Saturday, September 30, 2006

No, No, Norway





Let me first say: I love Norway.

Thanks to my visits to the Norway pavilion at Epcot, it's one of the countries I most want to visit in my life, and I've spent time learning about its culture and people.

The Norway pavilion at EPCOT Center inspired and intrigued me perhaps more than any other.

The Norway pavilion at today's Epcot stinks.

It's poorly conceived, poorly staffed and poorly maintained. It is an enormous disappointment desperately in need of re-thinking. First, let's remember what the Norway pavilion used to be like. Opened in 1988, it was the last of the World Showcase nations to be constructed (hopefully not the very last!).

Though many people feel they "know" Norway since it's a Germanic, European country (and, therefore, must be like Germany, Sweden and Holland, right?), the Norway pavilion proudly offered a Viking ship and stave church at its entrance, as if to say, "This is not the Europe you think you know."

Maelstrom, the pavilion's centerpiece ride, revolved around Norwegian troll mythology, and though the ride was (and remains) disappointingly short, it managed to pack into a few minutes some exciting new technology. Upon its conclusion, riders were invited to watch a short "travelogue" on Norway, focusing on the people whose spirit makes them different than other Europeans. After exiting the ride and the film, a travel kiosk staffed by a Norwegian student offered details on touring the country for those who were inspired to know more after the immersive experiences.

Shops featured Norwegian clothes, crafts and snacks. For a dining experience, Norway offered both a traditional bakery and an unusual smorgasbord buffet at a restaurant called Akershus. While most of those elements are still in place, it's what has happened to the in the past 18 years (and particularly the last five) that is devastating.

The Viking ship, once a play area, has become a static "photo opp" thanks to the overzealous Disney attorneys (who would probably shut down all theme parks if they could -- lest someone fall or get sunburned!). Seizing on this now-kidless area, mangement decided to put a heavily traveled smoking area next to the ship.

The stave church is mercifully still in place and currently offers a fascinating (albeit tiny) look at Viking history -- I actually learned a bit looking at this little exhibit. Unfortunately, instead of trusting inquisitive guests to open the door and explore themselves, Disney management has hung an obtrusive banner over the two entrances ... though I seriously doubt a colorful marketing banner would ever hang over the doorway of an authentic church.

Maelstrom is still around, but it seems the ride has hardly been touched by Imagineers over 18 years. It's creaky, it's jarring and its Audio-Animatronic figures look like wax dummies more than ever. Is it fun? Yeah, a bit. But it sorely needs to a full rehab; when your boat comes to a sudden stop and turns to go over the waterfall backward, the experience feels labored and difficult, not surprising and fun.

No one even bothers to try to get guests to stay for the five-minute film after the ride. Guests brazenly march through the auditorium, determined to see the next thing instead of look at some lovely images of Norway. (And they are very lovely indeed.) The cast member working the attraction during a recent stay actually encouraged guests to leave by saying that the movie was "a little boring." It's not -- not in the slightest. But it is horribly outdated. Watching a modeling session in a Norwegian shopping center is like reliving your senior year of college: shoulder pads, garish eye makeup and vaguely "futuristic" haircuts. In one scene, a scientist works on a computer -- but it's a terminal from the mid-1980s that bears little resemblance to the thing I'm using to write this. It's laughable.

Norway is hoping this will make the country look exciting and progressive? During my recent visit, the Kringla og Kafe bakery and its little seating area looked like they hadn't been cleaned for days. There were empty tables, but no one wanted to sit at them they were so sticky and dirty. For a country that prides itself on cleanliness, Norway's Disney incarnation gives the impression of slovenly grime.

Worst of all is what has happened to Restaurant Akershus. If you've been reading my blog for a while, you already know my thoughts on this. But my recent visit provided me the opportunity to see it first hand, and it was genuinely sad. The restaurant has become an all-princesses character dining location, completely removing any semblance of cultural authenticity or appeal for adults without children. Indeed, it's difficult even to get in to the Norway pavilion through the sea of strollers that now clogs the entry! The restaurant is now the "Akershus Royal Banquet Hall," and exists solely for little girls and their accommodating parents.

Please understand, I am not a curmudgeon, a fuddy-duddy or a mean adult. I think kids should have an opportunity to have fun while at Walt Disney World. (Though being screamed at by my mother or father for being a little cranky in the heat, as I have so often seen, is not my idea of fun at any age!) But to take a truly unique and unusual culinary location, particularly one where the food was as fine as it was at Akershus, and turn it in to Princess Central -- despite the fact that, when I last looked, the number of Norwegian princesses in the Disney Hall of Princesses was exactly zero -- is really unpardonable.

It showcases Disney's brazen desire to make money at all costs and to "monetize" everything they possibly can. It is a cynical restaurant location, one that undermines the basic concept of Epcot's World Showcase and that is, by all accounts, a very unpleasant place to be even for parents of young girls. But it makes money, and that's Disney's sad raison d'etre these days. "Screw creative integrity, let's make a bundle!"

Akershus and Norway display that mindset brilliantly.

One area inside its Puffin's Roost store is now filled with all sorts of Disney Princesses junk that has nothing to do with Norway. A cart with even more Princesses stuff is set down in the middle of the pavilion, lest any father or mother walk away with a few bucks still in their billfolds.

Most distressing to me is the fact that Disney has shut down Norway's tourist kiosk. There's no information on traveling to Norway, no cast member stationed there to talk about his or her home country (during my last visit in 2001, I spent about 40 minutes talking to a cast member about my desire to visit Norway), not even a simple brochure with lovely photos. There's still a sign overhead claiming to offer travel information ... but when I asked a cast member if the kiosk would ever open, she not-so-helpfully responded, "Oh, I think that's just there for decoration."

Ironically, next to the now-shuttered travel kiosk is a plaque that states the Norway pavilion was opened by Crown Prince Harald in June 1988. The opening was broadcast on national Norwegian television. No doubt the prince and his subjects were tremendously proud of the pavilion -- and justifiably so at the time.

I wonder what they'd think of it now.

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Postscript: After writing this, I read on Wikipedia that the Norwegian government, "against the recommendations from their American embassy (sic)," stopped making payments to Disney in 2002. That may explain the loss of the travel kiosk. If this was another of the "we hate Eisner" scenarios, let's hope Bob Iger's diplomacy can work with the Norwegians as well as it did with Roy E. Disney.

15 comments:

Chris said...

I agree on almost every count. The only thing I would say is that I always skip the movie at the end of the ride...yes I have seen it and its ok but I dont think it's anything spectacular.

I didnt know they stopped kids from getting on the viking ship now...figures.

As for the stroller problem, yes, it's bad, and there was no reason for them to make Norway "Princess Central", no reason at all.

One last note, they used to have Legos at the exit as well from what I recall but they're no longer there.

Brian said...

It is such a shame. I was at EPCOT last week and was disapointed by the amount of people that didn't want to stay for the movie. Grated the seats are hard on the old back but its only five minutes long. I stopped on the way out and questioned about the travel kiosk as well.

I really hope to see a revitalization of the pavillion. It just collecting dust.

Anonymous said...

I see no valid point here...
For 1 thing the pavilions are run by the countries, Disney only gets a SMALL percentage of the profits. So you can't blame Disney.
Nevertheless...
The restaurant; is still there, and so is most of the food. The fact that it is no longer a full buffet doesn't make it a bad restaurant, otherwise you are condemning all the WS restaurants except for Germany. Furthermore, with the entry and desert now table service, they receive quite a "royal" treatment. I've never seen a guest unhappy that 5 beautiful friendly women (dressed as princesses), visit their table whether they have children or not. And if seeing little princess girls full of excitement upsets you, then you don't really belong at WDW.
The ride is still there, and hasn't changed, the fact that most of the people bypass the film has nothing to do with anything. The ONLY shop that they've added princess stuff to is the small 1st shop that used to have basically nothing in it except a few books (Legos?) autograph books, post cards, pins and a penny crusher. There's nothing horrible about devoting ONE little shop to the little princesses of the world for their special time at Epcot (the month before Halloween). Hopefully THIS shop brings in enough money to pay the maintenance for the pavilion (I'm sure the $200 sweaters go like hotcakes), otherwise it will be shutdown like the Life pavilion, since Norway no longer contributes to the pavilion. Just keep up the “purist” talk and soon the whole pavilion will be closed for financial reasons.
Finally, the Viking ship has only been there about a decade, and without kids for almost 5 years, so it has little to do with the original Norway.

Epcot82 said...

Sorry you don't see the point. Let me make it clear: The purpose of the pavilions was, and always has been (until just this year, apparently), to showcase the diversity of the world. They weren't created to sell Disney crap or to provide amusement for 5-year-old girls.

By so completely changing Norway, Disney has not only undermined the entire concept of Epcot and has started down a slippery slope of Disney-izing World Showcase, the last remaining bit of the spirit of EPCOT Center.

And, by the way, the countries most certainly do not run the pavilions; Disney does, and it's a shame they are forcing their "all-Disney-all-the-time" mentality on a concept that was supposed to show how gloriously, wonderfully different we all are.

Anonymous said...

I was there on Saturday, Sept 30th, and the seating area at the bakery was spotless.

Epcot82 said...

That's good to hear!

Ceronomus said...

When I was there in 2004 the Viking ship was open.

I thought it sad to be told that it was all "Americanized" versions of Norway's cuisine, as "American's wouldn't like the real thing"...and that from a Norwejian.

I still enjoy Maelstrom, but not the lines for it.

Anonymous said...

I was at Epcot on 2/14/07. My husband & I always loved the Norwegian restaurant and were horrified to find that the princess dining has taken away our beloved mashed rutabaga and tomato herring while almost doubling the lunch price since our last trip in 2004. The boat ride was operating, but the trolls were unable to say, "Back! Back! Over the falls!" Norway is my favorite pavilion, and I love the movie so very much. I wish that they would maintain this area and return it to its former glory.

Anonymous said...

Good grief! Maybe you should just go to Norway and forget EPCOT altogether. I don't drag my kids around EPCOT to get the true learning and meaning of the country. Honestly , they could probably care less and yes there are adults there who want to see the movie and there are people with agendas who don't have time for it and sometimes in the summer, its just too darned HOT!.
Stop belly aching and making such negative comments. It's people like you that we can't stand in line listening to how awful things are and how awful the changes are. Look for the positive things and thank God that you have the opportunity to go. Some of these people get a ONE TIME TRIP in their whole lifetime, so they don't know any different!
Yes I was there in the 1980's when it opened. I lived there for 16 years and had FL Resident passes. Epcot is still my family's favorite place to go in Disney.

Anonymous said...

Can you give me your web site address and e-mail address? Second question, can you quote prices on troll you have for sale?
My e-mail addess is ilodon61@msn.com

Anonymous said...

Can I just say that I was very sad when there was no Norway flag within a Mickey head charm for my bracelet - it was the only pavillion not to offer one. I STILL can't find one and have been looking for 4 years!!!

Capn Barky said...

Turning Akershus into a character dining venue had to be a dollar-based decision (does the Mouse use any other criteria? Don't think so)because the buffet wasn't living up to cash flow expectations. The place is beautiful, the staff was wonderful, and the food was great when our son-in-law and daughter recommended it on a family trip to WDW a few years ago.

One good Norwegian advantage was (don't know if it's still there) the Norwegian beer kiosk across the way from the Norway entrance. A couple of years ago, they were selling the largest beers you could get in Epcot. After a round of those, my son and son-in-law went back for another. My son-in-law was informed by his wife that he should be careful about the amount of beer he was imbibing. So, being a good and wise man, he asked for the smaller size beer, after my son had ordered another of the gigantos. With a strong accent, the Norwegian beer seller replied, "Oh, there must be a ladeee in the partie." My son-in-law still hears about that to this day. It stands as one of the funniest lines we've ever heard at WDW.

Still like Norway. Could do without the characterication and costication going on (bumping Cinderella's Banquet Hall to a 2-table service comes to mind), but it's still Disney World. We're headed there agin in October, 2 kids, 2 spouses, 2 grandkid, and the founder and foundess of the whole shebang. Can't wait.

Anonymous said...

We visited Epcot last month, and my 7 year old went on the Norway ride three times! He was fascinated by the trolls, talking trees, and going backwards. I wasn't thrilled about it, but I enjoyed it because he was so very obsessed with it!

Anonymous said...

I too visited Norway after being exposed to it at EPCOT. In fact I have visited Norway twice and would list it in my top favorite countries I have visitied. Without Epcot giving me a taste I would never have thought about going there. Didn't the Norway Pavillion used to have a "travel agent" stand with info on seeing Norway after the movie? The countries and Epcot must realize the importance and power of these pavillions in bringing possible tourists like me to the real country. I don't care a thing about a breakfast with whichever silly charachter. How about breakfast with a real Norweigian and you could pick his or her brain on where to go and what to do there. That's more like it!

Anonymous said...

Hello

I am Norwegian, and I think it's a shame that our government isn't interested enough in the Norwegian pavillion at the EPCOT Center.
I hope you guys won't get prejudiced by what you saw/see there, because Norway truly is a beautiful country. Cold, but beautiful.
About the restaurant: I'm sure the princess theme's there for a reason. Norway's all about myths of trolls, beautiful princess' and princes - folklore. Norway's all about folklore. We love our fairytales as much as you guys loves your country. I've lived in the USA, and I've seen how proud you are to be an American. We're proud about our fairytales. It's just Norway.

(: