Circus tents? Clown bands? Carnival acts? A children's splash park?
Not exactly things that come to mind when imaging a new "land" in the Magic Kingdom, to be sure. Nonetheless, that's a partial list of what we got in the New Fantasyland's Storybook Circus area in Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom.
And, despite my fears and those of the online pundits, it turns out to be a good thing.
Would a dark ride based on a Walt Disney classic been better? Absolutely. There's a lot of valuable real estate tied up in Storybook Circus, much of it devoted to a meet-and-greet and a merchandise location. Would sparing Mickey's and Minnie's houses been preferable to saving the Toontown Fair's circus tents? Of course. Those charming little abodes might have blended nicely with Carolwood Park and the new train station.
Still, the Storybook Circus area has charm and whimsy to spare, What's more, its landscaping is lush and inviting, a much more immersive land than the tacky, thrown-together look of the former Toontown Fair. Just compare the signage for Storybook Circus to the signage for Toontown Fair, and the level of craftsmanship and imagination is clear.
Sometimes, I don't envy the Imagineers—although I would still love to be one. It must be difficult finding that tenuous balance necessary to please die-hard Disney purists and the casual guest who may visit Walt Disney World infrequently. How do you honor the past and still innovate? How do you meet the demands of budgets and timelines, yet still let creative design reign to "imagineer" timeless attractions and landscapes?
In many ways, Storybook Circus illustrates a successful balance between these two disparate tensions.
Dumbo, the Flying Elephant
A quintessential Disney attraction, Dumbo the Flying Elephant was one of the original attractions to open in Disneyland in 1955. Its popularity and iconic image made it a natural choice for inclusion in the new Magic Kingdom in 1971. Its original location, behind the carrousel in Fantasyland, provided wonderful views of the castle and as well as an overview of this most enchanted of realms. Over the years, the design of this attraction was enhanced significantly in Disneyland and in Disneyland Paris. Moving gears, sparkling lights, and a reflection pond enhanced the Dumbo experience and kept it fresh for new generations. In Florida, however, some of these improvements—the water, for example—proved impractical because of Dumbo's position on the Magic Kingdom's "second floor." The queue for Dumbo was also most unpleasant. Hot, slow-moving, and old-fashioned, the line provided little shade and minimal interactive elements. In some ways, the placement of Dumbo, the Flying Elephant was also problematic. It really didn't "fit" into the medieval castle courtyard look of the rest of Fantasyland.
The new location, inside Storybook Circus, solves all of these problems. While the dreamy views of the upper floor of Cinderella Castle were sacrificed, the experience of the new Dumbo more than makes up for any loss. The design of the attraction is beyond whimsical, incorporating spinning gears, iconic images from the film, sparkling lights, bright tile, reflecting ponds, and spraying water fountains. The entire queue is shaded, there's an interactive circus tent for busy times when the lines are long, and the additional Dumbo spinner keeps things moving along efficiently. The views over the greenery are lovely, and the new Fantasyland Forest in the background more than makes up for the loss of the castle views.
When the twin Dumbo's first opened, the one thing that disappointed was the lack of little Timothy Mouse spinning around in the center of the attraction. After all, Timothy is Dumbo's best friend and inspiration. Thankfully, in a thoughtful nod to the history of the Dumbo attraction, little Timothy Mouse made his appearance atop the charmingly designed marquee. He spins around as he always did, reminding old friends of their first flight upon the endearing Dumbo and reminding them to believe in themselves and to hold tight to their magic feathers.
The Barnstormer Starring the Great Goofini
The Barnstormer is the only holdover from the Toontown Fair days. It is still the ideal first coaster for kids; it's not too intense, too long, or too scary. The new moniker, to tie in with the circus, casts the ever-intrepid Goofy as a daredevil circus stunt man. An airplane still "pulls" the coaster cars around a modest track. This attraction doesn't qualify for the Magic Kingdom's must-see list, but as a first coaster, but this modest little ride provides an appropriate amount of fun. The Imagineers kept this fan-favorite (to please the old-school Walt Disney World crowd), but took great care and creativity to connect it to its new surroundings.
The New Fantasyland Train Station
The worst part of Mickey's Toontown Fair had to be its train station. It lacked style, theme, and warmth. It looked temporary, and in reality, it was designed to be temporary. It was built to help celebrate a milestone Mickey Mouse birthday when Toontown opened as Mickey's Birthdayland as part of a limited-time promotion. The original train station was built of iron poles and canvas signage, all painted some sort of 1980s pastel blue and green.
The new structure, now called Fantasyland Station, could not be more different in look, tone, or texture. Built of wood and stained a warm, aged green, this station is reminiscent of the long-gone Frontierland Station that once stood where Splash Mountain now stands. In addition to being attractive, this station is highly functional, serving as a station and a large restroom area (themed to a railroad roundhouse). Off to the side, a charming little area called Carolwood pays homage to Walt Disney's first backyard railroad at his California home, the hobby that many believe lead to the development of Disneyland. Lots of other Disney details abound here: be sure to check out the luggage at the train's exit for some clever references to classic Disney cartoons.
Casey Jr. Splash 'N' Soak Station
Speaking of cartoon characters, the animated animals and the animated train from the 1941 Dumbo are the stars of the Casey Jr. Splash 'N' Soak Station. The famous "Little Engine That Could" offers an inviting play area for children. The circus animals, faithfully created in the style of those in the original Disney film, are featured in various train cars complete with numbers paying homage the opening dates of the four Walt Disney World theme parks. It's a highly kinetic and appealing area, but for me, very out of place. How many guests bring swimsuits and a change of clothes and shoes for their children to the Magic Kingdom? How much entertainment can this area provide during Florida's cooler months? Again, a balance between budgetary demands and creativity is evidenced here. While the whole splash park idea smacks of higher management cutting corners, the actual creation is esthetically appealing and thematically appropriate.
Pete's Silly Side Show and Big Top Souvenirs
These two tent-like structures stand on the original footprint of two of the original Toontown tents. As much as I was prepared to dislike these, the Imagineers again outdid themselves in design and theme. The merchandise and snack location is ingeniously designed to resemble a circus tent inside as well as outside, and at night the lighting enhances the whole experience tremendously. There are actually some attraction based items for sale here, offering a refreshing change from the usual "Disney Parks" merchandise featured at just about every other Walt Disney World merchandise location. Pete's Silly Sideshow is, alas, another meet and greet location, this time featuring Minnie Mouse, Daisy Duck, Goofy, and Donald Duck in circus themed gear. It's nice, and once again, the sheer joy of the design is infectious. But, at the end of the day, it's just another meet and greet with characters featured throughout property at many, many locations. My sons were disappointed that Pete himself was not there. They love him on The Mickey Mouse Clubhouse, and even love him in his villainous roles in classic cartoons like "Steamboat Willie," "Mr. Mouse Takes a Trip," "Mickey's Christmas Carol," and "The Prince and the Pauper." It seems like a missed opportunity to provide some "limited time magic" by featuring this seldom seen, but very historical, Disney character.
In the case of these two locations, it seems that once again, Imagineering made the most out of the mandates from management. If you can put aside the longing for "what could have been here" and just enjoy what actually was built, you are sure to enjoy this part of the park.
As I mentioned earlier, the brightly colored (and brightly lit at night) Dumbo, the Flying Elephant sign is a real beauty. The same can be said for the Storybook Circus sign. It could not be more different from the painted-plywood-cutouts of the Mickey's Toontown era. Scattered throughout Storybook Circus, there are any number of appealing signs, painted on canvas in the style of classic turn-of-the-century circus posters. These feature seldom seen, but much loved, classic characters: Lambert, the Sheepish Lion; Bongo, the circus bear; Horace Horsecollar; Clara Cluck; Humphrey, the Bear. Not only are these characters themed appropriately, but the nod to Disney history—all too often overlooked by the current demand for something new or the latest fad—is bound to be much appreciated by loyal Disneyphiles.
In many, many ways, this minor addition to the Magic Kingdom landscape turned out to be a pleasant surprise for me and for my family. The coziness of the old fashioned circus was appealing, the details amazing, and the authentic looking textures and abundant green foliage make this area look as if it has always been there. Kudos to the Imagineers behind this little gem; they struck the right balance between honoring the past and creating something new for guest to enjoy for years to come.