The fantastic Art of Animation resort, the first truly new hotel at Walt Disney World in a number of years, has been opening in stages. The third part just opened a bit more than a week ago, and it’s… drumroll please… unfortunately a bit of a letdown. That’s especially a bummer considering how exciting and different the first two stages were. And while we’re depressing ourselves, a peek over the construction fence at the fourth stage – Little Mermaid – appears middle of the road (neither overwhelming nor underwhelming). Let’s hope for the best there.

When stage one opened, the lobby, shop, and food court became available, as did the first wing of rooms dedicated to Finding Nemo. This area held the pool, the largest on WDW property, and it excitingly had things such as music piped in underwater. Unfortunately, the music is mission drift. I was expecting Disney-only music like you hear in the air above-water, but it’s a separate soundtrack. Orinico Flow is a great song, but why is it here? The wing hits the right notes in other ways, though. There are giant oversized character statues, including the MINE MINE MINE seagulls on the ends of the buildings. Nice touch. I also appreciated that the swirly painted decorations on the sides of the buildings were other Nemo characters, plus the EAC.

The second wing, CARS, is a masterpiece. You can pose right next to almost a dozen of the cars in real size, and the decorations make it feel like you’re really there. It lacks the full 360-degree feeling of DCA’s Cars Land, but it’s way, way more than adequate for this Value resort. Plus, it has a small crescent-shaped pool, too.

Simba: Where is that ice machine?

This new third wing is themed to Lion King, which sounds great. The movie was a surprise hit (the company was betting the bank on Pocahontas) and made an absolute ton of money. The new wing of the resort, though, is hardly the king of the hotel jungle. I’m tempted to say it’s closer to a warthog (smelly), but that’s not fair. It’s not smelly or stinky; it’s just not as good as the Nemo or CARS sections of the same hotel. As my friend Paul pointed out, if this one had opened FIRST, we’d all be raving about how much better it is than giant yo-yos and painted signs with text like “rad” and “tubular” across the tops of the hotel (that’s in reference to All-Stars and Pop Century, in case you’re wondering).

It’s still a resort themed to a Disney movie. That matters, and in a positive way. I’ve seen some folks disagree with my opinion on this, but I am still convinced that the vast majority of people who visit from out of state like the idea of staying inside a Disney movie (rather than staying inside a tropical island hotel, or a hotel themed to a seaside boardwalk). My logic is this: you can do those other things for real–there are real Polynesian hotels out there. But there aren’t other hotels where you can be in Radiator Springs! Besides, a Disney vacation should probably feature Disney things. I understand the argument that some people want to escape the characters in the evening, but let’s not forget there’s also that argument about “surrounded by the magic.” If a family comes to Walt Disney World, there’s a good chance that family is seeking the Disney magic they ALREADY know and love from the movies and characters. Extending that to the hotels is not only logical, it’s probably what a majority of families are looking for to begin with.

Rafiki is looking for the food court?

But all of that is perhaps the only positive statement I can make on the new wing. It’s not nearly as immersive as the CARS section, and it lacks the decorative elements of the Nemo section. It also lacks the pool offered by the other two, and in its place has only a “playground” to offer.

I use quotation marks because the playground is about as fun as a graveyard. Poor choice of words, perhaps, because this playground is a graveyard: there’s a single elephant skeleton for you to climb on. Oh wait, there are TWO signs nearby proclaiming that you absolutely can’t climb on the thing. How is this a “playground” again? There’s absolutely nothing to do, except perhaps walk through a tunnel behind the skeleton. It’s astonishing the chutzpah needed to label this thing a playground. It’s a bald-faced lie, really, and a bit insulting to the hotel visitors, I would think.

Tusk off!

Besides the new section lacking anything to do, it lacks fun. There’s a reliance on foliage rather than props or decoration. That’s logical in a way, given the movie’s theme, but it’s still disappointing, and a lot more boring.The ground has patterns in it, such as palm fronds pressed into the wet concrete. In that, as well as the reliance on foliage, the area feels a bit like Disney’s Animal Kingdom, but with even less lush decorations.

The sides of the buildings have painted animal decorations, but they are generic rather than specific characters from the movie. I get the vague impression those painted animals are here to honor Simba, who appears as a real statue (more on this in a second), but mostly it’s just boring.

Wallpaper is just so much cheaper.

Those details on display in the CARS wing are missing here. The entrance displays to get into the rooms have almost no details on them, in contrast to the CARS section.

Bounce house, or hotel entry?

As you step foot inside CARS, the mats underfoot pay homage to Rust-eze from the movie. Here in the Lion King area, the mats are just undecorated black mats.

All the charm of an airport check point.

Now, there ARE some character statues. Simba is high up on Pride Rock. Rafiki is on the other side of the rock. Timon and Pumbaa are on top of a log, presumably whistling away. Hyenas glare at us from atop the “playground” skeleton. And Scar sits on a rock at the far end of the wing, with Zazu nearby too.

The problem with all of these characters and their placement is that you can’t pose with them. The CARS vehicles are at ground level; these guys are way up high. It can be hard to get you and the statues into one frame. And once you do, you will look remote compared to the statues. Neat to see? Definitely. Go out of your way to visit the hotel on your vacation and take a look? Sure, why not! Rush to your travel agent and secure one of the rooms in this wing? I don’t see it. The other two wings have more energy, excitement, decorations, and flat-out theming.

Not much hakuna matata...
Let's dish!

The upcoming Little Mermaid section can be seen over the fence, and it’s going to have very large statues of the main characters (Triton, Ariel, Ursula) atop the entrances to the buildings. That style and concept was used for the Nemo section as well (plus it’s familiar from All-Stars to have huge decorations). I like that they are Disney characters, but I hope that there’s more here than the giant statues. The details have to be present for it to feel immersive and interesting.

Note that this section was built as an addition to Pop Century, so it’s older than the first three phases of Art of Animation which have opened up. Unlike those others, this one will have external hallways, which feels more motel-like.

I’m glad they built Art of Animation, and even the Lion King section is an improvement over themed environments that are non-Disney in origin. I feel a bit let down that Stage Three is so much less than Stage One and Stage Two, but it’s still worth a look.

What are your thoughts on the Lion King phase of the Art of Animation Hotel? Look for the comments section at the end of this post and share how you feel about this project.

Star Wars Celebration VI Coming to Orlando

This coming weekend is the big Star Wars convention, Celebration, returning again to Orlando. I’ll be present there and will have a report for you once I’m back! If you’re going to be in town Aug. 23-26, you should consider buying tickets:

More information and updates

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