During a big backpacking trip overseas, we had an opportunity to visit the real-life Kingdom of Morocco, the inspiration for the Epcot pavilion. Our journey took us (mostly) cross-country, from Marrakesh to Fez, in an attempt to visit the major sights while taking in the local flavors of the country. We got to see every Moroccan-Epcot landmark plus a few more Disney related things. Read on for our itinerary and trip recap.
Days 1-4: Marrakesh
As the starting point for our trip, Marrakesh proved to be our favorite city. While not the biggest, this city really felt like the hub of activity for the country. Its bustling Jemaa el-Fnaa square was the focal point for the action, especially as night falls and the square comes alive with vendors, magicians, storytellers, acrobats, and peddlers. The square sits in the shadow of Koutoubia Mosque’s towering minaret, the city’s iconic symbol, and our first Disney location.
Disney Parks fans will instantly recognize this as the landmark structure in Epcot’s Morocco Pavilion.
Seeing the real thing is quite different. Its minaret (a mosque’s tower used to announce the call to prayer) looms 250 feet high and can be seen from all points of the city. Our favorite views of it came from the surrounding gardens that are open to the public. For sunset views, find a spot high on a rooftop cafe in the square and sip some tea or munch on tajin as night falls.
Speaking of food, Epcot’s Restaurant Marrakesh is clearly named for the city we were in. In honor of this, we decided to seek out a venue to see live bellydancers. Our journey lead us to a restaurant and nightclub just outside of the medina (old city) called Palais Jad Mahal. This place was very clubby and drinks and the menu was expensive, but there was no shortage of bellydancers, fire dancers, live music, and even women roaming around while balancing lit candelabras on their heads (sadly, all of our photos came out very dark/blurry here). While it wasn’t exactly what we were aiming for, this posh spot was a fine outing and seemed to be popular with both locals and international visitors alike.
Just down the block, we passed by La Mamounia, a luxurious 5-star hotel famously loved by Winston S. Churchill among other celebrity visitors. We first heard of La Mamounia during a visit to Disneyland Paris’ Walt Disney Studios Park – one of the olde tyme luggage trunks that form the FASTPASS kiosks for the Tower of Terror was slapped with a sticker advertising it. The Koutoubia Mosque on the sticker caught my eye and we knew we’d be visiting Marrakesh later in the trip, so I snapped a pic and marked it on my map.
While not an official WanderDisney location, the La Mamounia hotel is worth a visit. It was built in the 1920s and indeed reminded us of the Tower of Terror. Its dark, but ornate, interior and maroon & gold color schemes could have indeed inspired the attraction. While it may not actually be haunted, the prices at the hotel’s lounge were high enough to scare us away.
Days 5-6: Ouarzazate
Leaving the hectic city behind, we set out about 100 miles across the Atlas Mountains via a SUPRATOURS bus to check out the sights. We made the town of Ouarzazate our home base. Nicknamed the “Hollywood of Africa”, Ouarzazate borders the Sahara desert and gets its nickname from the multitude of film and TV productions set in the area.
With a full day ahead of us, we made our first stop the UNESCO World Heritage recognized Ksar of Ait-Ben-Haddou. This ksar, or group of earthen buildings surrounded by high walls, was a key stop along the caravan route between the Sahara and Marrakesh.
A number of films have been shot here due to the complex’s unique and biblical looking structures, the most famous being the very non-Disney Ridley Scott’s Gladiator (2000). Disney and their subsidiary’s film that were shot here include Fox’s The Jewel of the Nile (1985), Kundun (1997), Fox’s Kingdom of Heaven (2005), and Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time (2010).
We spent a couple of hours climbing through the maze of clay buildings and rooms where a handful of families dwell, local artisans set up shop, and hawkers hang out trying to sell their wares.
Disney Parks fans may recognize the earthen clay towers that makeup Ait-Ben-Haddou if you’ve ever been to the back of the Morocco Pavilion in Epcot – the facade above the entrance to Restaurant Marrakesh is meant to resemble this distinct-looking structure.
Heading out of the ksar and into the neighboring village for lunch, we landed at the rooftop restaurant of Maison D’Hote Chez Brahim based on TripAdvisor reviews. The food was tasty and offered us an incredible view of the area we just explored.
After a nice break, we’re back on the ride. A 20-minute cab ride later and we’re at the gates of Cinema Studio Atlas.
Touted as the world’s largest film studio (by acreage), Morocco’s Cinema Studio Atlas is the reason why the region is considered the Hollywood of Africa. Founded in 1983, the studio has served as the production center for many of the Disney and Fox films shot at the ksar that we mentioned above.
While (I think) we were supposed to pay an entrance fee to get in, we just strolled into the entrance and wandered the grounds without issue. The place is pretty odd, to say the least. Abandoned film sets were scattered about in varying states of decay from the harsh desert conditions. Limited signage gave some indication as to what sets and props were used for what, but most were a guessing game.
Either way, this bizarre tourist trap made for some fun photo ops and good laughs acting out various roles on the abandoned sets.
As the sun started to set, we the nearby Oscar Hotel, a four-star hotel on the studio lot. This is allegedly where the stars and production crew stay when working on films.
The hotel was rather elegant, clean, and modern. A signed photo of Michael Douglas and Kathleen Turner from the set of Fox’s The Jewel of the Nile (1985) hung proudly in the lobby among other cinema-related tchotchkes.
After a quick refreshment at the “Gladiator Bar” (Ridley Scott’s Gladiator filmed at the studio), we decided to call it a day and head back to our riad before a big travel day.
Day 7: Casablanca
After a bus back through Marakesh and a nearly 3-hour train ride, we landed in Casablanca for a day. There’s not much here in the way of Disney, but a visit to the grand and ornate Hassan II Mosque is a must-do. We did find one sort-of Disney related spot: dinner at Rick’s Cafe, an ode to the main setting of the classic 1942 film, Casablanca. If you remember the Great Movie Ride (now Mickey & Minnie’s Runaway Railway), Casablanca was a major scene before the finale of the ride which is why we can’t help but mention it here.
While the cafe wasn’t an exact replica of the one in the film, it definitely evoked the ambiance, including live music in the foyer (play it, Sam!). One of the rooms of the restaurant displayed vintage posters of the film as well as a TV playing it on loop. More of an upscale restaurant, we enjoyed a nice dinner accompanied by a Casablanca beer. Epcot fans will recognize the logo if they’ve ever gone drinking around the world.
Casablanca is a product of Groupe des Boissons du Maroc, one of the very few breweries in the Kingdom of Morocco. For export to the US, Casablanca is marketed under the name Casa Beer (for some sort of legal reason, we assume), which explains why you won’t find the version we had in Epcot.
Day 8: Rabat
Another hour on the train and we find ourselves in Morocco’s capital city of Rabat. Rabat is also one of Morocco’s largest and we found it to be the most modern and European feeling. We came here specifically for a WanderDisney location: The Chellah Necropolis.
Worth the ~$7 USD price of admission, especially on a beautiful day, this historic site of Roman ruins and a Muslim burying ground is now a park and archeological site. Informational signage is only in Arabic and French, so we had to kind of blindly walk the grounds to figure out what we were seeing.
The main draw of this area was the surviving minaret from what once was a mosque. The minaret is striking and beautifully decorated, though faded and worn from the elements. Now, it is home to a muster of storks who have made nests on and around the site.
In case you didn’t know, Epcot’s Morocco Pavilion actually has two minarets. Besides the main Koutoubia Minaret, that’s visible from across the World Showcase, there’s a replica of the Chellah Minaret towards the rear of the pavilion. Take a look at how the real one compares to the Epcot one below.
Days 9-10: Fez
Another 3 hours on a train and we find ourselves in Fez, the final stop on our Moroccan adventure. Fez contains a massive medina (old city) and it seems that the layout of Epcot’s Morocco Pavilion draws a lot from this city.
It’s worth noting, in case you weren’t aware, that the Morocco Pavilion is laid out much like most real Moroccan cities, with a medina. Towards the front of the pavilion, we find modern Morocco, with a gift shop, cafe, gallery, and restaurant. As you enter the pavilion, you cross under an ornate arch (or gate) into the medina where bustling markets, riads, and other old-world elements can be found.
Passing through the real Blue Gate and we enter into Fez’s medina. A bustling marketplace that resembles the one found in the Epcot version. A lot of the souvenirs found in Morocco’s marketplace can be found in Epcot’s shops – the main difference being that haggling prices isn’t part of the experience.
Not too far into the market, we found the Clock of the Abu Inania Medersa. If we didn’t know to look for it, we would have surely passed by it without a second glance. Hardcore Epcot fans know that a replica of this clock sits in the Morocco Pavilion, just to the left of the entrance to Restaurant Marrakesh.
Today, the real clock mechanism is in extreme disrepair, with no more bowls left on the wooden perches. Epcot’s version shows what it may have looked like when it was first built and in working order. Take a look at them in the images below.
Deeper into the maze of streets in the medina and we finally reach our last stop: Najjarine Fountain. We’re not exactly sure what the historic significance of this fountain is, but its zellige tilework and carves plaster is quite impressive. The fountain still works and just standing for a few minutes, we saw a good number of locals come by to wash or drink from it.
As you may have guessed, this fountain has a twin in the Epcot pavilion. The Epcot one is nearly identical in many ways but, of course, not an exact replica.
The real fountain sits in a square that is kind of tucked away and hard to find. If you have GPS and a good map of the street, you should be able to find it eventually by navigating to its coordinates, here (though part of the fun is stumbling on it yourself).
We hope this guide helps you appreciate the beauty of Morocco and the work that Disney did to pay tribute to this country when they opened the Morocco Pavilion back in 1984. It was made possible by a team of 19 native artisans who came to Florida in the early eighties to work on the artistry of the buildings and monuments to portray as authentically as possible. After seeing the real thing, it’s hard to brush off the Disney version.
Have you ever visited any of these Epcot locations in the real Morocco? Did we miss any Epcot locations that exist IRL? Need more travel advice? Leave us a comment below or drop us an e-mail!
Be sure to take a look at all of the WanderDisney locations mentioned in this blog post:
- Koutoubia Minaret (Epcot)
- Koutoubia Mosque
- Restaurant Marrakesh
- Ksar of Ait-Ben-Haddou
- Cinema Studio Atlas
- Chellah Minaret (Epcot)
- Chellah Necropolis
- Bab Boujouloud (Fez)
- Bab Boujouloud (Epcot)
- Clock of the Abu Inania Medersa (Fez)
- Clock of the Abu Inania Medersa (Epcot)
- Najjarine Fountain (Fez)
- Najjarine Fountain (Epcot)