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The Russia Mouse

Russia Pavilion, 1991

The tiki gods have been debating lately whether to pass along the latest rumors from Jim Hill regarding the possibility that Imagineering was dusting off the long-dormant plans for EPCOT’s Russia pavilion. Initially, the royal we decided to let these rumors pass for now, until such time as other sources became available. Then yesterday, Screamscape posted a rebuttal of Hill’s piece containing a tidbit that grabbed my attention enough that I thought it worthy to comment.

First, a history refresher. For those that don’t know, the “Disney Decade” announced by Michael Eisner in January of 1990 contained plans for a Soviet Union pavilion at EPCOT Center. While Imagineers had tinkered with the idea of a Soviet pavilion since the final EPCOT park concept emerged in 1975, it was only after long negotiations that Eisner was able to come to some sort of agreement for the attraction. With an approximate opening date of 1999, the Soviet pavilion would have joined Switzerland in reshaping the skyline of World Showcase.

Russia Pavilion

The pavilion itself was to be modeled on Moscow’s Kremlin complex, with the focal point being a recreation of St. Basil Cathedral. Along with the usual collection of shops and restaurants, the Showcase would feature two attractions. As stated in Disney literature of the time, and repeated in Hill’s article:

Imagineering has recently completed blue sky concept work on a Russia Pavilion for World Showcase. Marqueed by the spectacular onion domes of St. Basil’s Cathedral, it will feature the spellbinding attraction, “Russia – The Bells of Change.” This innovative theatrical experience will combine Audio-Animatronic characters, animated sets, film, and a live actor to surround guests with the personalities, achievements and volatile history of this vast land. Also planned for this new pavilion is a ride-through attraction inspired by one of Russia’s best loved folk tales, “Ivan and the Magic Pike”.

Descriptions of The Bells of Change differ in reports; some seem to indicate a strictly film-based presentation, while others (such as the above excerpt) point to something resembling the Meet the World attraction intended for the Japan Pavilion.

The star attraction of the pavilion, though, would have been the Ivan and the Magic Pike dark ride. Pictured here, the ride would load guests into a magical flying sleigh and take them through a retelling of a famous Russian fairy tale. The attraction would be a nice family-friendly addition to World Showcase as well as giving EPCOT another traditional Disney dark ride.

Russia at night

Obviously, the pavilion was never built. The collapse of the Soviet government and the confusion that followed led to political instability and financial hardships that precluded Disney from finding an acceptable business partner to fund the attraction. Still, guests continue to request a Russian pavilion to this day.

The gist of Hill’s story is that with the revitalization of the Russian economy and the emergence of a Russian middle class, Disney is once more looking eastward for business opportunities. This has led to a series of special events and business deals, as well as the building of a major corporate presence. According to Hill, the most recent of these deals – a major television licensing agreement – was sweetened by Disney’s promise to revive plans for a Russian pavilion at EPCOT. Thus, says Hill, WDI has dusted off plans for the pavilion and have resumed conceptual work, and despite the possible political issues concerning Russian leadership Disney remains committed to massive expansion into the emerging economy.

In contrast, Screamscape posted a piece yesterday saying that while their sources confirm that the old plans have indeed been taken out for review and that some idea work is taking place, they believe there’s a lack of political will in current Walt Disney World management to support the project. According to them, management is rather clueless about the purpose and potential of World Showcase:

WDW Management sees World Showcase more as a giant retail mall rather than an amusement park, full of shops, food stands and table service restaurants, all anchored by the nightly fireworks show… and they’re good with that. When something is changed or updated in World Showcase, it’s usually due to political pressure from the pavilion’s host country over concerned of outdated stereotypes, which was a primary reason behind the new CircleVision films in China and Canada, and possibly behind the update to Mexico’s flume ride as well. You never know though… if the buzz over bringing Russia to Epcot is big enough, they just might go for it. After all, they’ve kind of run out of the attractions in Future World to update at this point.

While irritating, I totally believe this to be true. It’s fairly obvious that management has no clue how to properly deal with EPCOT Center in general, so it’s not a stretch to imagine that they’re oblivious about World Showcase as well. The last major addition to World Showcase was in 1989 – 1989! – and the only real changes, the film revisions, had to be fought for tooth and nail by elements within those nations’ governments.

Due to the complexity of the sponsorship and diplomatic deals required to build these pavilions, doing something new in World Showcase requires an ounce of resolve by the powers that be. It’s not as easy as slapping up some cheesy thematic overlay or dropping in some new off-the-shelf thrill ride. And if there’s anything to be said about current park management, they’re lazy. They want the quick, easy, low-hanging buck. They don’t want to wrestle with the big ideas and come up with something new, or put in the time for something that isn’t easily relatable to as large an audience as possible. So, as always, it’s up to guests to beg for them to give us venues in which to spend our money. Drop by Guest Relations or write that letter – maybe we’ll get lucky. It appears that WDI is actually looking at these plans again; maybe if we can bend the ear of at least one executive with an ounce of ambition we can get the first new pavilion in twenty years.

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