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Maelstrom at Epcot

A "maelstrom" can be defined as:

  1. a large, powerful, or violent whirlpool
  2. a restless, disordered, or tumultuous state of affairs

It’s hard to say which is the most appropriate definition in recounting the tale of Epcot’s Maelstrom, the lost high seas adventure ride once at home in the park’s World Showcase. From its opening along with the park’s new Norway pavilion in 1988, Maelstrom was a rare addition to EPCOT Center: a thrill ride. Trolls, oil rigs, waterfalls, villages, polar bears... There’s no denying: Maelstrom was an oddity and a treasured remnant of Epcot’s earliest days.

And of course, it didn’t last.

Image: Disney

As time marches on, beloved lost rides like Maelstrom disappear into Valhalla. And so, here we are once more: as new generations of Disney Parks fans appear, there will come a time (and sooner than you think) when Maelstrom is but a hazy memory. Young fans will have barely heard of it, and certainly won’t understand what the “big deal” was. So let’s remind them. That's why you'll see links to our fabled, in-depth Lost Legends entries across the site...

But in today's entry to our Legend Library, we’ll dive headfirst into the swirling waters of EPCOT's lost Norwegian adventure to recount its history, record the experience, and look ahead to the future. As always, we’re counting on you to add your memories and impressions to preserve Maelstrom for a new generation.

Meet the world

The story begins even before EPCOT Center's 1982 opening. A vast divergence from anything Disney had done before, Walt Disney World's unprecedented second gate seemed like a total revolution. But even if Orlando had never seen something quite like EPCOT, its foundation was actually that of a century-old tradition: a World's Fair.

Image: Disney

In fact, the two "realms" designed for EPCOT were intentional complements. The park's northern half, Future World, was a corporate-funded showplace of innovation, ingenuity, and the power of enterprise, formed by gargantuan, monumental pavilions centered around topics of science and industry – a realm populated at its peak by beloved Lost Legends: Universe of Energy, Body Wars, Horizons, World of Motion, Journey into Imagination, Kitchen Kabaret, and The Living Seas

Meanwhile, the park's southern half, World Showcase, was instead a cultural expo, with pavilions dedicated to sharing the cuisine, customs, and exports of world nations. In fact, when EPCOT opened in 1982, World Showcase featured pavilions dedicated to nine nations: Canada, the United Kingdom, France, Japan, the United States, Italy, Germany, China, and Mexico. However, World Showcase had room for nineteen. That meant that, as of the park's opening, ten pavilion-sized parcels of land were empty.

Image: Disney, via RetroWDW

Why was more half of World Showcase vacant? A large part of that was certainly purposeful, to give the park room for expansion in the future – a necessary element of foundational park planning.

But frankly, securing the pavilions wasn’t as easy as Disney had imagined. In the original plans for Epcot presented in Disney’s 1975 Annual Report, World Showcase would:

"...offer participating countries a permanent installation for such features as themed restaurants and shops, product exhibits, industrial displays, cultural presentations, a trade center, and even special facilities for business meetings.

Image: Disney

"Major sponsorships for each participating nation will be asked to provide the capital to cover the cost of designing, developing and constructing its attraction and/or ride and all exhibits, as well as the Pavilion itself. It will also have the responsibility for funding the housing for its employees in the International Village. Its land lease will cover the cost of maintaining the attraction for a minimum of ten years.

The Disney organization will be responsible for area development, including the construction of transportation systems and utilities. We will also build and operate the internal people moving system, the Courtyard of Nations and central theater facility."

Image: Disney

You might get the impression that Disney had signed itself up for a pretty sweet deal, and you’d be right. In the development of Epcot, Disney planned for a park that supported itself.

The idea was that corporations (in Future World) and the governments of countries (in World Showcase) would be motivated to keep their park offerings up-to-date. After all, no company would want its name broadcast across an out-of-date pavilion purporting to showcase the future, and no country would accept sub-par representation at its cultural “Epcot embassy.”

Surely, countries would pay Disney for their representation, then again to design, develop, and construct the pavilion. Countries would even pay to house their own citizens in Florida to staff the attractions. For Disney, it would be a win-win. 

Image: Disney

But when EPCOT Center opened in 1982, the model had shifted. Disney couldn’t find a single government willing to pay for a ten-year spot in the park. So instead, the countries that were present in World Showcase in 1982 were funded not by their governments, but by private corporations – the same model that had built the park’s Future World.

Of course, these private companies each had close affiliations to the represented countries and an inherent interest in their portrayal to Americans (for example, the Japan pavilion was sponsored by Japanese retailer Mitsukoshi).

Image: Disney, via Insights and Sounds

And of course, that makes sense... the financial investment Disney required to start up a World Showcase pavilion was substantial, and the resulting product would admittedly be more diversion than diplomacy. It's probably also the reason that – despite Disney's hopes – only one of the nine opening day World Showcase pavilions featured a ride: Mexico's Rio Del Tiempo, a tranquil and simple cruise through the history of Mexico. 

(Germany and Japan were both intended to house rides, but they were cancelled, leaving empty showbuildings attached to each. Two other pavilions – Canada and China – offered Circlevision travelogue films of their respective countries, while France presented a halved 180-degree film.)

Expanding the world

So at the time of the park's opening, World Showcase offered nine pavilions – with just one ride between them. Still, Disney didn't plan to let their cultural showplace stagnate with nothing but travelogue films and restaurants. At the very least, plans were in the works to begin filling those ten vacant slots around the World Showcase lagoon.

Image: Disney, via Yesterland.com

At the time of the park's opening, pavilions dedicated to Israel, Equatorial Africa, and Spain were officially announced... but no earth ever moved on the projects. As Epcot followers know all-too-well, pavilions dedicated to Puerto Rico, Russia, Switzerland, Costa Rica, the United Arab Emirates, and Brazil have ranged from rumor to full-on concept art in the decades since...

However, a tenth pavilion did arrive in 1984. Situated between France and Japan, the Morocco pavilion was the first addition to World Showcase, and just two years after EPCOT's opening. It was also the only pavilion directly funded by a government: the Kingdom of Morocco.

Only two years after that, earth would begin moving once more. Of the nine remaining vacant slots, one would be filled when Epcot’s eleventh (and to date, most recent) World Showcase plot became a construction zone in 1986.

Image: Disney, via Progress City, U.S.A.

Located between Mexico and China, this eleventh plot was originally intended to represent the cultural region of Scandinavia (encompassing the countries of Norway, Sweden, and Denmark, above). However, 11 companies representing Norway alone were able to raise the over $30 million required to create an exclusive single-nation pavilion.

Disney chipped in one-third of the construction costs, and the quest to open a Norway pavilion was underway... Read on...

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Comments

I am really enjoying your Lost Legends series. It is bringing back so many memories. I have always loved Maelstrom. It was one of the few rides over on the lagoon side and it was always so wonderfully weird. The story line made very little sense but it didn't matter because of the immersive quality it had. It transported the rider to a different, beautifully imagined world. I think the Frozen ride would have been better suited to the Magic Kingdom.

Does Frozen REALLY deserve a ride? In my opinion, no. Why is my opinion so harsh? Well, I don't really feel like Frozen has earned the right to cement itself into a major WDW attraction. Frozen hasn't even been out 3 years yet, how do we know for sure that Frozen will, permanently, cement itself into pop culture and into the subconscious of the population? We can't know that for sure, it hasn't been long enough. For goodness sake, The Little Mermaid just recently got itself a ride and it had to wait more than 20 years to get that honor. So why Frozen and why so soon?

I'll tell you why. It's very simple...money, money, and more money. That's it. That's the three simple reason Frozen got a ride in under 3 years. Disney is milking the Frozen cash cow so dry, they won't have a cow left if they don't let go of the utters pretty soon. From the get go, they've seen Frozen as an easy marketing tool - it really is like printing their own money. And because of this, they're going to go to the extreme. They're going to look for ways to cash in on this deal and draw more people out and nickel and dime them all in the name of Frozen.

Is the Frozen train still chugging along those tracks at tremendous speeds, or is it starting to slow down. In my opinion? It's definitely slowing down. I talked to my neighbor the other day about the new Frozen ride. She's got a little girl who's around 5 or 6 and they're wanting to go to Disney soon. When I mentioned the new Frozen ride, her response? "Oh, my daughter is finally over the whole 'Frozen' thing." Over the whole Frozen thing? Yep. However, we no Disney will never let anyone be "over the whole Frozen thing" will they? Not a chance. Now that they've made a major commitment with a permanent attraction, they'll have to keep Frozen in the front of the consumers' minds. And how will they do that? Well, they just announced a line of Frozen books, new animated shorts, and of course the Frozen sequel coming out in a few years. So will all this work? Possibly, but ask yourself. Should you make something remain relevant by pounding your audience with constant reminders and new merchandise to keep something popular? I don't know, you tell me. How many new Beauty and the Beast cartoons, shorts, or books have we gotten recently. What about The Little Mermaid, Lion King, Aladdin, Snow White, etc.? These movies remain relevant because they've proven themselves timeless. Against all odds they've remained relevant to audiences over decades and decades. They don't need constant pounding by Disney to remain popular, they just are. They are popular because they are timeless and magical. Frozen, unfortunately, has yet to prove that it has that kind of staying power.

To Disney though, everything is about the almighty dollar. We've seen the greed rise up lately in every fashion. From raising ticket prices, to shamelessly remaking all of their animated films into live-action movies just to be able to cash in on their success. Heck, they've even announced that they'll continue to make Star Wars movies until the end of time. Why? Was this decision based on the artistic integrity of the movies? No, the decision was made because the big bosses in suits heard "Cha-Ching, Cha-Ching" sounds in their heads.

It seems to me that most of their decisions are based on money. Frozen has always been seen as a money-making venture and nothing else. They have no respect for the film itself, all they see is more marketing opportunities, more merchandising, and of course more cash rolling in. I hope the new Frozen ride does prove to be a success in the future, but only time will tell. Until then, we'll just have to wait and see.

I loved Maelstrom as a child first and then still as an adult. I can easily recall the troll my brother brought home and perched on his dresser to keep me out of his room. :) He still has it all these years later.

I just spent a long weekend at WDW with other childless adults. We noted how calming it was to walk around Epcot, how quiet, how peaceful. An escape from the full-on family feel. So I'm not only sad to lose Maelstrom; I fear for the loss of serenity as well. I'm picturing a line of girls invading my adult escape to get a bit of their Anna and Elsa. Not that they don't deserve it, but I wish they could have it elsewhere and leave my trolls alone.

Ah well, I guess I'll just go to France for some champagne and macarons.

As a kid, I didn't like Epcot because it didn't have all the cool rides the Magic Kingdom did. We only went because my parents loved to eat at Cafe Marakesh.

Somewhere in my late teens/early 20s, I realized I preferred Epcot and its laid back, grown up crowd to all the kids in MK. It was fun to wander through the shops and eat food from all over.

I understand that it makes more sense to make all the parks kid-friendly and even out attendance. I do. But I'm really going to miss the atmosphere of a "for adults" Epcot.

I am thoroughly enjoying your lost attractions series. Maelstrom is the only one of these I was able to experience. On the trips when my family visited Epcot, we inevitably spent the majority of the day in Future World, racing over to the World Showcase to try to do everything (which wasn't a whole lot) before the park closed. I remember being amazed at Maelstrom and I considered it on par with Pirates of the Caribbean. Even though I knew we weren't going to fall backwards down a waterfall, it really felt as if we could go over any minute. Maelstrom was a valuable addition to the World Showcase, which is dominated by shops and movies, which aren't huge pulls. While I'm sure the coming Frozen ride will boost Epcot's attendance, Maelstrom was a great dark ride and I'll miss it on future trips.

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