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The original title of this post was to be “A Salute To All Things Norway, But Mostly Trolls, Anorexic Polar Bears, Oil Rigs, and Children of the Corn” but that was deemed a tad too wordy by the editors. Title notwithstanding, I’m excited to take you on an exciting 24,248 word adventure/dissertation on the cultural significance, anthropological underpinnings, and guest psychology surrounding the Maelstrom boat ride in Epcot. Hope you’re ready for some fun!!!
As my posts over the years have suggested, I’m a big fan of some of Walt Disney World’s less popular attractions and I honestly believe many of these attractions are superior to popular attractions in their respective parks. I’ve ardently supported Country Bear Jamboree. I’ve pontificated on the merits of Carousel of Progress. I’ve even presented my case for believing Impressions de France is superior to Soarin’. I’ve even wrote a treatise complaining about that big hat so many people seem to love. So does it really come as any surprise that I’m a fan of Maelstrom?
The difference in the case of Maelstrom is that I realize Maelstrom is flat out bad. Laugh out loud bad. So bad that it’s good. I enjoy a lot of media like this, most of which I’d describe as campy, kitschy, or self-aware and self-deprecating. I enjoy movies like the Leprechaun series that don’t purport to have any artistic merit and are acutely aware that their whole premise is a big joke.
For those who don’t hold the same zeal as me for the brilliant Maelstrom attraction, let’s examine Maelstrom. There’s a lot to love. The excellence starts out in the queue, after guests pass through some dank hallways themed to emulate the mold-infested buildings of Norway(?). How many of you have picked up on the exceptional details of the discolored ceiling tiles here? Brilliant and incredibly subtle storytelling!
At the end of the queue, we arrive at the loading area, which (probably) uses artisan tiles and fine woods imported from Norway to further pull guests into the experience. Overhead, there is a large mural representing all of the various occupations in Norway (basically, working on some sort of ship or being a viking). Here, Norway brings out the big guns as they commissioned Chuck Norris to pose as an oil worker in the mural. Pretty sure Mr. Norris isn’t from Norway, but a cunning move to go after that coveted 18-25 audience by gaining his endorsement. This mural foreshadows much of what’s to come, as guests board their Nordic vessels and head into the heart of darkness…
From here, I’m not exactly sure what happens. I usually cover my eyes for the duration as I fear gazing into the eye of Mara. I think your ride boat starts by taking you through a modern day Norwegian village…where something has gone terribly wrong! Everything is on fire and all of the village people have entranced, vapid blue-glowing gazes as if they are possessed. Spooky. I always assume this is the result of someone in my boat having looked Mara in the eye.
Next the boat goes up a hill where we encounter a three-headed monster (presumably Mara’s handiwork) and some rad state of the art fiber-optics before changing directions and going backwards down another hill (look out: hairpin turn!). This is really the highlight of the attraction, and given that it was built in the late 1980s, I’m not sure what all the “Everest is state of the art” hubbub was about when Expedition Everest ripped off Maelstrom’s design some 25 years later. At this point, the boat quickly passes some puffins and a herd (that’s what groups of bears is called, right?) of anorexic polar bears before passing a Hidden Troll (why aren’t there books devoted to spotting these in Walt Disney World?!) and again changing directions.
Finally, the attraction passes down a hill and culminates in a glorious three-hour finale featuring stormy skies and some oil rigs. I believe these oil rigs are somehow symbolic or help tell an elaborate 29 page backstory that explains away why a travelogue dark ride would feature such an eclectic and gloomy assortment of stuff. When it’s all over, guests exit into a port town complete with store fronts and pass through a theater without stopping for the film (this last part is key).
If you haven’t experienced Maelstrom yourself, yeah, it’s just as awesome as it sounds. It is best described as campy–it has such an odd mix of elements and they’re presented without much rhyme or reason. I wouldn’t describe it as kitschy or self-aware, as it appears that the point of the attraction when it was built was to share some of the folklore of Norway along with some of its present culture and wildlife with a travelogue tone, but the execution totally missed the mark or the attraction hasn’t aged well. The result is chuckle-inducing content around every turn, and lines of dialogue that are memorable not because they’re poignant, but because of their cheesy content and delivery. I love Maelstrom and I think it’s a lot of fun, but not because of its substantive quality. I love it because those corny scenes and the laughs I’ve had about them with others, the dialogue, and even the smell of the attraction, are all firmly embedded in my memory. I like it for the same reason I like the Leprechaun films–because it’s fun and absurd.
Although I love it, one thing I always wonder after we exit Maelstrom is what purpose the ride serves? The goal of most World Showcase pavilions is to pique guests’ curiosity about these foreign lands, and entice them to visit. That’s why the countries and corporations within the countries agreed to sponsor them in the first place. Every other pavilion does this pretty well by showcasing the beauty and charm of each country. I would argue that the films in Canada, China, and especially France do the best job of “selling” their respective countries. Norway, on the other hand…well…can anyone honestly say that they’ve felt compelled to visit Norway after riding past some creepy glowing eyed village-people, misshapen polar bears, oil rigs, and trolls? The sad thing is, from what I’ve seen and read independently, Norway is a beautiful and charming country with a lot of history, but absolutely none of that is conveyed in Maelstrom. I think this irony might make Maelstrom even more awesome for me.
For all of these reasons, no visit to Epcot is complete without a ride aboard Maelstrom. While I’d really like to see it completely overhauled and replaced with something that I enjoy because it’s actually good, part of me would mourn the loss of such an unintentionally fun romp through troll country. If for some reason you haven’t experienced Maelstrom yet because you’ve heard it’s bad, give it a chance. You may find yourself agreeing with me that it’s so bad that it’s good!
What do you think of Maelstrom? Do you enjoy it for its unintentionally humorous qualities…or do you actually think it’s a good attraction? Share your thoughts in the comments!