I’m going to start this two-part blog with Epcot’s International Gateway. Most people give little thought to this spot along the World Showcase promenade. In fact, International Gateway is not technically part of the promenade. It lies on a small spur off of the main walkway between the France and United Kingdom Pavilions. And unless you’re staying at one of the Epcot deluxe resorts, you’ve probably never ventured from the main thoroughfare to see what’s here. And I understand this. There really isn’t any need for the average guest to check out this area. But like almost everything at Walt Disney World, there is a story behind this unassuming spot. I’ll begin today’s tale in Europe.
Part of the inspiration for Disneyland came from Walt’s visit to Tivoli Gardens in Copenhagen, Denmark. He was greatly impressed by the theming of the buildings, the manicured grounds, and the cleanliness of the facility. Seeing this park helped him realize that his visions for a theme park were possible. However, there was one aspect of Tivoli Gardens that Walt did not like. The park sat on a city block and had four entrances, one on each street. Walt wanted to control how people first entered and experienced Disneyland and this would require one entrance only.
The pictures below show two of the entrances to Tivoli Gardens.
As we know, Disneyland was laid out in a “hub & spoke” design. All of the lands radiated from the center of the park. This mandated that if there was only one entrance, all guests would experience Main Street before venturing into the other realms of the park. This worked wonderfully and Walt could “control” his guests’ first impressions.
However, Walt broke his own rule when the Disneyland monorail was extended to the Disneyland Hotel in 1961. Now guests could board the monorail at the hotel and enter Disneyland via Tomorrowland.
The idea of a monorail running through Tomorrowland was at least discussed when the Magic Kingdom in Florida was being planned. This can be seen in an early concept drawing. Whether or not a Tomorrowland Station would have been included had this idea advanced, I do not know.
Now let’s switch gears and move to Epcot in the mid 1970’s.
One famous Disney legend revolves around the evolution of Epcot. In the planning stages, Future World and World Showcase were to be two separate parks — each to require its own admission ticket. But as plans progressed, it was realized that neither park offered enough to fill a visitor’s entire day. So the Imagineers literally pushed the models of Future World and World Showcase together to create one, large park.
During the first few years of Epcot’s operation, both Future World and World Showcase opened at the same time, 9am. However, because the park is not laid out in the “hub & spoke” design like Disneyland and the Magic Kingdom, but rather two large circles, guests tended to experience everything in Future World in the morning hours. They would not even venture to World Showcase until the afternoon and evening, leaving Future World deserted after dark. So it was decided to stagger the opening times – 9am for Future World and 11am for World Showcase – with some attractions in Future World closing at 7pm. Even on the busiest days, you can still enjoy World Showcase almost crowd-free if you tour this area between 11am and noon.
I have often wondered why the Imagineers didn’t place the entrance to Epcot between the Mexico Pavilion and Test Track (then World of Motion) or between the Imagination and Canada Pavilions. If they had done this, guests would have had a choice which area to visit first and the park would have filled more evenly.
When the World Showcase promenade was being designed, the Imagineers wanted a level walkway all around the lagoon. This would aid in pedestrian traffic and make it easier for the omnibuses to navigate the 1.3 miles around the promenade. In addition, a small fleet of Friendship boats was planned to ferry guests across World Showcase Lagoon. However, the boats needed an out-of-sight dock were they could be cleaned and maintained each night. A spot was selected behind what is now the Outpost located between the China and Germany Pavilions. However, this location would require the boats pass beneath the World Showcase promenade. The only way to have a level walkway and a bridge high enough for the boats to pass beneath would be to install a draw bridge – which is what they ultimately decided to do.
Before International Gateway, a waterway already existed next to the France Pavilion. It was modestly landscaped to look like the Seine River in Paris.
This next picture was taken from an early Epcot guide map, before the addition of International Gateway. Notice there is only one bridge depicted (even though the waterway (the Seine) was omitted from the map). In the second picture, you can see the walkway between the United Kingdom and France Pavilions as it appeared in 1983, before the addition of International Gateway. This area contained only a simple sidewalk lined with benches, trees, and lampposts.
Sometime after Michael Eisner’s appointment to head the Disney Company in 1984, a vast new hotel complex was planned for the land just west of Epcot. It was to contain two non-Disney hotels (the Swan and Dolphin) to satisfy a contractual agreement with the U.S. Steel Company and three Disney owned-and-operated resorts, the Yacht, Beach, and Boardwalk. Here are the opening dates for each:
Walt Disney World Swan – January 13, 1990
Walt Disney World Dolphin – June 1, 1990
Yacht Club – November 5, 1990
Beach Club – November 19, 1990
Boardwalk – July 1, 1996
The Imagineers knew that the deluxe Contemporary, Polynesian, and Grand Floridian Resorts had monorail service to connect them to the Magic Kingdom and Epcot. The Imagineers also knew that guests of these new deluxe “Epcot” resorts would want some sort of special theme park transportation if they were to compete with the “Magic Kingdom” hotels. Their solution was twofold.
First, they would create a “backdoor” into Epcot to be called International Gateway. This would allow guests staying at this new resort area easy access into the park. And second, they would complete a waterway all the way from International Gateway to the entrance of the recently opened Disney/MGM Studios (now Disney’s Hollywood Studios). Along this waterway, an expanded fleet of Friendship boats would make stops at the two theme parks, the Boardwalk, Yacht & Beach, and Swan & Dolphin resorts
The logical spot to berth the expanded fleet of Friendship boats would be at the existing dock located behind the Outpost. However, the only bridge on the west side of World Showcase (the bridge into France) was too low for the boats to pass beneath. A second bridge would need to be constructed. This left the Imagineers with two choices, build another draw bridge (expensive) or build a bridge high enough for the boats to pass beneath (less expensive). But this second choice would require a slight rise in the walkway’s elevation and the promenade would no longer be level all the way around World Showcase. As we all know, the less expensive option was selected.
The first picture below is of the existing France bridge which is too low for the Friendship boats to pass beneath. The second picture was taken in 1989 and shows the new, second bridge under construction. The third picture shows the completed bridge. The fourth picture is of the new island that was formed during construction and the elaborate viewing area created here for IllumiNations. However, don’t count on this spot being available come 9pm as it is usually rented to groups and organizations for private parties.
To help you understand the transformation this area went through, I have created a “before and after” animation. The buildings at the top right of the picture are the United Kingdom Pavilion. The buildings in the lower left are the France Pavilion. Note, the “before” photo is just a rough approximation of what this area originally looked like.
For those of you wondering about the demise of the World Showcase omnibuses, I can’t find any definitive information on the subject. According to Birnbaum’s Official Walt Disney World Guide, they ran until sometime in 1996. So the rise in elevation along the World Showcase promenade probably did not play any significant role in their being discontinued. I suspect they were retired for two reasons, safety concerns and budget cuts.
International Gateway opened on January 12, 1990, just one day before the Swan, the first of the deluxe Epcot resorts. Here is a picture of International Gateway under construction and a current-day shot of this area as seen from the France Pavilion.
Since International Gateway is located directly across “the Seine”, the architecture needed to complement that of the France Pavilion. To do this, the Imagineers combined elements from the Belle Epoque (the beautiful age) of Paris with an old style European customs house that might be found at a port of entry.
Guests arriving at International Gateway via the Friendship boats dock at a nearby landing. From here it is just a short walk to the backdoor of Epcot.
In the early years of International Gateway, a tram similar to those used in the parking lots circled Crescent Lake and stopped at the various hotels before returning to Epcot. However, this mode of transportation was eventually discontinued as it was felt the Friendship boats were adequate and the trams posed a danger to pedestrians sharing the same walkway.
For those guests who choose to walk to International Gateway from their resort, it takes about 15-20 minutes from the Swan & Dolphin and 10-15 minutes from the Boardwalk, Yacht, and Beach Resorts.
Just like at the main entrance to Epcot, admission tickets can be purchased at International Gateway from one of the two ticket booths. Lines are rarely long here. Near the ticket booths are large, seldom crowded restrooms.
Just beyond the ticket booths are bag check and then the turnstiles leading into World Showcase. The turnstile hours of operation at International Gateway are the same as those located at the main entrance.
Once inside the park, strollers, wheelchairs, and a limited number of ECV’s are available for rent. Guide maps and Times Guides are also found in this area. In addition, a small number of lockers can be rented here.
International Gateway features one shop, World Traveler. The interior of this shop is designed in the Art Nouveau style. This form of decorating uses flowing lines that incorporate plant and floral inspired motifs. Art Nouveau flourished in both America and Europe and reached its peak of popularity around the turn of the 20th century. The “international” motif of this building is further enhanced with posters promoting foreign travel. The merchandise sold here consists of Disney souvenirs and some refrigerated bottled beverages to cool down with.
International Gateway is a fantastic perk when staying at one of the deluxe Epcot resorts. In the morning, it’s wonderful not to worry about buses or parking, and enter Epcot via this hassle-free entrance. And at night after Illuminations, you can bypass the hordes of people cramming into Future World on their way to the parking lot. I like International Gateway and would eagerly recommend staying at one of the hotels that accesses Epcot’s backdoor.
I started this article discussing the addition of a second entrance into Disneyland and later a backdoor into Epcot. Here are the other parks that feature a second entrance:
Disney’s California Adventure – the second entrance is located behind the Grand Californian Hotel and enters into the Golden State section of the park. At one time, a third entrance into California Adventure could be found in the Paradise Pier section of the park and catered to guests staying at the Paradise Pier Hotel across the street. However, this entrance is no longer in use.
Tokyo DisneySea – the second entrance is via the Mira Costa Hotel and is used exclusively by resort guests.
That’s it for Part One. Check back tomorrow when I will discuss Showcase Plaza and Millennium Village.