ROMANTIC DISNEY: For the Love of Epcot’s World Showcase—It’s Not Just a Shopping Mall!

Romantic Disney WDWNT
Epcot, Mexico - Plaza de Los Amigos

My husband and I were at a holiday party when word got out of our love of Disney. Within minutes, we were on the hot seat as a couple spared no expense in expressing their disappointment in Epcot after their recent vacation. We were instantly taken aback, as the wife had been a character at Disneyland while in college and the husband is the “safe” adventurer type, so we would have at least thought they’d have found Epcot interesting. But no. Far from it. Granted, there were extenuating circumstances that contributed to their negative experience, but when we pressed for specifics, it came down to one fundamental complaint: “It’s just a giant shopping mall.”

On its surface, it was an easy argument to counter: Disney parks and merchandise, after all, are a marriage forged in pixie dust and licensing agreements. However, their real disdain centered around the World Showcase, which, to them, consisted of 11 countries-worth of tourist-trap chachkas. 

“Why do I need to go to Epcot,” the husband smirked dismissively, “when I can buy a Japanese Daruma doll on Amazon?”

He clearly thought this was a brilliant point until we asked if he had known what a Daruma doll was before his visit to Epcot.

“Fair,” he conceded with a shrug, but then added, “still… there was nothing there there, other than a bunch of replica buildings, overpriced food and pricey souvenirs.”

My husband and I touched hands briefly as a way of sharing our dismay.

The Food

Epcot, France - L'Esprit de la Provence Giftshop
At L’Esprit de la Provence in the France pavilion, you’ll feel like you’ve stepped into a quaint shop in the south of France. Most of the products are authentic to the region.

All right, Daruma dolls asidehad they actually tried any of the “overpriced” food, we asked, like the Norwegian Kringla or School Bread from the Norway bakery, Kringla Bakeri og Kafe; or anything in France, like the handcrafted ice cream from L’Artisan des Glaces, or a pastry, tart or macarons from Les Halles Boulangerie-Patisserie? We knew they were partial to desserts, so we thought they might have at least dabbled, and in so doing discovered some of the hidden-in-plain-sight cultural authenticity. But no. In fact, they’d tried nothing in the World Showcase.

In fact, every restaurant in every World Showcase pavilion offers guests the opportunity to acquaint themselves with popular food items and preparations authentic to the country or region, and that extends to the atmosphere in which it’s served. [Disclaimer: Individual experiences will vary depending on taste, expectation, familiarity, and circumstances.]

Further, with the Food & Wine Festival running for a quarter of the calendar year (August 29th–November 23rd), there’s even more opportunity to sample global cuisine at snack-food prices (granted, they’re Disney snack prices!).

The Architecture

Epcot, Norway - Wandering Reindeer Giftshop
The Wandering Reindeer gift shop in the Norway pavilion doesn’t offer much in the way of authentically Norwegian goods—it’s mostly “Frozen”-themed plush toys, apparel, and costumes—but it’s a little treasure trove of authentic paraphernalia, decorative motifs, and little hidden gnomes strategically placed in the rafters.

To this particular couple—whose views are not uncommon, we’ve come to learn—walking around and through architectural reproductions are about as exciting as a summer field trip to a local library, and suddenly, we felt like parents trying to convince a couple of twitchy kids why they needed to appreciate something boring.

“Why go to Epcot to see London when you can go to London to see London?” the husband stated blandly, if not rhetorically, while the wife nodded distantly beside him.

“Have you been to any of the countries in the World Showcase for real?” we asked.

They’d been to Minnesota.

Had they found any of the attractions or exhibits of interest, like the scaled-down version of the Terracotta Army displayed in the China pavilion’s small museum, House of the Whispering Willows; or the Germany pavilion’s Garden Railway that depicts a Bavarian train village viewable from the winding Romantic Road, an actual touring route in the actual country of Germany; or Mexico’s Plaza de los Amigos, a perpetually twilight-lit, indoor, “open air” marketplace featuring local, handcrafted wares, some of which are made on-premises?

They had seen Mexico and the train, and actually registered regret for not knowing about the terracotta warriors.

The People

Epcot, Morocco - Bazaar
You could almost get lost in the winding streets of the Moroccan bazaar, whose little shops and larger marketplace all feature authentic goods from spices to apparel to handcrafted items large and small.

We tried to impart a broader view through our own experience, sharing with them how we’d never known much about Norway, much less had an interest in going there, until we spent some quality time in Epcot’s Norway. We learned about its ancient past of explorers, conquerers, and mystical lore. We gained a heightened understanding of their seafaring ways and the impact their many innovations has had on modern life, from the keel to the comb, to language to music.

However, what made us want to set foot in the actual country was talking with various cast members throughout the pavilion: One was from the small village of Geiranger, a beautiful tourist destination, but with a tiny population that mostly serves the tourism industry. Another was from the much larger city of Kristiansand, a culturally diverse cosmopolitan city with a wealth of outdoor activities and historical sites. One cast member from Alesund recommended an itinerary and best times to visit. Had she been a travel agent, we probably would have booked a trip before leaving the little gift shop!

And this was just one of the 11 countries represented in the World Showcase, all of which are staffed by cast members from the countries they represent. A lunch at Tokyo Dining resulted in a cultural exchange with our server, despite the hurdle of a challenging language barrier. A more fulfilling meal we couldn’t have had, and we left feeling like we had a connection to a place and a person we wouldn’t have had were it not for our lunch reservation in Epcot’s Japan pavilion.

The Point

Epcot, Japan - Mitsukoshi Department Store
The Mitsukoshi Department Store in the Japan pavilion is a real Japanese department store, noteworthy for being the first “westernized department store in the Japanese retail market,” and an attraction unto itself. You’ll find only Japanese products here, and they run the gamut of a true department store. It’s a feast for the eyes even if you’re not in a shopping frame of mind.

“The World Showcase was never meant to replace travel,” we emphasized, despite the cynicism we were being met with. “The point was to introduce people to various places around the world so that they might become interested and want to explore other countries for real.

“Oh, so that’s its point,” the skeptical husband repeated. It was hard to tell if he was seriously reevaluating his opinion or if he was just trying to back out of the discussion. Either way, we had done our best to represent Epcot’s World Showcase as the immersive travel buffet that it is, where one can sample the culture, cuisine, and crafts of a country, and consider whether the appetite has been whet for more.

It’s doubtful we changed their minds, as minds aren’t easily changed, yet there’s something about the World Showcase that makes us feel like ambassadors, striving to bridge the gap between skepticism and understanding. Where they saw a deceptive shopping scam, we see a magical travel portal. Where they saw the equivalent of a travel-themed putt-putt course big enough to walk through, we see a mini-globe of culture concentrate. For all the controversy surrounding the injection of Disney stories and characters into the World Showcase, at its core, Epcot is Disney, and Disney will always represent the idea of a small world where everybody belongs, and where differences can bring a greater sense of unity. This, to us, is why the World Showcase continues to have a hallowed place in our hearts and is best visited with an open mind and a willingness to learn.

But the fact remains: the shops are a whole lotta fun—and they’re interesting, too! Not only is the merchandise representative of each country, but guests can gain a greater insight into the culture and its potential shopping opportunities from browsing the boutiques, shops, and marketplaces in the various pavilions. And if you want to feel like a world traveler without leaving the U.S., you might consider bringing home one of the hand-carved cuckoo clocks from Germany, a hand-painted Oaxacan figurine from Mexico, or selecting an oyster that might contain a pearl in Japan. Yes, you can buy a Daruma doll on Amazon, but it won’t come with the memory of being in that particular place in time that will forever bring a smile to your heart every time you look at it.

What’s your favorite part of the World Showcase experience, and do you have a favorite pavilion? The more people know how much the World Showcase has to offer, the better their visits to Epcot will be!