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More to “The World”…. for a Culture Lover

by Kendall Foreman

As stated in my introduction last week, each of my blog posts will feature a reason given by skeptics for questioning whether or not Walt Disney World is for them.   I will endeavor to direct WDW naysayers to activities and locations that will entice, interest, and excite them.  The following categories will simplify this quest:  “Included with Admission” (e.g. attractions, shows, shops, displays, etc.); “Where to Stay”; “What to Eat”; and “Something Extra” (additional cost activities).

This month’s focus is for the culture loving doubter.   This is for the individual who enjoys the idea of domestic and international travel with all its cultural opportunities such as artwork, native cuisine, shopping, tours, architecture, et cetera and doubts Disney World offers what they seek.  I submit they can experience all this and much more.   Perhaps they prefer traveling abroad while their co-travelers (family and or friends) are literally begging to visit Disney World.  These individuals may require some convincing especially when television and print ads seem to focus primarily on delight-filled parks and pools.  In actuality, the Resort property, which spans nearly 47 square miles, possesses an extremely high concentration of culture.  If one were to attempt an actual trip to visit each nationality represented at WDW, along with the comparable experiences offered there, each traveler would—beginning in New York City—log an estimated 28,079 miles, 109 hours 55 minutes of flight time, $9886 in airfare expense, and 20+ bags of tasteless airline peanuts.  At WDW, this can be accomplished (minus the peanuts) by simply walking out your resort room door and traveling less than ten miles.  Grant it, one would have travel expenses to WDW Resort itself; however, these costs of time and money would be substantially less by comparison.  The aforementioned international trip would require weeks, if not months.  Covering the vast multi-national opportunities at WDW could be accomplished in far less time though one may wish to spend weeks or months once he or she experiences the wonderful World of Disney firsthand.  To support this position, I recommend the following detailed options to the culture loving Disney skeptic:

“Included with Admission”:   Disney is known for its extreme attention to detail as well as accuracy.  Every effort is made to impeccably portray the nations represented there.   For example, when Disney Imagineers were developing Expedition Everest forStefan Hellwig the Animal Kingdom, they actually went in search of the yeti—not really; but, they did make several research trips to Nepal in order to create the fictional town of Serka Zong for the ride’s queue.  Their determination to  produce an accurate imaginary representation was so successful that Stefan Hellwig, senior concept designer for Expedition Everest said, “One of our park ambassadors from Kathmandu was moved to tears because it took her right back to her grandmother’s place.”  This striving for authenticity extends to each shop, resort, attraction and restaurant on property.  Furthermore, many countries have chosen to partner with Disney—and thereby—take advantage of the opportunity to provide guests with a taste of what their culture has to offer.  For instance, when the Morocco pavilion was being built at Epcot, King Hassan II sent artisans to create the intricate carved stone and mosaic work.  Currently, all the pavilions employ cultural representatives who are eager and willing to share with guests about their home country.

As previously noted, opportunities to take in artwork, native cuisine, shopping, tours, architecture, and more abound.  A vast array of international artwork can be experienced in many forms such as observing sculptor, Miyuki create candy animals from rice dough at Epcot’s World Showcase Japan pavilion.  One can view ancient musical instruments, jewelry and ceramics at the Moroccan Gallery of Arts and History.  If the vacationing group includes children, Epcot offers eleven different Kidcot Fun Stops where children can create art of their own based on the specific nation they are visiting.  Multi-cultural music and dance can be enjoyed almost everywhere:  Matsuriza drummers (Japan), Mariachi Cobra (Mexico), Off Kilter (United Kingdom), and the Tam Tam Drummers of Harambe (Animal Kingdom).  Unique shopping is available at every national pavilion at Epcot.  Two offer especially expansive selections.  Germany has several small shops offering authentic goods like cuckoo clocks, Steiff teddy bears, hand-crafted steins, crystal, blown glass ornaments, and German candies.  Mitsukoshi—at Epcot’s Japan pavilion—is a very large department store, which contains many staples of Japanese culture including an especially nice selection of tea sets and Bonsai trees.

Beyond the shopping, arts and crafts, et cetera, there are shows and additional rides that take you on a visual tour of each nation.   Epcot’s Malestrom (Norway), Reflections of China, O Canada!, Impressions de France, The Gran Fiesta Tour (Mexico), and even the Magic Kingdom’s It’s a Small World.

“Where to Stay”:  There are over 51,000 hotels in the United States alone, and in 2005, Fodor’s Travel Publications named Disney’s Animal Kingdom Lodge to its list of “Top 20 Hotels of the World”.  Its lobby is another perfect example of Disney’s intent AKLLobbyto be true to cultural accuracy.  Captivating in design detail and ambiance, a walk across the threshold is like being transported to an African game lodge.  The lobby boasts African artwork, artifacts, and a four-story observation window from which guests can view the okapi, lions, giraffe, rhinos, elephants, etc.  at the expansive reserve.  The immersive art and architecture are carried into the guest rooms as well as the unique dining and shopping experiences.  The lodge’s signature dining locations—Boma, Jiko, Sanaa—are often ranked among visitor favorites on the entire Walt Disney World property.

If the cost of staying at the Animal Kingdom Lodge is prohibitive, or if you simply prefer a domestic cultural getaway, the moderately priced Port Orleans French Quarter and Riverside resorts offer an entirely different, yet equally interesting cultural experience.  Built to reflect the architectural style of The Big Easy, rural mansion homes, and the Southern bayou, the Port Orleans resorts offer guests a taste of Cajun and Creole, Mardi Gras and magnolias, and a generous helping of Southern comfort and charm.  A stop by the Sassagoula Floatworks & Food Factory for a fresh-made beignet is highly recommended.

“Where to Eat”:  At Walt Disney World Resort, food can certainly be described as “worth the trip” all on its own.  From international to regional to domestic, some might say that it is a feast for the eyes, mind, body and spirit.  Whether from a small food cart or a highly-rated restaurant run by international chefs, there is—quite literally—a new taste experience around every corner.  Without question, choosing the best is, almost certainly, more about mood, preferences, and timing than anything else.Morocco  What you will enjoy depends more on what you are looking for in a dining experience:  atmosphere, world class cuisine, entertainment, service, and or authenticity.  While many of the restaurants on property succeed in most of these areas, here are a few that stand out:

  • Restaurant Merrakesh located in the Morocco pavilion at Epcot is architecturally and artistically breathtaking, the live music and belly dancing will make you believe you are actually in North Africa, and the cuisine may take you out of your comfort zone, in a good way, with items like beer brewat rolls, chicken bastilla, and roast lamb meshoui.
  • Oktoberfest takes place every day at the Biergarten Restaurant in Epcot’s Germany pavilion where you enjoy bratwurst, schnitzel, strudel and more at communal tables overlooking the floor full of patrons Polka dancing.
  • Authenticity reigns supreme at Epcot’s Via Napoli in Italy’s Epcot pavilion.  Watch chefs create pizzas using three wood-fired stoves named for Italy’s three volcanos.  The tomatoes and flour are imported from Italy, and the water used to make the dough comes from a spring that is molecularly similar to water found in Italy.   Finding a more “Italian” pizza in Florida would be a challenge to say the least.
  • With an atmosphere pulled straight from Beauty and the Beast, which appeals to all ages, the Be Our Guest Restaurant at the Magic Kingdom offers children an opportunity to sample French cuisine.  The menu incorporates American and French qualities and offers items such as ratatouille, turkey baguettes and cream puffs.
  • If you are looking to try small bites of several cultures, which is my preference, try some of the following:  potato and vegetable goat cheese torte (Kringla Bakeri Og Kafe, Norway pavilion); fish and chips (Yorkshire Country Fish Shop – United Kingdom pavilion); vegetable platter (Tangierine Café – Morocco pavilion); Napolean (Les Halles Boulangerie Patisserie –French pavilion), or paletas (La Cantina de San Angel – Mexico pavilion).
  • While these eating options are available all year round, quite possibly the best are available for six weeks in the fall during Epcot’s International Food & Wine Festival.  Twenty plus nations are represented at food kiosks offering tapas sized plates and alcoholic beverages.  Hours can be spent enjoying all this festival has to offer.

“Something Extra”:   According to the introduction, a Disney World traveler would save significant time and money over the party for sensesworld traveler; perhaps making it possible to squeeze in a couple of additional offerings from around the World (WDW).  A perfect option for someone seeking a cultural celebration is the Party for the Senses.   This opportunity takes place most Saturday nights during Epcot’s International Food & Wine Festival.  In addition to the standard Epcot admission, an event ticket (2012 pricing – $145/person, $170/person at a reserved main floor table) is required.  Here guests may enjoy food from 20+ food booths, 5 dessert stations, and 20+ beverage stations.  Famous national, international, and Disney chefs prepare food throughout the evening.  For example, former Iron Chef Cat Cora represented her Mediterranean restaurant Kouzzina located at the Boardwalk resort.  Not only is the cuisine incomparable, the entertainment is provided by performers from the critically acclaimed La Nouba, one of the many shows from the Canadian powerhouse Cirque du Soleil.

If travel timing eliminates the International Food & Wine Festival as a possibility, there is an option that takes place all year round—the Spirit of Aloha luau in the open-air theater in Luau Cove at the Polynesian Resort.  This dinner show offers guests an evening of music, dance, and food that is authentic to the South Seas islands.  Tickets range in price from $59-$74 for adults and $30-$40 for children depending on your table location.  People of any age will be amazed by the fire dancer and the tradition dancers from Tahiti, Hawaii, Samoa and other island nations.

Clearly, this is a mere fraction of what Walt Disney World has to offer a Culture Lover.  If you are new to WDW, was there something mentioned above that you would like to know more about?  Avid WDW fans, what international/cultural experiences do you enjoy most at Disney World?  Please leave your questions and suggestions in the comments section below, and I will respond.  Let’s keep this conversation going until next month when I cover “More to the World for the Sports/Recreation Enthusiast”.

Kendall began visiting Walt Disney World in 1991 with her family and has continued to visit the resort with her husband.  As a child, she and her family filled vacations with challenges such as “How many times can we ride Splash Mountain during SpectroMagic and the fireworks?” (Answer: 7)  Now, after marrying a converted Disney skeptic, she and her husband enjoy challenges such as “How many hours can we eat nonstop at the Food & Wine Festival?” (Answer: 4)