Walt Disney World is so much more than restaurants, attractions, characters and shows. For the really sharped-eyed guest and of course, Disney fanatic, there are realms and realms of visual and audio inputs for the senses. If you listen carefully, you’ll always hear a Disney song from the movies or a classic Disney short. However for me, it is the visual. So many guests just walk around, oblivious to what the Imagineers have placed right in front of them, and hardly anyone gives a second glance. Have you ever wondered what the writings on the crates in front of Min and Bill’s Dockside Diner mean? Or the name “Holly-Vermont Realty” on the door of the building besides “Peevy’s” refreshment stand? Or how about the sign inside the queue line at Tower of Terror announcing the Tip Top club featuring “Anthony Fremont and his Orchestra”? Or why “Gertie the Dinosaur” is showcased at Echo Lake?
It is these and countless other subtle “in your face” visual treasures just waiting to be discovered and deciphered. Which brings me to the subject of this article…That area between the China and German pavilions at World Showcase in EPCOT. At first, most guests think that this is just a place for a soda and quick snack and the requisite Disney souvenir. And there are many other on the ball guests that have said…”There is enough room here for another pavilion” and they would be right. That is exactly what that area was originally slated for, and the story behind it is pretty amazing!
Disney had plans to showcase several countries from Equatorial Africa. Since any pavilion at EPCOT was an expensive endeavor, several African countries were courted by Disney, including Senegal, the Ivory Coast and Kenya. This area between China and Germany was erected because Disney had announced beforehand that the pavilion would open a year after EPCOT opened, and wanted to give guests a “reminder” that it was in the works and since the area between pavilions was so large, something was needed to fill the gap. But the Equatorial Africa pavilion, also known as the “African Nations pavilion” never came to be. Money was a problem. Many of the nations did not have the capital to invest in the pavilion, plus centuries old rivalries and political upheavals between the countries did not help. In addition the countries were actually bickering over who would be the top country showcased. Disney did find a sponsor in South Africa, but apartheid was a huge social issue in the ‘80’s and Disney decided not to accept. In fact Disney was so committed to the pavilion; a Television special on October 23rd, 1982 entitled “EPCOT Center…The Grand Opening Celebration” showed Danny Kaye interviewing Alex Haley, author of “Roots” about the opening of the new pavilion.
The pavilion’s art concept was done by Disney artist Ken Anderson and Imagineer and artist Herb Ryman. The pavilion was slated to have two attractions, along with movies to go with each, by Director Jack Couffer. The first, “Heartbeat of Africa,” would spotlight on African music and close with a laser show. The second film entitled “Africa Rediscovered,” would be narrated by Alex Haley and focus on history, the flora and fauna and present day Africa. At the entrance of the pavilion, an enormous 60 foot tree house was to greet guests at the start of their “Journey” in Africa. From an observation deck, guests would see a movie, complete with scents, heat and wind effects. A “Heritage” area, a small amphitheater would be an African village with native dancing, live performances and there was also a planned museum of traditional African art. But we all know that this never came to fruition, and what was left is now known as the “Outpost” or the “African Outpost”. Some even call it the “Refreshment Outpost”
Before I go on, I must give credit to some of the “Backstory” of this African Outpost area to two amazing Cast Members I spoke to during my research. They are to be commended for taking the time to speak with me and answer my questions. The backstory is thus…This is just what is says it is, an outpost in the middle of the jungle. It provides travelers with food, drink, supplies and a place to rest as they continue on their journeys. And that is just what it does today. If you are sharp-eyed, you will notice three distinct areas…A snack bar, shops and a place to park yourself in the “African” (Or is it the “Floridian”) heat, grab a cool beverage or hot dog and rest up for the rest of the day. The snack bar is unremarkable in the menu…Hot dogs, fruit cups, frozen yogurt and slushies, hot and cold beverages. What it excels in is the amazing detail; especially showcasing Disney’s beverage sponsor, Coca-Cola. If you notice on top of the sign above the stand, it originally said “Refreshment Outpost”, but someone painted “Cool” over the out. Now it’s “CoolPost” And if you are a sharp observer, there are two other Coke outlets that have “Cool” in the name, “Club Cool” and “Cool Wash” over by Test Track.
And look further…In and around the left side of the store, you will notice many crates and old soda machine dispensers, including an old red vintage Coke machine and smaller one with the words “Coca Cola” on them in native languages. I was told the languages were Kenyan, Swahili and Thailand. The outpost even has an old Chevy pick-up truck loaded with Coke bottles, supposedly to deliver to nearby villages. The other areas of the outpost are the shops. Offered here is a face-painting station. Now face painting goes back to Neolithic times, and almost all ancient man from Africa to Australia employed its use, for religious and hunting purposes, and the Outpost is perfect place for this shop, although the art is more modern today, and for the kids. Another amazing place to stop is Mdundo Kibanda. This little shop specializes in intricate wood carvings, masks, animals, necklaces and such. I had to remarkable opportunity to speak with Bernard from Kenya. He gave me a bit of history on the carvings and some of their meanings. Bernard is a fourth-generation wood carver, and along with a crew of 5 other artisans they create the beautiful wood statues and necklaces. Bernard told me that the larger carvings, like the Giraffe under the umbrella, are carved in Kenya and shipped here. Right next to Mdundo Kibanda is the anchor shop, Village Traders. As the name implies, you can purchase many African items and sundries for your “Journey” back into the bush. And you will notice that, in keeping with their amazing attention to detail, the Imagineers built the structure exactly as it would have been built in Africa…Out of mud, grasses and straw, even the use of animal dung in the mud to add strength and to ward off the insects, especially termites which will eventually destroy the wood timbers in the house.
Adorning the outside walls are many African masks, both plain wood and colorized. Many of these masks are used in ceremonial dances, or even worn by warring native tribesman. Next to the Village Traders is the “Bead Outpost”. Take time to check out this unique shop. Using old Disney maps, books, magazines or any Disney paper, the material is send over to Kenya where skilled artisans take the material and fashion it into decorative necklaces, bracelets, and such and even guests can purchase their own beads and create their own works of art. As you can surmise, there is more to the “Outpost” than meets the eye.
And speaking of the eye, when you arrive here, take a bit of time and don’t just rush past. There is much to see here and the details, especially the hidden ones are worth the time to see. If you look over the wall by the seating area, notice the three African dugout canoes. These types of canoes were again used by ancient man all around the world. The construction is basic…A large tree is carved out with a primitive tool, an adz and these primitive boats were used for war, transportation and everything in-between. These canoes are at the outpost for the transport of goods and travelers. Take the time to look between the Cool outpost and face painting shop…See the tall road sign with all the names of cities and countries? This outpost is indeed in the middle of nowhere! And look atop the CoolPost and see the large water tower. Here in Africa, long periods of draught are common and this structure holds the precious rainwater for just this time. And note the native African drums in the Cool Post. Many of these types of drums are used by different tribes in Africa. Most are carved out of a single piece of wood and the drum head is either cowhide or goatskin. They are there for the kids (and grownups!) to play on.
Although the Equatorial Africa pavilion never came to pass, this remarkable area is a reminder of the ambitious ––plans Disney had. It is a shame, because the attraction would have been amazing. So, stop by, get some refreshment, get out of the sun and just enjoy this little piece of Africa.