Saturday, November 22, 2008

Africa: The Lost World Showcase Pavilion

The history of EPCOT's World Showcase is littered with planned-but-never built pavilions for countries like Spain, Israel, and the former USSR. The one that was farthest along in the planning stage, though, was the Equatorial Africa pavilion. It was even included in some concept paintings and early maps of the park, nestled between China and Germany. Of course, the only thing between China and Germany now is the Africa Trading Post, an open-air gift shop that sells the same stuff you can get in Animal Kingdom, the Magic Kingdom's Adventureland, or the Indiana Jones area of the Hollywood Studios park.

The Imagineers once had grand plans for Equatorial Africa, however. Its centerpiece was to have been a tree house, in which visitors would overlook a jungle water hole in a simulated nighttime environment. Realistic plants, boulders, and the piped-in sounds and smells of the jungle would have been combined with a rear-projected film of animals visiting the water hole to convince visitors that they were actually in the African rainforest. One of the pavilion's shows, "The Heartbeat of Africa", would have begun with a pre-show conducted by an actual African narrator who would give a presentation on the history of the drum and its significance to African culture. The show itself would have been a film on the history of Equatorial Africa that culminated with an outdoor jazz concert filmed in a present-day African city, augmented with superimposed laser images that appear to emanate from the instruments.

Also planned was a museum featuring exhibits of art loaned by various African countries. Perhaps the centerpiece of the Africa pavilion, though, would have been the show "Africa Rediscovered", hosted by Alex Haley. This fifteen-minute film was designed to teach EPCOT guests that Africa was more than a primitive continent, that it is a country with a rich history. The show would have highlighted Carthagian general Hannibal as well as the accomplishments of the ancient African kingdom of Kush.

So what happened? Why is there only a "trading post" full of overpriced merchandise in the World Showcase where the Africa pavilion should have been? Well, all of the countries included in the World Showcase put up money to finance the construction of their pavilions, and Africa is easily the most impoverished of Earth's continents. The story goes that the only African corporations willing to put money towards the project were based in South Africa, and in the early 1980s the white-dominated government of South Africa was under fire for its practice of apartheid so there was no way Disney was going to accept money from them. And given the constant political upheaval in that part of the world, it was impossible for Disney to line up a country to serve as host nation for the pavilion. So, Equatorial Africa was shelved. Of course, today there's a superbly themed African area at Animal Kingdom, and it has live entertainment by genuine African performers.

Still, I would have liked to have seen the tree house.

(Note: The information in this post came from the book Walt Disney's EPCOT Center, Creating the New World of Tomorrow, and this article by Jeff Lange.)

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