Disney executive Ben May is noticeably relieved when he hears the words. Across the table, in a conference room above one of the most popular attractions at the Epcot Center in Orlando, the Norwegian Minister of Culture is smiling at him. “I think,” she has just told him, “that it’s a good idea to make a new movie.” That little piece of goodwill may put a show on the road for Disney that has previously been kept on ice.
The Norwegian pavilion at the Epcot Center in Walt Disney World is in many ways the world’s largest Norwegian tourist attraction. With more than 4.5 million visitors, the pavilion is the second most popular at the Epcot Center. That number is about the same as the population of Norway.
For most visitors, the pavilion is as close to Norway as they will ever get. For anyone interested in promoting Norway, the picture created at the Epcot Center is therefore enormously important.
While most of the pavilion has a sense of timelessness to it – the Akershus restaurant serves traditional Norwegian food, the Maelstrom boat ride brings visitors through Norwegian history and the Kringla bakery offers tasty snacks – there is one aspect of this little piece of Norway that stands out in its outdatedness: The film shown at the end of the Maelstrom ride, a 70mm movie that in five minutes attempts to create an image of Norway to the pavilion’s visitors.
“Everything at the pavilion apart from the film holds a very high standard,” says Dave Spilde, head of Unique Promotions in Bergen, the second largest city in Norway.
He and his colleagues have managed the remarkable feat of having Disney allow them to make a new film about Norway.
“They’ve never let anyone produce a film for them before,” Spilde tells News of Norway with an understandably proud tone in his voice.
The company, established in 1997 by Spilde and Chris Olsson-Hagan, has 21 employees and an annual revenue of $4 million. Producing a film for Disney at an estimated cost of $3.5 million is therefore a big deal.
The green light from Disney was given Spilde after he visited Orlando and gave Epcot execs a presentation in April 2003. But the film is still on the drawing board.
“We started contacting sponsors, but found it difficult to attract the necessary funds,” says Spilde.
“The companies we spoke to were positive at first,” he explains, “but then they discovered that some institutions in Norway claimed that the Norwegian pavilion had been a failed project.”
Indeed the history of the relationship between Disney and Norway when it comes to the Norwegian pavilion at the Epcot Center is no fairy tale. Ever since it opened in 1988 there have been discussions over ownership and content control.
It started, really, a good while before the Norwegian pavilion even opened. The Epcot Center–short for Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow, although one travel guide quipps it might as well stand for Every Person Comes Out Tired because of its large area–was established in 1982 with nine national pavilions. Mexico, China, Germany, Italy, The American Adventure, Japan, France, the United Kingdom, and Canada were the pioneering countries, with Morocco added in 1984.
Originally, the idea was to establish a Nordic Pavilion. But after much deliberations from the three countries a group of Norwegian investors came up with the $30 million necessary to create a Norwegian pavilion.
All looked well. The then Crown Prince Harald formally opened the pavilion in June 1988 while Norwegians followed the ceremony in one of the longest live satellite transmissions the country had experienced till then.
Two years later, the head of Norwegian Showcase, the company that built the pavilion, was still positive.
“Although it is diffficult to measure the direct impact of Norway’s investment here,” Gunnar Jerman told the Norwegian newspaper Aftenposten in March 1990, “the large number of visitors speaks for itself. We have also seen an increased interest in Norway as a vacation target. Norwegian design and crafts have also benefitted from the pavilion’s popularity, although there is still some way to go.”
In 1992, the sentiment had changed. The Norwegian investors that had contributed two-thirds of the entire production cost of the Norwegian pavilion backed out due to disappointing sales and sold their stakes to Disney.
As a symbolic gesture to indicate Norway’s continued interest in the pavilion, the government decided to give $200.000 each year to Epcot in a five-year period. This contract was renewed for five new years in 1997. In 2002, however, Norway decided to cut the chord despite recommendations from the embassy in D.C. to keep the contract going.
“But this is not to say that the Norwegian government disapproved of the pavilion,” says Knut Vollebaek, Norway’s ambassador to the United States. “There were just some forces in Oslo that felt that it wasn’t necessary to continue with the support.”
He adds that he is himself a great supporter of the Norwegian pavilion, which he describes as “fantastic”.
For Disney, the little piece of Norway was so popular that they kept it running even without official support.
“We love the Norwegian pavilion,” says Ben May, the Manager at Epcot Business Development, “but we want to do more.”
He is full of praise for the 85 young Norwegian men and women who work at the pavilion. Clad in costumes resembling the bunad, the Norwegian national costume, these trainees spend nine months at Epcot as part of their college degree. Since this is Disney World, they are referred to as “cast members.”
“They make us what we are,” says May. “I mean–anyone can build this thing, but no-one can create a Norwegian atmosphere like the cast members.”
May is a good salesman. To the Minister of Culture he talks warmly of Norway, claiming it has had “more influence on the world than any other single country.”
He has no intentions of asking for money from neither her nor any other member of the Norwegian government. All he wants at this point is a letter of goodwill from the Norwegian government, stating that Norway supports Epcot.
“We take our brand, which is very strong, and we attach it to Norway. We are selling Norway,” says Ben May in his sales pitch to the Norwegian Minister of Culture.
The positive reply he receives makes him smile.
For Dave Spilde at Unique Promotions, a letter of goodwill from the Norwegian government would open many doors.
“With that kind of moral support we would be much closer to production. We would, of course, be very happy to receive some financial support as well, but the most important thing is the moral support.”
With luck, Spilde will be able to hire a top-notch director and produce a film in time for next year, when Norway celebrates its centennial.
“If we get a nod of approval sometime soon, I think we can make that deadline,” he says.