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Equatorial Africa: The World Showcase pavilion that we almost got

Equatorial Africa: The World Showcase pavilion that we almost got

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During my recent visit to Mouse Surplus' new Tradeport Drive location, I chanced upon Brian Ramsey's great collection of Disney theme park maps. And while I admit that it was somewhat bizarre to find the sublime (Disneyland Paris) hanging right next to the ridiculous (Hong Kong Disneyland) ...

Photos by Jeff Lange

... I still loved looking at these early maps. Getting a sense of how far we've come (I.E. The 1971 version of WDW's Magic Kingdom). More importantly, how far some Disney theme parks (I.E. Disney's California Adventure) still have to go in order to be truly worthy of the Disney name.

Photos by Jeff Lange

But of all the Disney theme park maps that Brian has on display at his new warehouse, I think the one that I enjoyed the most was the one of EPCOT Center circa October of 1983.

Photo by Jeff Lange

"Why October of 1983?," you ask. Well, the way this particular theme park map was drawn, it showed what the Imagineers hoped  EPCOT Center would look like one year after this science & discovery park officially opened to the public. Which is why -- if you look in the upper lefthand corner of this map -- you'll find ...

Photo by Jeff Lange

... Nestled between the China & Germany pavilions along the shores of World Showcase Lagoon is that theme park's proposed Equatorial Africa pavilion.

Okay. I admit it. That close-up of that EPCOT Center map isn't the greatest. Let me see what else I've got in my archives ... Alright. How about a close-up of an early Epcot concept painting?

Copyright 1980 Walt Disney Productions

Or -- better yet -- a photograph of an EPCOT Center model ...

Copyright 1980 Walt Disney Productions

Where -- if we zero in on the upper lefthand corner of World Showcase ...

Copyright 1980 Walt Disney Productions

... You can get a pretty look at the model of EPCOT's Equatorial Africa pavilion.

Copyright 1980 Walt Disney Productions

As for the pavilion itself ... Well, the Imagineers wanted Equatorial Africa to really stand out from the crowd. And what better way was there for this proposed pavilion to literally rise above all of its World Showcase neighbors than to have the centerpiece of this Epcot addition be a massive treehouse?

You can't really see the treehouse in this overhead view of the Equatorial Africa pavilion ...

Copyright 1977 Walt Disney Productions

... So how's about we head out on the water? See what the view would have been from World Showcase Lagoon?

Copyright 1977 Walt Disney Productions

In the center above concept painting, you can see Equatorial Africa's treehouse ... Towering some 60 feet in the air, this imposing structure would have been set in the uppermost branches of an enormous fake ficus tree. Were World Showcase visitors to make their way to the top of the  treehouse, they would have been able to look down into one of the more amazing illusions the Imagineers had ever cooked up.

Let me try to set the stage here: Guests arriving at the top of the treehouse stairs would have found themselves entering a recreation of a authentic African wildlife observation platform. If these WDW visitors were to stand at the center of the platform and look down, they would have glimpsed an eerily lifelike image of animals gathering at a waterhole just after dusk.

Copyright 1980 Walt Disney Productions

So how were the Imagineers going to pull off this amazing illusion? This set-piece was supposed to have made use of rear projected 70mm live action footage that Disney cinematographers had taken of actual African animals drinking at a waterhole in the jungle. The 20 foot tall screen would then have been framed by an elaborate diorama filled with authentic looking fake trees, vines and rockwork. Though the use of the Mouse's patented 3D sound systems as well as smellizer technology, the very sights, sounds and smells of African would seemingly have surrounded the guests.

When all of these elements were combined, the illusion would have been complete. Epcot visitors would have stared down into this set-up and sworn to themselves that they were actually out in the jungle, looking down at the real thing.

Copyright 1980 Walt Disney Productions

Leaving the treehouse, World Showcase guests would have found themselves among a large set of kojpes (I.E. giant granite boulders). This roughly sculpted rockwork was to have formed a natural looking outdoor amphitheater where the African musicians and dance troupes that Disney had hired to appear at Epcot would have performed daily.

Next to the kojpes outdoor amphitheater, there was supposed to have been an enormous thatched hut. Inside this building, Epcot visitors would have been able to enjoy the "Heartbeat of Africa" show -- an unique entertainment that used the history of the drum to offer some entertaining insights into the distinct music and rhythms of Africa

Copyright 1980 Walt Disney Productions

What was the "Heartbeat" show supposed to be like? Well, guests entering the show building could have made themselves comfortable by leaning against some very large colorful recreations of African tribal shields. From these unusual seats, guests could have then looked up at the dozens of native musical instruments that lined the walls and ceiling.

Once the lights went down, the drums lining the walls of the "Heartbeat of Africa" theater would magically begin playing -- all by themselves. With each beat of the drum, a colorful light would emanate from inside the instrument. As the rhythm of the piece being performed got more and more complex and more instruments joined in on the fun, the audience would have been surrounded by a colorful display of music and light.


Exiting the "Heartbeat of Africa" theater, Epcot visitors would have then entered the pavilion's heritage and cultural display area. This piece of the pavilion would have included a shopping area that offered native crafts as well as a permanent museum space with a regularly rotating collection of authentic African art.

More adventurous guests could have then pushed on and explored the African pavilion's Sound Safari. Just like with the watering hole illusion back up in the treehouse, the Sound Safari would have made use of Disney's then-new 3D sound technology. As WDW guests wandered down an overgrown path, they would have passed through invisible infra-red sensors, which would have then triggered the sound of trumpeting elephants, laughing hyenas and grunting hippos -- seemingly just out of sight behind the thick foliage.

To reinforce this illusion, the Imagineers wanted to set up a system of simple but extremely effective special effects along the Sound Safari trail. This would have caused some of the bushes in this attraction to rustle in perfect synchronization with the sound of the out-of-sight jungle animal -- giving WDW guests the impression that there really was something alive and ferocious lurking out there in the bush.

So how did Epcot's Sound Safari climax? After sending guests across a rickety suspension bridge over a thick jungle that seemed to be full of vicious beasts, the only path to safety for these Epcot visitors was through a darkened cave that echoed with the sound of lions fighting over a fresh kill.

Sounds kind of intense, doesn't it?

Thankfully, the African pavilion's next attraction was a much more sedate, civilized show. Entitled "Africa Rediscovered," this wide screen film presentation was deliberately designed to dispel the myth that the dark continent was just some vast jungle filled with wild beasts and savages. (Which -- at least to my way of thinking -- puts this show in direct contrast with the "Sound Safari" attraction right next door. But I digress ... )

"Roots" author Alex Haley -- who personally researched all the stories that were to be used in the script for this show -- was to have served as host of "Africa Rediscovered." Haley had hopes that this 15 minute film would teach Epcot visitors that Africa wasn't actually a primitive, primeval place but rather a country with a rich and illustrious history.

Among the highlights of this proposed World Showcase show would have been:

  • Hannibal, the black ruler of Carthage (Called the "Greatest general in history" by Napoleon Bonaparte), urging his troops up over the Alps as they prepare to mount a surprise attack on Rome. While riding elephants!

  • Haley visits the ruins of Kush, a once mighty Nubian civilization. Through movie magic, the long-dead city is suddenly restored to its former glory and Alex gets a taste of what life must have been like in this long forgotten African kingdom circa 750 B.C.

The film was also supposed to have included vignettes on "The City of Gold," Timbuktu; the slave prisons of Senegal as well as the bronze works of Benin.

Alex obviously took great pride in all the work that he'd done on Epcot's Equatorial Africa pavilion. Which perhaps explains why Haley agreed to take part in a CBS TV special which was broadcast on October 23, 1982 to hype the recent opening of Disney World's second theme park.

In fact, one of the real highlights of the "EPCOT Center's Grand Opening" program was the moment where Haley and legendary entertainer Danny Kaye (I.E. This TV special's host) stood with a scale model of the Equatorial Africa pavilion right in front of the very parcel of land where this World Showcase addition was to have been built. Danny first ooohs and aaahs over the model. Then - after firmly shaking Haley's hand - Kaye says something to the effect of "Well, I'll see you back here in one year's time, Alex, so that we can tour the real thing together."

Ah, if only that had been the case ...

"So if this EPCOT Center addition was really this far along, then why wasn't the Equatorial Africa pavilion ever built?," you ask. Two reasons, actually. Politics & money.

The way I hear it, the only African-based corporations that were willing to come forward to underwrite the construction costs of Epcot's Equatorial Africa pavilion were based out of South Africa. And given that the early 1980s were a time when the world was particularly upset with South Africa's apartheid policies ... There was just no way that the Mouse was willing to accept that sort of money to fund the construction of this World Showcase addition.

Then -- when you factor in the constant political upheaval in this corner of the world ... Well, every time that the Mouse had thought that it had lined up a country to serve as the host nation for this proposed EPCOT Center addition, there's suddenly be a coup or a war. And the government official that Disney had been dealing with would suddenly be pushed out of power or sent into exile.

Which is why -- over time -- the construction schedule for Epcot's Equatorial Africa pavilion kept getting pushed further and further back ... Until finally this proposed World Showcase addition was scrubbed entirely. And all that really remains of this pavilion today is the image on this early EPCOT Center map.

If you'd like to see this map for yourself ... Well, you're probably going to have to make a trip to Mouse Surplus. Just remember though that Brian recently shut down the old Spruce Avenue office and has moved the whole operation over to 1500 Tradeport Drive.

For further information on Mouse Surplus, its constantly changing inventory as well as the new warehouse's operating hours, I suggest that you call 407-854-5391 and/or click on this link to visit the MouseSurplus.com website.

FYI: In addition to being JHM's official photographer & archvist, Jeff Lange also produces a best-selling series of Disney theme park DVDs. Among his more recent titles is a three disc collectors edition that covers this year's "Star Wars Weekends" at Disney-MGM Studio theme park. For further information on this DVD as well as all of the other titles in Jeff's catalog, please follow this link.

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  • That sounds great.  Everything you just mentioned.  Wow.
    Not only does the whole pavillion sound impressive, it would have 6 attractions.  There was no mention of a restaurant, unfortunately.  But, what pavillion at Epcot has 6 attractions?  Some are lucky to have an outdoor performance.  The technology just sounds amazing.  I'm surprised they haven't used it somewhere else (or have they?).  It's unfortunate that Africa has only an Outpost and not a "real" pavillion of its own.  The details given are just cool: leaning against tribal masks, surrounded by sounds of animals...great stuff.  Its unfortunate that this never saw the light of day.  Keep on with these Epcot articles, please, because they're so interesting!
  • PingBack from http://disneylandcalifornia.dmvcaliforniapass.com/?p=7
  • Amazing Story.  Why the African exhibit seem so much more elaborate than the other countries?  It seemed like they planned this one much better, as it seems like a journey.  

    Great article.

  • Correct me if I'm wrong, but isn't that particular parcel of land now the "Outpost"?  Africanized Disney garb as well as African crafts are available there.  I've stopped to watch a craftperson or two there and they are quite talented woodworkers.  

    I would have liked to see some of the ideas from EA incorporated into AK's Africa.
  • -->So how were the Imagineers going to pull off this amazing illusion? This set-piece was supposed to have made use of rear projected 70mm live action footage that Disney cinematographers had taken of actual African animals drinking at a waterhole in the jungle. The 20 foot tall screen would then have been framed by an elaborate diorama filled with authentic looking fake trees, vines and rockwork.<--

    Sounds like the amazing Rio De Tempo ride :) .
  • Sounds like it could have been interesting. Though, given the choice, i really don't mind that we waited 15 years and got something better. Sure, seeing a movie of animals on a screen would have been cool, but i'm glad that we have a safari ride with REAL elephants and lions. And the walking trail sounds alright (ha! "sounds"), but now we have a gorilla trail and a tiger trail, again with real animals (though, with the shyness of the gorillas, maybe hearing non-existant hyenas would have been better).
  • More than anything, I'm disappointed that Alex Haley went through all that work and didn't get to see it come to fruition. I'm surprised they didn't at least make the documentary and show it on Wonderful World of Disney (or by some other venue).
  • I suppose that's one of the things I miss most about "Wonderful World of Disney".  Walt wouldn't just host the spot at the start and end -- sometimes he'd bring out all those behind the scenes stuff . . . Let us meet some of his creative staff and see how certain rides and movies and cartoons came to fruition.

    I agree.  Some mini-documentary -- maybe five-ten minutes even would have been nice to see.  And maybe some interviews with Alex Haley so his ideas could at least have been shared with more than those at JHM.
  • Good article, Jeff! I own a copy of that Epcot map and I never even noticed that Equitorial Africa pavilion. Guess I'll have to break it out again...
  • I vividly remember when the old Mike Douglas talk show visited Epcot Center.  Mike Douglas conducted an interview with Alex Haley on the future site of the pavilion.  This must have been sometime in Epcot's first year.  It sounded like the pavilion was going to be started VERY soon.

    Disney only recently relinquished the Tishman African Art collection that they had acquired for the pavilion and have been carefully curating for 20 years.  It is now part of the National Museum of African Art.

  • Is the Mouse Surplus new location different then what he was at in Jan.?

    Also Jeff did you get your copy of our last magazine?

    Jeff Mast
    Editor -Theme Parks Magazine
  • I had that map !!! I got it when I was 8. I have to look if it survived my childhood
  • We'll never get Africa in Epcot now thanks to AK. But AK could take a lesson from what was once designed for Epcot. There are so many possibilities for expanding AK.

    And I had no idea MouseSurplus had moved. I was just down there. If I had known, I would have gone.
  • brush with greatness:

    While visitng EPCOT in mid-1983 (I think; I remember the steel frame for "Horizons" had just been topped out), Alex Haley was at the Equatorial Africa site, promoting the new attractions.  I got a picture with him and his autograph.  There was absolutely nothing about the attendant hoopla that suggested this pavillion wasn't set in stone.  Go figure.
  • Ya.. like the CANADIAN pavilion is SO BORING!! LOL
    IM CANADIAN and it really upsets me how lame our pavilion is! LOL

    oh well.. i love the norway stuff anyways SO much

    but ya.. the african pavilion would have been absolutely killer if they built it.. I hope they do decide to do it someday.. heck, Id give up the canadian one for it anyday!! ahahhaha!!

    xoxox Adele
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