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Does the Loss of this Ride Mean the End of Epcot as We Know It?

With Norway on board to finance the creation of a pavilion including a dark ride, Disney Imagineers were able to get to work on the preliminary plans. For Epcot’s Mexico pavilion, designers had built El Rio Del Tiempo (“The River of Time”), a dark ride from the cultural origins of Mexico through to a modern day Mexico City. On the ride, characters were represented using “it’s a small world” style dolls in authentic folk clothing. The charming attraction was more or less a hidden gem, tucked away into a dark corner of the imposing Mexico pavilion.

Image: Disney

For Norway, Imagineers had something else planned. Norway would house a dark ride on par with the original, sweeping dark rides of Epcot’s Future World: full animatronics, decadent storytelling, and immersive sets – a headlining attraction that put Norway on the proverbial map.

The task fell to Bob Kurzweil (designer of Disneyland’s Alice in Wonderland dark ride), fan-favorite Marty Sklar, and producer Randy Carter, who met with the heads of some large Norwegian corporations (like Selmer-Sande and Kloster) who would – if they found the plans adequate – give big money to Disney for the design, development, and construction of the pavilion and its central attraction.

Paul Torrigino with a model of the unload area. Image: Disney

The group settled on the idea of a flume-style boat ride and the novel idea that it would travel both forwards and backwards (which had never been done before).

Joe Rohde (best known for his later design work on Disney’s Animal Kingdom and his later role as the park’s spokesman and emissary) did early conceptual illustrations and models based around Bob’s first idea: that the ride should be a fantasy ride through the mythical stories of Norway focused primarily around the legends of trolls and the myths and folktales of such creatures that permeate the country. (Ever heard of The Three Billy Goats Gruff? Thank Norway.) 

Telling the real story

Norwegian representatives flew back to Imagineering to hear Disney’s proposal.

To the chagrin of the design team, the Norwegian representatives had no interest in having their country represented by trolls. They wanted an attraction to spur tourism and give Norway a memorable identity – they wanted a travelogue of sorts, showcasing the natural wonders of the country, its place in an industrial world, and the rich, real history of the nation. (And to be fair, they were probably right to hold their ground. Imagine if a Norwegian theme park offered to build a United States pavilion, with its single ride themed around the legend of Big Foot. We’d probably feel that they were missing the big picture a little bit, right?)

By the in-depth account of Paul Torrigino, one of the ride’s model makers turned Production Designer, the Norwegians made it clear that if they were to finance a ride for Epcot’s Norway pavilion, it needed to hit a few specific topics: ‘Vikings, a fishing village, polar bears, a fjord, an oil rig, and maybe a troll or two.”

That was quite a lot to fit into one stew.

Image: Disney

Rightfully, four principle designers (Bob, Randy, Joe, and Paul) put their heads together to try to figure out any logical way that it could work. Disney Imagineering – known the world over for its inventive storytelling – was left grasping at straws to connect the time periods, themes, and styles that Norway wanted in exchange for funding.

Then came the winning idea: that the ride could use the plot device of time travel to explain the mismatched sights and stories. The ride could begin in a historic fishing village in the era of Vikings before traveling into a marsh populated by folktale creatures, who would send the boat through time to the present. While it wasn’t the most refined concept Imagineering had ever devised, it would serve its purpose and show just the elements of Norway that investors wanted. With a loose plot to connect the scenes, work intensified and Disney announced its newest attraction would open in 1986: SeaVenture.

Opening the gates

Image: Disney

You read that right. The ride inside of the Norway pavilion was called SeaVenture until at least March 1988 (as that’s when the above photo was taken). By May, the streets of “Norway” were opened as the pavilion soft-opened, and guests who visited saw a shiny new marquee sporting the ride’s final name: Maelstrom. However, the ride remained closed.

As expected of any new and technologically advanced attraction, Maelstrom took a while to work out its kinks. The attraction missed the soft opening of the Norway pavilion in May 1988. On June 3, the crown prince Harald V of Norway visited Epcot to dedicate the pavilion in a ceremony broadcast live to his home country. Still, the doors to Maelstrom remained sealed. It would be another full month before Maelstrom would make its debut: June 5, 1988. Shortly thereafter, Disney took out newspaper ads promising something grand:

When was the last time you went over a waterfall… backwards? Had your life threatened by a nasty, old three-headed river troll? Came within a whisker of a 12-foot polar bear? Challenged white-water rapids? And braved a thunderous, storm-tossed North Sea?

The last time may be the first time you ride “The Maelstrom,” the new thriller at EPCOT Center. It’s a sea adventure of legendary proportions, now open in the fabulous, new Norway Showcase.

So come on. Conquer “The Maelstrom.” All you need is the guts of a Viking.

On the next page, we’ll step into our own Viking longboat and take to the high seas aboard Maelstrom.

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There are 9 comments.

Would some of the same people protesting Frozen Ever After not care if the Paris Ratatouille ride was placed in Epcot? Yes. In fairness, though, that ride (and movie) are at least set in France instead of a fictional location based on France. I think DisneySea is doing the right thing by placing Frozen in a Scandinavian land instead of one specific to one country. By doing that, they can play it off as a part of their fantasy "Disney-fied" version of a region that includes Norway AND Frozen instead of trying to make Frozen part of a real country. I'm not saying the ride will be bad and I understand that Epcot probably needs the boost it will provide. But doesn't a ride based on a fantasy movie set in a fictional place belong in the Magic Kingdom?

I actually think Disney would be smart to rebrand the pavilion "Scandinavia." I understand that that's out-of-sync with the rest of the pavilions representing specific, single countries, but it's no different from the "Equatorial Africa" pavilion that was announced but never built. It would certainly help excuse the presence of Frozen. And Norway is no longer providing financial assistance, so there's no requirement that it stays Norway.

As a little kid I remember seeing the concept art on the barricade wall while it was being built. It depicted the boat going over the waterfall backwards with all the riders. I remember it being a lot more frightening than the picture that is in the article. I was terrified of it when I first rode it because I thought the ride would be just like the picture showed.

I have been to Epcot 4 times and only as an adult/parent. I discovered Marlstrom by accident, but it was a happy accident. My first emotion at finding the ride was elation, as there are so few in Epcot, and waiting in line I kept looking at my husband and saying "this looks mighty different from home" (we are passholders for Disneyland CA).

My first thought after the ride was that everyone in Norway was on drugs. It was seriously the weirdest ride I had ever been on. But I loved it! Our last visit to Epcot was with another family in 2012, and I had talked up the ride so much they thought a) it can't POSSIBLY be as weird as I had made it out to be, and b) they couldn't WAIT to ride it.

I loved your article as I was so sad to hear the ride was closing. It truly was an oddity for Disney, but a quirky and welcome one. In addition, you validated all my thoughts and feelings on the ride!!!!!

Please do one of these articles on Adventure Through Inner Space!!!

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.

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 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.

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 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.

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