(A version of this article was published for Pirates & Princesses on February 15, 2023.)
“You are not the first to pass this way, nor shall you be the last. Those who seek the spirit of Norway face peril and adventure—but more often find beauty and charm.”
These ominous words once boomed from an intimidating figure in the dark, daring guests to go where they’d never gone before. For this edition of Dearly Departed Disney, let’s travel back to the days of Norwegian folklore, history, and…oil rigs? Hold on tight – a Maelstrom is blowing your way![mailerlite_form form_id=1]
Welcoming the Norway Pavilion
While Maelstrom harkens back to the earliest days of Norse mythology, it does not date back to the earliest days of EPCOT. When the park opened on October 1, 1982, World Showcase featured nine pavilions. The Morocco pavilion opened two years later in 1984, and the Norway pavilion opened in 1988, bringing the total number of pavilions to eleven.
Norway eased into World Showcase with a soft opening on May 6, 1988. The official opening didn’t occur until a month later on June 3, 1988, when the Crown Prince of Norway – Harald V – dedicated the pavilion in a ceremony that was broadcast live to the entire Norwegian nation.
However, the pavilion’s highly anticipated main attraction – a boat ride through simulated Norwegian fjords, a Viking village, and a storm on the North Sea – did not open until July 5, 1988, a month after the official opening. At the time the pavilion first opened, one local newspaper headline jeered “Norway Pavilion Opens — Without Viking Ride.” The report went on to note that Disney cited “unspecified problems” for the delay.
It turns out those “unspecified problems” included test riders getting soaking wet during the North Sea storm, and sometimes even thrown out of the boat (which is exactly what happened to a Norwegian television reporter who fell out of the boat when he test rode the attraction during the pavilion’s opening day).
The Norwegian Story
Originally envisioned to focus entirely on Norse mythology, the attraction began as a journey through mystical lands and trolls to find the rainbow bridge to Valhalla. The attraction, which was to be called “SeaVenture”, would even feature a theme song written by the legendary Sherman Brothers. But NorShow – the pavilion’s eleven-member sponsor group – immediately nixed the idea, preferring a storyline with a broader scope which would help promote modern tourism.
So Disney Imagineers went back to the drawing board. In collaboration with NorShow, they developed a story featuring Vikings, a fishing village, a polar bear, a fjord, and an oil rig (yes, an oil rig), but unfortunately no Sherman Brothers.
Remember that name SeaVenture? It stuck with the attraction until very late in development – into March 1988. In fact, as you can see in the photo below, a marquee with the name was produced and briefly installed at the attraction’s entrance, until the name was finally changed to Maelstrom.
With the storyline and name finally ironed out, the attraction opened on July 5, 1988, featuring a boat trip back to a mythological version of Norway’s Viking days and progressing to modern times.
Even before boarding the attraction, Maelstrom’s indoor queue showcased a long mural chronicling a history of the nation (which proved to be something of a sneak peek at the attraction’s experience). The mural featured a timeline of Norwegian people, from the Vikings to current day, and also included some of the mythological stories from Norse culture.
Once through the queue, guests would board a 16-foot-long langskip – a Viking boat with a dragon prow. After leaving the load area, guests entered a dark tunnel with a steep incline. A single bright light at the end of the tunnel grew larger, until it focused into a Viking mask, issuing a warning to passers-by:
“You are not the first to pass this way, nor shall you be the last. Those who seek the spirit of Norway face peril and adventure—but more often find beauty and charm.”[mailerlite_form form_id=1]
Emboldened to proceed, guests passed by a few figures from the days of old, then came face to face with a three-headed troll (and an angry one at that). The troll summoned some streamside magic to push the guests away, backwards and down a waterfall. After a moment of reeling, and clear from the troll, guests continued their now-backwards journey past several polar bears and living trees, before pausing at yet another waterfall.
Trivia Tidbit: Maelstrom was the first Disney ride to travel backwards!
At this point of the trip, the indoor attraction’s dark evening light brightened significantly, as the boat actually projected slightly outside the wall of the waterfall, inviting natural outdoor light from the Norway pavilion. Of course, this momentary hangup also served an important purpose – it gave the boat the ability to reorient itself in preparation for the next leg of the trip.
Facing forward once again, the boat plunged down the waterfall, into the stormy North Sea. After a bit of splashing around, guests passed dangerously close to an oil rig.
You may ask what an oil rig has to do with Norway and the idea of story and tourism?
Well it turns out that Norway commissioned the construction and operation of three industrial oil rig platforms – all of which opened in the 1980s. The last of the three rigs opened around the time of Maelstrom’s debut. NorShow was insistent that the attraction showcase these three “up to the minute” technological wonders from their country, as they were a great source of national pride. So there they were – three beautiful, fun-loving oil rigs.
Once the brush with the oil rigs was under control, the boatful of (slightly wet) guests calmly cruised into a nearby Norwegian harbor, disembarking in a fishing village. Now there was only one way out of the fishing village – through a theater that showed a five-minute film showcasing more of Norway’s history and folklore (and of course, tourist destinations). If Maelstrom’s attraction story sounds a bit thin, it’s because it was. The boat ride was barely four-and-a-half minutes long, and the full experience reached close to ten minutes if you stayed for the post-ride film.
The End of the Storm
Maelstrom enjoyed a run of 26 wet and wild years. But the winds of change began to blow in 2013, when Disney’s animated film Frozen took the world by storm. The story of the ice princess, based in a fantasy version of Scandinavian culture and geography, was a tide that wouldn’t subside. “Frozen Fever” brought mega film gross, and spurred an appetite for merchandise and experiences from fans all over.
Looking for a way to incorporate the film and its characters into the theme parks, Disney’s spotlight focused on EPCOT. The Norway pavilion was considered to be reasonably related to the film, in terms of setting and culture. Maelstrom had run its course, and the Norwegian government had ceased sponsoring the pavilion over a decade earlier. So on September 12, 2014, Disney announced that Maelstrom would be replaced by an attraction based on Frozen. Maelstrom’s final day of operation was October 5, 2014, and Frozen Ever After opened over a year-and-a-half later, on June 21, 2016.
Fans of Maelstrom mourned the loss of the Norway pavilion’s first attraction. Many still scorn the presence of another fantasy/character-based experience in a theme park that was once fully dedicated to science and “real” world culture. But many more guests (especially those with young daughters) have come to value Frozen Even Ever as an admirable replacement. And one cannot deny that a gust of those chilly Arendelle winds provide a refreshing break from the central Florida heat.
Maelstrom may be gone, but it hasn’t fully disappeared. When replacing the attraction with Olaf and friends, Disney Imagineers made sure to include several notable nods to EPCOT’s days of Norwegian glory.
In the queue for Frozen Ever After, an information board with weather reports reports that a maelstrom has formed in the southeastern bay of Arendelle.
Next door, Anna and Elsa cheerfully meet guests in Royal Summerhus. In the queue for the meet and greet, guests may notice a familiar three-headed troll and rock ogre.
Several Scandinavian puffin figures which wandered the Norwegian landscape in Maelstrom, found their way to Arendelle, standing on some rocks after the attraction’s final drop.
In just about the farthest corner of the world from Norway, Trader Sam’s Grog Grotto in Disney’s Polynesian Village Resort boasts a life preserver labeled, “Vesta Gruppen”. This life preserver once hung in the fishing village at the end of Maelstrom.
Winds of Change
Maelstrom blew into EPCOT and made a splash, at a time when World Showcase desperately needed an exciting attraction to offer impatient younger guests. The storyline may not have been as rich and lively as some other Disney parks attractions, but it did do a nice job of introducing guests to Norwegian culture – which was, after all, the original focus of World Showcase.
The Arendellian facelift of much of the Norway pavilion has since paved the way for other intellectual property to enter EPCOT’s World Showcase. Remy’s Ratatouille Adventure joined the France Pavilion in October 2021. Over in the (formerly known as) Future World side of the park, The Living Seas was refaced as The Seas With Nemo and Friends in 2007, Guardians of the Galaxy: Cosmic Rewind replaced Universe of Energy (and Ellen’s Energy Adventure) in May 2022, and Journey of Water – Inspired By Moana is currently under construction where CommuniCore and Innoventions West previously resided.
Like it or not, EPCOT has added many intellectual properties onto a menu once restricted to science and real-world culture. Disney Imagineers are making a valiant effort to maintain the spirit of the original EPCOT while incorporating Disney’s vast properties, but only time will tell how this course ultimately affects the face of Disney’s most progressive theme park.
Thanks for traveling with us. Please follow along here for additional articles in this series. We’ll continue to explore many other former attractions and experiences from Walt Disney World, including Magic Kingdom, EPCOT, Hollywood Studios, and Animal Kingdom. We will also visit Disneyland and other Disney destinations.
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