Walt Disney World Chronicles: Cinco de Mayo in EPCOT’s Mexico Pavilion

Jim Korkis

Feature Article
This article appeared in the April 6, 2021 (#1131) edition of ALL EARS®

Editor’s Note: This story/information was accurate when it was published. Please be sure to confirm all current rates, information and other details before planning your trip.

The Plaza de los Amigos inside the Mexico pavilion. [AllEars.Net]
Cinco de Mayo is an annual celebration observing the Mexican Army’s victory over the French Empire at the Battle of Puebla on May 5, 1862. In the United States it has become a day of celebration of Mexican-American culture.

It will be held next month and in the years since I have been living in Central Florida, I would usually celebrate it at the Mexico pavilion in Epcot. There are many secrets about the pavilion.

For instance, it is the only completely enclosed World Showcase pavilion because in Mexico during the day, most residents are enjoying siesta and wouldn’t be crowding the area. However, by enclosing it, it is night and everyone is celebrating fiesta which explains all the activity.

Many Disney fans know that the nighttime Illuminations show is operated from the top of the Mayan pyramid. The elephant trunked face of Chac, the Mayan God of Rain is prominent. When you have several on top of each other as you do on the pyramid it increases the likelihood of rain, important for an agricultural community.

Also displayed is Quetzalcoatl, the Aztec “feathered serpent” deity who was giver of corn and civilization. The pyramid represents the Pre-Columbian type period but there are examples from the colonial and modern periods in the area as well.

However, for this column, I would like to focus on a few hidden treasures we sometimes don’t fully appreciate.

Mariachi Cobre is a band of internationally acclaimed mariachi musicians. The group was formed in 1971 with Randy Carillo on guitar, his brother Stephen on trumpet, Mack Ruiz on violin, and Francisco Grijalva as the arranger who also played in the group.

Over the years the company of players has expanded and many of the members have played together since they were teenagers in Arizona.

Mariachi Cobre was founded in Tucson, Arizona, and evolved out of the mariachi youth group Mariachi Juvenil Los Chanquitos Feos De Tucson, which was formed in 1964. It was the first youth mariachi group to be formed in the United States.

At fifteen years old, to be playing in Anaheim at Disneyland for Cinco de Mayo, I would have never thought that at 63 I would still be so invested in the Walt Disney Company,” said Randy in October 2017.

Eventually, he and some of the members of the group formed Mariachi Cobre, taking their name from the Spanish word for “copper.” Randy explained that Arizona is known as “the Copper State” and that copper was a semiprecious metal to Mexican Indians.

When we arrived here before the opening of Epcot, I couldn’t believe it. It was like a fairytale land,” said Randy. “The architecture, the lighting, the detail, it was all incredible.”

Since opening Epcot in 1982, Mariachi Cobre still performs seven shows a day, five days a week even though other entertainment groups have been let go because of the pandemic.

In addition to that schedule, the Disney company allows the group to take breaks that have let it over the years perform with more than 44 orchestras in the United States and Mexico, including the Boston Pops and the orchestras of Minnesota, Milwaukee, Buffalo, Utah, Houston and Guadalajara, as well as record CDs.

Since their founding in 1971, Mariachi Cobre has played a major role in the preservation and appreciation of one of the most respected cultural music folk forms of Mexico and delighted millions of guests, often giving them their first taste of this type of music.

The mariachi musicians speak in both English and Spanish and encourage the audience to relax and have fun by clapping and cheering.

We are all like brothers and we are all a family,” said Stephen in October 2017. “Day in and day out we get to meet people from all over the world and we get to share our culture and our music with them. It’s truly special and I really enjoy that.”

One of the other things that set the Mexico pavilion apart from the other World Showcase pavilions is that it had an attraction. The leisurely boat ride in it was titled El Rio del Tiempo (“The River of Time”) and took guests through the history and culture of Mexico from Mayan high priests to modern merchants.

R.P. Daily and Co. of Detroit that built the Mexico pavilion (and also the Odyssey Restaurant and CommuniCore) became angered when Dick Nunis, in charge of all the Disney theme parks, told a reporter that he didn’t think the boat ride in the Mexico pavilion would be ready on time.

Dick Schurrer manager of Florida operations for the company said in October 1982, “There was a tremendous amount of electrical work to be done [on the attraction]. We had some long discussions with our electrical contractor and he jumped in and got the job done and I told Dick Nunis that that’s the one ride that hasn’t broken down.

It was like that all the way from the first day. My workers, almost to a man, worked overtime for the better part of the last 15 months. Toward the end of June, it was nothing but seven days a week and 12 or 14 hours a day.”

That often ignored attraction was transformed in April 2007 into the Gran Fiesta Tour Starring the Three Caballeros.

The new storyline was that guests would still enjoy a boat tour experiencing the arts, culture and history of Mexico, as well as some of the famous modern day resorts and locales. However, the tour hits a snag when Panchito and Jose Carioca discover their amigo, Donald Duck, has gone sightseeing in Mexico on the very day the famous Three Caballeros are to perform a reunion concert in Mexico City.

In charge of this new theme park attraction reuniting the Three Cabelleros from the beloved animated feature film of the same name was director George Scribner (who was also director of Mickey’s PhilharMagic) and animation director Eric Goldberg (supervising animator on Aladdin‘s Genie and co-director on Pocahontas).

“We always thought the Three Caballeros would be perfect for the Mexico pavilion,” said Goldberg, who directed the new animation for the Gran Fiesta Tour. “And it’s a great way to introduce the Disney characters to the Epcot pavilions and keep them within the context of the travel and tourism story of the World Showcase.”

Scribner said. “Once we got the OK, we went to Mexico to film the live-action footage that would be combined with Eric’s animation.”

The new film elements are a combination of traditional character animation, overlaid onto film clips of live background footage that are projected onto a series of screens framed by dimensional walls, arches and rockwork to set the scenes. Throughout the attraction, props, set facades, lighting and the sound system also have been refurbished and enhanced.

The Theme Park Productions team spent six weeks south of the border to get the footage for the new film, and they cast local talent for some of the smaller roles where Donald interacts with actors.

Scribner said. “We’re using model sheets from the period and very accurate guides to get back to the original look that was done by some of the top animators of the time, including Ward Kimball and Fred Moore. All of the animators were really honored to work on these characters.”

When Donald tries to climb the Mayan pyramid and it turns into an escalator, that sequence was animation done personally by Goldberg, as well as the sequence where Donald dives off the cliff in Acapulco and bounces around like a pinball.

“There are alternate gags, too,” Goldberg said. “You might not always see the same show twice. You might see two gags as Donald is going up the escalator in Chitchen Itza and in the restaurant scene and the cliff dive scene.”

The reason the color is so vivid is that Goldberg’s wife, Susan, as animation art director worked hard to capture the distinct Technicolor look, while Scott Johnson created special lighting for the characters. When Chris Biggs processed the live action with the animation, he used a special technique to get that really bright color

Musical director for the project was John Dennis who brought in music arranger Richard Bellis to create an homage to the original song from the movie that underscores much of the attraction as well as the version in the final concert scene.

The music was recorded at Capitol Records in Hollywood, California where Frank Sinatra and Judy Garland recorded. It helped recreate the unique sound of the time period of the original film.

The new attraction officially opened April 7, 2007 at 11 a.m. to good reviews from the guests. There is breathtaking footage from Acapulco, Chichen Itza and Mexico City as the guests leisurely drift through the dark and see the Three Caballeros reunited after so long an absence.

Outside the attraction, it is terrific to see costumed versions of the Three Cabelleros meet and take photos with guests. Jose is hugely popular in Brazil, with his own long-running comic book series, and I saw some Brazilian guests very excited to be able to pose with a Disney character they grew up loving.

I am writing this column to appear in April so Disney fans can be prepared to celebrate Cinco de Mayo early next month.