The faint sound of my alarm clock is muffled by the pillow I just threw on top of it, after hitting the snooze button for the second or third time. I blink my eyes open, but there’s darkness around me. Where am I? I stretch my arms wide, and feel the edges of the twin bed – that’s all that was left, checking in late the night before.
Looking across the room, I see that my day pack is tossed onto a mustard yellow upholstered chair, in the corner of the hotel room. Seeing my sandals, and the shorts I’d laid out the night before, I remember that I’m in Florida, just for the day. It’s a side trip, tacked onto a work trip. The sun hasn’t made it all the way up yet. . . or the heavy drapes are pulled too tight to let any morning light in. The goal is to get going early, after a quick stop at IHOP, and a couple of cups of coffee. I’m excited, because there’s a whole world to see out there!
Just over 5 years ago, I never even dreamed I’d have trips to Cuba, Costa Rica, Morocco and Thailand under my belt, as I do now. At that point I hadn’t set foot outside of the country, except as a junior high exchange student in France, and a couple of days visiting just over the border, in Canada, as a child.
It’s not enough to dream of going places! You have to be ready to say “Yes!” when a great opportunity to travel to a new place presents itself. Tomorrow is uncertain; the unexpected health, relationship and financial struggles I’ve experienced, and seen happening all around me, have clearly demonstrated that.
What comes over me, allowing me to say “Yes!” to these adventures? Traveling for work requires a certain amount of flexibility. I don’t always have control over where I am going, how long I will be there, what the weather will be like, or what kind of shampoo and conditioner (if any) my hotel will offer. Travel plans change, with or without my input, or can be canceled altogether. I’m occasionally only given a week or two notice about upcoming trips.
Years of living this way, for work, have conditioned me to be open to new possibilities.
So, when an opportunity presents itself, I wander. The wandering spirit has crept into my person time, and my personal travel. Part of the fun is my not always knowing where I’ll end up, from moment to moment, from one month to the next. My wandering has been sporadic, and temporary. I always find my way back “home,” after a little while. I return to my routines; I unpack the suitcase, and tidy up my space.
Life settles in, and things get back to ‘normal’, until my email Pings. Where will I be going next. . . ?
This time it’s not my own work travel that has me boarding a plane to Florida, but I’m happy to tag along to St. Augustine, Jacksonville, and Orlando. There are all sorts of signs and symptoms, telling me that my travels have changed me, little by little. Among these are my ability to live out of a small suitcase, and to get a decent enough night of sleep in just about any hotel bed. I can’t promise I’ll immediately recognize where I am, when the alarm is sounding, especially on a trip that has me in 5 hotels over a week’s time.
This little adventure, to Walt Disney World’s Epcot Theme Park, promises to have me traveling around the globe, under the sea, into outer space . . . and beyond! I brought my mini-kitten companions along, for a little fun, and we made our way through the 11 countries that make up the World Showcase. We got our “passport” stamped before leaving each country, and chatting with young employees, visiting from their home countries for the year, to represent the culture and traditions of their home land.
Theme park Japan can’t take the place a visit to Tokyo. (Note: on my layover in Tokyo, I never left the airport, which made the whole thing feel a little like being at Disney World.) A day spent touring the World Showcase is not the “real thing”, but getting a small taste of Morocco, and a whiff of French perfume, hearing a cappella American music from the 1800s, and being surrounded by the vibrant colors of Mexico, during a festival . . . well, it sure does inspire some fierce Wanderlust!
Here’s just a glimpse of what we saw:
In Mexico, The Three Caballeros exhibit, inspired by the 1944 animated musical film, is going strong, with Donald Duck running amok, beside his pair of feathered friends. Portions of the exhibit have been taken over by sugar skulls and paper sculptures. Papel Picado, intricate designs cut into colored tissue paper, his hung throughout the exhibit, in long strings, in honor of the Day of the Dead, or Dia de los Muertos.
Disney-Pixar’s recent release ‘Coco’ has caused a surge in interest in the 2-day celebration, honoring those who have departed this world. A month ago, traveling through JFK airport, I saw an entire tunnel, with its moving sidewalks, turned into an animated, musical advertisement for the new film.
The “kid appeal” is heavy in this exhibit, but the park takes a confident step in the direction of culture, with a variety of artwork on display, including pre-Hispanic art pieces on museum loan, and featured modern artwork. There are plenty of souvenirs for sale, at any price, but if you keep your resolve, you can enjoy the artwork in the exhibit, then exit without spending a dime.
“Among the featured artwork is a dramatic sculpture group—the centerpiece of the gallery—titled Bridal Couple. The sculptures were created by a father and son in Mexico City whose family has been hand-making this type of celebratory art for more than 300 years.” (https://disneyworld.disney.go.com/attractions/epcot/mexican-folk-art-gallery/ )
A few exhibits down the path, Walt Disney takes visitors on an expansive visual tour of France, swooping over the countryside, and flying high, to the top of the Eiffel Tower. The Palais du Cinema’s film, Impressions of France, paints an elaborate picture of the country. Visitors find themselves turning their heads to the left and the right, to take everything in, glancing high up, then following moving subjects downward, and off the edge of the 200-degree widescreen.
As I watch the film, and the minutes tick past, my travel “wish list” is growing. There are many places I’ve been lucky enough to visit, and that I want to return to many of them, to immerse myself further into the culture, but there are so many places I have not yet seen. There’s so much of the world I want to explore. I tell myself that I’d better keep moving, and saying “Yes!” when travel opportunities arise, if I hope to experience even a small fraction what’s out there. So much culture waiting to be experienced, and it expands and evolves every day.
Smithsonian: “Culture is a set of tools created and used by humans to meet life’s challenges. A fundamental truth about culture is that it is complicated. In order for culture to serve its purpose, it must be able to adapt to the needs of the user. Individual elements of a tradition can be discarded and new elements can be incorporated. New materials can be added if they meet the aesthetic and practical needs of the expression. Rituals from other communities are accepted if they are meaningful for community.” Read more: https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smithsonian-institution/did-disney-pixar-get-day-dead-celebrations-right-its-new-film-coco-180967286/#BldJ0umjAY2kHZHR.99
The French landscape informs its culture, and residents and visitors alike are drawn to the romance of the countryside. Artists are inspired by what they see, feel, and experience there. Creatives write, they paint, they sculpt, and if you are lucky enough they cook for you, and invite you to raise a class, in a wine toast.
French cities inspire its visitors just as passionately, with their twinkling lights, their bustling marketplaces, and their fashion sense. And there’s the music. As you watch the film at Epcot, you’ll hear famed French composers like Claude Debussy, Maurice Ravel and Paul Dukas. (Epcot website)
There are stories of my first visit to Walt Disney World, but they are tales I was too young to commit to long-term memory, at 4 years old. I’ve created some false memories, based on photos and tales that were told, and retold. In 1978 Epcot was not yet open; it would be 4 more years before the park would open its doors.
Returning as an adult, before I’d kicked off a career that included regular work travel, I wasn’t entirely sure what I was seeing. I didn’t have a good sense of how Americanized the parks are, and how commercial. Having now visited just a few of the 11 featured countries, I have a better sense of what the Disney Corporation is trying to do.
They want to sell tickets, yes, and souvenirs, and fill seats at expensive restaurants. The organization wants you to leave with its company brand plastered across your chest, handing around your neck, and perched atop your head, in the form of a set of mouse ears. But I also get the sense that they want to get things right, as far as capturing the energy, culture and spirit of the countries they showcase.
There are some nasty stereotypes lurking beneath the surface, of which Disney is aware, but in the face of protest, there seems to be some progress in the right direction. Walking around the Moroccan exhibit, and eating in the elaborately decorated Moroccan restaurant, I noticed I was muttering under my breath: “This is really what it looks like there. . .” Sure, it’s the monuments, tourist destinations, and government buildings that I’m comparing the Epcot representation to, but the designers appear to have received some solid council in doing their work.
“Designs stay pretty safe with an Epcot-style recreation of cultural locations, so long as it isn’t built on the cheap or placed in a context that defiles or diminishes it. (Let’s take a moment here to give Disney Imagineers another round of applause for they way that they created Epcot’s World Showcase, with its collection of instantly recognizable facades, placed a respectful distance from one another.)” (Theme Park Insider)
The stained-glass chandeliers and intricate tile mosaics create warmth, and a particular flavor that I knew I’d experienced before, during my visit to Marrakesh. Even being offered a selection of wines with my meal didn’t feel too far off from what I’d experienced while in this country that traditionally avoids consumption of alcohol. In Casablanca, Marrakesh, Fez. . . the restaurants, hotels, and tourism destinations cater to their international population, by offering all manner of libations.
On the way into the desert for 2 nights, our driver even pulled off the road, to let us know that the dusty, plain façade outside the car window was the “last chance” to purchase alcohol, on our way out of town. He asked if we wanted to go in. We did.
With 11 countries in the park, there is enough for everyone to explore, with hundreds of places to eat, live shows and films to watch, and exhibits to be inspired by. If it’s not a 3D Panoramic film that gives you Wanderlust, then a flavorful bite of food or a sip of the perfect Japanese sake will.
You’ll want to get out and visit the countries themselves, and enjoy a more immersive experience. You’ll want more than the hotels, restaurants and tourist destinations that so closely resemble Disney World.
And then, at the centerpiece of the World Showcase, there’s the U.S.A.’s “Americana in the Rotunda,” to bring you home. I can’t think of a better time to hear the Voices of Liberty than at the holidays, when the choir raises their voices to sing the songs of the season. The performers are bundled up in long coats, costumes from the 1800s, although there is no snow falling outside the window. It’s creating an atmosphere.
The pavilion rotunda is the ideal acoustic platform for the a cappella group, performing to a crowd seated in a half-circle in front of them, on the floor. The sound bounces off the walls, then the marble floor, and up into the dome overhead. Visitors are surrounded by the sound.
The Disney website calls the music inspiring and patriotic: “This beloved 8-member group stirs hearts and lifts emotions with each performance—while the rotunda’s acoustically perfect dome amplifies and purifies the sound.” I didn’t stay until the end, because there were still so many other countries I wanted to see, but I did notice that most of the audience lined up after the short concert, to experience the 30-minute audio-animatronics, film and musical presentation that followed.
I left Epcot wanting to see more of the world, more of my own country, and more of the city I call home. There are new experiences all around, for those who say “Yes!” to experiencing them.
Because I hadn’t already done so, I was encouraged to sample the sodas of the world, on my way into Epcot. Many were too sweet for my tastes, although I could imagine them being marketed successfully in the U.S. Italy’s “Beverly,” on the other hand. . . . well, I’m sure it’s an acquired taste, for someone, somewhere. Is it for me? I’ll have to wait until later this year to find, on my upcoming trip around Italy. I hope you’ll come along!
Join me on my next adventure,
Gran Fiesta Tour Starring The Three Caballeros: https://disneyworld.disney.go.com/attractions/epcot/gran-fiesta-tour-starring-three-caballeros/
Mexican Folk Art Gallery: Remember Me: La Celebracion Del Dia de Muertos: https://disneyworld.disney.go.com/attractions/epcot/mexican-folk-art-gallery/
Impressions de France: https://disneyworld.disney.go.com/attractions/epcot/impressions-de-france/
Restaurant Marrakesh: https://disneyworld.disney.go.com/dining/epcot/restaurant-marrakesh/
Voices of Liberty: https://disneyworld.disney.go.com/entertainment/epcot/voices-of-liberty/
Tres Caballeros: http://disney.wikia.com/wiki/The_Three_Caballeros
Cultural Inspiration vs. Appropriation: A Challenge for Theme Park Designers (Theme Park Insider): http://www.themeparkinsider.com/flume/201705/5573/