The EPCOT Japan Pavilion history you didn't know about, hint? It could have been much different

The Japan pavilion at Epcot is a fun spot but did you know there were several attractions planned to spark this nation's entry up more?
EPCOT - Japan Pavilion. Photo by Brian Miller
EPCOT - Japan Pavilion. Photo by Brian Miller /

Epcot’s World Showcase is filled with some truly gorgeous pavilions, and few are as lovely as Japan. Guests enjoy wandering the gardens, taking in the quiet ponds and the unique tower with flowers blooming in the spring. There is a “department store” shop and the fantastic restaurants along with the gates of what seems to be a palace. It’s proof a pavilion doesn’t need a fancy ride to get attention.

Yet, had Imagineers had their way, Japan would have gotten some sort of ride or show. In fact, one was planned for the area but never came off, while a few attractions have been suggested but likewise didn’t get off the drawing board. Take a look at the unique history of the Japan pavilion that never was, and how it’s perhaps best, it never got some extra spark. 

Meet The World

When EPCOT Center was being built, the intention was for each pavilion to have some sort of ride or other attraction. However, as budgets grew tighter, several of these ideas faded (such as Germany having a Rhine boat ride). Japan would have been a bit simpler as the big planned attraction was Meet the World, which was also set to premiere for the brand new Tokyo Disneyland. 

The 19-minute show mixed film, animation, and Audio-Animatronics as a crane discusses Japanese history with two children. It was almost like a reverse Carousel of Progress as the stage remained the same while the audience revolved around it. The music was provided by the Sherman Brothers, the Oscar winners behind the songs from Mary Poppins and It’s a Small World. 

It’s likely the Epcot version would have made adjustments for American audiences with new music. So why was it never built? The popular story is that the show, while good, brushes over Japan’s imperialism of the early 20th century that led to World War II. It simply says the empire “entered dark days.” There were concerns that American guests (especially military veterans) might have been upset over this whitewashing.

However, the simpler explanation is that it was a very complex show to make work. It required  a two-story building (set in what’s now the palace area of the pavilion) with a very sturdy structure for the rotors for the massive stage. But due to a miscalculation in the planning, Imagineers realized there would be too much stress to make the show run right, and massive reconstruction was needed. With work already behind, the decision was made to just drop the show altogether. 

Meet the World opened in Tokyo Disneyland in 1983 and ran until 2002. Yet if not for a simple mistake in calculations, Epcot would have its own version to get Japan more attention. 

Mount Fuji

In the early 1990s, Disney announced what would be “The Disney Decade,” with scores of new attractions planned for all their theme parks. Infamously, most of these attractions would never see the light of day. One of the biggest was the idea of a roller coaster for Japan styled after the famed Mount Fuji. 

This would have been an obvious attempt to give Florida its own version of the Matterhorn ride. Drawings show it would have been pretty cool as guests would enter through the palace doors, and the image of the mountain rising above the pavilion would have changed the landscape of Epcot. 

The most logical reason this was never built simply cost, as Disney did find itself facing troubles in the 1990s, which meant leaving a lot of “Disney Decade '' ideas behind.

An amusing story is that Kodak, one of Disney’s chief sponsors, didn’t want anything bearing the name of their archrival FujiFilm. Supposedly, Disney tried to get around that by integrating a giant robot Godzilla into the ride but couldn’t reach a deal with Toho Studios. 

So there was no Mt. Fuji coaster, but between the design and layout, it’s pretty obvious this would serve as a basis for Expedition Everest at the Animal Kingdom to bring another mountain to Disney World. 

The Bullet Train

While not as famous as the other two attractions, a third proposed ride would have been a spin on the CircleVision 360-degree show. Instead of a standard theater, guests would enter recreations of Japan’s famed bullet trains with “windows” as scenes. The “train” would rattle a bit, not the full simulator technology of Star Tours but enough to complete the illusion as the screens showcased the Japanese landscape from Tokyo to the coasts and back. 

It’s a shame this was never developed as the Imagineers were simply ahead of their time. Universal later used a similar concept for the Hogwarts Express rides at their Harry Potter section, but this would have been with the Disney touch. 

Japan today

At the end of the day, many guests might agree that it’s best Japan didn’t get any fancy ride. The pavilion’s charm is in how quiet and sedate it is, and while it would have been cool to see something like a giant mountain coaster or a show around, Epcot’s Japan still stands on its own as a nice place to walk about without a ride to distract from its beauty.