Early details have emerged for Walt Disney World’s new ride, “Frozen Ever After,” set to occupy the former home of Maelstrom in the Norway Pavilion at Epcot. It will follow suit with several Fantasyland attractions in featuring key scenes and characters from the movie along a slow moving boat ride along the same path as its predecessor. The controversial decision to place it in the World Showcase has garnered intense backlash from Disney faithful, and for good reason. The fundamental purpose it was built upon is now under attack.
Upfront, I will happily exclaim that my favorite WDW park is Epcot by a long shot. It contains my favorite ride (Spaceship Earth), my favorite fireworks show (Illuminations), has an international flair, is broken into two very different sections that appeal to multiples moods, has a collection of great places to eat and drink, has the best background music, sits near the best resorts and places to hang out on property and generally exudes good vibes. If I was in town for one day, I’d always choose Epcot as my stop. Some of my favorite experiences and memories involve the park or surrounding area in some way. This includes one particularly enjoyable late night of drinking with two people very close to me, where we waited in Maelstrom’s line for thirty minutes talking and laughing and trying to find a nonexistent hidden Mickey under the arm of one of the people in the large mural visible from the queue.
When I heard the news of Maelstrom’s closing I was understandably upset. My affinity for it was distinctly nostalgic, which far outweighed its virtues. I won’t be a blind Maelstrom apologist. It had plenty of shortcomings and was in desperate need of an update. Anyone visiting the ride would think Norwegian culture was merely trolls, polar bears, vikings and oil rigs. Everyone knows Norwegians also like skiing. But the intent was there, the bare bones laid for something with a lot of potential, that could have capitalized on Scandinavia’s ascending favor. I’m not opposed to change, but if you do it at the expense of agreed upon integrity, you threaten to lose your core audience.
Instead, that skeleton is being repurposed into another halfhearted attempt to draw more children to Epcot. The Wall Street Journal reports that the old ride was “gutted,” but at the same time insists the “logs and paths will remain the same.” It sounds like another weak overlay, designed to ride the Frozen fervor from two years past to an increase over stagnant visitor numbers to the park in recent years.
The problem I have, as do most others, is that Epcot’s World Showcase is intended to give guests insight into other countries, not cater to Magic Kingdom’s fairy tale culture. Indeed, Epcot as a whole was designed as an education experience, in contrast to the latter’s whimsy, Hollywood Studios’ thrills and Animal Kingdom’s humid ass immersion into the natural world. A little leeway in each park’s mission is to be expected, in order to toe the line between inquisitive and boring, but it’s important to stay true enough to maintain uniqueness between the four properties. An element which belongs in Fantasyland will be out of place in the World Showcase.
COO Tom Staggs responded to critics by maintaining the movies are based in Scandinavian art, culture and mythology. “If the goal is to give people a taste of something like Scandinavia with the Norway pavilion, then ‘Frozen’ would only increase the extent to which people would be drawn to it,” he said. Fine, yes, sure, people will come to the ride, there’s no doubt about that. High demand for underproduced Frozen merchandise immediately after the movie’s released resulted in staggering secondary market prices. But his implication that it would have any value is way off base. Nobody riding ‘Frozen Ever After’ will be more educated about Norwegian (or Scandinavian) culture after leaving the attraction. At the same time, it dilutes the Epcot brand. Norway will now have both a Frozen ride and an awful character dining spot, Akershus, which fears the prospect of guests eating (and hating) Scandinavian food so much it hardly offers it.
When people hear how many times I’ve been to Disney, they inquire why I don’t choose to visit “real places.” I never attempt to justify Epcot as akin to actually traveling to any of these countries, but I like having a small, albeit Americanized, taste of each one. For children, especially ones from families without the means or will to travel abroad, it’s a great way to expose them to something outside the norm. At this point, they should just rename Norway to Arendelle and finish it off. The tenuous connection is shakier than the architectural facades. It’s now eating away the fabric from within.
With this decision, Disney wants to appeal to the lowest common denominator. They increasingly patronize guests by shielding them from anything authentic. I have no illusions about the crowd Disney attracts. Many of them are those who prefer the comfort of Disney over the risks of the real world. But there are also many parents who go to Disney because their kids aren’t old enough to fully appreciate a trip to see Greek ruins or Roman architecture. Disney has a duty to use Epcot to provide nourishment for curious minds hungry to gobble up new knowledge. Many children love to learn and love the adventure of exotic cultures completely unlike their own. Don’t stifle these minds by continuing to offer the same junk food available elsewhere. Because soon, a trip to Disney will mean four parks of better themed versions of rides one can find at every second rate Six Flags around the country. And by then, it will hard for me and many others to justify paying the Disney premium to enjoy these attractions.
Keep the World Showcase International. And about Frozen, just let it go already.