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Promises, Promises

In today’s entry in the “How’d that work out for ya?” file, we have this headline from the April, 1979 edition of the Disney Times.

African Pavilion Joins EPCOT

An African Pavilion for EPCOT Center’s World Showcase came a step closer to reality with the recent receipt of a letter of intent from Kenya. Two other African nations, Senegal and Ivory Coast, are expected to send similar letters soon.

Definitive agreements with these nations are still being negotiated by representatives from Disney and the respective governments.

The African Pavilion will promote tourism in the participating nations and will feature authentic food and merchandise of each country. There is a strong possibility that other nations may also participate as co-sponsors of the pavilion, according to Jack Lindquist, Corporate Vice President who’s heading the EPCOT team in seeking out participants for both Future World and World Showcase.

"Map of Africa shows possible participants in the new African Pavilion"“Map of Africa shows possible participants in the new African Pavilion” (Disney)

Kenya, with 14,340,000 population, is slightly smaller than Texas. Under British control since the 19th Century, it became independent in 1960. Acting President is Daniel Arap Moi. Tourism is the main industry, with coffee, tea and cotton the chief crops. The capital is Nairobi (pop: 736,000).

Ivory Coast is the most prosperous of the tropical African nations. A bit larger than New Mexico, with a population of 5,150,000, Ivory Coast became independent in 1960 after being a French protectorate since 1842. Coffee, cocoa and bananas are chief exports. The president is Felix Houphout-Boigny. Abidjan (pop: 800,000) is the capital.

Senegal, about the size of South Dakota, has a population of slightly more than five million. It, too, became independent in 1960. Peanuts, millet and corn are its chief crops. President is Leopold Senghor and the prime minister is Abdou Diouf. The capital is Dakar (pop: 600,000).

Now, didn’t you just learn so much? Imagine how much you’d have learned had the pavilion actually been built!

Of course, political instability and economic woes kept these nations from sponsoring a pavilion. Kenya’s president Daniel arap Moi became something of a dictator, surviving a coup attempt in 1982. The nation’s page on Wikipedia includes the following phrase: “In rural areas like Kisii District the cases of people being burnt as witches is on the rise.” Well, ok then.

Côte d’Ivoire has had similar issues; President Houphouët-Boigny was another long-serving benign dictator, and following a decade of economic woes in the 1980s and the death of Houphouët-Boigny in 1993 there has been a military coup and a civil war. All of which would make for a very awkward World Showcase experience, and one wonders what missions Kim Possible would assign you in that pavilion. Senegal has fared better by comparison, despite a militant separatist movement, but it remains overall a very poor nation.

EPCOT Equatorial Africa renderingA later rendering by Herb Ryman of the proposed Equatorial Africa pavilion

All of this makes these nations’ intended participation in World Showcase that much more ambitious, and I would love to know the details of those negotiations. These nations’ woes are, of course, mostly unfortunate from a humanitarian perspective, but the collapse of these plans are also a shame because this would have been an interesting and unusual pavilion. Its design details remain intriguing today.

Mostly, though, the pavilion’s potential was in introducing a western audience to the cultures of countries that most people couldn’t find on a map. Perhaps it’s an idea worth revisiting.

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5 comments to Promises, Promises

  • Another Voice

    Just to add some more information about the project.

    There is a lot of information on the Internet about the plan. That’s because up until very, very late in the development of EPCOT Center, Equatorial Africa was supposed to have ready on opening day. The entire pavilion was completely designed out and many elements (such as the films and the props) were already being made. Disney really wanted to fulfill the “community of nations” goal of EPCOT and they felt – and this is the best word to describe it – an obligation to include representation from that part of the world*.

    There wasn’t really a mandate that each pavilion be identified to a single nation. For the opening round, Disney was simply able to find enough sponsors to build a national pavilion or, in the case of Mexico, the country was meaningful enough that Disney would pay for it and hope to parcel out sponsorships later. Disney knew that there would be no one African nation, nor any acceptable African corporation, to sponsor a national pavilion. That’s why the development was referred to as the ‘Equatorial Africa’ pavilion so as to denote a region. It’s exactly the same as the Scandinavia pavilion was to work before the Norwegians hijacked the bathrooms.

    This was also a practical consideration. When World Showcase first got going (and the initial contracts were being negotiated), it was planned as a ‘second gate’ attraction near the Transportation and Ticket Center, but not really a theme park. About 30 “slots” were planned, meaning each showcase would have been of a rather modest size. But when World Showcase expanded into EPCOT Center, suddenly the small national exhibit area exploded into a full-sized Disney theme park “lands”. There were far fewer countries and companies that could afford that level of sponsorship. It was understood that after the “major” nations were represented, the regions (and even parts of nations) would be used as themes.

    Because of both sponsorship issues and the importance of the pavilion to the overall development, Equatorial Africa became an “inside” development. It also quickly became a favorite of WED. To be rather straight forward, there are an awful lot of clichés and familiarities in World Showcase. Africa was a pavilion that the Imagineers could really explore and innovate. It was a region of the world that few Americans had even the slightest clue about, meaning that EPCOT Center’s educational goals could be fully realized. The final design turned out to the most complex and the most immersive of any pavilion.

    But….there are far too many “buts” in EPCOT’s history. But, money was running tight. Without a sponsor cutting checks, it was decided to push Equatorial Africa’s open back a year. Disney had full intention to continue and there was no thought given to canceling the project. The pavilion was prominently featured in all the pre- and post-opening materials, it was placed on the park maps, a large billboard was erected on its site to tell the guests. Alex Haley – who had already filmed many of his scenes for the ‘Africa Rediscovered’ attraction – appeared on the network television special to talk about the pavilion and to show off the model.

    But, yet again. Michael Eisner showed up. The financial turmoil surrounding Roy Disney’s greenmail diverted company funds from expanding EPCOT Center; Africa was pushed back another year. Then, before the park’s second anniversary, Eisner was installed as CEO. The LAST thing he wanted to do was to spend his own money in a business he didn’t know (theme parks) on a place he hated (EPCOT) to build a project designed by idiots who didn’t know anything about entertaining people (by which he meant anyone he didn’t bring from Paramount). He was the man who brought the world ‘Happy Days’ and ‘Flashdance’! He knew what people wanted to see!!**

    So Africa was swiftly killed. Maintaining some sort of integrity in World Showcase – making it educational and representative – gave way to a simple quest for sponsorship money and attempts to sell-off the park. EPCOT Center, with no major pavilions opening after ‘Horizons’ saw its attendance dip; this was taken as a sign by Eisner that the park was a the flop that he thought it was. All that’s let now are the renderings smuggled onto the internet and some great imaginings of what could have been…

    * – if anyone stoops to the silly “but Morocco is in Africa” line you’ve missed the entire point. It’s about representing culture, not fourth grade geography.

    ** – a phrase he would repeat many, many times for another troubled project – Euro Disney.

  • Thanks for fleshing out the story.

    As a kid, I was never terribly excited about this pavilion. Now, though, I really wish they had built it. As I’ve learned about it over the years, I’ve realized how really involved and complex it would have been. Way more than any of the other showcases.

    I’ve actually been slowly accumulating images and info for a real story about the pavilion, but I’m still looking for that ultra-rare piece of information or art that really pushes the story into new territory. Hopefully I can find that “killer app” soon enough. So if anyone has blueprints, let me know :)

    It’s interesting to think that they considered regional pavilions; this and Scandinavia being the two prominent examples. This might actually be a decent model going forward – you’re not tied down to the politics or intrigue of single nations, nor limited by their financial issues. There are so many multi-national associations like OAS or ASEAN, it’s conceivable that one of these could create support for a pavilion regionally. Why not Southeast Asia, or Equatorial Africa, or Central Asia? Like I said, these are the places that tourists know the least about and could stand to learn the most…

  • Another Voice

    You’re making me dig through the attic…

    There was a “blue sky” concept, one that actually made it pretty far. A second lagoon was to have been dug south of the American Adventure (a channel would have connected it to the existing lagoon) that would have been a “Southern Hemisphere” section to the park. It would have been anchored by an Australian-themed hotel – people would have been able to actually stay inside EPCOT Center. A pavilion would have represented the South Pacific Islands, and it was hoped that Brazil and Chile would have added pavilions as well.

    I’ve also heard there was early talk of having two pavilions for Canada – one funded by the British Columbia tourist board for “Western Canada” and another pavilion just for Quebec. This was also around the time of the serious troubles in Canada, so this may have been mostly politics. The United Arab Emirates were also approached several times to sponsor an “Arabian” pavilion…one the looked suspiciously like the ‘Arabian Coast’ at Tokyo Disney Sea (grin). And if you’ve ever wondered where the original idea of the Caribbean Beach Resort came from, there was an idea for a regional ‘Caribbean Island’ pavilion featuring the styles from several locales.

    Disney had really thought they would be able to develop the entire World Showcase promenade with so many pavilions that there would not be any gap between the countries. Sadly things never turned out that way.

  • Dick Nunis mentions the second Showcase promenade here.

    Just another reason to resent the Swolphin, and the reckless expansion of that era. I love the Boardwalk, but it doesn’t need to be located where it’s located.

    I’d NEVER heard about the Quebecois pavilion – that would have been great. The UAE actually got brought up a lot in press from the time (long before Dubai went hog-wild with development), but I hadn’t heard of the others. Would have been nice.

    RE: Africa, what I’m really interested in finding information about is the second, later concept for the pavilion that included a raft ride. Seems no one knows anything about that one…

  • Another Voice

    I’m not going to get any work done today.

    That piece by Dick Nunis is a good find; I hadn’t seen that one before. Most of all, it really puts the lie the fan myth that nothing was happening at WDW until Michael the Saint showed up and set everything right. I think a non-Eisner WDW of today would have been far more interesting and varied than what ended up with.

    There were lots of countries, organizations and regions that were talked to during the entire development of World Showcase – from a stand alone entity to its inclusion in EPCOT Center. As I wrote, as the size of the pavilions increased, the ability of sponsors to fund those developments shrank. In the end, Disney really resorted to selling off individual stores and restaurants to fund things. A big part of the “budget overrun” on EPCOT was because Disney had to pick up more of the pavilions’ infrastructure than they originally intended.

    I don’t know much about the raft ride for Africa. I’m guessing it was because Dick Nunis really, really, really, really, really, really wanted to get a thrill ride into EPCOT. Not only did this really gum up the works for both ‘Life & Health’ and ‘Space’, it also meant that every WS pavilion had something thrown their way. Eisner too wanted a thrill ride, because, you know, Epcot was a boring place that typical mouth-breathing cousin marrying WalMart shopping guest just couldn’t understand. That still didn’t mean he would pay for one.

    We’ve all seen the renderings for the Mt. Fuji roller coaster & indoor shopping Ginza District (to have been sponsored by retailer that has the big store in Japan and/or Fuji Film had Kodak bitten the dust) and the Nestle sponsored Matterhorn that would have gone half a dozen different places. The American Adventure almost got a ‘County Fair’ expansion with all sorts of carnival rides. I had heard there was one pitch to reimagine the old ‘Rhine River Cruise’ concept into a rapids ride as well. I’m supposing an African Raft ride would have been a way to both get a thrill ride and Equatorial Africa built at the same time.

    WED/WDI used to generate a constant stream of ideas. If you dig deep enough you can find all kinds of amazing things. For example, I remember seeing a show model of redressing Disneyland’s ‘Adventure Thru Inner Space’ as a ride-shooter themed to soon-to-be-released ‘The Black Hole’. Then later another model that did the same thing with ‘Tron’. And still later a generic “shoot the robots” attraction. The concept behind ‘Buzz Lightyear’ ain’t been new for thirty years.

    As for the Boardwalk – you almost had a Ferris Wheel and a wooden roller coaster to block your view of Fish and Bird hotels. I don’t know if that would have been an improvement.

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