La Belle Epcot
As I prepare for my sojourn into France’s past, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about the different ways we connect with history. The first stop on my itinerary is a massive reenactment of the Battle of Waterloo, held on the same ground in Belgium where the terrible bloodbath ran its course exactly 200 years ago. Reenactment as a form of time travel doesn’t get much more involved or immersive than that. It will be evocative and unique in ways I can only guess at, and of course I’ll write all about it in my next piece for this series.
While researching for my grand tour, I realized that I could learn a lot about historical reenactment from some of the biggest and most successful experts in the field. I journeyed 185 km to the north-east, a distance pretty close to the 292 km Napoleon’s army marched from Paris to Waterloo. It only took me two hours and I got to stay in a lovely hotel with a view of artificial mountains and fairytale castles. When I left a day later, I had the same number of Imperial crowns that I drove up with and nobody had died, so I think all in all I had the better experience even if no one but me and whoever reads this is going to remember it.
The accompanying pictures aren’t of France. They’re a reenactment of France. Unlike the reenactors who’ll be marching across the fields of Waterloo, it is not an attempt to replicate any specific person or place. Rather, it’s is an impressionistic interpretation of a certain romantic idea of France, more specifically Paris in the 1890s. This ersatz Belle Époque evokes one of the most culturally ingrained conceptions of France in the popular imagination. It is the France of Impressionist painting and the Moulin Rouge, a time of high fashion and fine dining and not a war to be fought for twenty years in either direction on the timeline. It is the recently rebuilt Paris of broad boulevards, dominated by the brand new Eiffel Tower.
The Eiffel Tower in these pictures doesn’t loom large over the rooftops from the far off Champs de Mars. This Eiffel Tower is sitting on top of one of those rooftops, just out of sight. It’s covered with a special paste to repel birds. If a bird landed on top of it, you’d immediately notice that it’s only one-tenth the size of the real tower. You wouldn’t be surprised of course, since you know you’re not in France, but it would spoil the illusion for you, and you haven’t come to Walt Disney World’s Epcot center to have your illusions spoiled.
The Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow was the first expansion to Walt Disney World in Florida. Walt Disney the man originally attached that long, technophilic name to a dream project that would have actually been the things those words describe - a community where people lived and worked with the newest technology and experiments in civic planning. But Walt’s dream died with him in 1967, and when E.P.C.O.T opened in 1982 it was pure theme park, without a condo or school or home of the future in sight. Instead, Disney the corporation gave us a bifurcated experience of an imagined future up front and an impressionistic world tour at the rear.
The World Showcase at Epcot (which dropped the periods and between letters and mostly discarded the all-caps in 1994) is very much like the world’s fairs that were so popular in the late nineteenth and early to mid twentieth centuries. The countries represented there carefully select a few aspects of their culture and history to show off. It’s about creating a positive, inviting impression of a place rather than recreating a country in every detail. The World Showcase offers a sampler platter of national delicacies and experiences. Plus, sometimes there’s a ride.
The Eiffel Tower under construction for the 1889 Exposition Universelle. From the Getty Image Library.
Epcot’s France pavilion offers up a Paris from the era when the city itself hosted one of the great world’s fairs in history. The Exposition Universelle of 1889 was held on the 100th anniversary of the Storming of the Bastille, which had come to represent the birthdate of a new, more modern France. The path from 1789 to 1889 had been long and bloody, full of kings and emperors, wars and terrors, but by 1889, peace had held for almost twenty years. The country was democratic and prosperous, and the French were ready to show off. The Exposition featured a giant hall of machines, art exhibits, opera halls, anthropological showcases (of a kind disturbing to the modern eye), and other great attractions. However, nothing attracted attention and visitors more than the event’s pièce de résistance, the Eiffel Tower.
The one-tenth size doppelganger in Epcot doesn’t impress the way the genuine 1000 foot tall edifice does. The Disney version doesn’t impress at all. I don’t think it’s supposed to. The version here in Florida doesn’t try to compete with the enormity of Spaceship Earth, which is itself less than a sixth the height of the Paris attraction. The faux-tower needs to blend into and accent the other structures in its little corner of the world sampler plate. Mini-Eiffel lingers beyond the rooftops, a constant reminder of the most iconic civic symbol in the world.
I can’t think of any other building that so instantly brings to mind its home city and country. The Eiffel Tower means Paris, France. Show someone an image of that tower, and their mind instantly makes the association. The only thing that comes close in the icon race is another French construction from the Belle Époque: the Statue of Liberty. I think the Eiffel Tower works so well as a signifier because that’s the only purpose it was ever meant to serve. From its prominent placement on the Champs de Mars to its elegant and, at the time cutting-edge engineering, it exists only to show off. It’s a monument to being able to build awesome and lovely monuments.
In the Epcot version of France, the tower serves a different purpose. It’s part of the backdrop for a reenactment of an other-era Paris. This version is the original color of the tower - a rosy tan instead of the darker color age has wrought on it. The scale of the faux-tower changes as well, being wider at the bottom and smaller at the top to help create that illusion of height. The aforementioned bird-repellent paste keeps unwanted avians from landing on it and spoiling the effect. It’s a lot of thought and effort put into an illusion that, I think, works much better in still photography than it does in person. When I stand there, I’m always aware that the tower is small, a fraction of its true self. It seems to work best when it’s just to the side or above what you’re looking at. It’s an accent piece, not a pièce de résistance.
The real subjects on center stage in the Epcot France showcase are beauty and taste. The lovely, clean buildings, the flowerbeds, fountains, and topiaries all evoke the ordered, precise beauty of a chateau’s formal garden. The other accent pieces show artist’s easels with impressionism in progress and the colonnes Morris are plastered with posters for exhibits by Gauguin and Monet. The shops, which take up much of the interior real estate, sell perfume, cosmetics, dinnerware, art prints, and decorative souvenirs (including many, many images and models of the Eiffel Tower). There’s also a wine shop, where you can sample that most iconic of French beverages.
Cuisine holds equal pride of place in this reenactment. There are three restaurants plus an ice cream shop, plus two kiosks outside with snacks and wine. For the casual time traveller on a budget or on the go, the cafeteria-style Boulangerie Patisserie les Halles has sandwiches and all manner of delectable desserts (including my favorite, macarons). Chefs de France offers a more elegant, bistro-style affair with classic French dishes and decor. Then there’s the top floor, top tier option, Monsieur Paul, named for and at least nominally overseen by the living titan of French Cuisine, Paul Bocuse. His son, Chef Jerome Bocuse has more of a hand in this current iteration, which replaced the previous fine dining destination, Bistro de Paris (also a Bocuse joint).
Any restaurant that trades in the name of a famous chef is a kind of reenactment. There’s no illusion that the 89 year old chef will be leaving his Lyon estate to come cook your soup, but you can order a version of the famous soupe aux truffes V.G.E. that’s been a Bocuse signature since he named it in honor of the French President in 1975. It’s a dish with a history from a man with an even longer history, who is in turn part of a lineage stretching back to the foundations of modern French cooking. If you know even a little of that history, you can imagine the effect the soup’s flavors had on critics, chefs, and presidents. For the space of a meal, you all share a sensation across time and space. Also, I’ve had the soup and it’s pretty tasty.
By far the most straightforward time travel experience in Epcot’s France is the pavilion’s main attraction: Impressions de France. The wide, wide, wide screen movie directed by Rick Harper takes you all the way back to the early 1980s when it was made, but a recent digital remastering makes the images as bright and crisp as if they’d been shot yesterday. Shown in an elegant and very well air-conditioned theater, it’s one of the few movie attractions in Epcot’s World Showcase where you get to sit down. It’s also, according to Robert Niles of Theme Park Insider (who has much more expertise on the subject than I do), the best movie ever made for a theme park.
In his article, Niles writes:
“No, this is a not a complete picture of France. You won't find mention of labor trouble or ethnic conflict here. Its impressions of the nation are not made randomly, but instead draw from moments of France at leisure.
As it should for an audience that is, itself, on vacation.
By ignoring the story of France to share impressions of France, Harper's film scorns the brain to engage the heart. And, with the power of its music, it succeeds.”
Another theme park expert. Tom Bricker, makes the compelling case that Impressions de France is actually a better “ride” than the California flyover experience Soarin’ which is on the other end of EPCOT. I like both attractions, but agree that Impressions de France has the better soundtrack. I also concur when he writes: “Soarin’ largely follows the same formula as Impressions de France by presenting vignettes of California, but they are not as detail-rich nor are they as emotive.” The final tie-breaker is not to be ignored - the wait time for Soarin’ is almost always going to be at least twice as long as the wait for Impressions de France. Plus, when you come out of Soarin’ your closest exciting eating option is the Chip 'N' Dale Harvest Feast, which has only a very specific appeal.
There are Disney characters to meet (or rather, Experience in Disney nomenclature) in the France pavilion. The most prominent and famous is Princess Aurora from Sleeping Beauty. Disney princess experiences are scattered across Disney World, and at first I thought Aurora was in France because they wanted to spread the costumed royalty around and France seemed as good a place as any. In fact, the original Sleeping Beauty story is a French fairytale, written in the seventeenth century by a Parisian, Charles Perrault. Monsieur Perrault wrote a lot of top ten fairy tale hits, including the Magic Kingdom’s princess prime, Cinderella who has a whole castle devoted to her experience.
Humble Aurora must make do with a humble garden gazebo in France, but she’s always smiling and makes the best of it. At least she doesn’t have to share it anymore. Once upon a time the other French princess of note, Belle from Beauty and the Beast, alternated garden Experience time with Aurora. Created by another French author, Marie Leprince de Beaumont, Belle has left Epcot for her own grand attraction in the Be Our Guest restaurant in the Magic Kingdom, where tables are only available with reservations made months in advance. Meanwhile these days it’s Aurora’s nemesis Maleficent who gets all the screen time and attention. Our poor French princess seems doomed to play second fiddle to other, more popular personalities.
In keeping with the theme park’s tradition of sanding down any rough spots in a country’s reputation, the servers in the pavilion’s restaurants defy the cliche of rude French waiters. They do, after all, work for Disney, which ruthlessly purges any sign of rudeness from its staff. The servers can be amusing and they are universally genial. My waiter at Chefs de France was even encouraging of my fumbled attempts to order in French. All of the World Showcase pavilions hire staff from the actual country, which does more than any scenery to make you feel like you’re in another part of the world. Unlike in actual France, all of these smiling cast members also speak English, but their accents provide a pleasing air of authenticity to every transaction.
I have a German friend who worked in the Germany pavilion after she graduated from high school back in the nineties, and she had told me about some of the amazing questions that guests at Epcot asked her. She especially loved it when people asked her if they had electricity in her home country. I asked Reda, a Paris native working at the Impressions de France attraction, what were some of the funnier questions that he’d received in the year he’s been working here.
The most common request he gets is from guests wondering how to visit the pavilion's pint-sized Eiffel Tower. He has to explain that it’s on a roof and inaccessible. One time one guest explained to another that, of course they couldn’t visit it. “The real Eiffel Tower is in Las Vegas.” Reda also noted that, “Many people are confused that Paris is the name of the country and that it’s in France. They sometimes think France is in Italy and Paris is a country. I have to explain that France is a country and Paris is its capital.” He also gets a lot of requests from parents handing him their child’s autograph book and asking him to write the child’s name in his language’s alphabet. He’ll politely explain that French uses the same letters as English.
It’s easy and fun to smile knowingly at such displays of parochialism, but note that in this respect France’s World Showcase pavilion is just doing it’s job. Someone who doesn’t know the difference between France and Paris or that the French language uses the same alphabet as English can learn a thing or two while surrounded by helpful smiles, beautiful images, and delicious food. There may be more efficient ways to learn something new, but there aren’t many more pleasant ones.
Like every pavilion in the World Showcase, France is an excursion into pleasure and leisure, without even the hint of drama or discord that a thrill-ride might add to the experience. That is the image that Disney and France are both promoting to the world, and it’s not entirely unrealistic. The real France is the most-visited tourist destination in the world, and offers lots of good times and great vistas for its visitors.
It also has a long and important history, much of it less pleasant than the peace and prosperity of the Belle Époque. Remember that the 1889 Exposition Universelle that brought Paris the Eiffel Tower was held in honor of the 100th anniversary of the beginning of the French Revolution. One of the other big exhibits at that Exposition was a full-scale recreation of that ancient fortress and prison, the Bastille. Torn down in the year after the people of Paris stormed its gates, a full-sized recreation was built on the expo site, not far from the Eiffel Tower.
For those wishing a remembrance of this revolutionary landmark, there was a souvenir photo book for sale. The Bibliothèque nationale de France has the whole thing scanned and available online for free. I would love to see Disney add some version of this attraction to their showcase. Obviously that will never happen, but I submit that it would not even be off theme. The recreation dates from the era of Disney’s reenactment. Filtered through the double flip time travel of faux-1889 France remembering faux-1789 France, the events of the Revolution could be rendered appropriately family friendly. Certainly it could be as all-ages appropriate as Pirates of the Caribbean.
In my upcoming journey back through time in the real Paris, I’m going to piece together landmarks, buildings, and events from all around the city. The Bastille is gone, but there are at least a hundred other sites on my itinerary that I’ll use to reenact the the age of revolution and empire. The imagineers at the Disney corporation could condense my city-wide, month-long expedition into a five-minute ride full of animatronic revolutionaries and endlessly rising and falling guillotines.
I imagine that such an attraction would focus on the uplifting, rights and liberty for all citizens part of the French Revolution over the darker aspects. However, the guillotine has an iconic power that rivals the Eiffel Tower, so it would have to have have some place in the attraction. Spaceship Earth travels through history and includes the fiery doom and gloom of the fall of the Roman Empire, so the precedent is there for a Disney Reign of Terror. Maybe they’d choose to reenact the execution of Robespierre instead of King Louis XVI’s decapitation, so they could commemorate the end of the Terror rather than the beginning.
The bigger question would be where to end the ride. The French Revolution’s arc is long and complicated. Does it end with Napoleon taking power? That’s a long way from the democratic France of today that such an attraction would be designed to celebrate. Since I’m doing the imagineering here, the ride would work through all of Napoleon’s achievements and disasters. We’d see him rebuilding and stabilizing French society with infrastructure, law codes, and lasting government and financial institutions. We’d also see his bloody victories and even bloodier defeats on the field of battle. I don’t know that Disney has much room for the nuance of a life like Napoleon’s, which was a boon to as many French people as it was a bane to them. His legacy is clouded at best, but it is undeniably important.
Alas, right now the current new attraction under construction in Epcot is not in France but in the Norway pavilion, where the movie Frozen is getting its very own ride. I can’t deny that’s the wiser business decision, but I contend it’s definitely the lesser learning opportunity. Since Disney’s not going to teach the world about the French Revolution and Napoleon anytime soon, I’ll do my best to pick up their slack. Next stop for me and for all of you reading along: a little town just outside Brussels, where about the same number of people who attend Disney World on a given day are going to gather for a once in a lifetime reenactment of the end of an empire.