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A Friday Visit with Jim Korkis: Wonders of China

By Dave Shute

Welcome back to Fridays with Jim Korkis! Jim, the dean of Disney historians, writes about Walt Disney World history every Friday on


By Jim Korkis

When Epcot’s China Pavilion opened in 1982, it featured a Circle-Vision 360 degree movie called Wonders of China: Land of Beauty, Land of Time.

Wonders of China gave non-nationals a glimpse of areas of China that had rarely been seen before by outsiders. This film closed in March 2002 and was replaced in May 2003 with a new movie called Reflections of China.

The Disney crew that created Wonders of China was the first Western film group to be allowed to film certain sites. During early negotiations, the Chinese government denied permission to film any locations considered “strategic,” such as bridges, tunnels, and trains, or filming anywhere near an military base.

By the end of production, the crew had proven to be cooperative, and the footage shot was so impressive that the government gave permission for a shot of train coming out of a tunnel and across a river bridge, as well as another shot that was made of peasants and water buffaloes on the property of an Army base.

(c) Disney

The final nineteen minute presentation featured such landmarks as Beijing’s Forbidden City; vast, wide-open Mongolia and its stern-faced tribesmen; the 2,400-year-old Great Wall; the eight-centuries-old Great Buddha of Leshan; the muddy Yangtze River; and the 3,000-year-old city of Suzhou, whose location on the Grand Canal, which is generally believed to be the largest man-made waterway in the world, encouraged Marco Polo to call it the Venice of the East.

In addition, there were shots of Hangzhou, where a handful of Chinese are shown doing their morning exercises along the river’s edge. Also shown are Huangshan Mountain, wreathed in fog; the Shilin Stone Forest of jagged rock outcroppings in Yunnan Province; Urumqi, whose distance from the sea in Xinjiang Province earned it the title of the most inland city on earth; Lahsa, in Tibet, and its Potala Palace, boasting a thousand rooms and ten times that many altars.

Also shown were the Reed Flute Cave and the bizarrely shaped hills of Kweilin above, to say nothing of the very European-looking city of Shanghai. To complete the picture, there are fields of snow and of wheat, high meadows and beaches dotted with tropical palms, harbors and rice terraces, calligraphers, checkers and Ping-Pong players, lightning-fast acrobats, championship horseback riders, camels and a panda bear, glittering ice sculptures, and millions of bicycles.

The Birnbaum guide stated, “Every step of the way, the film crews were besieged by curious Chinese, even in empty Mongolia. For the Huangshan Mountain sequence, which lasts only seconds, the crew and about three dozen hired laborers had to carry the 600-pound camera uphill for nearly a mile. The Chinese government would not permit Disney cameramen to shoot aerial footage in some areas, so Chinese crews were sent aloft to record the required scenes, first on videotape and later—after approval from the Disney director in charge of the project—on film.”

The narrator and host of Wonders of China was the character of Li Bai, one of the greatest of Chinese poets from the 8th Century Tang Dynasty who spent much of his life traveling. Using this character helped to unify the many disparate sequences. In the film the voice of the character is portrayed by Keye Luke, an artist and film actor best known for being the “Number One Son” in many Charlie Chan films and as the Chinatown shopkeeper Mr. Wing in Gremlins (1984).

Wonders of China also played in the World Premiere Circle-Vision theater in Tomorrowland at Disneyland from 1984 to 1996.

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Thanks, Jim! And come back next Friday for more from Jim Korkis!

In the meantime, check out his books, including his latest, Disney Never Lands, and about planned but unbuilt concepts, and Secret Stories of Walt Disney World: Things You Never You Never Knew, which reprints much material first written for this site, all published by Theme Park Press.


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