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Neverworlds – EPCOT’s Italy Pavilion, Phase II

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:

EPCOT Italy rendering

Do you see it? Have a look at this Imagineering model for the pavilion:

Italy Pavilion model

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:

Vandalized Italy pavilion

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.

Italy renderingAnother conceptual rendering of the pavilion; note that the Campanile di San Marco was still depicted in its original site on the opposite side of the plaza

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.

Italy Pavilion renderingThe Italy pavilion as it was to be, 1982

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.

Italy expansion diagramFootprint of the Italy expansion, by Martin Smith

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.

Aerial view of Italy pavilionOverhead view of the Italy pavilion, facing east
Aerial view of Italy pavilion with restaurant overlayItaly pavilion with restaurant building overlay, by Martin Smith

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:

Italy from Google EarthThe area in question, looking northwest

The expansion was intended to connect with the extant construction shown above, as can be seen in this Imagineering model:

Imagineering model of Italy pavilionImagineering model of the Italy pavilion, under construction. Note the funky circular feature in front of the American Adventure

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?

Italy pavilion aerial compositeComposite image of known and rumored additions to the Italy pavilion, by Martin Smith

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.

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7 comments to Neverworlds – EPCOT’s Italy Pavilion, Phase II

  • great research – I had no idea!
    a slow moving dark ride on gondolas… sounds damn good to me.
    so, any idea on an update for japan? perhaps the high-speed train concept?
    again, seems like it would take so little to just finish these areas off, but i’m assuming disney is asking an arm and a leg for sponsorship. still, you know they could go it alone. it’s just sad.

  • Nice work, Martin, and thank you Michael for bringing this all together in one place. It’s nice to see virtual representations of what was supposed to be there – and the gondola ride is fairly new information to me as well. Funny, isn’t it, how many different dark boat rides were supposed to be in World Showcase… thanks also for clarifying a minor point about El Rio del Tiempo as well. I had always figured what happened to that ride was the reverse: the budget was cut at some point, rather than the ride was revived at the last minute and built on the cheap.

  • Thanks, guys –

    Matt – I haven’t heard much lately about Japan aside from the fact that there are plans waiting for a greenlight. The last I heard was that there was a sponsor involved, but that was before the economy really tanked so who knows where that stands. No doubt the sponsorship demands are steep (especially in the current economy), and Disney could do it themselves, but such things don’t seem to mesh with the current corporate philosophy.

    Foxx – I had always figured the same about El Rio, so I was surprised to find out the real story. Martin could probably shed more light on the subject, but as I understand it the current show building with the lagoon was built as part of Phase I, and then the building would be expanded and the ride installed for Phase II. When it was decided to rush the ride through for opening day, the unbuilt part of the show space was canceled and they just used what was already under construction.

  • [...] Help! Doing WDW quiz and I’m a DL gal! See if this is what you are refuring to. EPCOT’s Italy Pavilion, Phase II In honor of that old Highlights magazine standby, take a look at this lovely rendering of [...]

  • J

    I am a designer and I was and continued t obe inspired by EPCOT Center. i so, so wish I could be in charge of that park. I would dedicate my life into breathing new life into EPCOT Center. I was there on the first day it opened and i remember the original feel of the park. I know what EPCOT Center needs and it does not involve a long list of expensive rides or gimmicks. The writing in literally on the wall in its original concepts. The word is detail, overwhelm and to inspire. Each night I have seen visions of this EPCOT Center. I can see it so well. Its so close I can actually touch it. EPCOT is needed more now than ever before. It must be a testing ground for new innovations and new industry. American Industry, there can be a new beginning. Everything is not in endings. There is a tomorrow and its Big and Bright. So long as we as human being believe it can be so. But it all starts with a belief in such things. Walt Disney was/is very Great. He gave a very special gift to this nation. It is up to us, We the People… to cultivate and help preserve that gift so that our children will have something concrete, something tangible to call a dream of a new tomorrow. I was born to work for Disney. Though, sadly, it looks like that will never happen for me. =(

  • Jon

    Italy has always felt unfinished to me. That great courtyard sucks you in, then there’s nothing else back there.

  • Another Voice

    There is so much buried in the archives of this site…

    As the Chairman says “If my memory serves me correctly…”, one other factor that played a large role in the fate of the Italy pavilion was the proposed “second lagoon” for World Showcase*. The area between Italy and The American Adventure would have been cut out to provide a boat passage between the “Northern Hemisphere” and “Southern Hemisphere” lagoons. This hadn’t been anticipated during the initial design of the pavilion. Not only would the water way impact the plans, it would also present a great opportunity to build a truer Venice-themed pavilion by allowing for a large canal to be dug near the back of the pavilion.

    One can’t help but wonder if the Venice section of Tokyo DisneySea’s Mediterranean Harbor is a not-so-faint echo of those plan. A long canal winds past a upscale restaurant while gondolas glide nearby. That section of the part also has a section of Roman era ruins. And speak about detail, if you look at some the “Renaissance” era buildings you can see the faint remains of Roman carvings, which mirrors the “real world” practice of using the rubble pick up from the old ruins to serve as building materials for Medeval and Renaissance structures.

    P.S. Any hope of work on World Showcase died when ‘Project Gemini’ collapsed. Epcot, like the rest of WDW, is really being seen as nothing but a mall that rents space to outside companies. As long as the Levy Brothers want to pay for it, Disney’s all game.

    * – this was during an optimistic time when Disney thought they could fill a lot more pavilions. Disney was also looking at the idea of turning World Showcase into a large scale “entertainment center” or convention event center after park hours. The secong lagoon would have allowed more flexibility, provided a built-in customer base with the Australian Resort and served as a gateway to the Marriott Convention Center. Those ideas all died when Eisner showed up.

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