In honor of that old Highlights magazine standby, take a look at this lovely rendering of EPCOT’s Italy pavilion and see if you can tell me what’s wrong with this picture:
Do you see it? Have a look at this Imagineering model for the pavilion:
For those of you who haven’t seen it yet, let me make it clear by comparing these circa-1982 pavilion designs with a picture of the modern day Italian showcase:
Kind of hard to miss it now, isn’t it? It appears that somewhere between concept and execution, some of our pavilion went missing. And indeed it did – that Renaissance style facade you see looming in the rear of the pavilion would have served as gateway to the second phase of the Italian pavilion. A phase that was designed, announced… and never built.
It’s often observed in Disney fan circles that the Italian pavilion is the weakest of World Showcase’s offerings. While many of the other pavilions also lack attractions, they make up for that somewhat with other points of interest. Even the underdeveloped United Kingdom pavilion has its winding streets and gardens (and pub), and attractionless Morocco has its elaborate theming and sprawling layout. Italy has a shop, a nice but undistinguished restaurant, and… a shop. It’s a bit of a letdown, considering Italy’s thousands of years of rich heritage, art and history, so one can understand why guests might be perplexed to enter the pavilion only to find its central plaza lined on two sides by nothing but plain walls and hedgerows. Answers, but not solace, might be found in this passage from Richard Beard’s 1982 book about the creation of EPCOT Center:
Few buildings remain perfectly preserved as they were when new. Over the centuries, landlords change; one year they are prosperous, and they build on additions. The next year they’re a little short of funds, so they tear down part of the structure and sell the stones.
In a sense, the Italy pavilion itself is a victim of this cycle of fortune; the area which was to represent Southern Italy – not to mention a splendid replica of Roman ruins – may not be completed until 1983.- Walt Disney’s EPCOT: Creating the New World of Tomorrow, 1982
Beard wasn’t kidding about the reason for the delay in the pavilion’s expansion; as EPCOT was nearing the end of its three-year construction period, time and money were running short. The park was greatly over-budget, and its massive scope and groundbreaking technology made the October 1st, 1982 opening date seem highly optimistic. Strapped for cash and manpower, Disney management canceled the construction of four attractions in World Showcase, reserving them for the park’s intended second phase. Only when they realized that these changes had dangerously reduced opening-day ride capacity did they fast-track the construction of a single high-capacity attraction, Mexico’s El Rio Del Tiempo, to open with the rest of the park.
After the park opened, the money earmarked for expansion was focused on opening Horizons, the ride portion of Journey into Imagination, construction of the Moroccan pavilion and preparation for The Living Seas. Before management could return their attentions to World Showcase’s Phase II attractions, the sweeping changes of 1984 arrived and Eisner’s agenda took precedence. Aside from Norway’s opening in 1988, World Showcase was never heard from again.
Details about what was intended for the Italy expansion are scarce. Beard mentions the walk-through of Roman ruins, but more interesting though equally obscure was the planned centerpiece of the expansion. This little-known attraction was to be a dark ride, wherein guests would board gondolas for a boat ride through various Italian scenes. Sounds nice, doesn’t it? Guests would enter the attraction through an arch on the west side of the plaza. After the ride, they would exit towards the rear of the pavilion where they’d emerge in the midst of the aforementioned Roman ruins.
This wasn’t the extent of the additions, though. Disney documentarian Martin Smith has done a yeoman’s job of tracking down information about the expansion, and created some fantastic visualizations of what could have been.
In the image above, we see the two sections of expansion. The area surrounded by white would contain the ride show building and its Roman facade. The green outline would be a two-story structure, with the ride’s entrance and queue on the ground floor and a second restaurant upstairs. The blue line is an arched overlook which would connect the new restaurant building with Alfredo’s.
This area where the second restaurant was to be built is currently occupied by only a hedgerow and a single gate, as can be seen in the below image which was taken in Google Earth. Once one knows what was intended for this space, its absence seems glaring:
The expansion was intended to connect with the extant construction shown above, as can be seen in this Imagineering model:
The model above suggests that the restaurant building was intended to be built first, as the Roman section does not appear (there seem to be a few crumbled columns on the western facade, though, so perhaps that section was Roman as well). One can see from even the partial model that the expansion would have really drawn the pavilion together, and made it a much more interesting space than it currently is.
Will the expansion ever come to light? There’s no telling if Disney is even trying to recruit sponsors for this sort of thing anymore, and relaxing, scenic dark rides without franchiseable tie-ins aren’t exactly en vogue in Burbank. Even if Team Disney’s attentions were to return to World Showcase, the empty yet completed show building behind Japan will likely receive the first attention, followed probably by the partially-completed ride space in the German pavilion. But if there’s some Italian corporation out there looking for some good exposure to millions of guests each year, pick up your phone and call WDI. Wouldn’t this look nice in World Showcase?
Thanks to Martin Smith for the excellent renders of the Italy expansion, and if anyone has information about this obscure piece of EPCOT history please let me know.