up with a country and foreign businesses to kick in tens of millions of dollars, that doesn’t mean Disney would jump at the chance to add a twelfth Showcase pavilion.

Disney hates increasing operating costs at a park once that park has reached an acceptable number of facilities ( see my May 31 article from last year, “Next on the Chopping Block”). At a relatively steady 10 million guest a year, Epcot really doesn’t “need” any more shops, restaurants or attractions. So, it would take something really spectacular (code word for “expensive”) to increase attendance.

To keep operational costs relatively stable, there’s always the option of replacing an existing country with a new one. Yet at World Showcase that would be a much stickier maneuver than evicting Mr. Toad to make room for Pooh. Disney might find itself with a public relations nightmare on its hands should it yank a less profitable pavilion—say Morocco—to convert it to Russia.

A likelier option is adding attractions to existing pavilions. They’ve still got the show buildings originally built in Germany and Japan, and the swath of land at the Italy pavilion originally envisioned for a Pinocchio Village. An elaborately themed roller coaster at the back end of World Showcase, such as the Fire Mountain long proposed for Japan, would be great for pulling crowds past all those World Showcase shops and restaurants. Unfortunately that project also lost its momentum once Animal Kingdom’s Expedition Everest got the go-ahead…

…which brings up one last argument against a $100 million addition to World Showcase. So long as Epcot continues to outdraw Animal Kingdom and Disney’s Hollywood Studios, Disney sees itself as having other, more urgent, needs. So unless some filthy rich Russian oil barons develop an overwhelming desire to generate tourism to their homeland by building a mini-Moscow 6,000 miles away, don’t expect any significant changes at the World Showcase for another decade. At least.

The World Showcase that Almost Was

Over the years, Disney representatives have visited more than 50 nations to recruit their participation in World Showcase. In roughly half the cases, they’ve even gone so far as designing elaborate plans, concept art, and even scale models.

There was the aerial cable car ride through the mountains and rainforests of Venezuela, searching for the lost City of Gold. The genie-guided magic carpet ride of the United Arab Emirates. And, of course, an East Coast version of the Matterhorn bobsleds to anchor a Swiss pavilion.

I’ll be giving two talks on the World Showcase pavilions that almost were. The first, at the NFFC’s Orlando convention next Friday afternoon October 3, is a multi-media presentation featuring lots of concept art from the never-built attractions. You must be registered for the convention to attend (link).

The second presentation will be as much walk as talk, as we tour the actual sites around World Showcase where the proposed pavilions were nearly built. Held in conjunction with MouseFest the afternoon of Saturday December 13, the tour is free; just save your spot by emailing me in advance.