The New Fantasyland: A Review

The New Fantasyland is in dress rehearsals. Most theater critics don’t review a show while it is in previews. They wait until it’s premiered. But truth be told, this new Fantasyland won’t really be done for another year plus. While the bulk of the experience has been unveiled–those acts dealing with Beauty and the Beast, The Little Mermaid, and Storybook Circus–the real center piece of this major project is centered around the Seven Dwarfs Mine Train. And while the premiere date is more than a month and a half away, it really will change little between now and that event–other than offering meals inside Be Our Guest. I’ve had the opportunity to visit several times now, and for those who are dying to visit soon, I hope this review will give you a glimpse of what lies ahead. And what lies ahead is very, very good.

Fantasyland has always suffered from being built on top of the utilidor structure. That’s irrelevant to most guests but it has made a big difference in the land’s ability to provide two important assets to a theme park–trees and water. With the removal of Dumbo to the other side of Fantasyland, it’s even more striking as there is a lot of bare cement in the triangle between the carousel, Pinochio’s Village Haus and the new Fantasyland castle gates. But once you have entered into this new section, you can see how this whole area of the park will be very immersive. I use future tense here because along one side of all of this is the construction wall for the mine train ride. But still, there are hundred’s of trees–and look–water! Beautiful falls cascade and stream around you, and we haven’t even seen the full extent of that as the mine train will complete that aquatic thread.

Have I mentioned water yet?

You really can enter this section of the Magic Kingdom and spend several hours of your day. That’s much more than what you would have probably received if a giant E-ticket had been built like the legendary concept of Fire Mountain. I’m confident that such a ride as that would have been impressive. But it would have been over quite quickly once you sailed through the queue with your Next Gen band. And then you would have nothing left to do but buy the t-shirt. This approach offers much, much more of a stay.

But that’s only one comparison point. The bigger, more competitive question is: How does it compare to Harry Potter at Islands of Adventure? Let’s look at each section and see how it fares:

Beauty and the Beast

Here we have three components: Magical Tales with Belle; Be Our Guest Restaurant, and Belle’s Village, which includes Bonjour Gifts and Gaston’s Tavern. The challenge with Magical Tales with Belle is its repeatability quotient after you’ve been on it more than once, and turned much older than eight years of age. Still, the experience is magical. Imagineering has really worked to create attractions that are immersive, and once you enter, you really feel like you’ve stepped into another world. That said, you have to wait in line to enter that immersive experience, and the stand-by line is worst than long–it’s slow. Slow like Dumbo the Flying Elephant was slow a year ago. I think an immersive, interactive garden of Maurice’s inventions would be so helpful here as guests spend a great deal of time waiting. I’ve provided more insight in my review here.

Belle’s Village? It’s probably the biggest disappointment of all. I don’t quite get Bonjour Gifts. I thought it would be tied to the bookstore that Belle visited in the movie, but it simply is a gift shop out of France in Epcot. And for all of the big bravado of Gaston himself, his tavern sure is small. And his mounted trophies are smaller. I guess using heads the size of Melvin, Buff and Max would have dwarfed the tavern. Perhaps imagineers wanted to also look politically correct. But the porcelain trophies on the wall makes the facility look more like it belongs to a ceramic shop at Epcot. Add to that, lines for the tavern are easily are heading out the door for your LeFou Brew. No…this is no Three Broomsticks at Islands of Adventure. But Three Broomsticks is no Be Our Guest.

Even in dress rehearsal Gaston's has a line outside the door.

It would be unfair to review Be Our Guest Restaurant as I’ve only stepped into the entry way. But what there is appears to be amazing in both scope, size and price. I don’t think I’ve seen any restaurant at Walt Disney World this big. Certainly, I’ve never seen one pay as much attention to the little details. As to price, I only hope they keep the more affordable lunch option, as the dinner pricing seems unreasonable–especially after you’ve emptied your pocket on a Bibbidi Bobbidi Boutique makeover for your little princess. That said, it’s designed to be a once-in-a-lifetime experience, and as such, I think it will deliver. If nothing else–maybe it will be easier to get a reservation at Cinderella Royal Table.

A beautiful mosaic above the entrance to Be Our Guest.

The Little Mermaid

This is truly my favorite area thus far. I’ve looked forward to it more than any other area. That’s not because of the ride per se. I’d already experienced that last year at Disney California Adventure. Most “dark rides” would be considered a C-Ticket. The DCA experience is definitely a D-Ticket, because the length of the attraction and use of audio animatronics makes it so much more than your standard C-Ticket “dark ride”. But here I would dare say this may be an E-Ticket. The Little Mermaid attraction here is to the one at DCA like Pirates of the Caribbean at Disneyland is to Pirates of the Caribbean at the Magic Kingdom. I go through the details here. It’s simply more immersive. It reminds me of the Captain Hook Galley at the original Disneyland with its lagoon, waterfalls and Skull Rock. In fact, what would really make this area of the park work is a Tuna Boat!

More to the point, if I have any disappointments for this area, it’s that there isn’t more of this element. Look at the original drawings of the new Fantasyland, and the water fall effects were nearly as plentiful as the original Rain Forest Cafe waterfalls exterior at Disney’s Animal Kingdom (most people didn’t know that much of that went away at DAK). They still exist and are beautiful, but not like you saw in the drawings.

The multiple falls in this original drawing, are not what you see today. By the way, note Cinderella's Chateau in front. We would be walking through that today if the wiser heads of Tom Stagg's boys hadn't suggested a better attraction.

The other element I would say that is also missing is that there are few if any places to simply sit and take it all in. That may be in part due to the fact that everything we have described thus far faces a construction wall. We really won’t get a sense of the intimacy that you get when you are in corners of Disneyland such as the original Bear Country. Add a few park benches to enjoy the surrounding and  it sure looks promising!

Storybook Circus

Speaking of Bear Country, that original land in Disneyland came to mind as I visited the completed Storybook Circus. And I’m sad to say, it wasn’t because of Humphrey the Bear having a meaningful presence (it does not!). I compare it because after that land was built back in 1972, few people headed to that corner of the park. The one real attraction it had was The Country Bear Jamboree, and we all know the ultimate fate of that Disneyland experience. However, for those who wanted to get away from the craziness of the crowds, Bear Country was an oasis.

Despite operation's efforts to "busy up" this corner of the park, Critter Country today (formerly Bear Country) is still an oasis.

The same problem and opportunity seems to exist here. Temporarily it sits at the end of the park–fortunately with a train station (unlike Bear Country) but still with little foot traffic moving through. As it stands–and let’s be honest–at this point Dumbo does not need two spinners (much less an interactive circus tent and FastPass options) any more than The Country Bear Jamboree needed two theaters in Bear Country. There just isn’t as much of a line. That may change–after all–what will probably be as big a feeder into this area will come out of the Little Mermaid area, and right now, that section dead ends because construction for The Seven Dwarf Mine Train needs to get in and out.

But the other problem is that there isn’t a Splash Mountain-style attraction waiting at the end of it. The new Big Top Souvenirs is beautiful–even mouth watering. Pete’s Silly Side Show is detailed and more than adequate (though how many duck, dog and mice photos can we have?). But the yellow tent is simply weird. It has FastPass for Dumbo and Barnstormer plus picnic tables. Here we finally have a chance to sit and linger. But sitting and lingering under a yellow tent and sitting and lingering at The Hungry Bear Restaurant are two very different experiences. How cool would it be to take the track from Snow White’s Scary Adventures and create some kind of dark-ride attraction to bring people into this area much like Roger Rabbit brings people into Toon Town. Please! Save the tracks!

In case you missed the sign, this is Big Top Souvenirs.

All of this said, there is still so much here and throughout the new Fantasyland to love. What I will say is that through all of this what is cherished is Disney’s heritage. So many places you find little details that speak to so many wonderful characters and moments in Disney films over the years. A train station titled Carolwood over here, a piece of the rock commemorating 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea over there–music that you wouldn’t know if you hadn’t watched Melody Time. It’s glorious! I think Imagineers know–and reverence–Disney’s history better than any group in the last 30 years! I can’t think of a greater compliment than this. Fantasyland is truly a celebration for all things Disney.

Note the calliope outside Pete's Silly Sideshow that plays off of the Walt Disney short, Toot, Whistle, Plunk and Boom. Below it says Melody Time Bass Horn Band.

All of this and we still haven’t added the Seven Dwarfs Mine Ride. That will truly complement and complete this entire re-envisioning of Fantasyland. I believe it will then be more immersive and intimate than ever. No it’s not Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey. It’s not even close. That would have required something like Fire Mountain. But what is promised will not only be fun for the entire family–it will cherish one of Disney’s greatest creations of all time–Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.

And more amazing is that you walk back into the rest of the park and realize that there is still the rest of the Magic Kingdom to enjoy. That’s where the real comparison to Islands of Adventure comes. My wife explained it this way. After visiting the new Fantasyland she likened the experience with completely remodeling a whole section of your home. The problem is that when it’s done, the rest of the house looks like it then needs remodeling as well. I’m happy to say that isn’t true at the Magic Kingdom. In fact, there are many improvements and additions that have been carried out over the last few years from interactive queues to a new Town Square Theater meet ‘n greet to Sorcerers in The Magic Kingdom. In terms of upkeep we’ve seen a major focus on the shops of Main Street, U.S.A. to the return of Orange Bird at the Sunshine Pavilion.

Big Thunder Mountain after an extensive remodel. Splash Mountain is slated to do the same thing soon after the first of the year.

It is also what is the achilles heel of Islands of Adventure. Indeed, for all that they have done well in Harry Potter, it is striking that you can walk out of that experience and feel that the remainder of the park is a step down from what they have done so well there. That said, this morning Eric Davis notes on Mice Chat that “Universal is doing right by this once over looked park and going headlong into a refurbishment renaissance.” Clearly they know there is a gap between Potter and what the rest of the park provides.

Yet that may be why there is truly a difference between how Disney approaches its work and how Universal approaches theirs. It also may help to explain why the Magic Kingdom, which is already the world’s busiest theme park at 17+ million will probably be at 18+ million and will still be the leader after a year of operation.

I leave you one last image.

Pooh's Playful Spot on the last day of operation.

This shot was taken on April 9th, 2010. It was the last day Pooh’s Playful Spot was open to guests. Just beyond the bushes construction vehicles had already lined up. Unbelievable the changes since then. If your last visit was when this playground was around, it’s time to return. You’ll be glad you did.