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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