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Neverworlds – EPCOT’s India Pavilion

This trip to the misty moors of Never Never World is less entertaining than most, as it lacks that most important element of any good story about unbuilt attractions – pictures! Unlike many of our other stories, too, this is not a project that Disney had committed to building or negotiations that they initiated themselves. Still, it’s an interesting and poorly known event in EPCOT’s history and certainly caught my eye.

After Walt Disney Productions announced the World Showcase project in 1974, they approached dozens of nations about participating in the new development. Over the years, though, this recruitment proved difficult. The 1970s weren’t a time of economic prosperity for anyone, and it was difficult to convince politicians to part with millions of dollars for theme park attractions when they had to worry about their next election. When the EPCOT Center concept was re-announced in 1978, with a combined Future World and World Showcase, Disney abandoned attempts to recruit governmental participation. Instead, they selected a short list of desirable nations and focused on approaching corporations in those countries who were used to spending money for advertising purposes.

This approach allowed Disney to recoup some of the costs of building the international pavilions, which weren’t able to profit from the deep pockets of American industry like the Future World attractions, and it allowed EPCOT to feature some key nations whose governments hadn’t been willing to participate. Unfortunately, it also limited the scope of the pavilions to what could be supported by willing sponsor companies; this generally meant the elimination of intended ride attractions in favor of shops and restaurants. It also meant that nations without willing companies, like Spain, were left for later; the long-planned Equatoral Africa showcase was abandoned because the only companies Disney could find to sponsor the pavilion were located in apartheid-era South Africa.

After Phase I of World Showcase had been built, later additions were supposed to have been funded by the nations themselves. This can be seen by the Moroccan government funding their national pavilion, but the scheme was obviously abandoned as Norwegian corporations helped support that pavilion’s construction in 1988; no other pavilions have been added to the park since.

We know the most prominent failed attempts to build pavilions afterwards; the 1990s saw talks break down with the Russians and the Swiss, and there was another botched attempt to bring Spain to EPCOT earlier in this decade. These were Disney-initiated talks, as far as I can tell; the only public attempt that I can recall of an outside party trying to solicit participation was also in this decade, when Korean businessmen spoke to the press about trying to interest Disney in a South Korea pavilion.

Then there’s this story, which dates all the way back to 1986. Back then, when Disney was still in the business of adding to World Showcase, there were serious attempts by the Indian government to secure their own place in EPCOT.

INDIA APPROACHES DISNEY ABOUT EPCOT PAVILION
THE ORLANDO SENTINEL – Thursday, December 18, 1986
By John Hill of The Sentinel Staff

Representatives of Walt Disney World and the government of India will meet Friday to discuss the possibility of that country opening a pavilion at Walt Disney World’s Epcot Center, both groups said Wednesday.

But the spokesmen cautioned that the discussions are preliminary and that no agreement is likely soon.

”We have been working at it for quite some time,” said Vijay Kumar, political officer at the Indian Embassy in Washington. ”We have been in touch with Epcot , but it is still in the very basic stages.”

P.K. Kaul, India ‘s ambassador to the United States, will meet with Disney officials Friday, Kumar said. Kaul could not be reached for comment.

Kumar said the Indian government has no specific plans for a pavilion but wants to find out what Disney would require if one were built.

Bob Mervine, a Disney spokesman, said the company gets inquiries from foreign governments and developers ”regularly” about building new pavilions in Epcot ‘s World Showcase. While the company is satisfied with the 10 pavilions it has now, he said, there is room for seven or eight more.

”At this point we are basically reacting to queries that are coming to us,” Mervine said.

Any addition would have to complement the existing pavilions in the Epcot complex, Mervine said. It would have to be an entertaining exhibit in itself, he said, and would have to provide its own financing.

The 10 existing pavilions at the Epcot complex represent Canada, the United Kingdom, France, Japan, Morocco, the United States, Germany, Italy, China and Mexico. An eleventh pavilion, for Norway, is under construction.

Mervine said Disney has heard suggestions for pavilions featuring Africa, Spain, Israel and Soviet Union but has no plans now to build any of those.

As I mentioned, Disney would later take second looks at adding both Spain and Russia to their roster; India, though, hasn’t been mentioned publicly since. I’m sure that the original plans for EPCOT in the early 1970s involved some discussion with India, and it’s possible that some design work was done at that time, but aside from this article the participation of India really wasn’t mentioned after the final official pavilion lineup was announced in 1978. Personally, I think this is a shame. India is a nation rich with history, art, architecture and folklore. And really quite wonderful food. There would be a wealth of material from with to draw; more than a single pavilion could hold. While India now gets some slight representation in the Animal Kingdom, that has more to do with architecture and animals than with the culture itself.

India is one of the world’s largest nations, and has become a burgeoning economic engine in recent years; it’s a market, in fact, that Disney has doggedly attempted to penetrate. Perhaps, in all these megamillion-dollar deals for film distribution, merchandising and television outlets, a case could be made for a pavilion at EPCOT?

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4 comments to Neverworlds – EPCOT’s India Pavilion

  • Marcel Bonner

    That was very interesting! I had never heard about it before. Maybe you could put together a petition for all of your readers to sign, and you could send it to Mr. Vijay Kumar. I would love to see an India pavillion! Great article!

  • Another Voice

    By the way, Disney was all set to build the Equatorial Africa pavilion without a sponsor. Not only had the entire pavilion already been designed, but the film segments with Alex Hailey (the author of ‘Roots’) had been shot, if not actually completed. The other show was fully designed, but given all the other issues surrounding the opening of EPCOT Center, things slipped into Phase 2. Disney wanted to the pavilion open for exactly the reason you write there should be an India pavilion – the pavilion was necessary to reflect a large and important segment of humanity.

    The project was one of the first that Eisner put a stop to when he took over. Nothing – not even a bench – was to be built at EPCOT Center if Disney had to pay for it. Eisner never cared for the “higher purpose” of anything Disney. You, the admission paying public, were too stupid to understand it anyway. To him, World Showcase was nothing but a collection of restaurants he wanted to hock to conventioneers on expense accounts.

    Sadly, that attitude is even worse now than when Eisner was around. I really doubt Disney would open another pavilion even if they found a sponsor.

    • Professional Dreamer

      With the Africa Pavillion, they kept trying to please the Black Caucus at UCLA. They could not do it with Alex Haley, so they got a black tribal chief to represent the Africa pavillion. He told Disney after talking with the group, that there was no way to please them. True they had no sponser, so the project was stopped after much work had been prepaired by Ron Miller. The tree house was just about ready to build, films of the animal at the watering hole had been done. Over 100 animal smells had been developed for the tree house film viewing. There were a few rocks and a sign installed to mark the spot, but it moved on to become Animal Kingdom.

  • Thanks, AV, for bringing up this important point which I left out. This is actually a key element of the EPCOT Phase II story, and I totally forgot to include it in the narrative.

    What I should have said was that as Disney was deciding what to have ready on opening day, they went with what “had” to be there and what could be best funded. Other things, like Africa, were bumped to Phase II – not eliminated completely. Heaven knows there was neither time nor money to have everything ready to go in 1982. I have a feeling that had management stayed in place, we’d have seen those key delayed attractions – Africa, the German and Italian additions, Meet the World, etc. It wouldn’t have made since to ditch Africa since, as AV points out, the films had been shot and the pavilion designed.

    I’ve always wanted to see those films… I wish they’d release them in some format. That would have been a neat pavilion.

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