Most of the Disney stalwarts who read this blog have probably seen the above rendering before. A second look reveals many differences between EPCOT’s United Kingdom pavilion as built and the above conceptual painting. The pavilion as depicted is much larger than the real thing; note the pub’s second story and the extra floors the artist added to the other buildings. But most prominent is what lies towards the rear of the painting – the large Victorian building patterned somewhat after London’s long-lost Crystal Palace.
This building, planned but not built for EPCOT’s 1982 opening, was to contain one of World Showcase’s less-famous unrealized attractions. Inside would be a reproduction of a Victorian music hall, where guests would be treated to a comedic show. Yet even though the music hall was not built for opening day, it was still on Imagineering’s to do list; mention of the show was made in Richard Beard’s 1982 classic, Walt Disney’s EPCOT: Creating the New World of Tomorrow:
One side of the square remains open, the future site of a show still being created by the Imagineers. Early in the planning there was talk of a tour presentation, to be housed in an old English railroad station. The idea metamorphosed into an Elizabethan-type dinner theater, from which it evolved into a Victorian music hall. That’s where it now stands – if a genius can be found to successfully bowdlerize the rough-and-tumble British vaudeville style for a family audience.
That’s pretty much all that Disney fans knew for years – just that the idea had been planned and never realized. The concern for sanitizing the vaudeville humor is indicative of Disney at the time – remember that the company was extremely nervous about debuting the sale of alcohol at EPCOT – and I’m sure that management would have nixed things at the time that would go unquestioned today. Even more peculiar is that the idea seems to be a natural; it’s a fun concept and it wouldn’t require the huge investment of a ride attraction.
Had they pursued the dinner theater idea, it would no doubt have been a success. World Showcase restaurants are consistently busy, and even with the expansion of dining on property it remains difficult to this day to get dinner reservations. Walt Disney World’s other vaudeville-derived dinner show, the Hoop-Dee-Doo Musical Revue, has been a success for more than thirty years despite its remote location and lack of promotion, and continues to pack in guests despite its rather steep price tag. So why didn’t the U.K. get its attraction? An answer, at last, can be found in this letter from the Autumn, 1987, issue of The Drama Review. It was written by Professor Laurence Senelick of Tufts University, who served as a consultant on the project.
To the Editor:
Steve Nelson’s comments on the World showcase at Disney’s EPCOT Center in Florida [T112] are very well taken. As supportive evidence, I can offer my own experiences as a consultant there. Several years ago I was brought down to Disney World to advise on a Victorian music hall intended to be the performance feature of the ersatz England component of EPCOT. It soon became clear that what was required was not so much my professional expertise, but my imprimatur, as a specialist on music halls. The architects had already drawn up their plans, and when I was shown the blueprints and elevations, I pointed out that the bar was in the wrong place, the spatial relationship of audience to stage was distorted, and the overall effect less that of a British variety theatre than of a saloon in a Hollywood horse opera. It turned out that one of Disney’s executives had attended just such a “reconstructed” music hall in San Francisco, and wanted to see it cloned in Orlando.
Drink was a major element of music hall ambience, both economically and culturally, but the Disney people were very nervous about encouraging alcoholism and wanted to play down the availability of beer. Perhaps it could be near-beer or even camouflaged soft drink? Anything approaching a real music hall performance should last at least half an hour, to allow a variety of turns to show their stuff. But Disney policy is to keep the guests in motion: most indoor presentations at the park last under ten minutes. That would also prove problematical if food was to be served in the atmosphere of the early song-and-supper rooms. There would be no time to prepare, order, and consume the mutton chops, baked potatoes, and deviled kidneys which I suggested as the authentic fare of those haunts. But in any case, such comestibles were too heavy for a tropical climate and tourists accustomed to fast food.
As to the performance material, the Disney executives shied away from the bawdy and the working-class, preferring a generalized “Gay Nineties,” “bicycle-built-for-two” repertory or, in other words, the Disney version of Mary Poppins. To demonstrate to me the problems inherent in “rough” material, they took me to the closing banquet of a convention of insurance agents held at the Disneyworld hotel. There the entertainment was a musical revue of songs and dances drawn primarily from Broadway shows. Although the cast was quite young, well-scrubbed, and clean-cut, resembling nothing so much as a well-drilled high school talent show, the Disney staff worried that this new undertaking was too racy, for in some of the numbers the cast portrayed gangsters and their molls or gamblers and B-girls. Skirting even this close to an admission that the world was not a Norman Rockwell cover filled them with trepidation, and they were greatly relieved when none of the insurance men or their wives walked out.
Needless to say, when EPCOT opened, a Victorian music hall was not among its attractions. The English performance feature at present is an open-air, burlesqued Shakespeare which bears little relation to any traditional British popular entertainment. But it has the benefits of being rapid and nonconsequential, catching the visitors on the hoof, and confirming their belief that Shakespeare is something remote, antiquated, and ripe for kidding. “Reconstruction,” in a serious dramaturgical or performance context, is the last thing on the mind of the Disney enterprise.
Professor Laurence Senelick
Director of Graduate Studies
Department of Drama and Dance
While Disney was obviously never going to build something so letter-perfect as to completely satisfy someone with specific expertise in this area, and I doubt even the most detail-oriented and culturally-aware Imagineer would push for deviled kidneys, this is still a rather amusing window into a far more cautious era at Team Disney. A few years ago I emailed Dr. Senelick for details, and he elaborated somewhat:
It was clear from the beginning that the powers-that-be had no concept of what an authentic Victorian music hall (not dance hall) was all about. They had conceived something like a saloon in a Western. I believe my letter makes obvious that they did not want alcohol or even the audience sitting down for more than 5 minutes at a time. I was also struck by the fact that no one on site or in Orlando was allowed to make even the simplest decision without getting approval from the head office in Cal. first.
It’s a shame that Disney management wasn’t more adventurous at the time; this attraction would definitely have been a boon to World Showcase. It’s also regrettable that they weren’t more willing at the time to delve into greater realism for their food and entertainment offerings. I’ll admit that I give Disney a lot of grief, but when you look at the Animal Kingdom’s Africa and Asia areas it’s clear how far they’ve come in terms of offering guests a wide variety of experiences that they might not find at home.
Of course, this gentrified EPCOT of 1982 was also a product of its time; there’s a reason that the Italian restaurant has always been World Showcase’s most popular offering, and that’s because middle America has had the longest experience with that cuisine. Mexican and Chinese food were fairly familiar at the time, but you couldn’t just go out and find an Indian or Thai restaurant as easily as you can today. While you can understand why Disney managers wanted to keep things familiar and non-threatening, their thinking does seem pretty provincial and timid these days. I especially enjoy the part about executives worrying about the dinner show (which I assume to be Broadway at the Top) being too racy. I’m sure Hannah Montana probably would put it to shame.
The Imagineers in the “good old days” obviously weren’t perfect – the “Gay Nineties” show they conceived sounds pretty cheesy and, in fact, frightfully inauthentic – but the general concept of this attraction is still a good one. Were Disney to attempt it today, it could be realized in a way that would be far more authentic both in content, surroundings and menu. Even the alternate concept discussed by Beard – that of a Shakespearean dinner theater – would be interesting.
What’s more, this is a concept that would realize a profit – something necessary to get a greenlight these days. The old concerns about churning people through every ten minutes could be abandoned, and the idea could be turned into something more akin to the Hoop-Dee-Doo – extended dinner shows at night, at a premium price. The space could be used during the day for shorter presentations, and take reservations for the evening performances. Heaven knows that with the constantly-packed World Showcase restaurants, EPCOT could use a new dining location. A fairly authentic dining hall experience, complete with dinner and a show, would be unique in the Florida parks and would definitely enliven the rather stagnant pavilion. And, for once, it could be executed better today than in 1982. Perhaps it’s an idea whose time has come?
Just skip the deviled kidneys…