Disney World’s Fantasyland expansion high-tech, high-touch

By Arnie Weissmann

ORLANDO — Fantasyland officially doubled in size on Wednesday at Walt Disney World’s Magic Kingdom with new rides, restaurants, shops and attractions, and a doubling-down on flying Dumbos.

But the expansion, built on land that once housed Mickey’s Toontown Fair and 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, does more than showcase new activities. Taking advantage of emerging technologies and an opportunity to reimagine its traditional offerings, Disney is attempting to, again, change the paradigm of the theme park experience.

Disney Belles Enchanted TalesThe old paradigm? A little girl stands in line for 40 minutes to “meet and greet” Belle from Beauty and the Beast. When she gets to the front of the line, she gets a hug, Belle poses for a photo with her and gives her an autograph.

The new paradigm: Guests of all ages and genders wait in line for 40 minutes, enter Belle’s father’s workshop, watch an enchanted mirror on the wall turn into a portal to the Beast’s castle, perhaps be assigned a character from the movie and be handed props, surprise Belle in the Beast’s library and help reenact the day she and the Beast fell in love. Guests end the occasion with a rousing chorus of “Be our Guest,” and perhaps walk out with a souvenir bookmark.

“We’re trying something new in almost every experience,” said Chris Beatty, creative director for the expansion. “With Belle’s Enchanted Tales, we wanted to broaden the meet-and-greet so that the whole family could enjoy it, and not just the little girl. And it’s never the same twice: If the group is mostly small kids, it can be very touching. If it’s mostly adults, it’s hilarious.”

Beatty said that “evolution and innovations in technology” gave Disney Imagineers more options in conceiving new attractions, but that they also wanted to expand “the human element” and the possibilities for both high-tech and high-touch interactivity.

The new paradigm is on full display in the new “Be our Guest” restaurant, an expansive three-room dining experience in the Beast’s castle that can seat 546 people for lunch and 340 for dinner. Beatty hopes it will be seen as more than a place to eat.

Disney Beast Castle Be Our Guest“There is a lot of storytelling in this restaurant,” he said. “As you approach it, it is foreboding. It’s the Beast’s castle of the beginning of the story, not Belle’s castle at the end. But as you enter and move from room to room, it slowly becomes warm, representing the transformation of the Beast’s heart.”

That high concept may be lost on some guests, but they will undoubtedly be impressed with the touchscreen ordering kiosks, with built-in allergy filters that can modify offerings.

After ordering, diners receive a puck-shaped “rose” which allows servers to find them no matter where they sit, thanks to custom-designed triangulation technology transmissions that emanate from the rose and work something akin to a hyper-localized GPS.

Diners may also be surprised by the food choices, which are, to put it gently, more sophisticated than what’s found in many of the park’s eateries.

In the evening, two of the three rooms are transformed for fine dining with table service, candles and, for the first time in the Magic Kingdom, beer and wine. Dinner is by reservation only, and the restaurant’s general manager, Liz Clark, said it is already fully booked for the next six months.

Other Beauty and the Beast-related attractions include Gaston’s Pub, featuring a frozen specialty drink of apple juice with toasted marshmallow flavoring, topped by a mango-passion foam and, for the very hungry, a big honkin’ pork shank on the bone, sizeable and meaty enough to intimidate a turkey leg.

Beatty’s vision for the expansion touches on two mainstays of fairytales: Forests and castles. There are more trees in this area than is customary for Disney parks, though at this point it's a far cry from a woodland atmosphere. (Beatty said more trees will be added).

Disney Prince Erik castle Under The SeaBut in addition to the Beast’s castle, Prince Erik’s castle from the Little Mermaid is also part of the new Fantasyland skyline, and is linked to the most ambitious new attraction, Under the Sea – Journey of the Little Mermaid. It’s a classic Fantasyland dark ride (in a moving clamshell) that goes through an underwater world filled with a cast of audio-animatronic characters from the Disney movie, some helpful and some threatening, with the film’s songs providing the soundtrack.

Audio-animatronics at this ride and in Belle’s Tales are astounding, representing the significant technological advances since the Hall of Presidents was unveiled almost 40 years ago. The movements are fluid and facial expressions robust and elastic.

Although the characters on which these animated models are based were originally cartoons, the animatrons feel realistic and alive.

And with the expansion comes another set of flying Dumbos; a second set revolves in the opposite direction from the original.

But the most impressive development in the expanded “Storybook Circus” area where Dumbo resides is a new approach to queuing up for the airborne elephants. Instead of standing in the blazing central Florida sun (or in a torrential downpour), guests wait in a playground protected by a circus tent and air conditioning. When they enter, guests receive a pager that notifies them when it’s their turn to board a Dumbo. (Fastpass guests will bypass the tent/playground area.)

Disney Fantasyland DumboAlso opening in the Storybook Circus area is Pete’s Silly Sideshow, a meet-and-greet area with Minnie Mouse dressed as a circus star, Daisy Duck as a fortune teller, Goofy as a stunt pilot and Donald Duck as a snake charmer.

The Barnstormer rollercoaster has been rethemed “The Great Goofini,” and Mickey’s Toon Town Fair Station has been rebranded Fantasyland Train Station.

Thursday will mark the official reopening of Test Track Presented by Chevrolet, at Epcot. (Many of the Fantasyland attractions had a soft opening weeks ago; I visited them, as well as Test Track’s soft opening, on Monday.)

The paradigm shift seen at Fantasyland is evident at Test Track as well. The attraction has traditionally demonstrated how cars are designed and tested, ending with a "drive" that tests an experimental car's performance.

The redo is significant and, like the auto-design process itself, has gone from analog to digital.

“The overall profile of the ride is the same, but the story is told differently” said Imagineer Melissa Jeselnick, who is part of the Test Track team.

There are some trade-offs. Before, if memory serves, the pre-ride experience was an info-tainment queue where guests looked at sketches and models of autos while winding through a testing site that bore a passing resemblance to a greaseless auto repair shop.

Today’s experience is a tour through a highly interactive computer-assisted design workshop. After passing a model of the Chevy Miray, a working prototype of a futuristic car, guests work on touchscreen kiosks to create renderings of their own experimental cars. While doing so, they discover how changes in the contours can affect a vehicle’s power, efficiency, capability and responsiveness.

Disney Test TrackTheir creation is then tricked out, with guests attaching accessories, color, grill designs, wheels, etc. to their computer model. The process can take 15 minutes or longer.

The car’s image is captured in a radio frequency identification (RFID) card called a "Design Key" that guests carry with them through the rest of the experience. "Their" car appears briefly during the test track ride segment, and the card is also used during post-ride opportunities to create commercials for their vehicles and to race against other guest-designed cars.

All of this is fantastic. Depending upon how long the lines are, even Fastpass guests may want to take the standby route to have more opportunities to learn about car design.

But the ride portion, in my opinion, suffers, in the name of reality. Today’s automobile designs are indeed tested with computer modeling — they no longer have to go through heated rooms or freezing chambers or otherwise face actual physical stress tests.

As a result, by staying true to modern practices, the ride portion of Test Track, which is on the exact same track as before (and still ends with an exhilarating full-throttle acceleration), no longer takes guests through different physical environments. Rather, guests move through an entirely digital world. It feels as if you’re in a vehicle within the movie “Tron,” which is kind of fun, but for me, a less memorable experience.

Overall, the Fantasyland expansion and Test Track updating are different and exciting enough to justify a return trip for Disney fans.

But I came away with a concern: It strikes me that the new attractions are not scaled large enough to accommodate the legions that will want to experience them.

Belle’s Enchanted Tale, for example, only moves about 40 people every 12 minutes. I can also imagine that there may be very long waits at the Test Track since each guest can linger at the kiosks for a relatively long period. Excessive wait times may affect overall guest satisfaction.

Before my visit, I was wondering how Universal's Wizarding World of Harry Potter might influence the expansion. That area seemed to be setting the new bar for theme parks.

The answer appears to be "not much." The atmosphere in Fantasyland’s "Belle's Village,” especially in front of Gaston’s pub, seems somewhat reminiscent of Hogsmeade, and Le Fou’s frozen drink seems to be answering the popularity of butterbeer.

For the time being, the bar has been reset by Disney.

Email Arnie Weissmann at aweissmann@travelweekly.com and follow him on Twitter. 

This article has been updated to reflect that the "Be Our Guest" restaurant will offer beer and wine service, a first for the Magic Kingdom, not a first for a U.S. Disney park as originally stated.

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