They say any publicity is good publicity, and it must be true. Prior to last week, I really didn't care what Disney was doing for the millennium. I'd seen those scary jumbo-puppet people mingling with the Miss America contestants during the pageant on TV, but they just didn't spark my interest in Epcot 2000. Then I heard about the Israel/Arab controversy. When I hear "boycott," I need to see what the flap is all about.
The new Millennium Village is a condensed version of Epcot's World Showcase, where 24 foreign countries come together in harmony under one roof. Situated between the Canadian and United Kingdom pavilions, this "village" includes countries that you don't find on the established Wold Showcase promenade. That is, if you don't count Scotland, which is sorta part of the U.K. pavilion, and Brazil, which is represented all summer by rowdy Portuguese-speaking students grouped together by T-shirt color.
At its entrance, Millennium Village sets a tone not of cultural harmony but of transient architecture. Set way off the promenade between the classic brickwork of England and the substantial wood structure of the Yukon stage is something that looks like a cardboard faÃ§ade and has the impact of a carnival fun house. It's a confusing but jubilant swath of blue and yellow ribbon arches that tout the approaching new age. An international "cast member" -- one of the many that Disney imports -- urged my group to hustle through the doors as the "show" was about to start. It dawned on me why this building is so far off the promenade: If they only let in so many people at a time, there's going to be a long line.
The perimeter of the "lobby" was made up of eight small stages dedicated to various countries. My view of Israel was blocked by a large sculpture centerpiece. I did see the flat computer monitors made out of translucent plastic that are embedded into the centerpiece display. They're designed to be touched and used, being at kid level, but they look real easy to break. In fact, the whole lobby looks like it could easily come apart piece by piece. A slew of cast members in garb native to their country interacted with guests, as it seems they are trained to do. Then the show started. One by one, those costumed natives greeted everyone in their language while they popped onto their country's stage. When they all said what they needed to, the drapes parted and we were let into the Village. Well, actually into the bottleneck.
The first two exhibits -- Brazil on one side, Scotland on the other -- are energetic and interactive. Everyone had to stop and look. Scotland pays tribute to its history of inventors through the medium of mini golf. The display offers anyone the chance to try and get a ball up a ramp. The floor is carpeted in green, as in any mini golf course, but flanked in plaid. It's very pretty and I'm sure teaches a great deal about Scotland, but being the first exhibit, I felt pressure to keep moving and flew right past it. And if you're supposed to be quiet on a golf course, it won't happen anyway with the Brazilian game show going on across the path.
The huge video game that dominates the Brazil exhibit is apparently based on a TV game show down in Rio. It involves the audience holding up paddles that control the action on the jumbo screen. Wrapped around the sides of the exhibit was something about rainforests, but everyone watching the soccer match between a toucan and some other animal on the video screen was too enthralled to care. The crowd was loud and boisterous every time they flipped their paddles in the air and the toucan kicked the ball away from the goal. The lessons I learned at these exhibits: Scots invented mini golf courses and Brazilians are as loud on display as they are in line for Space Mountain. My party and I moved on to Saudi Arabia.
What pulled me in first was the free coffee and figs they were handing out. I felt like I was in Costco, if Costco was in a tent made of gold lamé. The whole Saudi exhibit looks like a set from a Vegas Ali Babba review. I stumbled into one tent to see a movie about a wayward occidental who, due to his pride, was lost in the desert. A Saudi, who found him, gave him shelter, food and taught him the ways of the dessert for three days, for that is the custom. The lesson was about how stories, friendship and hospitality need to be shared if they are to be worth something. But I have a feeling that most people in the tent with me were just intrigued by the way the movie was projected on a waterfall. Another part of the Saudi exhibit involves getting four people onto a springy three-dimensional map of an oasis. The trick is to work together and get a ball to move around the map and up into the palace at the top. After my team accomplished the task, the cast member working the "floating map" ride said, "Thank you for visiting and I hope you have learned something of my country." I thought, what was there to learn? We put a ball in a hole. Sure, we had to work as a team, but that's a standard thing in these types of games. Maybe the lesson is that life in Saudi Arabia is a matter of staying balanced.
Looming above the Saudi exhibit is the Swedish exhibit. If Saudi Arabia's looked like a road movie gone awry, Sweden's looks like a salute to "2001: A Space Odyssey." Four large eggs, each linked by catwalks, are perched one level up. Each egg represents a season in Sweden, though I confess I didn't initially catch on. The spring and summer eggs are devoted to plants; I was more intrigued by the mushy flooring. Fall was contained in a not-fully inflated, yellow cellophane balloon. I have a feeling it isn't quite done yet. Finally, in the winter egg, I grasped the season thing, as it was cold and there was a snowman. It all made sense in a Scan Design kind of way. But as I emerged from the winter egg, I saw in the distance what I came to see: Israel.
A line stood waiting to go on the Journey to Jerusalem. Told the wait was 20 minutes, I looked first at the Israel agricultural exhibit. The best part was the large stone wall in the back of the exhibit. I questioned the small holes in it that looked like bullets made them, but was relieved upon peering through that it was nothing more than slides of farming equipment. When I walked away and glanced back, I saw other people looking through the holes. I realized how we were very cleverly tricked into playing a part in the re-creation of the Wailing Wall, and that everyone who looks through the holes looks as if they are praying. It was not the controversy I was looking for, but it was sneaky nonetheless.
The preshow was a film about a Jerusalem tour guide who was showing us all the "Capital of ... (here it comes I thought ... say it: Capital of Israel) ... the millennium. For this is where time began." What a cop out. As our video tour ended King David appeared before the guide. He said we'd not really seen Jerusalem, for Jerusalem is in the people and her stories of faith. With that the automatic door opened into an auditorium of flight simulators facing three large screens, at which point someone quipped, "Jews in space!"
I should have known right from the start the movie wasn't going to be what I expected. Taking off in a computer-generated library that looked like something from MYST, a red book flew off a shelf and into our face. Emblazoned in gold were the words "Stories of Faith." The stories were ones I remember from Sunday school and Danny Kaye Parables. Wise King Solomon and King Harrod I knew, but I was unfamiliar with Queen Helena. I realized at that point that King David, who had been narrating, really wasn't telling stories, he was just mentioning characters and settings. So, using the visuals, I tried putting together the Queen Helena story, but mixed in with her visuals was a man carrying a cross through the streets and wearing a crown of thorns. I was a bit confused. I felt like I was missing something. Like the controversy. Indeed, there was no real need for the motion simulators except, perhaps, to keep people from walking out. Jews in Space at least would have been exciting, but this was Ride the Bible, and moving pews were not really necessary. King David then talked about how Jerusalem is a place of faith for all: Jews, Muslims and Christians. When the screen showed a cross, the Star of David and the moon all hovering over the darkened skyline of Jerusalem, I realized the movie was very PC and something worse than controversial: It was dull.
Afterward we fell out into the crux of any Disney attraction, the gift shop. This one is a gauntlet of countries hawking their handmade souvenirs. By this time every culture was starting to look alike to me. The usual question is, what token am I going to buy to remember this place? But the signs at the exit asked, "What is your gift to the world?" The lesson here is not what we get but what we give. It's about what each country has to offer. Scotland gives us inventors, Brazil offers game shows, Sweden gives us eggs, Saudi Arabia gives us, well, I'm not quite sure other than figs and coffee, and Israel gives us faith, which is nice even though I wanted controversy. But when it comes to gifts we seldom get what we want.