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Do You Remember EPCOT’s Animatronic “Dinner” Shows? Dig In to the Full Story.

Beginning in the 1993, EPCOT Center began to change.

A new generation of executives (under Michael Eisner) had become determined to make Disney Parks into hip-and-happening places where every member of the family – even teens! – would find something worth doing. EPCOT Center was… well… not at the top of most kids’ to-do lists. Even a decade after opening, the park was admittedly aging. Its distinct 1980s architecture and 1980s ideals were looking increasingly dated to audiences of the 1990s.

Image: Disney

The ten years since opening was also just the amount of time needed for many sponsors’ contracts to come up for renewal. And here, sponsorship failed again… Rather than re-upping their contracts and doubling down on investment the way Disney had hoped, many sponsors instead opted to leave altogether. (Again, a common thread running through the Lost Legends entries on Epcot’s closed classics.)

Disney rallied around the park and tried to update its identity (renaming it Epcot ’93, then Epcot ’94, and finally just Epcot), slowly minimizing the “educational” components that had made the park a talk show punch line as the one park kids dreaded spending a day at.

The kitchen bites back

Kraft withdrew its sponsorship of The Land in 1992. The food giant had played a vital role in financing the pavilion’s everyday operation, which meant that The Land might’ve been doomed to either slowly wither or close altogether (with both strategies having been used in the park’s Future World as sponsors fell)… except that Disney found another sponsor willing to take it on.

Image: Nestlé

International food corporation Nestlé came on board in September 1993, agreeing to co-finance the pavilion along with the Walt Disney Company. Luckily, Kraft and Nestle did share a common focus on nutrition and agriculture, meaning the pavilion’s foundational concepts and attractions still worked. But neither Nestlé nor Disney were content simply financing the aging 1982 attractions left in the building.

The gentle boat ride through the park’s greenhouses – Listen to the Land – was briefly closed to freshen it up and plant a little more of Nestlé’s message. The Symphony of the Seed introduction was replaced with a rainforest scene, and the ride reopened quickly as Living with the Land. Similarly, the aging Symbiosis film received a character injection (one of the park’s first, though placing Disney characters amongst the park’s grounded locales became the name of the game during the Eisner area, continuing unto today) becoming Circle of Life: An Environmental Fable featuring the cast of The Lion King.

The most radical transformation, though, was to Kitchen Kabaret. When Nestlé took over in 1992, the only immediate change was that Mr. Mayonnaise was repainted to become Mr. Tomato Sauce. Otherwise, it was business as usual... 

Image: USDA

However, in 1992, the "four basic food group" nutrition model used by the FDA since 1956 was retired. It was replaced by the Food Pyramid, which expanded to five food groups (and a "Fats, Oils, and Sweets" group) and visually represented how many servings of each was recommended. (Controversially, the Food Pyramid was politically charged and overtly shaped by special interest groups. It underwent its own radical transformation in 2005 to become MyPyramid before giving way to the current MyPlate nutrition model in 2011.)

Suddenly, the animatronic "dinner" show Nestlé had inherited from Kraft was a relic of a bygone era. A lone standout in a pavilion that had been refreshed (and a testament to an outdated nutrition model), the attraction needed to change. And in this case, Nestlé went for a full redesign. Kitchen Kabaret closed forever just a few years later, on January 3, 1994.

Image: Disney

After a three-month absence, the space re-opened with Food Rocks on March 26, 1994. As the quick turnaround might indicate, Food Rocks wasn’t quite as lovingly crafted as its predecessor, with more rudimentary animatronics and two-dimensional backdrops.

However, Food Rocks did align to the brand new Food Pyramid and offered a more high-energy, frantic, bright, "modern," and overtly funny take on the concept... even if it was obviously not as timeless, thoughtful, or fully realized as its predecessor. 

Image: Disney

The attraction was themed as a benefit concert for good nutrition hosted by Füd Wrapper (above, a rapper wrapper voiced by real-life artist Tone Loc) and a series of food group musical acts with the rotten metal band The Excess (below) constantly chiming in to deride healthy foods and encourage guests to overeat.

Image: Disney

At least its pop and rock songs (and their associated “punny” singers) would be more recognizable as pop culture references, much hipper for a new generation…

  • “Vegetables are Good For You” sung by Neil Moussaka (voiced by Neil Sedaka, parodying his song “Breaking Up is Hard to Do”)
  • “Every Bite you Take” by the Refrigerator Police (a take-up on The Police’s “Every Breath You Take”)

Image: Disney

  •  “Good Nutrition” by The Peach Boys (of course, the Beach Boys’ “Good Vibrations”)
  • “Just Keep It Lean” by the Sole of Rock ‘n’ Roll (a fish who looked and sounded curiously like Cher, parodying her “It’s In His Kiss”)

Even if Food Rocks wasn’t as stylistically complex or creatively timeless as its predecessor, it gained its own fan following thanks to ‘90s kids who grew up with the sing-along animatronic show. For what it's worth, the show was modeled around the Food Pyramid, a now-retired nutrition model with six food groups.) In any case, another radical renovation would see this benefit concert shut down, too.

You can see exactly what Food Rocks had in store with this video filmed of the attractions:

Full circle

In 2003 – after 10 years of sponsorship – Nestlé’s contract was up for renewal. They agreed to continue on their sponsorship, but agreed with Disney that The Land needed another floor-to-ceiling renovation if it were to remain viable in the 21st century. That aligned with a radical reinvention that Disney had planned for the park’s Future World, as we chronicled in its own standalone feature, Possibilityland: Epcot’s Project – GEMINI.

While much of Project: GEMINI never came to pass, a few elements planned for The Land did thanks to the plan’s proximity to Nestlé’s renewal.

Image: Michael Gray, Flickr (license)

First, the pavilion’s identity shifted with a new logo, new colors, and new visual identity that was more modern, sleek, and bright. The exterior was reimagined, replacing its staggered palm trees with a forested grove, growing to cover much of the pavilion’s exterior (as chronicled unbeatably in Yesterland’s Then & Now photo essay).

Its interior was also redesigned, eliminating the remains of the ‘80s and ‘90s colors, textures, and images to create a more vibrant, modern food court.

Then and now. Images: Disney

However, the largest change was yet to come. As part of a larger shift in focus, Epcot was being redefined. By the New Millennium, many of the park’s lofty educational dark rides had already closed or downsized. It’s clear in retrospect that there was no overarching goal or vision for Epcot anymore, and that piecemeal additions (be they brainless thrills like Mission: SPACE or character injections like The Seas With Nemo and Friends) would be one-off solutions that only further disassociated the pavilions from one another and from any park-wide mission or identity.

The Land, meanwhile, needed a new headliner of its own… and while Disney was reeling from the outright failure of its newest theme park, Disney’s California Adventure did feature one ride that was a soaring success.

Soarin’ success

Nestlé requested that The Land receive the one, single, solitary “success” that the underbuilt and underfunded subject of our Disaster File: Disney’s California Adventure had produced.

Image: Disney

Food Rocks closed forever on January 3, 2004. The space it once occupied would become the entrance to something new. From the theater’s footprint, a massive queue was constructed, leading to a new auxiliary showbuilding behind the park’s Imagination pavilion housing a ride so beloved, it earned its own in-depth entry in our series, Lost Legends: Soarin’.

On board, guests would be hoisted sky-high in nimble “hang gliders,” lofted before a domed IMAX screen to gently glide over mountains, forests, oceans, deserts, and cities. (Hilariously, the ride film was the same as California Adventure’s E-Ticket, meaning that “Soarin’” at Epcot featured exclusively Californian sights! Luckily, the state’s vast landscapes are so varied, most guests probably had no idea they were only seeing California.)

Image: Disney

Soarin’ was an instant hit, earning some of the longest waits at Epcot and signaling to executives that their new strategy to shift the park at its core could indeed work.

That being said, Soarin’ is the subject of its own Lost Legends entry because it, too, disappeared. After years and years of rumors, Epcot’s Soarin’ was finally upgraded with a non-Californian ride film (though curiously, California Adventure got it, too) and was renamed Soarin’ Around the World.

Image: Disney

The updated version now sends guests gliding over international wonders such as the Sydney Opera House, the Great Wall of China, and Neuschwanstein Castle in Germany. (Never mind that, technically, that makes the updated ride a worse fit for both California Adventure and The Land.)

For most Disney World guests, memories of either Kitchen Kabaret or Food Rocks are long left behind, as it seems almost universally agreed upon that Soarin’ is worth the loss.

Growing

The story of Kitchen Kabaret and its successor, Food Rocks, are just another chapter in the continuously rewritten story of Epcot. Kraft and Nestlé helped shape Epcot’s “Land” into one focused on nutrition and agriculture, and Kitchen Kabaret was a uniquely Disney component of their goal: to educate, inform, and entertain about something as sincere and “real” as nutrition.

Image: Disney

Throughout the last three decades, our understanding of nutrition has changed. The “four basic food groups” gave way to a food pyramid, which was redesigned and then morphed into MyPlate. As quickly as our understanding of nutrition changed, so has Epcot itself. A new foundational direction for the park meant that Kitchen Kabaret and its successors were doomed.

The Land’s animatronic shows may have been a fun aside for a generation, but they were incompatible with Epcot’s new direction… especially now that its future is forever shifting toward more thrilling multi-media attractions and intellectual properties. Chances are, we won’t see another animatronic “dinner” show at Epcot… unless Pixar’s next hit stars food groups.

Now, make the jump to our In-Depth Collections Library to make a healthy choice about your next Lost Legend. 

Then, we want to hear from you. Did you see either of Epcot’s animatronic “dinner” shows? What role do you think these educational, informational attractions had in the park, and what – if anything – is missing without them? Do you agree with us that Soarin’ Around the World a worthy replacement, even if it’s not technically a celebration of Earth’s ecosystems? And what could be next for The Land if Disney decides that all of its Future World pavilions need character ambassadors? Pocahontas? The Lion King? Moana?

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There is 1 comment.

If Epcot did think that they would need to enhance the Land Pavillion I could definitely see WALL-E as a good fit, since in our world today we are dealing with an energy crisis and global warming, and WALL-E had that same plot line and it could replace the Circle of Life an Environmental Fable as a new animated short showing how WALL-E and Eve are conserving energy and not wasting materials. I think that WALL-E would be a good fit in The Land Pavillion.

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