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Why For aren't there more countries in Epcot's World Showcase area?

Why For aren't there more countries in Epcot's World Showcase area?

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Kathy T. writes in to say:

In honor of the upcoming 25th anniversary of Epcot, I was wondering if you could share some stories about how that theme park actually came into being.

Well, one part of the Epcot Center story that has (in my opinion, anyway) been woefully under-reported was all the wheeling & dealing that Walt Disney Productions officials had to do early on. As in: The Mouse's initial efforts to recruit countries and companies to come take part in this ambitious project.

Of course, let's remember that -- back in May of 1974 -- that the version of Epcot that Card Walker initially announced to attendees at the American Marketing Association convention in Philadelphia was very different from the theme park that Disney would eventually open to the public in October of 1982.


 Copyright 1974 Walt Disney Productions. All Rights Reserved

As the then-president of Walt Disney Productions put it:

"It seems to me that we will begin with the construction of a permanent international showcase in which the nations of the world may participate to demonstrate their culture and their products."

Translation: The folks who were running the Mouse Factory back in the early 1970s didn't have a clue about they should go forward with construction of that futuristic city that Walt wanted to build. But a permanent world's fair kind-of-thing? A heavily themed place with shops, shows and rides that paid tribute to people from foreign lands? That Disney understood. That was something that the Imagineers actually knew how to build.

And indeed -- starting as far back as the Fall of 1955 -- when Disneyland's International Street project was initially announced ... WED had been actively toying with the idea of building some sort of new "land" for the Anaheim theme park that would then place authentic-looking recreations of buildings from various European countries side by side. So that -- as Disneyland guests strolled down International Street -- they'd then get to sample a wide variety of ethnic food, music and entertainment.


 Copyright 1956 Walt Disney Productions. All Rights Reserved

But as all of Walt's ideas for International Street outgrew that tiny space between Main Street U.S.A. and Tomorrowland, for a time, this project was relocated to that then-empty spot between Fantasyland and Tomorrowland. Of course, International Street was now known as International Land. And guests would have entered this down-sized version of Europe by strolling across a miniature recreation of London Bridge.

But toward the end of the 1950s, Disney decided not to go forward with construction of International Land. And -- instead -- opted to build a 1/100th scale version of the Matterhorn in this corner of the Magic Kingdom.

But almost 10 years, Walt revisited the notion of building that International Street. Only this time around, he envisioned it as an entertainment district ...


Copyright 1966 Walt Disney Productions. All Rights Reserved

... One that would be located right in the heart of that futuristic city that he wanted to build in Central Florida.


 Copyright 1966 Walt Disney Productions. All Rights Reserved


Copyright 1966 Walt Disney Productions. All Rights Reserved

But then Disney died in December of 1966. And Epcot -- in a way -- died with him. At least the futuristic city portion of the plan did.

But then as the Imagineers (at Card Walker's urgings) began picking over Walt's original plans for the Florida property, they once again came across that brief mention of an internationally-themed entertainment district that was to have been located at the heart of the city. And the wizards of WED thought: "Well, this is something familiar. Perhaps we could tease this Epcot-based idea out into something that might please the public as well as the suits back in Burbank."


Copyright 1966 Walt Disney Productions. All Rights Reserved


Copyright 1966 Walt Disney Productions. All Rights Reserved

The idea that the Imagineers eventually came up with involved building two enormous horseshoe-shaped structures right next to WDW's Ticket & Transportation Center.


Copyright 1974 Walt Disney Productions. All Rights Reserved

And facing into an open central courtyard area, on both levels of these enormous buildings would have been dozens of international pavilions. Each of them showcasing a different nation, with unique rides & shows located deep inside each pavilion that would then play up a particular aspect of that country's culture.


Copyright 1974 Walt Disney Productions. All Rights Reserved

Of course, in order to fill both floors of these buildings, the Mouse was going to need an awful lot of countries to commit to this sure-to-be expensive undertaking. So -- with this goal in mind -- Walt Disney Productions flew ambassadors & dignitaries from 21 foreign nations down to WDW in October of 1975.

The purpose of this trip? To be blunt, Mickey was out to woo these representatives. Make what was then known as " ... Epcot / World Showcase project" seem so wonderful that -- following their stay at Walt Disney World -- these foreign officials would then contact their home offices and insist that their governments immediately sign up to be part of this " ... permanent international showcase."

This four-day-long sales pitch started on Friday, October 10th with a reception and state dinner at the Contemporary Resort Hotel. The very next morning, the ambassadors and their families were taken over to the Magic Kingdom and given the run of the place. Then -- come Saturday night -- it was time for yet another reception and dinner. Only this time, the festivities were held at the Buena Vista Club.

 
Copyright 1970 Walt Disney Productions. All Rights Reserved

Come Sunday, Disney let the ambassadors and their families rest and relax for most of that day. That is until they collected all of these foreign dignitaries and then took them out for a twilight cocktail cruise. Then their boat docked over at Fort Wilderness pier, where these VIPS were treated to a performance of the "Hoop-Dee-Doo Musical Revue" at Pioneer Hall.

Once the evening's entertainment was complete, the ambassadors and their families were escorted back to the boat. Where -- as they chugged across Bay Lake back to the Contemporary Hotel -- they were then treated to a special fireworks display that was fired off from the shores of Discovery Island.

The very next morning, these foreign dignitaries were taken back to the Magic Kingdom. To the Gulf Hospitality House, to be precise. And once they got inside that Main Street U.S.A. structure, the ambassadors discovered that one of the "Walt Disney Story" theaters had been turned into an Epcot / World Showcase display area. And that it had been filled from floor to ceiling with models & concept art for many of the international pavilions that were proposed for this WDW addition.

 
Copyright 1975 Walt Disney Productions. All Rights Reserved

After listening to then-Disney Chairman & CEO Donn Tatum make his pitch for the project, the ambassadors were then taken back over to the Contemporary for one final reception and meal. Only this time, the festivities were held at the Top of the World restaurant.

Once this meal was complete and the last toasts were made ... These foreign dignitaries and their families were loaded into limos and driven back to what was then known as McCoy Airfield (Now Orlando International Airport) so that they could now be flown back to Washington D.C. Where (it was hoped) these ambassadors would immediately contact senior officials back at home and urge them to sign up to be a part of the Epcot / World Showcase project.

Now from what WDW old timers have told me, Walt Disney Productions spent over a million dollars on this four-day-long pitch session. And the folks at Guest Relations may have done too good a job when it came to wining & dining these dignitaries. To explain:  At least two of the ambassadors were so hung over after Sunday night's festivities that they were unable to attend Monday morning's Epcot / World Showcase presentation.

"And who exactly got invited to this VIP shindig?," you ask. According to the October 18, 1975 issue of "Eyes and Ears" (i.e. the official newsletter of all WDW cast members), among those who attended this conference were:

  • Belgium -- Ambassador Willy Van Cauwenberg
  • Canada -- Ambassador Vernon G. Turner
  • Egypt -- Francois De La Garce
  • Greece -- Mr. Demetir Efstahiou
  • Indonesia -- Ambassador Roesmin Nurjadin
  • Ireland -- Mr. Shawn Farrell
  • Italy -- Mr. Lucio Caputo
  • Japan -- Mr. Kyoshiro Miyata
  • Lebanon -- Ambassador Najati Kabani
  • Morocco -- Dr. Ahmed Laraki
  • New Zealand -- Mr. Lang Manning
  • Pakistan -- Ambassador Sahabzada Yaqub - Khan
  • Poland -- Ambassador Witold Trampczynski
  • Romania -- Mr. Andrai Raiscu
  • Saudi Arabia -- Ambassador Ibrahim Al - Sowayel
  • Spain -- Minister Agustin Cano
  • Soviet Union -- Ambassador Anatoliy Dobrynin
  • Sweden -- Ambassador Count Wilhelm Wachtmeister
  • Venezuela -- Francisco Paparoni
  • Zaire -- Mr. Ndagano Bulumba

Now it would be nice to report that -- after all of that expense, all of that wooing, all of that wining & dining -- that Walt Disney Productions officials got exactly the response that they were hoping for. Which -- in Tatum's case ... Well, I'll let Donn himself explain what the company's original goal was:

"We feel that there are six nations that would probably set the pace for World Showcase. They are Japan, France, the Soviet Union, West Germany, Brazil and the Middle East. Should any of these countries get involved, I feel other would soon follow and would set the example for the rest of the Showcase."

Unfortunately, only three of these countries eventually did sign on to be part of World Showcase. And while Brazil and -- for a time, anyway -- Iran showed real interest in taking part in the project, they ultimately opted out of joining the "... permanent international showcase" that WED had hoped to build down by the shores of Seven Seas Lagoon.

To add insult to injury, after spending all that money on entertaining those ambassadors and their families ... Who winds up being the first to sign up for the Epcot / World Showcase project? Not a country, but a company. Goebel (You know? That German-based company that makes all of those Hummel figurines?) is the first firm to send in their letter of intent. In the Fall of 1975, they're the first corporation to say "I want to be part of Epcot."


Copyright Disney / Goebel. All Rights Reserved

As to what happens after this ... How World Showcase winds up getting schmushed together with the Future World Theme Center to form the Epcot that we know today ... Well, that's a story for another time.

Perhaps next week, even.

Your thoughts?

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  • Very good article, Jim!  I wonder why more countries weren't interested in becoming part of the World Showcase.  I'm still hoping that more countries will eventually be added.

    I can't picture World Showcase being at the Ticket and Transportation Center.  I think I may have misinterpreted it...the TTC isn't Epcot, so why would they have wanted to put World Showcase there?  Or would that just have been a temporary World Showcase?  

  • Great article, Jim. I've never actually heard this story before ... very interesting!

  • you would think that in today's world with mass globalizaition that it wouold be EASIER to have countries sign on and finally build some new countries in Epcot.

    World Showcase has always been my favorite part of  WDW.

  • This feels like only the beginning of the story.  This did not explain at all why there aren't more countries in the World Showcase.  I enjoyed the article until it abruptly ended.  Maybe you should tell the whole story instead of trying to stretch it out.

  • Very good article. Some thoughts I had as I read. This was mid 1970's. Could you imagine the protests at the house of the mouse in 1979 at the Iran pavillion building site after the hostage crisis erupted. how about current protests at the Saudi Arabia or Venezuela pavillions every time gas prices go up. I think that WDW has to consider these issues with any long term showcase member. I don't think they want a permanent place for protestors to assemble. Just my opinion.

  • I remember reading somewhere that Brazil didn't get in because it would have to support its pavillion. And if today it'd already be pretty hard, back then it was really impossible.

  • I never went to Epcot's World Showcase and I really want to. Hopefully I'll get to visit. Maybe by then, there will be a South Korea pavilion and a North Korea Pavilion (closed off from guests of course) right behind it.

  • Jim could you explain what countries were asked to contribute.  There must be a reason they weren't interested beyond "didn't feel like it".  Very good article otherwise.

  • I love World Showcase!  But as long as I've been going to the park (since it opened; I live in Tampa), I've never heard nor have I known anyone who's referred to it as World Showcase.  It's always been: The Countries.  As in: "Wanna go eat in The Countries?".  "Let's do The Countries first!". "At three o'clock, let's all meet up at The Countries.".  I just find it amusing and interesting, that's all!  :^)

  • Let's not forget the plans for Equatorial Africa and it's subsequent TV special hosted by Danny Kay and Alex Haley (what a shame that was).  Then there was the plan for Isreal and Spain.

    You know, these parks have all changed from their original concepts but EPCOT really stands out from the rest!  I find it fascinating.

  • Hooper said: "I love World Showcase!  But as long as I've been going to the park (since it opened; I live in Tampa), I've never heard nor have I known anyone who's referred to it as World Showcase.  It's always been: The Countries."

    I've always called it the World Showcase!  But I'm not local and call it by what Disney has labeled it, I guess.  This was some interesting new info Jim, thanks!

  • Very interesting.  I have been to WDW 25 times over the past 30 years and I have never heard of World Showcase referred to as "The Countries".  It has always been World Showcase when I have heard, read or talked about it.

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