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The Who, Where, When, What, and Why? An introduction to Utilidork and me Who am I ? My name is Justin. I am a former Walt Disney Wo...

Monday, October 6, 2014

Can Frozen Thaw Epcot's Oldest Attraction?

There has been an awful lot of buzz since Disney announced last month that they will be closing the Norway Pavilion's beloved Maelstrom attraction to make way for a new one based on 2013's runaway hit animated film, Frozen. Of course, I have my own opinion on this matter, but before I get to that, let me introduce you to the classic attraction that closed its big oaken doors just yesterday.

It's 1982, and EPCOT Center has finally opened to the public. After more than 15 years of planning, the grand park had transformed from an actual city in which people were to live, and work, and play, and learn, to a permanent World's Fair, showcasing world cultures and modern technology. World Showcase featured nine pavilions, each devoted to a specific nation: Mexico, the People's Republic of China, Germany, Italy, The American Adventure, Japan, France, the United Kingdom, and Canada. Other pavilions had already been announced and were in the planning phases (including Equatorial Africa, which was shown in model form during the park's grand opening television special), but none of them have yet to be built. Instead, the first two additions were Morocco in 1984, and Norway in 1988.

Norway was somewhat unique in that it had an actual ride as its main attraction. Previously, El Rio de Tiempo was the only ride in World Showcase. Like its Mexican counterpart, Maelstrom was a flume ride which took guests on a tour of the history and culture of its pavilion's host. But where Rio was a leisurely and colorful ride not unlike "it's a small world" mixed with If You Had Wings, Maelstrom was decidedly more dark and thrilling, reflecting Norway's viking heritage.

We begin our ride by boarding a typical Disney bateau adorned with nautical Norse ornaments, then ascending a lift hill while staring into the sparkling eye of Odin, who narrates the journey. After passing through a medieval Norwegian village, we enter a dark forest where a three-headed troll casts a spell on our ship, which then turns slightly, then plummets backwards down a waterfall. We flow (still backwards) through the glacial waters to the north, past a couple of curious polar bears, then through a lush gorge. Another troll appears and redirects us forward, down another waterfall, and into the modern-day North Sea, where we are surrounded by towering oil rigs. We then find ourselves in a sleepy coastal town where we disembark and await entrance into a movie theater showing a five-minute long (and quarter-century old) tourism film for Norway.

And that was pretty much it. The ride was short, with no discernible story, save for the first troll encounter. The audio-animatronics were crude and simple with minimal movement, and almost no dialog — again, except the first troll(s). What it lacked in cohesion it made up for in memorable moments. From Odin's eye, to the backwards drop, to the standing polar bear, to the atmospheric North Sea; Maelstrom was filled with one-of-a-kind experiences only Disney Imagineering could deliver.

Over the years, the attraction has developed something of a cult following. Being the closest thing to a thrill ride in all of Epcot until Test Track opened in 1998, it was the go-to attraction for anyone looking to escape the comparatively slow pace of the rest of the park. Fans knew the narration by heart, and would often recite it along with the trolls' dialog ("Back! Back! Over the falls!") on every ride.

But now it's 2014, and Maelstrom is the only Epcot attraction not to see a single update since its opening. Norway is no longer sponsoring the ride, nor the pavilion as a whole, and it's undeniably showing its age. Sure, it's one of the most popular attractions in World Showcase, but is that really saying much? World Showcase has two rides, three movies, and one E-ticket Audio-Animatronic multimedia extravaganza — in eleven pavilions. Considering the competition, it's no surprise Maelstrom is still relatively popular. And with no sponsor, the cost of operation and maintenance must outweigh its intrinsic value.

What, then, to do? The answer came from within the Disney studios. Their 53rd animated feature just happened to have a Scandinavian setting, due to taking its inspiration from a fairy tale by Danish storyteller, Hans Christian Andersen; and the film seems to take place in vaguely Norwegian territory. Fortunately for Disney, the film was an unexpectedly huge critical and financial success. With Frozen sweeping the box office, Academy Awards, retail outlets, and — for the first time in many years — radio waves, the decision was made to close the Maelstrom and replace it with a new, Frozen-themed attraction.

In the past, Disney has had hit-and-miss success with tying popular Disney characters and IPs into attractions faced with diminishing returns. Certainly, The Seas with Nemo and Friends has benefitted from its movie tie-in. Stitch's Great Escape, not so much. Adapting a film's setting and characters to a ride requires a delicate touch. Done right, and we get Ariel's Undersea Adventure. Done wrong, and we get The Enchanted Tiki Room: Under New Management.

It's understandable that some Disneyphiles should be a little skeptical of such a move. After all, nobody wants to see their favorite attraction ruined by a poorly conceived movie tie-in (ahem… *cough!*Journey into Imagination*cough!*). But there is one thing they seem to be forgetting: Mr. John Lasseter. When Disney bought Pixar in 2006, Lasseter became the creative head of both animation and Imagineering, and ever since, both departments have been pumping out one hit after another. If you ask me, Lasseter is the closest the company has ever gotten to replacing Walt Disney himself.

While no actual plans or designs have been shown to the public as of yet, in order to reassure those who would continue to second guess this decision, I feel I can accurately speculate a few things with confidence. First of all, ask yourself, "What were the most memorable parts of the Maelstrom?" Undoubtedly, the backwards waterfall was the thing that kept guests coming back (no pun intended). Therefore, I am almost positive it will make a return. In fact, based on history, I'm willing to bet the ride itself will not change one bit. It will most likely just be a re-themed version of the original ride. Also, the trolls. Frozen already has trolls. Granted, these trolls are a lot cuddlier than the ones we're used to, but they're still trolls. And the polar bears? Well, this one's a little trickier, but I'm sure an appearance by Marshmallow will fill the gap nicely.

Of course, some people will never be happy with change, no matter how well it's done. To them, all I have to say is, you probably would have hated Walt Disney. Walt was never happy when things got old and stale, and he was always looking for ways to cross-promote his products. For example, many of the segments from the Disneyland program shown in the early fifties, including the Davy Crockett serial, was intended to generate interest in the upcoming park's themed lands. Peter Pan's Flight — long considered a "classic" attraction — opened with Disneyland only 2½ years after the film was released. Sleeping Beauty, the namesake of Disneyland's castle, wasn't released until four years after the park opened.

So while promoting a new property in the park is nothing unusual for Disney, this particular choice is ruffling a lot of feathers. Granted, they are in the minority, but they are very vocal. Frozen, for some reason, has polarized its audience in a way I haven't witnessed since James Cameron's Titanic more than 15 years ago. According to Rotten Tomatoes, nearly 90% of critics and audience members liked the movie, and from what I've seen, most of the ones who liked it, loved it. However, that approximately 10% who didn't like it seem to dislike it passionately.

Here is a breakdown of the negative opinions I have encountered regarding this announcement (paraphrased from comments I've read on several Facebook posts and online articles): They're going to ruin a classic. Frozen belongs in Magic Kingdom, not Epcot. This is just an attempt to cash in on Frozen's hype; and what will they do when Frozen is no longer popular? Let me try to address each of these concerns briefly.

I've pretty much already covered the first complaint. Maelstrom was long overdue for an update, to the point that a complete overhaul was pretty much inevitable. To us adults, it was a classic; but to kids of today, as well as a growing number of adults, the attraction was rapidly losing relevance. It was no longer the "thrill" it once was when compared to the newer rides in Future World, and the technology it used were archaic in a park that put so much focus on progress. It was also, in a word, boring.

The "Frozen belongs in Magic Kingdom" argument comes from an old way of thinking about Epcot. When the park first opened, there were no Disney characters. The idea was to keep the fantasy of Disney separate from the reality of Epcot. This didn't last long. Maybe a few years, at most. Guests were confused by their absence, and the characters have been appearing throughout the park since the mid-'80s.

The "cashing in on Frozen's hype" is the one the really gets me. It shows an ignorance, if you will, to the process of creating, building, and installing an attraction. As I already mentioned earlier, Maelstrom had its final operating day yesterday. That means whatever is replacing it is already complete. Disney would not close down an attraction while they planned for something new. It's very likely the new attraction was being developed in tandem with the film, and when the film proved to be a success, they went ahead with building and testing. While I have no concrete evidence to prove this theory, I think historical example will back me up sufficiently.

As for the concern about Frozen no longer being popular, thus potentially rendering the attraction passé, I have to ask you this: Why is one of the newest and most popular attractions at Walt Disney World based on a 25-year-old film? Why was Aladdin one of the go-to movies for most people when news of Robin Williams' death broke? Why is The Lion King the top-earning Broadway production of all-time? If there's one thing Disney features have, it's longevity. These films leave a lasting impression on people, especially children. And while opinions of Frozen may be mixed among adults, it is immensely popular with children. (Frankly, I've always felt The Lion King was grossly overrated. It was Hamlet of the Savannah with toilet humor and a dated pop-rock soundtrack. But look at how long that one has hung on.)

The children of today are the park-goers of tomorrow, and the vacationers of the future. Someday, this upcoming Frozen attraction will be the classic they grew up with and share with their children. And maybe in 25 years, they will be the ones complaining about Disney changing their favorite Epcot ride.

John, the father of another classic attraction, Carousel of Progress, once said, "At every turn in our history there was always someone saying, 'Turn back. Turn back.' But there is no turning back. Not for us. Not for our carousel." The same can be said for the Disney Parks in general. We will never see Horizons again, nor 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, World of Motion, ExtraTERRORestrial Alien Encounter, or any of the countless other extinct attractions of our respective childhoods. But that's okay, really. Walt wouldn't have let nostalgia stand in the way of progress, and neither should we.

I, for one, am excited to see what they will do with this new attraction. I was one of the adults who loved Frozen. I think it is to this generation what The Little Mermaid was to mine. I will miss Maelstrom a lot, but what's great about the internet and modern technology is there are many ways to relive the Disney Parks of the past, through videos, and documentaries, and audio flow-throughs, and articles like this one. Just because it's gone, doesn't mean it will be forgotten. And it's very likely we will get something better in its place.

Just give it a chance. Don't judge it until you see it for yourself. If you're against it now, you may be pleasantly surprised. If you still don't like it, well, there's always the next refurb.