On his deathbed, Walt Disney had a dream for his ultimate legacy. He wanted to create a living community in Central Florida where companies could use residents to try out new technology, prove it worked, and export it to the planet, making life better for everyone in the world. But he died in 1966, and by the time EPCOT Center (the letters stood for Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow) saw the light of day in 1982, Disney's audacious new concept had morphed into a something a bit more cynical, more resembling a World's Fair of old.
It was funded by corporate and state sponsorships, much like a World's Fair, but it served as a showplace of idealistic notions of the future, not as the socialistic proving ground for new inventions that Walt had wanted.
And so it ran for a few decades until the original pavilions began to show their age. As their original corporate sponsorship contracts ran out and new ones demanded more PR bang for their buck, the revised pavilions were often dumbed down from their semi-educational origins to become people-pleasing thrill rides. Disney changed the name of EPCOT Center to Epcot, further obscuring the park's proactive origins.
The one section of Epcot that was more or less untouched by bought-and-paid-for commercialism was the World Showcase section at the back of the park, a 1.3-mile footpath around a lagoon around which eventually clustered 11 pavilions designed to look like countries from around the world. Young people from those countries were (and still are) flown to America to work in the pavilions, giving guests a chance to interact with people from foreign lands. Of course, the countries skewed white and wealthy, because those were the nations most likely to help pay for the execution of their miniature likeness.
On the whole, Epcot's World Showcase, which hosts more than 11 million visitors a year, remained a place where Americans who otherwise might not even own a passport could get their first taste of other cultures, even though it was in a scrubbed-up, stereotype-confirming fashion. When Disney characters appeared there, it was with a light touch; if they appeared, they might don a traditional local costume out of respect for the culture, or visit as a tourist as Donald Duck does in the Mexico building, but it wasn't "their" land. Each pavilion belonged to the real-world nation it represented.
Norway was the last new pavilion to be added, in 1988. Norway itself was a hefty donor—there was even a tour desk after its ride to encourage Americans to travel there for itself, and at the start, people did book trips. But in time, the original sponsorship contract with Norway ran out, and Norway decided it didn't want to pay Disney any more cash.
Why? It didn't need to. The phenomenal success of the animated film Frozen, set in Arendelle, a fictional country that looks pretty much exactly like Norway, has rekindled American interest in visiting—visits surged 37% for the first few months of 2014. Norway didn't need to pay Disney anymore.
This week, Walt Disney World filed for permits to change the Norway pavilion. It'll still be Norway, in a way, except it will really be Arendelle. The old ride has been closed to be re-themed to Disney's most lucrative current franchise, Frozen, and in the back, the resort will construct an enormous building where little children can "meet" the film's extremely popular heroines. Recycling Norway's space is the cheapest way to construct a new base for Frozen fans.
From a crowd management standpoint, it makes perfect sense—lines to see Elsa and Anna, the leads of the film, have at times exceeded four hours in other areas of the park, and they need their own space. But the original purpose of World Showcase—to honor other people in other lands, and to focus on the adult mind rather than the fantasies of a toddler—has now been refocused to flog a Disney brand, not to purely educate visitors about other nations.
It's easy to argue that from the very beginning, Disneyland was always about flogging brands. Even in 1955, when it opened on national TV, most of its rides, even the innocuous-seeming Jungle Cruise, were representations of franchises, be it a movie or a TV show. World Showcase was a unique holdout, a place where you could get a strong cocktail, eat a baguette and look at a reduced Eiffel Tower, or shop in a Mitsukoshi department store like the Japanese do.
Those elements remain, of course, but the original mandate has been violated, and because the new Frozen pavilion is sure to be a smash hit with children, the slope will be slippery. With Norway more about cartoons than Norway, the integrity of World Showcase's unusual concept is officially abandoned, and its educational mission is up for grabs by the most lucrative Disney property that fits. Since state sponsorship has dried up, Disney synergy must flood in, because money must win.
For a lover of travel, the change is a loss. The most idealistic remnant of Epcot, and certainly a place where millions of children received their first exposure to the concept of foreign cultures, is being, well, Disneyfied.
The new "Norway" opens in 2016. Your kids are gonna love it.
Frommers.com Editor Jason Cochran (@JasCochran) won Guide Book of the Year from the Society of American Travel Writers for Frommer's' EasyGuide to Walt Disney World, Universal, and Orlando.