Magic Kingdom has added a forest to Fantasyland, doubling its size and reorganizing it into two mini-lands with polished charm, color, music, storytelling, long-lashed cuteness and talking critters, be they a gruff but softhearted seagull or a kindly candelabra with a French accent.
The expansion, which officially opened Dec. 6, adds an area called the Enchanted Forest with two castles, hills, groves and waterfalls. It contains the ride Under the Sea — Journey of the Little Mermaid, an enhanced meet-and-greet built around the story of Beauty and the Beast, a table-service restaurant that serves wine and beer, and several smaller features.
Much of existing Fantasyland is now part of Storybook Circus, headlined by double Dumbo rides, a rethemed Barnstormer junior coaster, the Casey Jr. water play area and such old favorites as the Mad Tea Party and the Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh.
The two key attractions in the Enchanted Forest center around princesses — Ariel, the mermaid and daughter of King Triton, and Belle, an official member of Disney’s princess lineup (though nothing in the Beauty and the Beast story suggests royal lineage).
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Both incorporate new technology and an emphasis on characters. And like most of Fantasyland, they appeal primarily to younger children.
Under the Sea is a traditional ride in which clamshell cars take guests under the sea and past scenes and music from The Little Mermaid movie, much as boats take riders past scenes of happy singing people on It’s a Small World After All — but the mermaid’s music is vastly better. Favorites: Ursula, the fabulous, villainous sea witch, sings Poor Unfortunate Soul, and lobsters and a conga line of fish dance to the calypso beat of Under the Sea.
The ride itself is almost identical to the version that opened at Disneyland in California in 2011, but the Orlando attraction has more space for landscaping and an elaborate queue. Guests walk past waterfalls and into the grotto under Prince Eric’s Castle, where Scuttle the seagull entertains them with an interactive scavenger hunt. Afterward, fans can meet the princess in Ariel’s Grotto.
Enchanted Tales with Belle is an enhanced meet and greet in a richly detailed setting, a fun storytelling experience. Guests are assigned roles by a trilling and effusive Madame Wardrobe, then turned over to Lumiere (the candelabra), who introduces them to a surprised Belle.
Belle tells the story of how she and Beast met as guests wave their props, roar like the Beast, slap their hands on their thighs to make the sound of galloping horses and cheer on the kids who get roles in the story. Little ones get their pictures taken with Belle and exit beaming. So did a couple dads who played the parts of suits of armor. (“Yaayyy Daddy!” cried a little voice from the rear of the room, as Belle took Daddy’s arm and posed with him.)
The expansion, elements of which are still under construction, uses the area formerly occupied by 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea as well as previously undeveloped land. Still to come are Princess Fairytale Hall, a meet-and-greet site for princesses who don’t have a home of their own, in 2013, and the Seven Dwarfs Mine Train, its bones rising above construction walls, to open in the first half of 2014.
On both sides of Fantasyland, the new and revamped attractions have an amazing level of detail, from the mother-and-child elephant footprints in the asphalt near the twin Dumbo rides to the ambience signaled by the kinds of rock used in the Beast’s Castle and Prince Eric’s Castle (rough, sharp-edged and foreboding for the former, warm, golden and rounded for the latter) to Maurice’s inventions in and around his cottage at Enchanted Tales with Belle.
Gone are the flat painted plywood scenes in Snow White’s Scary Ride, torn down to make room for Princess Fairytale Hall. Instead, a holographic rose drops petals in Be Our Guest restaurant in the Beast’s Castle, snow sparkles on ledges of Cinderella Castle, and electronic crabs get help from guests in the scavenger hunt in the Under the Sea queue.
Guests now have more opportunities to interact with characters, which for many youngsters are as important as the rides — the Beast in his restaurant, Belle in Enchanted Tales, Gaston by his tavern near the Beast’s Castle, the Little Mermaid in Ariel’s Grotto, plus Goofy, Donald, Daisy and Minnie at Pete’s Silly Sideshow in Storybook Circus, which opened in October.
Disney is promoting Be Our Guest restaurant in the Beast’s Castle as another attraction, and in some respects it is. It is set in beautiful rooms designed to look like the film, with as much attention to detail as any new ride, and the rose theme woven throughout. In the ballroom — the main dining room — diners can see snow falling beyond the high, arched windows. Red napkins are folded and twisted into the shape of large rosebuds. Belle and Beast whirl in a dance atop a seven-foot music box in the Rose Gallery. In the West Wing, a slashed portrait of the prince changes to a portrait of the Beast.
Since the original story was set in the French countryside, the cuisine is French influenced. Lunch is fast-casual: Guests place their orders on touch screens, and the food is brought to the table. At night, servers take dinner orders. For the first time in Magic Kingdom, wine and beer are available, although with dinner only.
The ambience is quiet and as elegant as it can be in a theme park where the Beast stalks through the dining room and many guests are wearing sneakers. For theme-park dining, the food is very good, but not as good as meals in several of the resort’s hotels. The wait staff is attentive, sometimes to the point of being intrusive, but that might be expected in a new and very visible opening. Here’s hoping they mellow as they find their rhythm. Dinner entrees are $15.99-$29.99; wine $8-$17 per glass.
Be Our Guest’s dessert cart offers tempting cupcakes and cream puffs, but we opted to stop by Gaston’s Tavern for a LeFou’s Brew, a nonalcoholic slushy based on apple juice with a taste of marshmallow and a mango-passion fruit foam. The drink has a nice tang, as if the juice came from Granny Smith apples. (If you’re keeping score, it’s not as good as the frozen Butterbeer at that other theme park, but better than the Pumpkin Juice, which is also apple-based.)
Not all of Disney World’s news comes from Fantasyland.
At Epcot, Test Track, closed for upgrading in April, reopened this month with Chevrolet sponsorship. The basic ride remains the same — the car still hits 65 mph, the fastest of any ride at a Disney park — but all the visuals have changed. Plus, the Imagineers have added a pre-show and an after-show.
Before the ride, guests design their own custom concept vehicle — shape, wheels, engine, color — on a touch screen at a design kiosk. As they work, the screen shows how the design affects capability, responsiveness, efficiency and power. It’s a game of balance — increase the power, for example, and the car will lose efficiency. Riders get an electronic card that they swipe at the kiosk so their design follows them through the ride and the post-ride show.
While the old ride wound through a mockup of a GM test facility, where it was tested for attributes including suspension, braking and handling, the new one runs through the inside of a computer so riders have the sense that everything is virtual. Some riders compared it to a scene from the movie Tron.
As the ride vehicle is “tested” for capability, responsiveness, efficiency and power, so are the riders’ concept cars, with results displayed during the ride. (This function didn’t work for my design; it wasn’t clear whether there was a glitch or whether it was because I had started my design later than others in the same session.) Then the ride vehicle crashes through to the outside and runs at high speed on the track circling the building, just as it did before the redesign.
“We’ve kept that thrill but also added a design element and a personalization element so you’re a part of it,” said Melissa Jeselnick, Imagineer and assistant project manager.
Afterward, guests can swipe their design card at a virtual slot-car course and see their virtual car compete against other riders’ designs. They can make a commercial for their concept car and email it to friends, take their photo with their concept car – or with other Chevrolet models — and email it, too.
Over at Downtown Disney, in what used to be the Virgin Megastore at Pleasure Island, Splitsville Luxury Lanes was scheduled to open a two-level, 30-lane bowling alley last week. Splitsville is an untraditional bowling alley, especially at Disney World, where it will cater mostly to out-of-towners and have no league play.
Food and beverage service will account for about 70 percent of the operation, said Jessica Anderson, a sales and event manager. There will be seating for about 500 (some of it outdoors), two sushi bars, menu items including sandwiches and pizza, and live music. “The bowling is more just for the fun of it,” she said.
The lower level will be family-oriented at all hours, she said (the alley is open 10 a.m. to 2 a.m.), but upstairs will be 21-and-over-only late nights on weekends.
Splitsville has smaller operations in four other cities, including one at South Miami’s Shops at Sunset Place.
At the Grand Floridian, a revamped spa, previously run by an outside vendor but taken over by Disney, was set to open last week with 15 treatment rooms. The other spa on Disney property, at Saratoga Springs, is scheduled to close in January for a makeover and will also be operated by Disney when it reopens.
And for the hard-core Disney fans: Yes, Senses Spa does have hidden Mickeys.