World Showcase’s Africa Pavilion
By Louis A. Mongello, January 2006
The article first appeared in the January 3, 2006 issue of AllEars® Weekly Newsletter
Walt Disney World is, as we all know, a place that is in a constant state of change, growth and expansion. One of the places that was designed with that type of expansion in mind was Epcot's (or should I say, "EPCOT Center's) World Showcase. In a future article, I plan on discussing at length some of the initial plans for World Showcase, specifically many of the nations that expressed a significant interest in being a part of it. You don't know how close you were to seeing a pavilion from…. well… you'll just have to wait for that one.
While some countries may have shown interest, others actually were planned to be a part of this new endeavor, one which distinctly not another "World's Fair." According to a 1976 "Walt Disney World Showcase News" release, unlike a traditional World's Fair, in which, by treaty, must close after six months, World Showcase was (and continues to be), an opportunity for the tens of millions of Guests to the Walt Disney World Resort to visit a variety of countries in just one afternoon.
There were three notable nations and regions which took steps forward towards becoming part of World Showcase. These were Israel, Spain, and Africa. In fact, these nations (I know… Africa isn't a "nation"… just work with me here, people – I'm heading somewhere with this), not only had plans on the drawing board, but "Coming Soon" signs on the World Showcase promenade.
That's right – Israel was set to take its place on the World Showcase lagoon, complete with a menorah in the courtyard, and an outdoor fine dining restaurant surrounded by cypress and olive trees. Although this pavilion obviously was never built for a variety of reasons, Israel was well represented in the 1999 Millennium Village, with more than $1.8 million dollars contributed by the foreign ministry of Israel in an effort to encourage tourism.
In 1986, a sign was erected near the Germany pavilion with the promise of an upcoming Spain pavilion, including a film and attraction. Once again… nada. Zip. Zilch. Hasta la vista, baby.
Finally, there was to be the much-heralded Africa pavilion, which was to be located between Germany and China. But unlike Spain and Israel, Africa looked like a done deal. When Epcot opened in October, 1982, entertainment legend Danny Kaye hosted a CBS television special celebrating the new park, and promising a reunion with his co-host (and of course, you the viewer) at the pavilion in about one year. During the show, he and Roots author Alex Haley teased viewers with a scale model of an Africa pavilion planned for World Showcase. In fact, they stood right in front of the pavilion's proposed location.
However, there were problems with this proposed pavilion since day one. One of the problems was, of course, money. When Disney spent almost one billion dollars (yes, I said a Billion) on what was called "Phase One" of EPCOT Center, the only way to go forward with "Phase Two" was would be for Epcot to immediately recoup some its expenses. However, after the park's initial success, attendance fell off dramatically. Not only that, but if Disney was going to spend millions to try and increase the popularity of EPCOT Center (I'm just going to call it Epcot from now on, OK?), were they going to spend the money on a relatively "boring" educational pavilion like Africa's, or put it into a big-name 3D movie like "Captain EO?" Exactly.
The second problem had to do with the actual sponsorship of the pavilion. Disney not only had a tough time finding a corporate sponsor, but political difficulties caused even greater concerns. Unfortunately, there were only corporations and groups from South Africa who were willing to sponsor (that is, fork over the $30 million or so Disney wanted) the pavilion. Due to the country's racial and political positions (having been under a system of apartheid), Disney opted not to associate itself with these companies. Another major problem dealt with how the continent itself would be represented. Concern that warring nations and political infighting might make it difficult to portray the continent properly also hindered its development.
So, the Africa pavilion was shelved – most likely for good. However, Africa can still be found in Epcot's World Showcase. When Disney announced the cancellation of the Africa pavilion, the King of Morocco, which is located on the northwest part of the continent, had the nation's government sponsor their own pavilion, and even had artisans go to Orlando to help in the design and building of the pavilion.
The problem was, however, that Disney still had this big empty space between China and Germany with signs promising a view of the "dark continent." In its place, they erected the Village Traders in November of 1993. The small hut, which is still there (and is now known as the Outpost), sells drinks, and items such as souvenirs, sunscreen, glasses, and hats. Woo Hoo.
But what about the pavilion? What was it going to be like? Well, when Epcot opened in 1982, "Equatorial Africa" was actually the farthest along in the planning of all of the pavilions which were going to be built in World Showcase. There were concept drawings, models, and extensive "behind-the-scenes" work which was already underway when the project was scrapped.
It was planned to be modeled after a large, 60-foot tall Calicedra Tree treehouse, where guests could overlook a watering hole in a nighttime setting. Disney would recreate all aspects of an African jungle – from the trees, to the rocks, and even authentic smells. Special effects included using a rear-projection film showing animals coming to the watering hole to bathe and drink.
There would have been two shows in the pavilion. One was to be entitled, "The Heartbeat of Africa." This show, in which guests would be seated inside replica of African tribal shields, would trace the history of Equatorial Africa, as seen through the eyes of a traditional storyteller, called a "griot." Guests would exit into a Heritage area, filled with music, performers, a museum, shops (shocker) and demonstrations of the cultural heritage of Africa.
A completely new type of experience was rumored to be found in the "Sound Safari", a 3D (remember "Sensurround"?) lush walk-through exhibit featuring the roars of African animals amid the rustling leaves and ambient sounds from the jungle.
The second show, called, "Africa Rediscovered," was to be the signature attraction in the pavilion. The show was to be hosted by Alex Haley, (Remember him? The Roots guy from the Epcot TV special?), and would entertain guests about the geography and culture of Africa. The pavilion was to have multiple shops, but surprisingly, no restaurant.
So, long story short (too late), Africa, the pavilion, was never built. With the opening of Disney's Animal Kingdom in 1998, which includes an entire land based on Africa, it is likely that this pavilion, with its focus on education and culture, yet using state-of-the-art technology, is yet another of Walt Disney World's attractions that never was.
It's a shame on many levels that this pavilion was never built. I for one would personally have enjoyed the opportunity to experience a part of the world that I might never have a chance to see. Yeah, yeah… OK… I know…. "Ah, Lou? Yeah, Morocco is in Africa in case you forgot." True, but it clearly pales in comparison (although I think it is one of the most beautiful yet underrated of all the pavilions… but I digress…), to what could have been.