Theorizing

What happens when you take the incredible popularity of beloved Disney films, and add in the oddity that is internet culture? You get fan theories.

For those unfamiliar: fan theories are what happens when people start thinking about the worlds and characters in a movie, but they go beyond what happened on the screen and fill in plot holes with their own ideas or try to find new connections. They’re often creative, and sometimes quite strange. Some of them make sense, while others can seem like a bit of a stretch (sometimes a reeeeally long stretch). In rare instances these theories even get proven–or soundly dismissed–by the film’s creators, but mostly they just rattle around the internet for the amusement and consideration of other fans.

There are a ton of fan theories out there, and they cover just about every Disney film. Here are just a few:


Street Rat of the Future

This is probably my favorite fan theory,  and I’m writing this blog post mostly so I could share it. The theory suggests that Aladdin, rather than taking place during some undefined timeframe in the past, actually happens about ten thousand years or so in a post-apocalyptic future.

The idea revolves around some of the things that Genie says throughout the film. When he’s first revealed, he states that he’s been in the lamp for ten thousand years. So, according to those that subscribe to this thought process, if Aladdin truly took place in the past (likely somewhere in the 900-1200 range, give or take a few centuries) then the Genie would have been imprisoned before 10,000 BCE. However, it seems unlikely that Genie was granting wishes to mammoth hunters and then somehow got trapped in a lamp that couldn’t have even been crafted in that prehistoric era, which forced theorists to rethink the timeframes.

Genie makes a number of “pop culture” references from the last few decades of modern times. How would he know all of these things if they all happened centuries after the movie supposedly takes place? To answer this, the theory suggests that Genie was in fact trapped in the lamp somewhere around our current time. The apocalypse then happens at some point during the ten thousand years in which he was stuck, and the world became a desert in which Middle Eastern culture survived. Even the name of the land, Agrabah, could be taken as a variation on “Arabia”, a change that might have occurred during the time that humanity was rebuilding itself. When Genie was freed by Aladdin, his most current memories would be from Earth circa 1992-ish (when the movie came out), hence his knowledge of references from then and the few preceding decades. But wait, there’s more! The theory even goes so far as to say that what Aladdin and his contemporaries see as magic–the flying carpet, the Cave of Wonders, Jafar’s tricks, etc–are actually remnants of technology that humanity had before the apocalypse wiped almost everything out.

I think my favorite part about all this is just that it makes so much sense (that, and I’m a fan of anything involving a far-flung future), and it doesn’t really do anything to change the ideas in the film, it just slightly alters the setting in which everything happens. Personally, I totally accept this theory as fact.

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In this scene, Genie says Aladdin’s outfit is “much too third century”, suggesting that the blue guy was around then and familiar with the fashions of the time. Some folks have therefore inferred that he was trapped in the lamp at some point later than 300 AD, and even if he was stuck in the lamp that year his release in the movie would be around 10,300 AD. More than enough time for humanity to destroy and rebuild itself.

Family Ties

Many fan theories suggest connections between films, attempting to prove some sort of kinship between characters. Like, for example, this one: Jane, from Tarzan, is a descendant of Belle from Beauty and the Beast.

Basically, according to this hypothesis, they look a lot alike and they both favor yellow outfits. They also have very little issue with being around feral guys. Additionally, in one scene of Tarzan we see a tea set in Jane’s camp that looks suspiciously like Mrs. Potts and her family, which theorists say is a china set that was passed down through the family. Which would make Belle Jane’s great, great, great, great, grandmother (give or take some greats) if the theory is to be believed. Sure, why not?

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I don’t know if “brunette and wearing yellow” is enough to determine a genetic link, but I also have no compelling evidence to suggest otherwise.

If we’re willing to accept that as fact, though, then how about if we throw Duke Weselton from Frozen into the mix? According to commenter Kate O’Gara’s thoughts on Disneytheory.com, this is a very plausible connection that adds a couple more branches to the family tree. Here’s how she connected the dots:

It’s estimated that the story of Beauty and the Beast takes place around 1740. When the French Revolution started in 1789, a rich family living in a castle probably wasn’t too popular with the angry townsfolk, so Belle and the prince hightailed it out of the country before they were led to the guillotine. They settled in Germany, prospered, and eventually their kid gave birth to a bouncing baby Duke Weselton. In Frozen, Weselton was pretty scared of Elsa’s powers, and according to O’Gara’s theory this is because he had heard stories about his grandfather’s ordeal with the enchantress that turned him into a beast. Since, by the end of the movie, he had botched the trade agreement with Arendelle, he was probably not too popular back home and as such packed up and headed to England in time to profit from the Industrial Revolution. Then his own grandson, Professor Q. Porter, used some of his family’s money to fund a trip to find gorillas in Africa.

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Kate O’Gara points to the similarities between Weselton and Porter as further evidence to corroborate her theory. I’d say that their physical features are way more of a link than “wearing yellow”.

A family tree that manages to encompass three different Disney films? Neat!

Do I buy this one? Sure, I think that I can accept it. Plus, I appreciate how the theory incorporates real-world events to craft a compelling history. Given that Tarzan is probably my least favorite Disney animated feature, too, I think the family saga that fans have created here is possibly more compelling than the movie itself. Plus, I’d love to hear Belle sing an upbeat tune while escaping an angry mob during the French Revolution.

Swinging From the Family Tree

Speaking of Frozen and Tarzan, how about a theory claiming that Tarzan is related to Anna and Elsa?

This one actually started with the co-director of Frozen, Chris Buck, who also worked on Tarzan. While spitballing stories with the other director, Jennifer Lee, he claimed that the king and queen of Arendelle didn’t die in a shipwreck like we’re led to believe.

From MTV.com: “Of course Anna and Elsa’s parents didn’t die. Yes, there was a shipwreck, but they were at sea a little bit longer than we think they were because the mother was pregnant, and she gave birth on the boat, to a little boy. They get shipwrecked, and somehow they really washed way far away from the Scandinavian waters, and they end up in the jungle. They end up building a tree house and a leopard kills them, so their baby boy is raised by gorillas. So in my little head, Anna and Elsa’s brother is Tarzan — but on the other side of that island are surfing penguins, to tie in a non-Disney movie, ‘Surf’s Up.’ That’s my fun little world.”

It’s hardly an official statement, of course.

I don’t think I can accept this one. There’s the fact that the king and queen of Arendelle look nothing like Tarzan’s parents (as seen in a photograph), and I don’t think the timeframes line up properly. So this one seems like just a flight of fancy and not really a plausible theory. I think I need to call shenanigans on this one.

Under the Sea

Remember the climactic scene in The Little Mermaid, when Prince Eric valiantly climbed up onto a shipwreck and used the broken bow to skewer Ursula and save the day?

Well, would you be willing to accept that the shipwreck was the same one that killed Anna and Elsa’s parents in Frozen? There are fans that say exactly that.

In this theory, Anna and Elsa’s mom and dad (do they have names? This is getting awkward) left their home with the intention of visiting Rapunzel’s family and celebrating the return of the princess. It was on this journey that their ship went down, only to be drawn up from the depths much later by a certain sea witch during her battle with a certain mermaid.

Theorists point to the locations of the different stories as evidence. Arendelle is based on Norway, so the assumption is that it would be in the same place on a map of the world. Corona, where Tangled takes place, is basically Germany. If they were sailing from Norway to Germany, they would pass the coast of Denmark, which is where The Little Mermaid is believed to be set (based upon architecture and clothing, plus the fact that Hans Christian Anderson was Danish). So, from a geographical standpoint, the shipwreck could be in the right spot to later be used as a lethal weapon. It’s also believed that both Frozen and Tangled take place sometime around the 1840s (using the fuzzy timeframes that Disney tends to go with), and while it’s harder to pin down The Little Mermaid‘s era it could still work.

Does it, though? I don’t think so. Observe:

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Look, those two ships clearly aren’t the same. However, I am more than happy to accept that the shipwreck was in fact one of the boats that Captain Nemo sank with the Nautilus in 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.

The ships look nothing alike. The Frozen boat, at the top, has a large forward mast with a slightly larger mast behind that. There’s a third one further back. The one in The Little Mermaid appears to have a completely different configuration, and even has one more. Plus, the ship that Arendelle’s king and queen were on (seriously, why don’t they have names) has a raised stern that isn’t present on the one that killed Ursula. The bow is also quite different.

Sorry, theorists. It’s a great attempt at connecting three different films with one tragic shipwreck, but I think I need to say that this one doesn’t hold water. Like the ship did. Which is why it sank. 

Mythological 

Here’s another theory that attempts to connect characters from two different films, in this case Hercules and The Little Mermaid, by claiming that the main characters are actually cousins.

This one makes sense, and to prove it you just need to look at Greek mythology.

Hercules is the son of Zeus. Poseidon is the brother of Zeus, making him the uncle of Hercules. Poseidon’s son, according to the myths, is Triton. In The Little Mermaid, Triton is Ariel’s dad. Based on that, it’s pretty clear that this theory works.

Of course, Hercules (who gave up his chance at immortality at the end of the film) would have died of old age long before Ariel was ever born. So it’s unlikely that they’ve hung out at any Olympus family reunions. Then again, given the fluidity of Disney timelines, who knows? The idea of Ariel and Herc eating burgers while catching up about their respective adventures is actually pretty entertaining.

Live and Don’t Learn

Instead of seeking out a familial connection between multiple films, here’s one that suggests two characters from two different tales are actually the same person: the Evil Queen from Snow White and Mother Gothel from Tangled.

Here’s how this story works: the Evil Queen didn’t die when she fell from the cliff at the end of Snow White, but instead she survived and ran off. Snow White takes place in a Germany-like setting, and Tangled‘s kingdom of Corona is based upon Germany, so the injured witch didn’t necessarily go that far before finding a new place to live (and, given the timeframe, it’s not like she could just call a Lyft, so her range was likely limited). At some point after she’s settled into her new home, she discovers the flower that grants her eternal youth. Both characters have a mutual motivation–beauty–and both are more than prepared to screw over a young princess to get it. Also, they kind of look alike and they both have a thing for wearing black cloaks. So maybe they’re actually one and the same?

I flip-flopped on this one, but ultimately I just can’t get behind this theory. Parts of it do seem to track pretty well, but the Evil Queen is a powerful sorceress and Mother Gothel seems dependent upon the flower (and later Rapunzel’s hair) for her magical needs. Unless… maybe she used up the last of her powers to heal her broken body after her little tumble?

I’m still going to say no, but it’s close on this one.


OK, so far none of these theories do much to alter the characters themselves or their motivations throughout the films. For the most part they’re all about finding (sometimes tenuous) connections between different movies, and even the Aladdin thing really doesn’t change much in the narrative itself. There are long-held beliefs by many fans that most/all of the Disney animated films exist in the same universe anyway, and in general these theories just try to establish more specific bonds within that larger meta-theory.

What about when fans come up with something that fundamentally alters the story in a film, though? When theories turn what you saw onscreen upside down and asks you to reconsider everything you thought you knew about the narrative?

It’s Good to be the King

Like most Disney animated features, The Lion King has been the subject of a few different fan theories. Unlike attempting to find familial connections between films (it’d be hard to prove that Simba is Mulan’s brother), what fans have suggested about The Lion King are a bit more… conspiracy-theory-esque in nature.

For example, some fans have surmised that Mufasa isn’t actually a benevolent king, but he’s in fact a tyrant. The proof, they say, comes from little things that they’ve noticed in the movie. The idea of the circle of life, they claim, is Mufasa and his family of lions keeping the “lesser animals” in their place by occasionally eating them and then passing it off as an honor to be returned to the earth to become grass for others to consume so the lions can then eat them. More than just being how the food chain works, theorists say that this could be Mufasa’s plan to keep the rabble in line. Plus, he’s worked hard to keep those he considers to be undesirables–aka the hyenas–out of his perfect little kingdom. In this version of the story, Scar is painted as a hero of the people, trying to free the Pride Lands from underneath Mufasa’s tyrannical leadership. Oh, and that drought/famine that happens under Scar’s reign? Totally a coincidence. It’s not like he can control the weather, after all (though there’s a theory that claims Mufasa can control the weather, which is too weird even for me).

I don’t know if I can accept this one. The whole good and evil balance in the film seems pretty straightforward to me. This is adding layers that stretch the narrative into some odd directions that I can’t get on board with.

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Does Mufasa rule over the Pride Lands with an iron paw? I… ummm…. no. Just no.

How about going even further down this rabbit hole? According to some, Zazu was working for Scar the whole time to undermine Mufasa. They point to one particular moment as possible proof: when Simba and Nala sneak off to the elephant graveyard. It was Scar who put that notion in young Simba’s brain, but then the cubs say that they’re just going to the watering hole. Yet, later, Zazu seems to know exactly where to lead Mufasa to find them. How would he know that, unless he had some inside info and was a willing part of a larger conspiracy? Also, it’s frequently pointed out that The Lion King mirrors Shakespeare’s Hamlet in many ways, and this is also used to further the theory: in Hamlet, the king’s counsel is Polonius, who also happens to be a spy for Claudius (the bad guy). So if Zazu=Polonius, and Polonius=spy, then there are those who draw the conclusion that Zazu=spy. Then, when Scar is in charge, he keeps Zazu close in order to prevent the bird from turning tail (tailfeather?) and revealing what he’s done.

Again… wow. That’s some tinfoil hat territory (with Mickey ears, of course). Zazu can fly, right? Maybe when he noticed that the kids weren’t at the watering hole he flew around until he found them? I’m going on record to say that this is all madness.


Is it weird that people come up with these (often elaborate) theories about animated films? Maybe, but it also goes to show how beloved these stories are that fans want to delve deeper than what they saw on screen and come up with ideas about how their favorite tales may connect. Like how some folks put out there that Robin Hood is the medieval era of the Zootopia world, which I think I can agree with.

If you want to believe that Tarzan is Anna and Elsa’s brother, though, then director Chris Buck says to go for it. From that MTV interview: “I say, whatever people want to believe, go for it. If you want to tie them all together, then do it. That’s the spirit of Disney.”

With that in mind, I decided to take a crack at forming my own fan theory to close this post out (cracks knuckles dramatically):

Ok, let’s start with The Black Cauldron. In this film, which takes place in a medieval setting, a trio of witches have a habit of turning folks (like minstrel Fflewddur Fflam) into frogs. Late in the movie, the witches vanish in a dramatic fashion… only to return in 1920s New Orleans as Dr. Facilier’s “friends on the other side” in Princess and the Frog. I mean, he also has the ability to turn people into frogs, which was originally their hobby, so it makes sense that they could have taught him how to do it. Now, let’s take this even further and consider that there were several froggy victims of the witches’ magic in The Black Cauldron. It’s also likely that Dr. Facilier practiced the trick on others before using it on Naveen, so there could have also been some enchanted frogs hanging around New Orleans. Which leads us to the next connection: Meet the Robinsons. In that one, there are frogs who can talk and sing and even drive little cars. These are things that frogs normally cannot do, unless they happen to be descended from humans who were turned into frogs. So we have a whole civilization of magical frogs that have been around since the Middle Ages, got a burst of fresh blood in the early 20th century, and have survived well into the future.

Now, can we talk about how the weasels in Wind in the Willows and the ones in Who Framed Roger Rabbit are all a part of the same multi-generational crime family…

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Cult Classic

If you’ve read my work here on the blog, or if you follow me on Facebook or Twitter, or if you’ve ever talked to me in person, then you’ve probably noticed that I mention one particular attraction a whole bunch. I mean, like an absurd amount.

Really, if you’re also a follower of other Disney fan accounts on social media, you’ve probably noticed that lots of other people also talk about this defunct dark ride too. It’s been a long time since it closed, and people still discuss it with a nearly cult-like fervor.

I’m talking, of course, about Stitch’s Great Escape.

Just kidding.

I’m talking, of course, about Horizons.

Now, you might find yourself nodding in agreement here because you too miss this classic EPCOT Center attraction. Or perhaps you don’t understand what the fascination is with some old ride, so you’re just rolling your eyes (like my wife, who’s probably wondering why she has to edit yet another post about it [Accurate. —ed.]).

With this post, I’m actually aiming to reach those who are unfamiliar with Horizons. Those who never got the opportunity to ride it, and who (even if you did) might wonder why people go on about it so much. If you do know and love Horizons, you’re of course welcome to follow along as well and wax nostalgic as we go down this path. My goal here, though, is to try to explain this obsession a little bit so that us fans don’t just all look crazy. It may or may not help.

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I don’t have any pictures of Horizons, sadly, so please enjoy this (weirdly oversaturated) photo of Spaceship Earth instead.

Horizons opened on October 1st, 1983, and was sponsored by General Electric up until it closed in 1994. It was reopened in 1995 (without a sponsor), because both World of Motion and Universe of Energy were closed for renovations at the time and Disney management didn’t want too much of Future World closed all at the same time. It was finally shut down for good in 1999, to make way for Mission: SPACE. Since then it’s garnered an impressive following across social media, perhaps unlike any other defunct attraction, and there are websites dedicated to its memory. Some have created computer-generated ride throughs, and there’s even a decent amount of fan-made merchandise out there too.

The roughly fifteen minute ride was narrated by a husband and wife who were “from the future”, and were showing guests what their daily life was like. They brought you through an undersea city, a terraformed desert, and even a space station where people lived and worked. Finally they showed us their high-tech urban home. Throughout the journey guests met other members of the narrators’ family, which tied everything together. There was an underlying story thread about everyone needing to be on time for a birthday party, and towards the end of the ride the entire family got together for the celebration–a young boy sat in a living room with his parents, while other members of the family sang happy birthday from holographic video phone screens (sure, we now have phones in our palms that can access almost any bit of information you could dream of, but they’re not holographic). In the final moments of the ride, a touch panel lit up in the ride vehicle, offering a choice to each guest. There were three options: desert, space, and undersea; guests would pick one, and a majority rule determined which ending that vehicle would view on a screen.

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What does Carousel of Progress, at Magic Kingdom, have to do with Horizons? Well, it’s widely accepted that Horizons was a “sequel” to Carousel, and that it featured a future generation of the same family. The song “There’s a Great Big Beautiful Tomorrow” even briefly appeared in Horizons (playing on a radio), too.

So why does this attraction, out of all of those that have come and gone over the years, retain such a rabid fanbase?

Let’s take a step back, for just a moment, to get a sense of what EPCOT Center was in olden days (i.e: the 80s). It was wildly different from the Magic Kingdom; There were no rides based on movies, no roller coasters, no parades. The slow dark ride attractions that made up Future World each had a particular focus: World of Motion offered a history of transportation and a look to what might be coming down the road, Universe of Energy showed a (loooooong) look at different power options, and Spaceship Earth invited guests into the giant “golf ball” to learn about communication. Each attraction was intended to showcase the past, present, and future of its respective topic. While designed to inspire and educate, they were also intended to entertain and as such were done in the signature “Disney” style with lots of humor and fun. They even had great theme songs (go up to any fan of EPCOT Center, say the words “it’s fun to be free”, and see what happens). It was Disney for nerds, a theme park for those who–like Walt Disney himself–were futurists. People who appreciated looking forward, and back, and who wanted to do so with sea serpents and sleeping monks tossed into the mix.

Most of those old EPCOT Center attractions are long gone now, or have been renovated into shadows of their former selves (cough–Journey Into Imagination–cough). Some of them, like World of Motion, still retain a pretty strong fan base themselves. None, though, seem to be as adored and missed as Horizons.

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It could be said that Disney profits off of our nostalgia by continuing to release Horizons-themed merchandise. It could also be said that we keep buying this stuff whenever they do. Thus, the circle of life continues…

All of the attractions were fun in their own ways (OK, maybe not Universe of Energy). In a sense, though, Horizons was the culmination and combination of every other idea that Future World offered. Rather than focus on just one specific topic, Horizons instead showed guests how all of the respective ideas of the other attractions–transportation, communication, agriculture, etc–could come together in one incredible look at the future.

Horizons boiled down all of the concepts presented by the park and demonstrated how they could serve as inspirations for a possible tomorrow. It showed a future that looked to be something out of a science fiction story while still being completely plausible. To many people, that vision was extremely powerful. It’s not just what it showed, either, but how it showed it. It wasn’t dragging on with the science of how any of it would work, it wasn’t preachy about how we’d need to fix the world to get there, it wasn’t showing things so fantastic that they stopped being realistic. It was just a family from the future, taking guests on a little tour through their everyday life, and there was something simply incredible about that.

Let’s not forget, too, that the folks who keep the fandom alive now were much younger in the Horizons days. When it closed in 1999 I was in my early 20s, and when it first opened I would have been somewhere around third grade. I basically grew up seeing this inspirational vision of tomorrow. Especially as we all grew up, and the world seemed to keep going in the opposite direction from this possible future (and, I suppose, as we developed more cynicism than we had as kids), Horizons was something to cling to. Something to showcase what could happen, even if reality was consistently proving otherwise.

The world kind of sucked, and as we got older we were able to see that much more clearly, but this ride at a theme park still showed us what the future could be. It gave us a bit of hope. I think that, at its core, is why so many of us still hold on to Horizons. Why we keep this fandom going on social media, why we talk about the attraction fondly, and why we wish that it was still around. Because as things around us just seem to get worse everyday, we could simply use that fifteen minutes of inspiration. We could use that journey through time, where a friendly couple takes us through a plausible–but ever less realistic–future.

There’s another reason, I think, for the ongoing Horizons fandom. At the Destination D expo in November of 2016, Bob Chapek stated that the plans for EPCOT would make it “more Disney, timeless, relevant, and family friendly”, and some of us recalled when we already had all of that in one attraction. It was Disney in the way that it portrayed things, with lots of humor and a storyline rather than just an impersonal look at future possibilities. It was timeless, since the future is something that we’re always working towards. It was absolutely relevant–the concept of working together towards a brighter tomorrow never really stops being so. It was family friendly, since it was a slow dark ride rather than the thrill rides that seem to be taking over the park, and it was fun and entertaining and had ideas presented to all ages. So while the current Disney management continues to strip away everything that made the park special (well, I did say that we developed more cynicism as we got older), some of us have been holding on even harder to what made us fall in love with it in the first place. It’s becoming a collection of future-themed rides with only the loosest of themes, and some of us fondly and sadly miss when it was a park full of inspiration. Horizons has, in its way, become a focus for that–a rallying cry for fans of EPCOT Center even though (or perhaps especially) because we know those days are long gone.

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I genuinely enjoy Mission: SPACE. I think it’s a fun attraction, the interactivity is cool, and I suppose it’s inspiring in it’s own way. It stands where Horizons once was, though, so I still sort of resent its existence.

If you never got the chance to experience Horizons, well… you could try checking out ride through videos online, but I don’t think that it would be the same. You might get an inkling of how special it was, though I suppose now it would seem quite dated (there was a whole bit about the microprocessor as an exciting new technology that would revolutionize everything) and the narration will likely come off as a bit cheesy nowadays. It was definitely a product of its time, and unless you were seeing it as a kid in the 80s I don’t know if you’d be able to really get it.

If you did go on Horizons, though, you likely understand and agree with everything that I’ve said here. If you miss this ride like so many people do, you may have read all of this with a nostalgic tear in your eye. Seriously, we should have a support group or something.

All these years later, some of us are still inspired by Horizons. Though the ride itself is long gone, it instilled in us a hope for the future. Even when things seem pretty bleak in the world, we remember undersea cities and living on space stations and think…

“If we can dream it, we can do it”*


 

*Right, so I know that I’m just killing my nice dramatic ending, but I have a side note/public service announcement that I need to add here. That quote? It’s often attributed to Walt Disney, but in fact it was written by Imagineer Tom Fitzgerald specifically for Horizons. It’s probably one of the most mis-quoted things in all of Disney fandom. So now that you know this, the next time you hear someone credit Walt with “if we can dream it, we can do it” you can tap them on the nose with a rolled-up park guide map and firmly say “NO”. It’s the only way they’ll learn.

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Inspirational Adventure

I don’t consider myself a big American history buff. Sure, it’s kind of neat to think about people throwing tea into Boston harbor or having Old West duels at high noon during the Gold Rush or whatever, but it was hardly my favorite subject in school. Which is probably much of the reason that, when I would wander around the World Showcase at EPCOT, I generally skipped the show at the America pavilion. On a recent visit, though, my wife and I did opt to check out the American Adventure. I honestly only vaguely remembered it, and she had never seen it.

Neither one of us really knew what to expect, and we certainly didn’t anticipate how much we’d both enjoy the show.

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The entrance to the American Adventure show is right in the middle of the pavilion, between a quick-service burger restaurant and a gift shop. Which, if you stop to think about it, just sounds really American. 

I think that many people just walk on by this particular attraction, seeking out flashier and more “interesting” experiences. I’ve definitely been one of those people. Heck, with the new Guardians of the Galaxy live show right across the way (don’t get me started on all of the reasons I don’t think that belongs in World Showcase), I could see the loud music and exciting pyro drawing folks away from the entrance to the American Adventure. That’d be a shame, though, because the attraction really does have a lot to offer.

Before you even set foot in the theatre, there’s lots to experience in the lobby (the pleasant, air conditioned lobby). As you walk around, you’ll see beautiful artwork representing different points in American history painted by Disney Imagineers, including Disney Legend Herb Ryman. There are also different flags from throughout American history hanging in the lobby. So even before you’re settling in to watch the show, there’s lots of cool stuff to see.

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This new exhibit, featuring Native American art from around the country, wasn’t open yet when I was there recently (but it should be soon, and may be by the time you read this). I absolutely want to check it out the next time I’m there. This type of exhibit is really important, in my opinion, to the World Showcase as it offers a look at cultures and histories of the world.

While you’re waiting to go upstairs to get into the theatre, you may get a special preshow in the lobby as well–the Voices of Liberty. This amazing a cappella group sings various folk songs from American history, dressed in period costumes, and can be found throughout the day performing their fifteen minute set before guests enter the main theatre. Even if you have little interest in the American Adventure itself, stopping into the lobby to hear them sing can be a nice bit of relaxation with a cool live performance. The Voices of Liberty are worth seeing even without going into the theatre, and taking a few minutes to sit on a bench and get a respite from the weather while listening to beautiful singing is hardly the worst thing ever.

Once you get into the massive theatre (seriously, it’s huge) it’s time for the American Adventure!

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Around the theatre are statues representing the different spirits of America: adventure, compassion, freedom, innovation, etc. The show highlights these aspects, going beyond just individual points in history to showcase the drive that led to them. 

The American Adventure opens with Ben Franklin and Mark Twain, chatting together and setting up the story of America. From there, the show unfolds in a combination of animatronics, video, and music. Each scene tells a part of the country’s history, from the Revolutionary War to more modern times. In addition to Franklin and Twain (who act as sort of narrators) there are animatronics of other noteworthy figures like Susan B. Anthony and Will Rogers.

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Many different parts of America’s history are portrayed through animatronic characters, including women’s rights activist Susan B. Anthony.

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The show doesn’t shy away from some of the darker periods in our past, including a particularly moving segment during the Civil War about two brothers on opposite sides.

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Rosie the Riveter makes a brief appearance during the narrative. 

One of the things that struck us when we watched the show was just how incredible the sets are. Some really massive pieces rise up from the stage, only to slowly lower back down after a scene and get replaced by an equally gigantic set. The technology involved in this is very impressive, with a large specially-created device called the “War Wagon” moving the pieces around underneath the stage. Even if you’re not wrapped up in the narrative of the show, you should at least be able to appreciate the Imagineering that went into making it all happen.

By the way, you can get a look at the inner workings of the show on the Backstage Magic tour in EPCOT. We haven’t done that one yet ourselves, but seeing behind the curtain of the American Adventure is high on our list of reasons to do so.

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This set is just one of many large pieces that rise up to take the stage during the show. This scene deals with the Great Depression, with animatronic figures and even some rainfall.

Above and beyond the impressive technical aspects, though, the fact is that the show is good. It boils down major moments in history into digestible chunks, using a combination of music and video as well as the animatronic characters to tell stories from throughout history. Whether it’s Teddy Roosevelt and John Muir sitting atop a mountain talking about the importance of protecting natural resources, or a group of workers discussing the Great Depression, the script keeps moving and doesn’t allow one part to drag on too long and lose the audience. As someone who (as I mentioned before) doesn’t really get into American history that much, I don’t find the show boring at all. If anything, making a show about historical figures that doesn’t drag is an even more impressive feat of engineering than any of the set pieces!

The story may be about America, but it also has adventure right there in the title, a point that is worked well into the narrative. The entire experience is uplifting and inspirational, with a strong focus on the great things that we’ve accomplished and the spirit of those who have helped shape the country. Even when dealing with more depressing subject matter like war and poverty, there’s a sense of an unstoppable spirit. It tells a story not necessarily just of what has happened over the last couple hundred years, but one of innovation and determination. Whether it’s doing so with animatronic representations of historical figures, video, music, or all of the above, the attraction showcases an American beyond what can be seen in the daily news or the situations of any one particular era. For citizens, it goes beyond all of that to tap into a patriotic pride, and for those visitors from other countries it offers a glimpse into what that pride really means.

I think, especially in this age of political turmoil, a show that takes a step back to highlight the bigger picture–the “story” of America–is more important than ever. Perhaps that’s why I appreciate it now more than I ever have.

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The show uses video as well as the set pieces and animatronics to tell the story. I want to point out this particular scene, too: while the animatronics may not be as fluid as some newer figures in other attractions, Ben Franklin climbs stairs here! That’s an impressive feat, and supposedly one that took Imagineers a lot of work to create.

It seems like people tend to skip this one, or at least it rarely comes up when talking about attractions at EPCOT, and that’s a shame. I get that the concept of watching a half-hour-long show about American history while on a Disney World vacation may be an odd choice, and that (especially when traveling with kids in tow) folks may gravitate towards different experiences. In fact, with new shows like “The Muppets Present Great Moments in American History” over at Magic Kingdom, there are even ways to scratch that history buff itch in ways that involve comedic puppet characters rather than animatronics of real people, which many folks (myself included) may prefer. Enjoying the American Adventure means possibly taking a step out of the “theme park” comfort zone.

To walk on by this one, though, is to miss out on a few different things: it’s simply a really good show, it uses impressive technology that melds animatronics and multimedia in a way that only Disney can, and it’s also a pretty unique EPCOT experience. The original intent for the park was to inspire, educate, and entertain, and the American Adventure hits all three points. With attractions based on popular movies working their way into different World Showcase pavilions (regardless of whether they fit at all within the theme of the country. Again, don’t get me started), it’s very nice to see something really evoking that EPCOT spirit within the park.

The show runs roughly thirty minutes, which may seem like a long time for a theme park attraction, but the time is needed to do justice to the subject of American history. It doesn’t feel like it’s a half hour, either, due to the quick pacing of the show. It never spends too long on one scene before moving on to another era with another big backdrop. Sure, there are moments in which my attention would waver, but then one big set piece is gone and has been replaced with another and there’s a whole new huge scene happening on stage. I may not have really “gotten it” as a kid, but as an adult I can appreciate both the narrative and the Imagineering that went into creating the show.

It’s not a thrill ride in a speeding car, and it doesn’t have characters from a popular space movie singing classic rock hits, but the American Adventure is a great show that deserves a half hour of everyone’s time. Even if you’re not a huge history buff, the show is worth checking out at least once just to see how all of the moving parts tell the story. If you are into history, and/or you’re particularly patriotic, seeing these different moments come to life can be very inspirational and it’s cool to learn a bit about the events that shaped the country. It may not be everyone’s cup of tea (it certainly wasn’t mine for quite a long time), and it may not be something that you go out of your way to see every time you’re at EPCOT, but it’s an adventure that everyone should experience.

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If nothing else, the American Adventure show is a place to be entertained while sitting inside a nice air-conditioned theatre. It’s a half hour escape from the oppressive heat or the pouring rain (and since it’s Florida, both of those could be happening at the same time).

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