Last night, the doors to Maelstrom, a boat ride in the Norway pavilion at Florida’s Epcot, closed forever. In its place, Disney is going to create an attraction based on the hugely popular movie Frozen. I have, you might guess, LOTS OF ISSUES WITH THIS. But first, a love note to a now-shuttered attraction.
The Norway pavilion opened in 1988, the last of the current country pavilions to be completed. My first trip to Disney World was in January, 1991, so I have never known the Vacation Kingdom without Norway. For Maelstrom, you board a replica of a 10th-century Viking warrior’s longship – complete with dragon-head bow – to ride through a series of dioramas depicting Norwegian culture, natural landscapes, history, and industry. There are trolls. Lots of trolls. There are Vikings and Polar Bears and oil rigs and lots and tons of fiber optic effects. There is a moment at the apex of the ride where the boat scoots out over a waterfall that fronts the show building. When I was a child, this ride filled me with abject terror, and wonder, and a weird fascination with trolls that had nothing to do with Troll Dolls.
Walt Disney World is full of tiny corners of thematic brilliance, where you’re transported out of a theme park and into an alternate reality. You know that you’re in the middle of Florida, but you can allow your brain to slide into the ecstatic possibility that you have traveled momentarily across time and/or space. The unload area at the end of Maelstrom has always been, to me, a near perfect execution of thematic brilliance. Your longship comes out of the mists of time into a lovely simulacrum of a tiny Norwegian fishing village. I spent many of my childhood visits to Disney parks trying to figure out if anyone actually lived in the themed setpieces in different areas, but nowhere was I more convinced than in Norway. Lace curtains and candles in the windows, the sound of the water lapping against the boats, a bicycle leaned against a building. It’s “night time” and the light feels murky the way that light in coastal towns often seems. I was always sure that if we waited in that space for just one more second, someone would come out of one of the clapboard houses with a fishing rod or something. There is no way to capture its quaintness in photos, but here’s one, anyway:
The ride has run, virtually unchanged, for 26 years. The film they show at the end, titled “The Spirit of Norway,” has also continued running in all its late-80s glory. Now, when I ride, I am full of nostalgia. It’s still a fun ride, though the 80s animatronics are stiff and the blacklight painted Vikings are silly. I still feel like a creep looking into the windows of the houses in the unload area, as though someone actually lived there. And it still gives me a sense of having experienced a taste of Norway — which isn’t even possible from a five-minute boat ride and film, but that’s how you know the pavilion is successful — and a desire to visit the country. The experience gave me the impression that Norwegians are sturdy, strong, determined, and a bit whimsical (the troooolllls!). And now it’s going to be a showcase for two new Disney princesses to sparkle and sing and love their way out of trouble.
The other problem, which has been stated over and over by opponents of the change, is that Frozen did not take place in Norway. It takes place in Arrendelle, which, though loosely based on places in Norway, is fictional. The story is (very!) loosely based on Hans Christian Anderson’s Danish story, The Snow Queen. Epcot is meant to be a permanent world’s fair, teaching visitors about other cultures and new technologies while also entertaining them. World Showcase displays the cultures, foods, and products of each country that has a pavilion. Yes, there are lots of problems with World Showcase! Lots and lots! I have many thoughts on that to share another day! But for now, let’s assume that the mission there is benign and that the Norway pavilion is just Norway bein’ Norway, among a bunch of other countries bein’ countries.
If the mission of World Showcase is to bring ambassadors from these countries to the tourists of Central Florida, then there is absolutely no place there for an entire ride devoted to cartoon princesses of loose Scandinavian origin. I have understood – with a fair amount of eye-rolling – the placement of fairytale meet-and-greets in the pavilions of World Showcase (Winnie the Pooh & friends or Alice in Wonderland in the UK, Belle and the Beast in France, Snow White in Germany, etc.). I have even hoped that placing these characters in these countries would help guests think about the origins of these stories and perhaps even encourage them to seek out the originals. And even when Donald Duck and friends were inserted into the ride in the Mexico pavilion, they were exploring the tourist sites of the country, so it didn’t feel too much like a slap in the face. This whole Frozen thing, though, does.
We went to Disney World earlier this year. The Frozen craze was in full swing, with hours-long waits to meet Anna & Elsa (in the Norway pavilion) within minutes of Epcot’s opening each day. We were there at opening several days, and saw the parents sprinting towards World Showcase once they got in the gate, pushing massive rental strollers into which were tucked red-faced, bleary-eyed children. I get it, there’s a demand. At the time, Frozen had already begun to creep into the pavilion, but in a way that I thought was actually quite successful: a museum exhibit. At the front of the pavilion is a replica of a Stave Church, a symbol of Norway and a bit of classic Norwegian architecture. There have always been exhibits about traditional Norwegian culture inside. When we pushed our way through the doors of the church this time, though, we found new displays.
In museological terms, they were rather old-fashioned and, well, boring. But the interesting thing was the way that they connected elements from Frozen with aspects of Norwegian culture. One display talked about the bunad, the traditional clothing that can be seen on the cast members staffing the pavilion and on Anna in Frozen. The case talks about production methods, how they’ve changed over the years, and occasions on which Norwegians wear the garments now that they’re not used on a daily basis. There’s information about Norwegian jewelry. And there’s a picture of Anna from the film, wearing an ensemble that looks a lot like what’s on the mannequin.
Another display talks about Kristoff, the male lead in the film, whose sidekick, Sven, is a reindeer. In creating Kristoff, animators drew inspiration from Norway’s indigenous population, the Sami. Traditional clothing and information on Sami culture is presented. The knowledge that Kristoff is supposed to be a representative of that culture actually added a layer of depth to the film for me.
These are successful movie tie-ins for a pavilion that is supposed to be based in real, actual Norway. Tell me about the actual place, and tell me how it’s so awesome that it inspired you to create this piece of (commercially successful) art! I am DOWN WITH THIS. In fact, I think it would be cool for Disney to DO MORE OF THIS. But let’s allow visitors to explore a simulation of the real world and trust them to find delight, adventure, and inspiration for further exploration in the world beyond the boundaries of theme parks and movies. That is the true value of a park like Epcot, and that’s what’s being gutted when they remove Maelstrom from the pavilion.
A year ago, before anyone knew Frozen would go on to the success it’s enjoyed, I would have begged Disney to update Maelstrom, because it was kind of a joke to visitors — especially if you didn’t have a sentimental attachment to it like I did. But this is not what I meant!
Last night, at 8 pm Central, 9 pm Eastern, I toasted Maelstrom as it officially closed. The boats continued rattling through the attraction for a while after that, since the standby line had grown to a more-than-2-hour wait in the hours before.
“You are not the first to pass this way, nor shall you be the last. Those who seek the spirit of Norway face peril and adventure, but more often find beauty and charm. We have always lived with the sea, so look first to the spirit of the seafarer…”