Since segments of the New Fantasyland area opened nearly two years ago, it seems a little late to offer a review of this major addition to the Magic Kingdom. A show on Broadway may have a trial run for several months before making it to the Great White Way. I felt the same way about this project. And now with the Seven Dwarfs Mine Train in place, it's time to look at this work critically.
The premiere of Storybook Circus seemed like the first act. The sections featuring Beauty and the Beast-themed attractions and restaurants, along with Under The Sea – Journey of the Little Mermaid seemed like the second act. Now the Seven Dwarfs Mine Train appears to be the final act.
To judge this new themed experience, it's helpful to think about the evolution of Fantasyland. When Disneyland opened in 1955, you approached a physical castle, one that you could go right up to and touch. You could even walk through it and entered an entire land. But the land was filled with fantasy attractions that were flat. Yes, you could ride to "nowhere in particular" like Mr. Toad, but the journey was filled with two-dimensional sets and props. The dark ride was immersive and definitely filled with fantasy, but it was never entirely authentic. Even when Sleeping Beauty Castle opened a walk-through attraction, it was still a flat view of the fantasy.
Then, Walt Disney World opened and something new happened—you could go into Cinderella Castle and dine in what was King Stephan's banquet hall (yes, the wrong king, and didn't seem especially like the movie, but it was a castle)! Pinocchio's Village Haus was also part of the Fantasyland experience. But while it had a European feel, and had wonderful murals of the characters from the film, it really wasn't reminiscent of any scene from the movie.
Low-key compared to other attractions in Fantasyland today, but the architectural detail of Pinocchio's Village Haus at Magic Kingdom was far above and beyond the canopied fast food tents of the original Disneyland. Photo by J. Jeff Kober.
When Disneyland's Fantasyland was remodeled in 1983, it removed the tent look and, instead, provided a rich Barvarian village. To walk the streets of Fantasyland was to enter a world in and of itself. But step inside any of those buildings, and you were still on a traditional dark ride. Don't get me wrong, I love the dark ride experience. And I was initially disappointed when Snow White's Scary Adventures was removed from the Magic Kingdom. But it still wasn't a living, breathing fantasy world.
If there was one big breakthrough in creating a fantasy world, it came from somewhere outside of Fantasyland. When Splash Mountain opened, its look and feel came, in part, as the result of solving a nagging problem that plagued Pirates of the Caribbean. The moist, water-filled environments were killing the conventional thematic sets at Pirates. There had to be a better way to create an immersive environment. The answer came in sculpting the entire attraction out of cement.
The vault entrance to the Seven Dwarfs Mine Train showcases the extensive use of cement—not just in the mountain—but in the wood buttresses of the vaulted entrance, and even in the barrels nearby. Photo by J. Jeff Kober.
Enter the New Fantasyland. Imagineers in many ways attempted to make this a living, breathing fantasy experience that was straight out of the animated films. You can go into Maurice's home and step through a magic mirror into the Beast's castle. You can step into a full dining experience that looked just like the ballroom from Beauty and the Beast.
Now, you can also get inside a mine car and go into the diamond mine of the seven dwarfs. The attraction is clearly the crown jewel of this addition. People were disappointed that it took so long to get built. But, think of the alternative: another meet 'n' greet with the Disney princesses. It took a while, but it sure is a better outcome, in my opinion.
That's not to say it's entirely perfect. Whereas Cinderella Castle at the Magic Kingdom is a living tower, the Beast's Castle seems more in line with the Cinderella Castle in Storybook Land at Disneyland. Not to make this a comparison to Harry Potter, but it seems that if Hogwarts on the mountain were the size of the one here, it would not be the same experience at Universal Studios. It's hard to feel like you've really entered the castle.
And there are other challenges.In Enchanted Tales With Belle, you step into the Beast's library, only to be in a room much smaller than the room in the film, and with lots of theatrical lighting on a black industrial ceiling. You get the same effect when you go under the sea with Ariel. It's clear I'm not the only one thinking this, since the Imagineers have updated the same attraction at Disney California Adventure to address these issues. Whereas when you look down, you see such incredible textured pavement with feathers, animal prints, and carriage wheels, you look up and feel like they ran out of budget. Imagine seeing lights like this in Pirates of the Caribbean. It would not be the same experience.
Returning outside, let's talk about the forest. The original Fantasyland in the Magic Kingdom was suffering from the fact that there was little, if any, shade, not to mention the lack of water elements—both of which is what creates a park—and it is, after all a theme park. So the fact that this new land is so beautifully filled with forests and meadows and waterfalls and streams is spectacular. The highlight of this is the queue for Under The Sea – Journey of the Little Mermaid, a complete departure from the switchback style of its sister park, where you weave around grottos and waterfalls. Add in Scuttle and a lot of cute little interactive crabs, and it's a complete delight to wait in line. It harkens back to the intimate grotto that accompanied the Chicken of the Sea Pirate Ship and Restaurant at Disneyland. It is a sensory experience.
That said, my only disappointment with this is that Imagineers created such a wide swath of roadway through the heart of it. It feels like the freeway bypassing Route 66 in Cars. I understand the why, thought. Imagineers didn't want to repeat the bottleneck that has existed for years between "it's a small world" and Peter Pan's Flight. At least the path could have been somewhat more winding. After all, it's about discovery, similar in the way one approaches the spectacle that is Typhoon Lagoon or the Tree of Life at Disney's Animal Kingdom. Also, other than a sparse few tables at Gaston's Tavern, there is little invitation through the heart of the forest to grab a spot under the shade and enjoy the scenery. It needs spaces where guests can stop and smell the roses.
What about Storybook Circus? This really is more of a different area than Toon Town Fair was to Fantasyland before. For marketing purposes, they combined it all as one big renovation—it makes the numbers look big. But it really is its own land. And what a land—I wasn't that excited about keeping the circus tent approach. But this land is flowing with so much theming and attention to detail. And while the trees aren't quite there, you do get a wonderful water feature in the form of Casey Jr. Splash 'n' Soak Station and Dumbo the Flying Elephant. It may be the most welcome addition of them all. For any parent who used to stand for 40 minutes in the heat and humidity of Florida waiting to take their child on the flying pachyderm, the double spinner, the addition of FastPass+, and, most of all—the air-conditioned circus tent playground, are such welcome features. And the ride itself is beautiful ... especially at night.
Four other things surprise me about the Fantasyland renovation:
1. Interactive Queues
It began with the Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh. And it's continued with other attractions like Big Thunder Mountain Railroad and The Haunted Mansion. Now it's part of the Seven Dwarfs Mine Train.
2. The Rapunzel Restrooms
It's a miss that it isn't a meet 'n' greet, but it's a beautiful book end ot the entire Fantasyland addition. And the whole approach has really helped to address the flow of guests in that area of the park.
3. New Animatronics
Lumiere, Sebastian, Ursula, and the Seven Dwarfs. You can't get this kind of detail "in your father's dark ride." It is really amazing.
4. Princess Fairy Tale Hall
Again, I was sad that we lost the space of a dark ride. I'm not really into character meet 'n' greets. But the quality of that experience is really quite special. And it fits perfectly to the experience of being in the Fantasyland Courtyard. Who would have guessed that the longest line in the park, would be to meet a pair of princess sisters?
While I've criticized several aspects of the New Fantasyland, I think overall it is a big winner. It's the place I gravitate to every time I head to the Magic Kingdom. I always held the belief that Fantasyland at Disneyland was the greatest Fantasyland of all, with Disneyland Paris not far behind. I can't quite say that anymore. I love the detail that exist in those parks, but this one takes it to a new level. This is really a special place. With Disneyland, I would have to get there first thing and rotate among the dark rides and small attractions before lines got too long. But once I was done, I was done. Here is a place you can linger for the better part of a day. And it's a new standard for many a Fantasyland to come.
What do you think? Do you like the New Fantasyland area? What stands out for you? How does it compare ot the other parks? Share your thoughts with us.