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

The company responsible for funding the Norway pavilion would end up selling its stake to Disney directly in 1992. Since Epcot’s annual attendance is roughly twice the population of Norway, the government of the country saw it fit to continue funding the pavilion with $200,000 annually – enough to keep it from shuttering as some of Epcot’s Future World pavilions did.

Image: Disney

The 1992 move by the government was renewable in five years increments, and in 1997, they did renew. But in 2002 – along with many other Epcot sponsors – Norway decided to discontinue its agreement against the (predictably pro-renewal) advice of Disney.

Even without outside funds, Maelstrom sailed into the misty past, present, and folktales of Scandinavia for many years, destined to continue on. After all, nothing else could reliably replace it in its Norwegian setting, right?

You know what happens next...

In a nonchalant post on the Disney Parks Blog dated June 9, 2015, Disney Parks’ Social Media Director quietly announced that Epcot would play host to a brand new attraction in 2016 based on Disney’s 2013 mega-hit, Frozen. The ride to replace Maelstrom would be called Frozen Ever After.

The film, for those awakening from Sleeping Beauty level slumber, chronicles the frosty relationship between two sister princesses – Anna and Elsa. Elsa maintains a chilly distance from her younger sister to protect Anna from her secret ice powers. On the night of her coronation, when her emotions get the best of her, Elsa ignites an eternal winter that blankets the mythical kingdom of Arendelle in snow, so it’s up to Anna to chase her fleeing sister into the snowy mountains and convince her that she’s not better off alone.

Met with critical acclaim and rabidly enthusiastic reactions from most everyone, the film went on to dethrone The Lion King as the highest grossing animated film ever, by a very wide margin. The film has already spawned an animated short, Frozen Fever, and a sequel has been officially announced. Put another way: Frozen is a tremendous hit that is already a new classic, on par with The Little Mermaid or Beauty and the Beast. A stunning score, a riveting story, and gorgeous animation make Frozen a timeless film, even if oversaturation has people groaning about it for now.

Frozen Ever After

Shortly into construction on the brand new ride, Disney came clean with just what fans had feared: Frozen Ever After wouldn't just re-use Maelstrom's ride building; it would re-use the ride itself. That meant that Maelstrom's barely-four-minute ride time would remain, too, but this time it would have multi-hour waits before it. Yikes. And when Frozen Ever After opened in June 21, 2016, the ride was expectedly overrun as a five hour queue formed for the five minute adventure.

Here's what you need to know: Frozen Ever After is a wonderful ride in its own right. First and foremost, it is not a "book report" ride – a term used by Imagineers and fans to describe dark rides that simply whisk guests through a three minute summary of a story they already know. Instead, this ride is set after Frozen and the Frozen Fever short. Guests board old Viking boats (eh hem) for a tour of Arendelle during a summer celebration when Elsa plans to (purposefully) coat the kingdom in ice and snow to commemorate the day Anna saved her from her lonely world. 

Image: Theme Park Tourist

On board, we hear pieces and parts of some of our favorite songs from the award-winning soundtrack, and while the track layout is an instant giveaway and a few allusions are scattered throughout, sights and sounds alone make it impossible to know that Maelstrom ever existed here. It's unfair to call this ride an "overlay." While it may re-use Maelstrom's track and vehicles, they're merely the backbone of an entirely new ride that's every bit as permanent.

Image: Disney

The home-run, by far, is the introduction of brand-new and impossibly astounding Audio-Animatronics figures. So lifelike and so compelling are these "living" figures, we count it as the first time it's ever really looked like a cartoon character is sincerely alive, standing before us – easily Disney's best work with human figures. In fact, the citizens of Arendelle ranked high on our countdown of the most incredible animatronics on Earth. And that's saying something. 

You can decide for yourself what you think of Frozen independently of Maelstrom or compared to it. Either way, you can imagine that from long before its opening through today, Disney fans have come out of the woodwork on all sides of the Frozen Ever After issue, engaging in heated discussions about the many precedents this ride obliterates, the new ones that it sets, and the many questions that this move raises. Here are just a few:

 1. Do characters belong in World Showcase? Or in Epcot at all?

EPCOT Center was founded with a different kind of mission statement, and the purposeful exclusion of recognizable Disney characters was a brave and valiant shift in a world that knew “Disney Parks” as synonymous with princesses, cartoons, and castles. In fact, the only characters Epcot played host to were Dreamfinder and Figment, the original creations of Tony Baxter inside of the park’s beloved Lost Legend: Journey Into Imagination.

When Michael Eisner became CEO of Disney, he brought with him a cinematic history as the former head of Paramount Pictures. Unsurprisingly, Eisner believed that letting people "ride the movies" would be the coup to make Disney Parks relevant to a new generation. While controversial, that belief did lead to a few of our Lost Legends: Alien Encounter, the original Star Tours, and Disneyland's long-lost Twilight Zone Tower of Terror. (To be fair, the same controversial idea led to a fair share of Disaster Files: Stitch's Great Escape and Enchanted Tiki Room: Under New Management to name a few.) 

Even before he initiated the construction of Walt Disney World’s own movie themed park, Eisner saw that the popularity of EPCOT Center could benefit tremendously from the inclusion of film characters. First, Mickey and friends made appropriate appearances in 80s-futuristic outfits. Soon followed the Princesses. Then the floodgates opened to today’s setup, wherein Disney characters meet in the World Showcase pavilion most closely resembling their quasi-fictional locales (Anna and Elsa in Norway, Mary Poppins in the United Kingdom, Aladdin in Morocco, Beauty and the Beast in France, etc.) and animated friends have overtaken some of Future World's once-grounded pavilions – a move detested by many old school fans.

Of this debate, there is something to be said about the importance (whether we realize it or not) of keeping some theme parks “real-life.” If every Disney parks becomes an immersive, Magic-Kingdom-style fantasy park of themed lands with the same thesis, why have different parks at all? If Anna and Elsa can be reasonably at home at Magic Kingdom, Epcot, and Disney's Hollywood Studios, then the parks are surely missing clear and concise individual identities, right?

Image: In The Wrong Boots

But we’ve seen this happen the right way, like at Tokyo DisneySea. There, a land called Arabian Coast (above) is filled with authentic immersive detail that kinda-sorta hints at Aladdin and hosts an Aladdin attraction, but feels habitable and original and "real" in the vein of a World Showcase pavilion. (The brand-new Treasure Cove land at the game-changing Shanghai Disneyland is another example, theoretically based on the style and spirit of the Pirates of the Caribbean films, but standing as a "real" world on its own.)

And ironically, after really perfecting this balance between real environments housing fantasy characters, DisneySea announced an expansion that would involve a new Scandanavian-themed land with elements of Frozen. Like Arabian Coast, this proposed land no doubt would've skillfully juggled real Scandanavian shops, restaurants, craftsmen, and architecture with Frozen bits throughout. Ultimately, though, the Oriental Land Company that owns and operates the Tokyo Disney Resort ended up walking back its plans for this Frozen themed area, earning a sigh of relief from many Parks fans who felt it was still too "fantasy" for the renowned park.

We, too, question if characters belong in World Showcase, or in Epcot at all for that matter. This is a debate we expect to rage on. And by the way, there is no right answer.

(Though we have to wonder if fans would react with the same vitriol if a copy of Disneyland Paris’ Ratatouille ride were announced for Epcot’s France pavilion, or Mystic Manor for Canada... We expect that people would cheer those announcements. So what’s the difference here? Which may bring us to the next question…)

2. Does Frozen deserve a ride?

Sure, there are plenty of oppositional folks who outright detest Frozen (and probably just because so many others like it so much. C’est la vie) but the truth is unavoidable: Frozen is great. Critically, the film scored tremendously well. Commercially, it shattered every record for animated films. And there’s simply no denying that Frozen DID embed itself in pop culture. Children love it. Adults love it (even if, for now, we’d be happy to never hear “that song” again). Like Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, The Little Mermaid or The Lion King, Frozen will be a staple of animated films and an enduring cultural tale for generations. Anyone who says otherwise is being thick.

But we know this much, too: no one was more surprised by the film’s phenomenal performance and unstoppable success than Disney. It’s not news to fans that Disney scrambled to react, moving the Anna and Elsa meet-and-greets from venue-to-venue and park-to-park as lines topped five hours for a chance to briefly interact with the sisters. What’s worse, it wasn’t until the next year that the resorts could pool their resources to put on temporary Frozen themed parties, overlays, and events. Even 18 months after the film’s release, those events brought staggering crowds to Disney’s Hollywood Studios and Disneyland Paris. If anything, fans might agree that the Frozen attraction is coming a little too late. But assuming Frozen will have the longevity of Beauty and the Beast (which we think is fair to assume), that shouldn't be a problem. In other words, ten, twenty, thirty, forty years from now, we'll still be glad Frozen has a ride, just as Snow White still deserves one. Her story is timeless. 

While the total Frozen obsession might’ve put off those who would have otherwise admitted to liking the film, that’s no reason to discount its long-term importance. Put simply: Frozen DOES deserve an attraction (and people want one). This is no fly-by-night, flavor-of-the-week property. Frozen is a really wonderful film that has earned the right to be present in the Disney Parks. To be direct, the answer to this question is yes. If we’re being very honest, it probably deserves a whole land. Which brings us to the last question, which is…

3. Does Frozen deserve a better ride?

Frozen is set in a fictional kingdom modeled very intentionally after Scandinavia in both style and substance. And yes, setting aside the debate on whether or not characters belong in World Showcase, it does fit acceptably into Epcot’s Norway pavilion – it’s a film based on a Norse legend written by Scandinavian writer Hans Christian Anderson including princesses, trolls, Scandinavian castles, fjords, and fishing villages. For those keeping track, it technically includes all the elements those Norwegian investors required back in 1986, except for Vikings and an oil rig.

And understand: Frozen Ever After is astounding. The ride is a wonder, and is sure to delight. But if we’re being very honest, we predicted from the start that even an exceedingly well-done overlay of Maelstrom (which Frozen Ever After is) is simply not be the ride that Frozen has earned. The infrastructure of the low-capacity, four minute dark ride was entirely reused (right down to the same Viking boats, played off as a nod to nostalgia but really a transparent budget-saver), and that's not necessarily a good thing. It’s bad enough that the ride’s low hourly capacity will doubtlessly earn it hour-plus waits all day, every day for the foreseeable future.

What’s worse is that after that wait, the three-and-a-half minute ride course will feel like a slap in the face to parents. Even though the animatronics, sets, songs, and story are phenomenal (and they are), they couldn't have been better than if the ride was given its own 10-minute epic dark ride from scratch in Fantasyland. That's the ride that Frozen really calls for. And logistically, any ride – however exceptional – draped on the skeleton of Maelstrom's layout wouldn't offer enough to justify the low capacity and long waits for what may well be the most in-demand ride to come to Walt Disney World in decades.

In a fictional fifth Walt Disney World park, we can easily imagine Arendelle being its own entire land anchored by one or more awe-inspiring E-tickets with cutting edge technology and the brilliant showmanship Disney’s known for.

Don’t get us wrong: Frozen Ever After is benevolent, fun, and beautiful at worst, and a seriously impressive dark ride at best! But is it what Frozen deserves? Hmm.

Maelstrom subsides

Regardless of your opinions on Maelstrom or on the Frozen Ever After attraction that took its place, Maelstrom signals yet another notch on the shrinking belt of the original EPCOT Center. A park once filled with outstanding, classic, historic dark rides has lost yet another to the ever-turning wheels of progress. When we look objectively, it may be true that Maelstrom was an oddity; a ride unlike any other Disney had ever created. Mismatched tones, odd transitions, an uneven story, and a strange ride experience altogether. But that doesn’t make it any less important in the memories of those who were thrilled by its waterfalls, terrified by its trolls, and touched by its heart.

Even if you skipped the final film every single time, you’re likely to remember Maelstrom forever. And that’s precisely what Norway wanted. Of course, this isn't the only story of a closed classic... Make the jump to our In-Depth Collections Library and set sail for another Lost Legend.

As in all of the entries in our Lost Legacy series, we depend now on you. In the comments section below, preserve your memories of Maelstrom and your thoughts on its life. We want Disney fans of all ages to record their stories so that the experience of Maelstrom is never forgotten. We look forward to reading your comments!

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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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