A year ago, unless you were in the know, Frozen was Disney’s new animated movie that appeared to be about a talking snowman with a carrot nose that kept falling off. Today, it’s one of Disney’s highest-grossing films ever made, an Oscar winner, and an all-around phenomenon. Since its massive success last holiday season, Disney has logically attempted to capitalize on the worldwide public’s seemingly unending love of all things Frozen and/or warm hugs on TV, with a recent hourlong “making-of” special that chose to answer how the film was made, unlike the jokey special feature on the initial Blu-ray; at repertory-style sing-along screenings, where you, your friends, and complete strangers sing “Let It Go” to the rafters with Idina “Adele Dazeem” Menzel; at the Disney Store; and, of course, at the theme parks, with parades, meet-and-greets and the like at both Disneyland and Walt Disney World.
It was always an inevitability that this titanic smash hit would get a full attraction at a Disney theme park. How could Frozen not merit such treatment? You don’t make a movie that grosses over a billion dollars around the globe without starting to figure out how to utilize it at the Happiest Place on Earth. Once it became clear that Frozen was an unstoppable behemoth, the rumors swirled over what kind of attraction Walt Disney Imagineering would create, and where it would be located. The easy guess and placement were a dark ride in the Magic Kingdom, a la the departed Snow White’s Scary Adventures or something like Peter Pan’s Flight. Eventually, though, one of the more persistent rumors became truth, confirmed on the Disney Parks Blog last Friday: Frozen will get itself a dedicated attraction at Walt Disney World sometime in 2016, as it replaces the Maelstrom boat ride in the Norway section of Epcot’s World Showcase.
What is now Epcot, granted, is never what Walt Disney envisioned when he unveiled his “Florida project” to investors in a presentation released about two months before he passed away. He wanted Epcot to be the utopian ideal of a city, a living, breathing entity that tied into what would be Walt Disney World, but functioned less as a theme park and more as proof of the possibility of mankind mixed with modern technology and science. After he passed away, EPCOT Center was revived, but as a pure theme park. So no doubt, the Epcot of 2014 or even 1982 is, in general, not the Epcot of Walt Disney’s imagination. However, the mission statement of EPCOT Center when it opened on October 1, 1982 was clear enough to follow. World Showcase is meant to be a series of pavilions, all themed to specific countries, with restaurants, shops, educational films, and attractions to help add authenticity. Frozen is many things, but authentic isn’t one of them, nor is it meant to be one of them. (Yes, as some will note, the fictional land of Arendelle was inspired by Norway. But Princess Anna and Queen Elsa don’t actually live there.)
It would be, admittedly, unfair to suggest that Disney installing a Frozen attraction into World Showcase, as opposed to a more obvious location like Fantasyland, is the first time Epcot’s mission statement has been muddied in favor of popular characters. The original concept of EPCOT Center didn’t often allow for character meet-and-greets, which now exist throughout the World Showcase and Future World; or character-themed role-playing games, like the Phineas and Ferb adventure that replaced a Kim Possible-centric expedition. And the World Showcase is no stranger to Disney characters in its attractions; specifically, the Mexico pavilion’s central focus is a boat ride featuring the Three Caballeros themselves, including Donald Duck. The difference, however, is clear: that ride fits into the Mexico pavilion’s theme even though its stars are recognizable from past films. The entire plot of the Gran Fiesta Tour is that Jose Carioca and Panchito Pistoles have to find Donald Duck, who’s become so besotted with the exotic traditions of Mexico that he’s run away from his friends. It may be silly, but, like the film on which the boat ride is based, it’s fully dedicated to immersing its audience in the details of another real culture.
So, you might wonder: would the news of a Frozen attraction being installed into Epcot’s version of Norway be better received if the film had taken place in the real country instead of Arendelle? No doubt, the anger might be muted, but there’s still the issue of what this attraction will replace. Maelstrom was, relatively speaking, old in the tooth compared to most Epcot attractions. For better or worse, most of Epcot’s rides (leaving aside the short films, there’s only Maelstrom and the Gran Fiesta Tour in the World Showcase) have been updated in recent memory. The Seas pavilion in Future World is now themed to Finding Nemo; Test Track, which itself replaced the much-beloved World of Motion, had its entire building redone recently; and Spaceship Earth’s narration and ride vehicles have been updated frequently in the last 30-plus years. Maelstrom, in its 26 years of operating, hasn’t had a major facelift, which is one of its charms to fans. For the uninitiated, the setup of Maelstrom is fairly simple: your boat travels in search of the “spirit of Norway,” which means you get to essentially travel quickly through Norway’s history, seeing everything from Vikings to trolls to teetering oil rigs. In between, your boat makes a 28-foot drop right after it nearly topples over a cliff that faces the outside of the pavilion. The attraction is capped off with a short tourism film (which also clearly was never updated) extolling the virtues of Norway.
It wouldn’t be wrong to suggest that, at the very least, Maelstrom probably needed a little TLC. The film, for example, is without a doubt a product of the 1980s, straight down to the modern fashion. But there’s a vast world of difference between updating an aspect of the current attraction, and gutting it entirely to satiate the demands of customers who just want something, anything, related to Frozen wherever they look. An easy comparison here is with The Lion King, which was a similar phenom back in 1994, becoming the highest-grossing animated film to date and overtaking the world with its characters, songs, and themes. And so, you don’t need to look hard at Walt Disney World to find The Lion King. There’s, as you’d expect, a stage show at Disney’s Animal Kingdom; there was once a similar show at the Magic Kingdom; and then there’s the Circle of Life film at Epcot’s The Land pavilion. This short film features Simba, Timon, and Pumbaa confronting the problems of modern ecology and conservation. (It’s slightly less portentous than that description.) While Circle of Life: An Environmental Fable is far from perfect–like the Norway film, it’s a product of its time and could use an update–it fits in far better to the purpose of The Land than a Frozen attraction would in Norway, simply because the film didn’t take place in a real country.
Epcot is arguably the park among Disney’s many in the United States that features the most potential, flaws and all. (And make no mistakes, there are flaws to Epcot beyond the inclusion of a Frozen ride.) The idea of luring in millions of people per year to a Disney theme park, and enveloping them in a mix of education and entertainment is a worthy and brilliant one. Even the more heavy-handed or slightly dated attempts–such as the Universe of Energy attraction, still hosted by a 90s-era Ellen DeGeneres–are admirable, because they don’t exist merely to pummel crowds with slam-bang entertainment. Epcot offers an experience like few other theme parks or attractions in the world do, intending to immerse you with a primer of world culture as well as cutting-edge technology.
The true problem with installing a Frozen attraction into the World Showcase, then, doesn’t even have to do with Frozen. What’s at issue is that, by doing so, Disney is running away from why Epcot exists in the first place. Frozen is, indeed, very popular and will likely make Disney money for years to come. But audiences have responded to the wonders of Epcot for over 30 years not because its attractions and other entertainment are filled with familiar characters. Audiences flock to Epcot for the hope evinced in its attractions, the optimism for the future and embracing spirit of diversity. Frozen may inspire a popular new attraction in Epcot, but Frozen would inspire a popular new attraction anywhere. Epcot, like its Norway section, may need to be updated slightly, but a true revamp wouldn’t involve preexisting characters so much as a return to why the park exists in the first place.