The Equatorial Africa World Showcase Pavilion That Never Wasby Jim Korkis, contributing writer
In the summer of 1992, at the Mouse Club’s 10th Disneyana Collector’s Convention at the Disneyland Hotel, with more than 700 members in attendance (including myself), Disney Legend Ken Anderson presented a slide show with a commentary about the proposed Equatorial Africa pavilion for the World Showcase at Epcot.
As I have been researching the birth of Disney fandom for a future column or two, I happened to run across my notes from that show. Many people have written about that pavilion in the past, but, as I reviewed my notes, I saw enough information that hasn’t been shared before. So I thought MousePlanet readers might enjoy a glimpse of “what might have been.”
The primary reason that Anderson decided to do this presentation was that author Alex Haley, who wrote the Pultizer Prize-winning novel Roots, had died in February of 1992 and Anderson wanted to do a tribute to Haley’s contributions to the project.
“He was a remarkable storyteller and when he spoke, he was mesmerizing," Anderson recalled. "His storytelling talents, combined with the artistic talents of the team would have made a potentially powerful showcase for the African continent."
Equatorial Africa refers to the group of African countries that lie along the equator. During its development, this pavilion was also referred to as the "African Nations pavilion" and the "Africa pavilion." The pavilion was to be located between China and Germany roughly in the area where the Outpost (originally called Village Traders in 1993) is today.
When EPCOT Center opened, entertainer Danny Kaye hosted a CBS television special on October 23, 1982, celebrating the new park. Standing with Alex Haley in front of the location where the Africa pavilion was planned, Kaye commented that he was eager to return in a year to tour the impressive pavilion that would then be opened. A scale model of the pavilion was shown to tantalize viewers. There were signs in the area promising that the dark continent would be coming soon.
Three proposed pavilions were promoted in EPCOT Center books and other publicity material at that time, but never built: Spain, Israel, and Equatorial Africa. Equatorial Africa was the most developed, as evidenced by the conceptual painting of EPCOT Center by artist Clem Hall who featured it in the World Showcase section.
Anderson was primarily in charge of the development team that also consisted not only of writer Haley but also Disney Legend Herb Ryman and cinematographer Jack Couffer. Anyone who has seen Anderson’s inspirational sketchbooks from his time in Africa knows that there was a great attention to detail to capture the true spirit of the place. (Check out this link if you don’t have your old Gulf Wonderful World of Disney January 1970 magazine copy handy.) These sketchbooks were shared with the appreciative team of designers working on the pavilion.
Ryman specifically asked to be part of the design team and painted a number of inspirational Acrylic paintings that still survive today. Ryman also went on an artistic safari to Africa in February 1983, encountering many adventures along the way in his desire to capture the real thing. He traveled throughout Africa, spending time in such places as Nairobi and Lake Naivasha, Kenya, and East Africa. He befriended Haley and they remained friends up to Ryman’s death in 1989.
“When my friends who have never met Alex ask me my opinion of him, I can only say, ‘There probably is somewhere in the world another man who is as noble a soul, as genuine and sincere, and as loving and caring for all things, both great and small, as Alex Haley but I haven’t met him yet,’” said Ryman who at one time painted a portrait of Haley. “Alex Haley was telling me at lunch, ‘I’m just a bystander, but it’s fantastic to see the way people don’t walk when they come in [to Epcot], they don’t run, they race to where they want to go. They just race…it’s a fantastic thing.'"
Anderson said that they wanted with the pavilion to “explore the exotic continent of Africa using the elements of art and rhythm in an open village atmosphere. Guests would experience the wide variety of African landscapes including indigenous plants from the arid and sandy coastlines to the grassy savannahs to the lush and thickly forested jungles.”
The team worked intently for over two years on designing the pavilion.
The guest experience was to begin with an imposing and fascinating 60-foot-tall treehouse. Imagineer Pat Burke remembered that when he did a model of the tree for the World Showcase part of the overall model, Imagineer John Hench complained it was too big in scale and needed its own theme park. It overpowered the other World Showcase pavilions. Some believe that tree helped inspire the centerpiece of Disney's Animal Kingdom Park. Burke did several sizes of the tree to try to bring it into scale.
Set high in the branches of a giant man-made Ficus tree, was a wooden observation platform that surrounded the upper trunk. From the center of this platform, guests could overlook a watering hole at dusk with the slightly darkened lighting adding to the overall illusion.
Jack Couffer, a cinematographer and director who worked on several of the Disney True Life Adventure films of the 1950s and 1960s like Secrets of Life (1956), filmed extensive footage in Africa for use in the pavilion, as well as for reference. Couffer was responsible for many Disney nature-related films including Nikki, Wild Dog of the North (1961) and The Legend of the Boy and the Eagle (1967). After working at Disney for roughly about a decade on about two dozen films, Couffer went on to other projects including an Oscar nomination for his work on Jonathan Livingston Seagull (1973).
The wild animals were presented on film, but the experience was to be more than just visual. It was to be an immersive adventure with heat and wind, scent (using Disney’s smellitzer technology) and sound (like running water), so that there was an atmosphere of drama being recreated as animals confronted each other at the watering hole as they came to bathe or drink. The intention was to create the illusion that the guest was actually in Africa and catching a glimpse of the wild animals.
Of course, using real animals in such a confined setting would have been challenging for a number of reasons. So there was a 20-foot tall panoramic screen that would have encircled the area, and the 70mm live action footage of wild animals that Couffer shot would have been rear projected on it. The screen would be obscured in places by fake trees, rocks, vines and more and the fading light of dusk setting would have helped mask the fact that it was movie. More than 100 different animal scents, including lions in heat, had been planned.
Leaving the treehouse, guests were faced with massive granite rocks (Kopjes), which served as the framework for an outdoor amphitheater. Kopjes rise up from the sea of grass on the velt in the Serengeti-like little heads. The rock-enclosed theater was to be a natural setting for live entertainment provided by native African dancers and musicians.
“These performers would be from many different tribes from all over Africa and would demonstrate the colorful traditions from their specific areas and the action could be viewed from many different perspectives,” Anderson said.
Next to the amphitheater would be a huge thatched dome. Inside the structure, guests would enjoy “Heartbeat of Africa,” a show focusing on the rhythms and music of Africa. Anderson kept referring to it as the “Rhythm Show”. Guests would have leaned back on replicas of huge, colorful tribal shields in a darkened room filled with instruments covering the walls and ceiling. There would be a pre-show film about the importance and history of the drum in Africa.
Drums magically played themselves and “with each hypnotic beat, light would emanate from the instrument.” Gradually, the rhythms would become more complex and more and more instruments would join in with the elaborate melodies “causing the room to be filled with colors, patterns and music.” It was a jazz concert in a modern African city with laser images coming out of the instruments. The guests would have felt completely surrounded by all this sound and color.
When the guests left the show, they would see across the village center two enormous elephant tusks crossing each other to form an archway high enough and wide enough for guests to walk under into a colorful native shopping area filled with performers: “Native art, such as carvings, masks and jewelry as well as many of the instruments seen in the Rhythm Show would be available for purchase”.
In addition, there would be large portrait posters of animals observed in the treehouse and that would be heard in the walk-through Sound Safari that was nearby. A small museum area featuring a rotating collection of African art was also proposed for this heritage section. Surprisingly, there was no restaurant planned for the pavilion, at least during these early stages.
On “The Sound Safari” walk-through, guests would have experienced an African adventure through a sense of sound. Walking on a meandering, overgrown footpath over a suspension bridge and through dense jungle thickets, guests would encounter hippos, crocodiles, a herd of elephants, hyenas, wild dogs, lions and exotic birds…but only through a sense of sound.
Infra-red sensors would trigger off the sounds of trumpeting elephants and grunting hippos and other African animals also causing the foliage to move as if these animals were just beyond the sight of the guests.
The realism would be increased by the rustling of the upside-down Baobab trees and other ambient sounds from the jungle that would have meshed with “special effects that infer the presence of animals. The climax would be a trip through a dark, cavernous lion’s den during a feeding frenzy over a fresh kill.”
The final show at the pavilion was titled "Africa Rediscovered" and was written and hosted by Alex Haley. It was a 15-minute widescreen film presentation. The pre-show began with a giant relief map of Africa and then film showcased the natural wonders of flora, fauna, and climate.
“The purpose of the show was to dispel the myth that Africa had always been a jungle inhabited by wild beasts, savages and Tarzan," said Anderson as he showed the storyboards for the film, including a frightening segment of an elephant with riders slipping off a crumbling, narrow pathway high in the Alps and plummeting to its doom along with its human riders. "The facts show that Africa has had a long and illustrious history. Wealthy empires and enlightened scholarly cities have existed there for many centuries. There have been times in the past when African cultures were more ‘civilized’ than their European counterparts.”
The film began with Haley in the Sahara Desert explaining that he would be the guide through the history of Africa. “Africa—the dark continent. It’s been called that, not because most of the people who live here are Black, but because knowledge of it is shadowy,” Haley said.
He visited the ruins of Kush, a little known Nubian civilization located a 1,000 miles south of ancient Egypt. He wandered the rubble and the long-deceased civilization is magically restored (thanks to movie magic) to its glory in 750 B.C.E. Haley witnessed some of the great events of this forgotten kindgom.
Next, Haley was high in the Alps of Europe.
“It was through these snowy passes that Hannibal, the Black ruler of Carthage, trekked with his army and teams of elephants,” Haley remarked.
Carthage was a wealthy trading center and one of the greatest cities of ancient time, located on a peninsula in North Africa.
“Carthage controlled an empire,” Haley said, “and the Carthaginians were more interested in trade than in conquest. But they used military power when they felt it was necessary, so Hannibal led his army on an unprecedented and audacious trek through these Alps to fight against Rome and protect Carthaginian interests in Sicily. Hannibal persevered against tragedy and overwhelming odds, and although he lost the final battle at the gates of Rome in 201 B.C.E., he was called the ‘Greatest General in History’ by Napoleon Bonaparte.”
Haley next appeared in modern Timbuktu surrounded by richly clad people with colorful robes and impressive displays of gold earrings and assorted jewelry. Haley states that in its heyday, Timbuktu was known as “The City of Gold” and, as he said it, the area was restored to its ancient glory when it was the crossroads of the medieval world’s gold and salt trade, the center of education and the site of the world’s first university while Europe was still mired in the Dark Ages.
However, Haley pointed out that the main source of gold for Asia was Zimbabwe in South Eastern African and he found himself in the ruins of that trading center. Zimbabwe was the hub of a large confederacy of 400 nations and traded in frankincense, ivory, ebony, and iron, as well as gold. Haley admired some of the finest gold sculptures produced in a city that existed before the birth of Jesus.
The film then transitioned to Haley admiring the magnificent bronze sculptures of Benin, a wealthy trading center of Africa’s west coast and the home of bronze art. Haley was escorted through the present day palace of the Oba (or “King”). A young member of the court took Haley through a great collection of bronzes that foretell the disaster that befell Benin’s civilization with depictions of European firearms and slavery.
Haley then visited, in quick succession, many other African cultures that evolved before the time of Jesus, including Egypt, Axum, Carthage, Ghana, Mali, Songhai, Kanem, Bornu, Kilway, Lamu, Zanzibar, Engaruka, Bunyoro, Kongo, Asante, and, finally, Abyssinia.
He pointed out the one thing they all have in common with Benin was that their cultures and history were destined for destruction and oblivion by greed and slavery.
Haley then appeared in the slave prison of Goree off the west coast of Senegal. He groped through the musty corridors and peered into the gloomy vacant cells. Slaves seemed to appear once more in manacles and Haley learned how a mercenary system established high prices for slaves. He discussed how slave hunters, armed with firearms, drove deeply into the country, sacking villages and towns and how greed prevailed and was the underlying motive behind capturing slaves. He mourned that whole civilizations were uprooted and hundreds of thousands of Africans were killed or sold and much of the continent was decimated by the slave trade.
He then told of Ann Zingha, the fighting Queen of Angola, who spent 16 years battling slavery. Unable to get men, she recruited and trained Angolan women to fight with bows, arrows, spears and clubs and successfully held off heavily armed foreign troops for a decade and a half before finally being defeated. With her defeat, the last of the great old civilizations were gone.
When 19th Century colonists arrived in Africa, they found civilizations broken and in disarray because of a 100 years of slave wars.
Haley summed up that the myth of a “Darkest Africa—an uncivilized continent peopled by savage tribes” was untrue but the myth still prevails today. He states that the opposite of the myth is what is true, that past African cultures were many and illustrious. He enthused that Africa, the world’s second largest continent, four times the size of the continental United States with 96 percent of the world’s diamonds, 65 percent of the world’s gold, more uranium than all the rest of the world combined, untold oil reserves and now equipped with modern technology—is prepared to take its rightful place in the family of modern nations.
That was a lot of material to cover in just 15 minutes.
Why was the pavilion never built?
Companies who operate in the specific countries represented in the World Showcase had to put up the lion’s share of the money to finance the construction and maintenance of the pavilion. At the time in the early 1980s, that cost was roughly $30 million.
Supposedly, the only African corporations willing to come up with that kind of money were based in South Africa, where the practice of apartheid was being spotlighted in the world arena. Disney did not want to be associated with that racist policy. In addition, there was constant political upheaval in Africa with coups and wars changing leaders and policies, as well as the representatives that were negotiating with the Disney Company.
In addition, while EPCOT Center opened strongly, attendance dropped off rapidly and significantly. Disney management had to consider whether money should be invested in what was perceived as another “boring” pavilion or in some other more exciting attraction.
Certainly, the concept artwork, scripts, film and more still exist today. Many African artifacts were purchased and some of those ended up at the Adventurers Club at Pleasure Island. Disney Architect Ahmad Jafari worked on both this proposed World Showcase pavilion and Disney's Animal Kingdom Park and some of the designs also reappeared in Adventureland at Hong Kong Disneyland.
When Animal Kingdom opened in 1998, I talked briefly with Imagineer Joe Rohde and remarked that since Africa was represented in the new theme park, that it meant that the concept for a pavilion representing Africa would never be built at World Showcase.
With more than a hint of surprise, Rohde answered me: “Jim, you don’t understand that it is two different stories. The story of DAK is about animals real, imaginary and extinct. The story of World Showcase is about people and their cultures. I would love to see an Africa pavilion at World Showcase.”
As others point out, Africa is, in fact, represented at the World Showcase today. When negotiations finally broke down on the pavilion, the King of Morocco, a country on the northwest part of Africa where the city of Casablanca is located, had the nation's government sponsor its own pavilion, and even had artisans go to Florida to help in the design and building of the pavilion. It is the only pavilion at the World Showcase that is sponsored by the government of that country.
However, for a few, dreams of an Africa pavilion that might have been still bring a rush of childhood excitement and a sense of wonder at the artistry of several Disney Legends.