Starting last Friday, all of new Fantasyland began operating during a soft opening phase, which this time they are calling a “dress rehearsal.” Except for the unfinished Seven Dwarfs Mine Coaster, the land is fully finished and operational. The plan is to run it on a soft opening basis basically full-time with the rest of the Magic Kingdom going forward, so unless your timing is rotten, there’s a great chance that on your next visit you’ll be able to see everything. What you’ll discover when you get there is a delightful slice of theming, and some of the best work Imagineering has done since Tokyo DisneySea. Here’s what to expect…

Ariel are fans Over the Moon!

Technically, what’s being opened up is only part of Fantasyland, rather than its own new land. But it does feel like its own land. The architecture and the character are unique to this corner of Fantasyland, and I’m betting that the majority of visitors will walk in the area and feel like they’ve come to a new land entirely.

The major locations here are well known: Enchanted Tales with Belle, Be Our Guest restaurant, Gaston’s Tavern, Bonjour Village Gifts, Under the Sea–Journey of the Little Mermaid, and Ariel’s Grotto. Under the Sea is the marquee attraction. It’s an Omnimover ride like the Haunted Mansion, which means it has very high capacity — something that will be very welcome indeed at the Magic Kingdom.

The Mermaid ride itself appears to be identical to the version that DCA, which most people consider to be a D-ticket rather than an E-ticket ride. The queue, however, is a vast improvement over Anaheim’s. It’s longer, richly detailed, and full of placemaking. There’s nothing that feels like they took a shortcut when designing or crafting the environment in the line. The carved rockscapes look expensive, and they would not be out of place at all if transported in their entirety to Tokyo DisneySea. If you’re the type of Disney fan who lives for immersive, 360° atmosphere, then you’ll be giddy when you step into this line.

Exciting to finally step under this bridge.
Are we really inside the Magic Kingdom here?

There’s an interactive element in this queue, implying that the line may become long and slow moving when FASTPASS or FASTPASS plus are used on this attraction. There is FASTPASS already, issued from Mickey’s Philharmagic and printed on the generic Magic Kingdom card stock, implying that there will be no permanent FASTPASS available for this ride. But since there is a dedicated return line for this attraction, we can safely assume there will be X-Pass reservations available, or perhaps regular FASTPASS via cell phone only.

Point!

The interactive element is a game you play with a blue crab you see on screens hidden extremely well amid the props and rubble of the caves. The crab will drag out a new object every few moments, and if it doesn’t match the theme of the surrounding props (such as plates, cups, or jewelry), then visitors are supposed to point at the crab, who will then discard the item. Sensors in the ceiling monitor your movements rather like the queue at Soarin’, but much more refined.

The game is just the right amount of fun. It’s not so silly and pointless that you feel like skipping it when you go by, nor is it so engrossing that you want to linger even after the line has moved ahead of you, which is a problem for the games at Space Mountain.

The very long load area is bigger than you’re expecting.
DCA’s version had “ice cream cone” hair at first, but not here in Orlando.

This column is primarily concerned with reviews rather than images, but I know some of you want to see lots and lots of pictures, so I’ve placed a wealth of pictures from the new land on my other blog. Here are the direct links for my coverage of Under the Sea, Ariel’s Grotto, Gaston’s Tavern, Be Our Guest, and Enchanted Tales with Belle.

Ariel’s Grotto is a traditional meet and greet, just to the side of Under the Sea. It has a few new touches in the rock work and lighting, but mostly it’s exactly the same experience as it was before construction began on Fantasyland several years ago. There does seem to be a branching point, so there are actually two chambers to meet Ariel, which obviously doubles the capacity and makes the line move twice as fast.

In my view, this is one of the great success stories of park operations and Imagineering working together. There was an overall recognition that people at Walt Disney World really want to meet Disney characters, and that the lines moved too slowly. Increasing capacity by adding breakout rooms was a stroke of genius, and it has worked extremely well for the Meet Mickey attraction on Main Street.

The “cinnamon roll” rock. Interestingly, Gaston’s Tavern actually serves a cinnamon roll. Coincidence? I think not.
Pretty lighting.

The Bonjour Village Gifts shop is well themed on the outside, but it surprised me little on the inside. This is perhaps the only area in the new land that did not have a striking character of its own. It wasn’t bland exactly, but neither did it scream out a rich backstory the way every other location did. There was not a lot of special merchandise, except for some plates and cups with elegant Beauty and the Beast designs on them. They seemed fancy enough that I’m not sure every tourist will want them. There was a lot of princess stuff here, as you might expect, as well as a few castle oriented items, including some that celebrated Disneyland’s castle.

But something you least expect to find here leers at you from the back wall. The dominating portrait of a Renaissance man is actually a depiction of the Magic Kingdom’s current president, Phil Holmes. On the one hand, I just love the level of tributes in this painting. Phil was an opening day cast member, so his last five-year service milestone was 40 years, and in this portrait, he wears a ring with a 40 on it. On the shelf behind him is a Donald Duck figurine, also standing for the service award giveaway bestowed upon recipients at the 40 year mark. Items on the table in front of Phil represent milestones during his tenure: a magic lamp for the Aladdin ride, an apple for the closed Snow White ride and upcoming Snow White coaster, and peanuts for the major expansion during his reign, Storybook Circus.

A park map lays open on the side, showing Mickey’s Toontown Fair in the corner. Over Phil’s shoulder is a patch of Haunted Mansion wallpaper, which is fitting because it was Phil’s first work location — he was at the Mansion on opening day in 1971, in fact.

On the other hand, it’s kind of weird to have a sitting park president install a tribute to himself while still on the job. It seems, well… just a touch egotistical. There is perhaps precedence for a park president to be honored at the opening of a new land in the Magic Kingdom. In 1993 a small tribute to Disneyland president Jack Lindquist was unveiled at Mickey’s Toontown, where one of the fake pumpkins was given eyeglasses that resembled Jack’s. But Jack’s tribute was subtle, and it was unveiled for him as a goodbye present, since he was leaving the company. Importantly, it was a surprise for Jack. Was Phil part of the planning process for his own tribute? See more pictures and closeups of this portrait here.

Gaston’s Tavern is a quick service location with a couple of dining areas on the sides. Yes, there are antlers all over the walls and ceiling. The signature drink, a frozen apple-mango concoction, is clearly meant to incite the kind of fervor normally seen for the butterbeer in Harry Potter. It’s also identical to a drink sold in the new Cars Land in DCA. Several folks are raving instead about the pork shank, which apparently is like a turkey leg, although smaller and obviously pork rather than turkey. I look forward to trying it.

If you move around the statue in just the right way, a friend assures me, it looks like Gaston is “filling” LeFou’s cup.
The atmosphere inside is cozy and appropriate.

The Be Our Guest restaurant, on the other hand, was not operating yet, But visitors could take a tour of the front area, and it looks smashing. It’s well themed, almost realistically so. Real castles — and I’m thinking here of Neuschwanstein — are not full of rococo gold leaf like you find in palaces. Rather, they have simpler plain walls and only minor decorative wooden arches. I was impressed that the Be Our Guest restaurant, nominally to be found inside the Beast’s Castle, would aim for this level of realism.

Lots of attention to detail.
This exact location is probably why so many people compare the area to Harry Potter; the arch-in-rock looks the same.
It looks very elegant.
Suits of armor down one hallway.
The new area lets us see the back side of the coaster under construction.

Enchanted Tales with Belle is more than just a traditional meet and greet. You don’t get individual time with Belle, and you can’t get her signature. But what you do get is a show and an experience. At its heart, this is mostly an opportunity for kids or even adults to do some play-acting with Belle in retelling her story. But the library room in which this takes place is well themed, and there is an impressive amount of build up to this, such as the robotic wardrobe character, an Audio-Animatronics figure in her own right.

And, perhaps best of all, there’s a narrative device used to transport us to the Beast’s Castle that surprised me when I saw it, and I mean that in a good way. I don’t want to ruin your surprise, but let’s just say that this was one of maybe only three or four times in my life when I did not know how an effect was achieved mechanically. Such a moment is always a big wow for me.

Maurice’s cottage
The animatronic Wardrobe
Participants clap their way around the room (it’s not quite a Congo line)
Mood lighting in the library
Lumiere is an animatronic too, and a good one.

In some ways, New Fantasyland is more than the sum of its parts. It’s the first real expansion of the Magic Kingdom since Mickey’s Toontown Fair, which was always meant to be temporary. There is a freshness to this new land, almost an urgency of theme, that will leave its mark on even the most jaded of returning Disney visitors. Frankly, the quality reeks of Tokyo DisneySea.

The new area in fact causes you to rethink Fantasyland at large. Fantasyland has always been about European stories and places (Peter Pan’s England, Snow White’s Germany), but the entire area from the castle back to these new rides now refers to a very specific region — France. And this is delightful, precisely because it provides a counterpoint to Disneyland’s Fantasyland, which is themed to look like Germany. France here and Germany there: it makes sense because these two countries provided the majority of inspiration for the fairytales that made the Walt Disney company famous.

Is the new land a challenge to Harry Potter and the Harry Potter expansion? Not really. But I have doubts that it was ever supposed to be. If and when Disney wants to get serious about challenging the Boy Wizard on his own terms (ie, young adults and teens), there will be other attractions announced. This expansion was more akin to “counter programming” you see other channels do when the Olympics are on; not an attempt to compete head to head so much as to offer something different. Something that plays to their strengths.

So yes, New Fantasyland is WDW’s counter-programming to Harry Potter and SeaWorld’s expansions. And there’s nothing wrong with that. Particularly when the results speak for themselves. Frankly, there is a REASON that Disney is the 800-pound gorilla in the industry, and when they put their minds to it, they accomplish a lot. Storybook Circus and New Fantasyland are dyed-in-the-wool Disney classics, and as one of the most vociferous Disney World critics, I’m not afraid to admit it.

What are your thoughts? Is the new Fantasyland a Belle or a Beast of an addition?

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