Following my Frozen-filled visit to Disney’s Hollywood Studios last week, I found myself back at Walt Disney World a few days later for some observations from Epcot. As a child, EPCOT (as it will always be capitalized in my heart) was my favorite WDW park, and the massive Beard/Abrams coffee table book on the park’s creation remains among my most prized possessions. As everyone knows, Epcot’s attractions (especially in Future World) have been radically overhauled over the past 2 decades, and now I rarely visit the park except during the fantastic Food & Wine or Flower & Garden festivals.
My first mid-summer Epcot experience in several seasons started on a sweet note, as I snagged a parking spot along the center aisle; there is nothing worse than having to walk a football field’s length just to get to the tram.
Spending a lot of time at Universal Orlando lately, I’ve been frustrated by how slow their entry procedures are, even after new ticket scanners were recently installed. In contrast, the turnstile-free entry at Disney’s parks has become my favorite element of MyMagic+. Scanning a MagicBand usually seems swifter than swiping a barcode, and the finger scanners at Disney are still far faster and more reliable than Universal’s new biometric readers.
Thanks to some transportation delays (a.k.a. my cat kept me from leaving the house on time), I arrived at Epcot just as the window for my first prearranged FastPass+ reservation of the day at Maelstrom was about to expire. But thanks to my long legs, I managed to power-walk from the Epcot main entrance to the Norway pavilion in just under 15 minutes, making it to the FP+ return entrance seconds before the unpublicized “grace period” ended.
It’s a good thing I had that FastPass+, since a recently resolved temporary breakdown had boosted Maelstrom’s standby wait beyond a half hour, which is the longest I’d ever consider waiting for the brief boat ride. Even the FP+ return queue extended outside the doors, though it moved swiftly and I was seated onboard my Viking boat in about 7 minutes.
Maelstrom still has a certain cheesy charm, with blacklight sets that share more lineage with Fantasyland’s classic dark rides than the ambitious edutainment originally found in Future World.
The doors to Maelstrom’s post-ride film were propped open, allowing exiting guests to cross through the theater mid-screening. Since it was suicidally sultry outside, I decided to sit in the air-conditioning for a moment and watch the end of the movie. At first, I was surprised at how many fellow guests had also stopped to watch, but then I realized almost all of them were either asleep or on their smartphones. Not a good sign for the future of this film…
The internet rumor mill is working overtime with buzz about Norway being bulldozed (or at least heavily rethemed) in favor of Frozen’s Arendelle, so I wanted to explore the pavilion again while I still had the chance.
The first large shop after the ride is dominated by Helly Hansen merchandise, which appears to be the Norwegian answer to Nike.
If Norway’s shops are renovated, this is the area I’ll miss the most: snacks!
No matter what the future holds for the Norway pavilion, I hope this guy always has a home.
If you are looking for Frozen merchandise in Epcot, fear not! The meet & greet may have moved to Magic Kingdom, but there are still several rooms in Norway stuffed with Frozen souvenirs.
Since it felt like 98°F out, I followed up the Norway film with a screening of China’s CircleVision 360 movie next door.
Even though it hasn’t been changed in years, the Tomb Warriors exhibit adjacent to China’s theater lobby is one of Epcot’s unheralded gems. Be sure to spend a few minutes there on your next visit to admire the artistry of these sculpted soldiers.
China’s current 360 film isn’t as coherent as the original version, but it’s still gorgeous and retains much more of the spectacular 9-camera footage than Canada’s updated movie did. Unfortunately, the image is jumpy and inconsistently focused; it could really use a digital upgrade like the one France’s film got.
After the showing, I strolled through China’s gift shops, which are exceeded only by Japan’s for window-shopping. The complex reminds me of New York City’s Pearl River Market, only with higher prices.
Lunchtime! What could be better on a hot day than a spicy bowl of curry udon and a cold beer? Enjoying them with a spectacular view, of course. The combination of quality food, reasonable prices, and a soothing zen-like environment makes Japan’s Katsura Grill one of my favorite quick service restaurants in World Showcase.
In the ultimate example of international irony, I finally found a post-meal refuge from the oppressive heat in the desert nation of Morocco. The museum near the pavilion’s entrance is small but houses some truly inspiring artifacts, along with soothing a/c.
Note: You don’t have to be wearing a fez to explore Morocco’s Fez House, but it doesn’t hurt!
Even in this post-Diagon Alley era, the winding pathways of the Morocco pavilion remain (along with Disneyland’s New Orleans Square) among the most authentic, immersive environments in any theme park. You really feel like you could get lost in this deceptively small area for hours.
I had intended to continue my World Showcase film festival with Impressions de France, my favorite of the park’s films, and the only one that is essentially unchanged since the park’s opening day. Unfortunately I was once again running late for my next FastPass+ reservation, and had to settle for a brief visit to the theater lobby to say “hello” to the friendly gargoyle.
More construction walls can be seen outside Innoventions West.
Even though I was running behind, sometimes you just have to stop and smell the roses, or whatever form of flowers these are. Dammit Jim, I’m a writer, not a botanist!
I made it to The Land pavilion just in time for my Soarin’ FastPass+, where I found a new test underway. Rather than allow guests without FastPass+ reservations to wait in the standby line (which would typically be about 90 minutes), an army of Cast Members were distributing paper tickets with return times printed on them. Guests were advised to take no and return at the appointed time (a couple hours in the future) at which time they would wait an estimated 30-45 minutes before riding.
This new system appeared to be confusing and frustrating many guests, who didn’t understand why they were unable to stand in the standby line like usual. The huge amount of labor required to distribute and explain the tickets must have outweighed any increase in efficiency, and the ride’s entry area degenerated a messy cluster of mad, milling guests.
Disney has been experimenting with similar return ticket methods at the Frozen meet & greet and Jack Sparrow walkthrough, but those attractions have very limited capacity and appeal. Soarin’ is arguably the park’s (and perhaps the resort’s) most popular attraction, and this test threw a serious monkey wrench in many guests’ touring plans.
Reaction appears to have been so negative that the experiment was abandoned early; even the survey taker who interviewed me after my ride admitted that it was proving very unpopular with both guests and employees. A better solution (in my opinion) would be for Disney to accelerate construction of a third theater in order to increase the attraction’s hourly capacity.
In addition to the return to paper FastPasses, this experiment involved restricting crowd flow through the pavilion with temporary barricades, with Cast Members stationed to enforce one-way only traffic on the stairways.
A side effect of the Soarin’ test was unusually long lines for Living with the Land. While I’m used to the boat ride being a walk-on, the standby line was 30 minutes or longer during my visit.
For my final FastPass+ attraction of the day, I rode Spaceship Earth. Again, a ride that used to be a walk-on most of the afternoon now always seem to have a substantial queue, which I gratefully skipped past.
As an added bonus, the ride stopped for about 10 minutes while I was in the transition between the “tech tunnel” and the climactic starscape (also known as “180 Top”). I actually enjoy getting stuck in scenes where I can see animatronics, but as you can see in the following photo this is one of the least interesting spots to spend an extended period of time.
Finally, I stopped by the park’s central FastPass+ kiosk cluster to see what attractions were available for a fourth FastPass+. Two words: slim pickings (and I don’t mean the actor).