A glimpse of Saudi Arabia at Epcot's Millennium Village

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More than 30 countries are taking part in a unique exhibition emphasizing humanity's diversity and cohesion on the eve of the 21st century. The nations participating in the World Showcase at Disney World's Epcot Center in Orlando, Florida, have set up exhibits, shows and demonstrations highlighting their history and culture.

As part of this historic event, Saudi Arabia has established one of the more colorful and exotic exhibits, bringing a taste of the Kingdom's rich culture and traditions to the tens of thousands of visitors who pass through the complex each day.

Called the Spirit of Saudi Arabia, the exhibit is located in the Millennium Village at the Epcot Center. It brings together elements of Saudi Arabia's past and present in a fashion that reflects a setting of bedouin tents in the desert.

As visitors enter the exhibit, they are welcomed by hosts dressed in traditional Saudi robes and headdresses who pour Arabic coffee, a sign of traditional Saudi hospitality, from a brass coffee pot called a Dallah. While adults sip the coffee, children have their names written in flowing Arabic script on cards they keep as mementos of their visit to the exhibit.

Having passed the welcoming station, visitors approach a giant replica of the traditional black goat hair tents of the bedouin. This is one of the three sections that make up the Saudi exhibit. Called the Rise of the Kingdom, it focuses on the country's past and its emergence as a modern nation state.

To make the exhibit more interesting, particularly for young visitors, the presentation involves audience participation. The hosts select four children from among the visitors to handle controls located at the four posts supporting the massive tent. These controls manipulate a "Flying Carpet" that floats over a massive gold-colored open book containing Arabic script.

Following the host's instruction, the handlers manipulate the carpet over one corner of the book, springing a pop-up tent in an oasis. The voice of the narrator resonates in the darkened tent, saying: "Centuries before there was a nation called Saudi Arabia, my ancestors rode free through this vast desert land. They were nomads, called bedouin, and it is from them that we got our deep love for the beauty of this harsh environment."

While the carpet is being manipulated to another section of the book, with many trials and errors on the part of the bemused but entranced volunteers, the host explains facts about the size of Saudi Arabia, its people and population.

As it hovers over another corner, a representation of the Masmak Fortress emerges from the book, with the narrator explaining the momentous event that took place on January 16, 1902. It was on that date that King Abdul Aziz Ibn Abdul Rahman Al-Saud recaptured the fortress in Riyadh, the stronghold of the Al-Saud family throughout the 19th century, and began the long struggle that led to the establishment of the modern Kingdom in 1932.

The next pop-up shows a Saudi and an American shaking hands before an oil rig. The narrator explains that in 1938, Aramco, the Arabian American Oil Company, discovered oil in commercial quantities in Saudi Arabia's Eastern Province.

This discovery facilitated the Kingdom's development, which is the theme of the next pop-up, showing Saudis working on various projects.

The Rise of the Kingdom presentation ends when from the center of the giant book a display emerges showing one of the minarets of the Holy Mosque, the dome of the Prophet's Mosque, the Riyadh television and water towers, and other Saudi landmarks.

Walking out of the black tent, the visitor enters the second section of the exhibit. Called the Saudi Community Scrapbook, it is designed to represent a family room in an average Saudi home. Low cushion seats are arranged in a horseshoe facing a large monitor that flashes scenes of Saudi Arabia. In front of each seat is a computer monitor that has a list of topics and programs. The visitor can elect to view profiles of a large number of Saudi children, women and men representing different generations and from a cross section of society. As a video runs over the monitor, the person selected speaks about his or her life and its major events. Children talk about their hobbies, sports and leisure activities.

The computer program also allows visitors to select from a list of topics to learn about. The topics include the major cities, Hajj (the pilgrimage to the Holy Mosque in Makkah), traditional Saudi clothing, the desert, the Islamic calendar, sports and other topics representing the modern and traditional aspects of Saudi life.

Children can also play video games and create their own personal page, which can be accessed by others. The interactive computer program in this section of the exhibit is very popular, particularly with younger visitors, who clamor for a seat and computer terminal.

The third part of the exhibit is called Spirit Oasis. Located inside a lighter-colored tent, its theme is the oasis and its waters. The audio-visual show uses lasers, lights and sound to create a special mood reminiscent of a night in the oasis. As the lights are turned off, twinkling stars appear on the ceiling. The host begins the show by saying that for many centuries the people of the Arabian Peninsula have spent their evenings under the stars sharing stories. "Today I want to share with you a very special story, a story about friendship, a story about the desert and how people in the desert make friends with strangers," he says.

To the accompaniment of traditional Arabic music, the voice of the narrator explains the special significance of the desert and the oasis to the people who have inhabited them for thousands of years. As beams of colored lights shine onto the series of waterfalls and pools that make up the exhibit, the narrator explains the value the people of Saudi Arabia attach to the desert. "For those who live here, the desert is a place of great magic and wonder...[bringing] abundance to the wise. Here legends are born and stories come to life. It speaks about how bedouin offer their care, hospitality and share the gifts of the desert with strangers and take them in and teach them about the desert."

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At this point a large video monitor shaped like a book emerges from the darkness at the head of the first waterfall. Words from the book then begin flowing into the waterfalls and the succession of pools. Projected by laser beams from overhead, the words represent the values held dear by the inhabitants of the desert, such as hospitality, history and tradition. Like the other sections of the Saudi exhibit, the Spirit Oasis is also interactive and encourages audience participation. Volunteers, usually young children, stand at a number of pads at the edges of the pools and by pushing the pads, change the words flowing in the water from Arabic script into English and back.

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The last attraction in the exhibit is a game intended for families. As many as eight people stand around a glass dome containing models of Saudi landmarks. The objective is to move a ball around the game board by tilting the platform on which the game and the visitors stand. With people tilting the entire set in different directions, the game is exciting.

While going through the different features of the Spirit of Saudi Arabia, the visitor is struck by the genuine hospitality and warmth of the young hosts, who are students at universities across the United States. Their eagerness to help the visitor acquire a better understanding of the Kingdom and its people reflects their pride in their rich past and the accomplishments of the present. {short description of image}

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