What can we teach our children about our southern neighbor when Mexico is in the news virtually night after night? Perhaps the problem is simply getting past the headlines.
With Mexico so close, the easiest way to learn would be to visit. But we’re talking about a pretty large country (the fifth largest in this hemisphere by total area), and – let’s be honest – the violent headlines do need to be noted. Fortunately, you can learn a lot about Mexico during your next visit to Orlando, FL. Just stop at the Mexico Pavilion in World Showcase at the Epcot theme park at Walt Disney World.
Mexico’s history can be traced back thousands of years, to the times of the Mayan, the Aztec, and other Native American civilizations. That’s why the pavilion’s entrance is shaped like a pyramid – in this case a composite going back to the third century, but with emphasis on the Aztec culture. Just inside is a museum-quality gallery showcasing arts and crafts. Take a moment to view what’s on display; this can be the ideal set-up for what’s in store.
A Sun Stone (Aztec calendar) denotes the path to the Plaza de los Amigos, or Plaza of Friends. This re-creation of an open-air market has been given a nighttime setting because that’s the time of peak activity in an authentic Mexican market. This is a good opportunity to slow down and take in the surroundings. Feel the marketplace atmosphere. What does it compare to? A flea market? A large garage sale? What authentic merchandise can be found here?
The pavilion’s centerpiece attraction is a boat ride. Originally “El Rio del Tiempo” (River of Time), it was refurbished in 2007 to incorporate the stars of the 1945 animated feature “The Three Caballeros”: Donald Duck, Jose Carioca the Brazilian parrot, and Panchito the Mexican charro rooster, and was renamed “Gran Fiesta Tour Starring The Three Caballeros”. This refurbishment conforms to a recent trend in Epcot to introduce more animated characters into attractions. While more entertaining, this does detract a bit from the educational message.
Your ride begins on a moonlit river flowing through a jungle underneath a smoldering volcano. The river flows into a temple, where Jose and Panchito begin a madcap search to find Donald through a series of projections and special effects depicting scenes of modern Mexico. Then it’s on to a village with a Spanish colonial theme on fiesta day, with child-like figures reminiscent of the classic Disney attraction “It’s a Small World.” Then it’s more video scenes of “Finding Donald” with the animated characters drawn into live-action scenes. Donald is finally captured just in time for “the show” – a party finale with plenty of fireworks on the ceiling.
The pavilion also contains two eating places: the full-service San Angel Inn Restaurante, located inside next to the marketplace, and the more casual La Cantina de San Angel. Also look for any entertainment scheduled for the time of your visit. Finally, don’t forget to strike up a conversation with any Disney cast members (employees) who are actual Mexican natives.
To get the maximum educational effect of your visit, my suggestion would be to take lots of pictures/video, especially during the boat ride (without a flash, of course, so your fellow boat passengers aren’t tempted to throw you overboard). Then when you get home, find a video of the original “El Rio del Tiempo” attraction on the Internet, and compare this original version with what you saw. (If you don’t have good pictures, don’t worry; there are plenty of videos of the latest version online as well.) The first difference you should notice is the background music. Note both murals and the Native American dances; you might be able to identify the deities Quetzalcoatl the featured serpent and Tezcatlipoca the tiger. This segment provides a perfect introduction to studying these native cultures.
To take your at-home lesson one step further, obtain a copy of the animated feature “The Three Caballeros.” This movie, along with its contemporary, the 1943 release “Saludos Amigos,” resulted from a U.S. State Department-sponsored visit by Walt Disney and a hand-picked team of artists throughout Latin America to cultivate goodwill during World War II. Both consist of four animated segments about Latin American life and culture with a loose storyline. Although only “Caballeros” has a Mexican segment, both can be used as lighthearted introductions for further study of Latin America.
In any event, this pavilion offers enough to make a great learning experience during your visit, with plenty of possibilities for follow-up when you get home.
Smith, Dave, “Disney A to Z, The Official Encyclopedia Third Edition”, New York: Disney Editions, 2006
The Imagineers, “The Imagineering Field Guide to Epcot at World”, New York: Disney Editions, 2006