New Fantasyland’s Gamechanger Potential

Since even before its announcement back in 2009 at the D23 Expo, New Fantasyland has been a divisive subject for the Disney fan community. (Then again, everything from refillable mugs to pool-hopping are divisive subjects, so that's not saying a whole lot. Disney fans love to bicker!)

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Since even before its announcement back in 2009 at the D23 Expo, New Fantasyland has been a divisive subject for the Disney fan community. (Then again, everything from refillable mugs to pool-hopping are divisive subjects, so that’s not saying a whole lot. Disney fans love to bicker!) Some have lamented its lack of a substantive “wow” addition, and have complained that it’s too female-centric. Others have praised the scope and scale of the expansion, sitting on pins and needles as each new detail is announced by the Disney Parks Blog.

Yesterday we saw some extensive footage from the Parks Blog of Enchanted Tales with Belle. This footage was met with a decidedly mixed reaction online. Taking the pulse of those whom I follow on Twitter, I’d say the reaction was 45% “what a pathetic waste of technology on a meet and greet” and 45% “what an incredible way to take meet and greets to the next level.” Around 10% fell somewhere in the middle of these two incredibly polarized positions.

This reaction typifies the reaction to a lot of New Fantasyland announcements and plans. Storybook Circus has (mostly) already opened, so we mostly know what it contains. Substantively, Under the Sea~Journey of the Little Mermaid is purportedly a carbon copy of the Little Mermaid dark ride that opened in 2011 to mixed reviews. I happened to enjoy the attraction as the next generation of Fantasyland dark rides, but it’s definitely not an E-Ticket attraction. There’s no doubt about that. Ariel’s Grotto will probably garner similar reactions to those voiced about Enchanted Tales with Belle. Same goes for Princess Fairytale Hall. Be Our Guest Restaurant and Gaston’s Tavern look to be incredibly impressive and will likely be amazing dining experiences, especially for families, but many write them off as “simply dining.” They aren’t attractions in the traditional sense of the term.

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That leaves the big wild card in the expansion, Seven Dwarfs Mine Train. Walt Disney Imagineering has teased information about this attraction, such as the ride system that will be used and its status as a hybrid dark ride and rollercoaster, but not much is known beyond that. Skeptics are proclaiming that it will be little more than a dressed up Barnstormer and optimists are claiming that it will be a huge E-Ticket. There’s no telling who is right at this point, but I’m inclined to bet it’ll be somewhere between the two predictions.

I think it is safe to say that New Fantasyland won’t include any attractions on par with Radiator Springs Racers in Disney California Adventure or even Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey at Universal Orlando’s Islands of Adventure. New Fantasyland’s lack of this tentpole attraction that pushes the technological envelope and will become an instant Magic Kingdom classic is very troubling for a many individuals, especially those who expected New Fantasyland to be Disney’s answer to the Wizarding World of Harry Potter.

I think this is a mistake. I think New Fantasyland has the potential to be a park-changing addition for the Magic Kingdom. As a preliminary matter, I’m not quite ready to cast final judgment on the expansion one way or another. I like to review things after I’ve experienced them, rather than critique and criticize based on hearsay and vague speculation. However, I am willing to offer some preliminary opinions based upon what we do know so far, and based upon what is likely. Once the land opens, we’ll see just how accurate these preliminary opinions turn out to be.

Overcoming the expectations set by Cars Land and the Wizarding World of Harry Potter is New Fantasyland’s greatest challenge when it comes to Disney fans. Many fans are judging (or will judge) New Fantasyland against those lands, which I think is a mistake. I have fallen into the trap myself, questioning whether New Fantasyland is offering “enough.” To be sure, I wish New Fantasyland included a bar-raising, knock-your-socks-off attraction. I’m always hoping for that. I’d love if 46 new E-Ticket attractions were announced tomorrow for Walt Disney World. Who wouldn’t?

However, just because that’s what I’d like in an ideal world does not mean that’s what I think is necessary or appropriate in a real world that includes real world constraints. In such a real world setting, I think the finite resources that have been allocated to New Fantasyland are going exactly where they should go: toward creating a lavish and detail rich environment.

If you compare the Magic Kingdom to the other three Walt Disney World parks, it’s easy to notice that the Magic Kingdom has more to do. It has more substantive attractions. Part of this is out of necessity since it’s the most-attended park of the four. It’s also the most crowded of the four parks, with huge crowds often forming even despite its exceptional layout. Most importantly, in my opinion, it offers the least immersion and escapism of any park. While Epcot has lavish environments that you can spend hours exploring in World Showcase and Animal Kingdom has rich theming in, well, every land, Magic Kingdom seems a bit lacking in this regard. Its lands are incredibly well-themed, but this theming is mostly just apparent as you bounce from attraction to attraction with short stops in between to check out the details. There’s a lot of history, details, and references crammed into the Magic Kingdom, but there’s not as much to spend hours exploring (with the exception of the under-appreciated Tom Sawyer Island).

New Fantasyland will change this, and in the land most devoid of this richness. It’s abundantly clear from the construction photos and from videos and photos shared by the Disney Parks Blog that New Fantasyland will have plenty of nooks and crannies to explore, and a lot that will allow guests to immerse themselves in the experience and let their imaginations go to town while they explore the land and enjoy its attractions.

Whereas the current Fantasyland is a sea of concrete, strollers, and plenty of attractions, New Fantasyland seems like it ventures off into an uncharted forest (in fact, Disney is referring to the largest section of New Fantasyland as the “Enchanted Forest”) that will include bridges, waterfalls, castles, trees, rockwork, and a quaint village. This large new footprint of land with its lushness and detail will not only provide a stark contrast to the rest of Fantasyland, which is short on detail but strong on substance, but will also do a good job “eating” crowds due to its size and the capacity of the Little Mermaid dark ride. This will, hopefully, make the Magic Kingdom feel less crowded when even slightly high crowds descend upon the park, and help even out the crowds in Fantasyland, which is presently pretty much intolerable during the middle of the day.

The biggest plus, though, is the richly themed environment and kinetic energy that New Fantasyland will bring to the Magic Kingdom. I’ve stated several times that my favorite aspect of Cars Land is not the amazing Radiator Springs Racers or the dining, but the incredible environment that puts you right in the heart of Radiator Springs. This environment is what makes Cars Land as special as it is, and is what makes Cars Land distinctly Disney. It goes that extra mile to create an incredible experience throughout, rather than just a fun attraction next to another fun attraction.

New Fantasyland will have a difficult time matching Cars Land in this regard. It doesn’t have the same level of amazing rockwork, which is a big draw in Cars Land. Ornament Valley absolutely encapsulates the guest, which is an incredible experience. New Fantasyland does have the benefit of being a timeless and varied environment. While it is based on various movie-based Disney properties, the environment itself is an amalgam of these environments, carefully created to house multiple (very different) locales. In that regard it’s uniquely “park-based” rather than a copy of something from a film, like Cars Land.

Like Cars Land, it looks to improve upon attraction experiences with excellent pre-shows, queues, and buildings. Based upon what we’ve already seen, I think it’s safe to say that the Little Mermaid dark ride in the Magic Kingdom will be much more impressive than the one in Disney California Adventure, even if the substance of the attractions is the same, if only because the building and queue for New Fantasyland’s Little Mermaid dark ride look incredible. I suspect these little experience-enhancing details will be prevalent throughout New Fantasyland, and will compensate for a lot of the complaints concerning substance.

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Even if, at the end of the day, the environment doesn’t quite stack up to Cars Land, I suspect it will be close, and will raise the bar on environments in the Magic Kingdom, giving the Magic Kingdom its only World Showcase-type environment. This is something that the Magic Kingdom does not presently have, and the addition of New Fantasyland should do a great job filling this void. As is evident from the World Showcase, it doesn’t always take an attracti0n-packed lineup to make a land interesting. I think that will prove to be the case in New Fantasyland, as this park-changing, different style of land will round-out the Magic Kingdom very well, and it will absorb crowds.

New Fantasyland may not be the sexy, bar-raising substantive answer to the Wizarding World of Harry Potter that many hoped it would be, but I think it’ll be exactly what the Magic Kingdom needs most: better environments, more capacity, and more space. That’s something I’ll gladly take, even if the resulting land has meet and greets that don’t really interest me and fewer attractions than I would have liked. (I realize that not everything in a Disney theme park needs to be catered towards my demographic, specifically.) I think there’s an excellent chance that New Fantasyland in the Magic Kingdom won’t be the “plan a trip to see this awesome new ride” addition many hoped it will be, but instead it will be the addition we needed to make the Magic Kingdom a better overall park that many of us didn’t even realize was necessary…but once it’s open we’ll wonder how we ever did without it.

What do you think is the key strength of New Fantasyland? Are you as excited about the environment as me, or are you disappointed by its lack of attractions? Share your thoughts in the comments!

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15 Responses to “New Fantasyland’s Gamechanger Potential”

  1. I am reserving judgement until it is open and I get to experience it. From what I have seen it looks to be awsome and WDI has put an amazing amount of detail into their design for this area. When I say the building for the Little Mermade attraction in Calif. I was disappointed that it did not tie into the attraction more but having it blend in with the surrounding park won out.

    We can all sit back and “arm chair quaterback” what is being created in the Fantasyland Expansion but the true test will be when we can all enjoy in person.

  2. Donnie says:

    I didn’t think Harry Potter World was that great, a bunch of store fronts and old attractions with new names. I’m also not into the 3D ride. There were some fun parts but nothing that made me want to ride it again.

  3. KCmike says:

    For me personally Disneyland’s small Fantasyland destroys WDW as it stands now. The little park that could is just so darn amazing. I think WDW owes it to all Disney fans to add something special to the Magic Kingdom. It’s been so long since they have given us something of substance. They do have a chance to make this a game changer. Fantasyland should be in WDW wheelhouse and yet I’m not sure why they make the moves they do. More meet and greets are not what draws most people to Disney parks even for parents with youngsters. The parks at WDW just don’t do it for me after visiting Disneyland for several years now. We went back to WDW in 2011 and my kids and wife agreed that there is a declining of degrees at the WDW parks. It is clear that they don’t have what California has. The Magic Kingdom in particular felt big, empty, and heartless. My favorite ride of all Disney parks, Splash Mountain at WDW, was the only shining moment for me. Again I really hope they get it right. I want a reason to go back to Disneyworld. I miss the elder Epcot. Hollywood Studios and AK just don’t do it for me. I would rather go resort hopping than spend time in those parks. How sad is that? No more meet and greets please and stop tearing down classic attractions.

  4. Prof. Brainard says:

    I had not seen the bird’s-eye-view painting that you’ve used to illustrate your post (only the initial promotional painting released early on), but it clearly presents the Fantasyland addition as a lushly wooded landscape. Along with the Little Mermaid exterior, this should go a long way towards adding two elements lacking in Fantasyland since the demise of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea: water and green space. The archetypal “Enchanted Forest” is, of course, a perfect choice for Fantasyland, and I agree will help immerse visitors more fully into the fantasy experience. Who doesn’t love walking through an enchanted forest?! It will, however, take time for the trees and landscaping to grow, so we may not be able to fully appreciate (or judge) the expansion for some years after it opens (and I speak as one who remembers the original barren hillsides of Frontierland before the landscaping filled in). The film Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs remains as wonderful today as when it first awed the world seventy-five years ago, and I, for one, am excited about the mine train ride. My bet is that it will be a winner!

  5. tim says:

    Give me DL Fantasyland anytime over this “new” WDW Fantasyland-lite. DL has Alice in Wonderland darkride, Mr. Toad darkride, Pinocchio darkride, Matterhorn E-ticket, massive beautiful Small World, the classic Snow White darkride, and a much better fiber optic Peter Pan darkride. And you can always go catch Little Mermaid in DCA. Florida’s new Fantasyland is just sad when you compare it to what DL has had all along!

  6. tim says:

    I even forgot the Story Book Boat ride – some of the best landscaping in any Disney Park. Oh yea and they have a real actual Casey Jr. Train ride – not a public park wet diaper play area!

  7. Prof. Brainard says:

    The problem that Disney faces whenever it attempts something new is related to the fact that most Disney guests are fairly conventional in their tastes and worldviews. I don’t say this in a pejorative way; it was, in fact, Walt Disney’s goal to build a park that would cater to this demographic, a park that was secure, orderly, clean, consistent, and free from more seedy, grungy, edgy, bohemian aspects of carnival/boardwalk/amusement park environments (think: amusement spaces for the bourgeoisie that reflect the Protestant work ethic). But this can also make change difficult. As you state in your post, Tom, some people don’t like the new Fantasyland expansion, even though it hasn’t even been built yet! Given the way the parks work on us psychologically, it’s not a completely unexpected response (though it may be an unfair one).

    Based on the comments, some see the new Fantasyland as being in competition with Disneyland’s Fantasyland, and, in comparison with that beautiful space, found wanting already. Comparisons of this nature may or may not be productive, but who among us would really want all the Disney parks to be exact copies of one another?

    As to the purported “female-centric” nature of the expansion, I can only shake my head in bewilderment. In my long-ago youth, the Disney films and characters were not so segregated. Boys loved Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Fantasia (witness Ray Bradbury), and the films that I suppose now would be classed as “princess” films. It’s beyond my comprehension how we can have become so shallow (though I expect corporate marketing has a good deal to do with it). Is Beauty and the Beast really a film oriented towards girls, simply because the heroine is a female? Peter Pan in its hundred-year-history was never, to my knowledge, viewed or marketed as a “male-centric” play, though the titular character is male. It was enjoyed by both sexes equally. Little girls never shunned it, as far as I know. How tragic that we limit ourselves in this way and that we allow our children to limit themselves. What a loss.

    Another reason people react negatively to any change in the parks, one that you don’t mention specifically with regard to the Fantasyland expansion, derives from the fact that the parks are, for all of us, an emotionally secure environment. We’ve been there and, while we were there, we felt comfortable, happy, and secure. Take anything away from that experience, and you run the risk of making us feel off kilter; not only have you tinkered with something we found perfect, but you’re adding things that we don’t know and that therefore causing us some unease. We feel that the perfect Disney experience was OUR Disney experience, and we want the parks to remain as WE knew and loved them when we made that special visit. It’s understandable, really, and I feel this nostalgia myself. It can, however, grow counterproductive (There are whole blogs devoted to displaying old pictures of the parks–a fun thing to see–followed by comments from the same group of readers who complain about exactly the same things every single day–not so much fun to read.)

    All of this is by way of helping us understand our own response to Disney changes and the responses of others. None of this is by way of defending the notion that all of the changes made through the years have been good ones. Sometimes the changes have not been good and sometimes, especially in recent decades, the high artistic and quality demands that Walt Disney himself made have been run over by greedy, short-term, corporate interests (Disney’s phrase for such thinkers was the “sharp pencil guys”). But the tide that flows against change in the Disney fan community is a thing that operates independently of careful consideration in too many cases. Again, this is not unexpected. Disney never anticipated response to the parks to be as cerebral as mine (or yours): he expected it to be emotional . . . and emotional it is.

  8. Project Rumble says:

    ALL of Harry Potter was open on Day One, and even the Dueling Dragon coaster never had a substantial closure to paying guests during the whole build-up of the land. And they didn’t remove rides while building a serious E-Ticket in the back of the park. Is this a fair comparison? No. That company was making a lot of compromises for years beforehand, and Potter was the beginning of them being put back on the right track.

    Compare that with Disney, which was once the gold standard in the industry. Pretty sure the New Fantasyland is just a way to expand park capacities in the cheapest, most budget-friendly way possible. Two Dumbos with a playground queue? A splash pad for kids? More meet-and-greets, shops, and restaurants? Two actual new rides, one of which is a clone? An opening spread out over multiple years and financial quarters?

    Right now, WDW isn’t taking any creative risks anymore. Even SotMK was green-lit by execs with dollar signs in their eyes. New Fantasyland will be nice, but it’s the WDW equivalent of shooting fish in a barrel.

  9. leah says:

    I really enjoyed reading this article and agree with many of your observations and your thoughts about the future of New Fantasyland. I’m personally looking forward to the new immersive aspects of the Enchanted Forest! And, of course, I really cannot wait until the Mine Train is ready. I think it will be a gamechanger and bring the needed ‘oomph’ to the area for those seeking E-ticket attractions in addition to the wonderful theming. Thanks for a great read.

  10. Dave says:

    I like reading your blog because it generally bridges the gap between the pixie-dusters and the insatiable, which is the same place I am in the spectrum of people-who-are-interested-in-WDW-even-when-we’re-not-there; the interested but not obsessed, if you will.

    It gets a little frustrating to hear the Jim Hill end of the spectrum on podcasts when he starts with “Wellllllllll, *exasperated exhale* you knowwwwww, the whole notion of…” followed usually by vacant and easy second-guessing of almost any decision or action Disney takes.

    If you listen to the most recent WDW-FB podcast, he says something similar to “Well, now they’ve got their castle wall and their forest and restaurant and dark ride and Dumbo now, so, meh, whatever.” or the “John Lasseter is a great guy and has done some great things, but, you knowwww, he locked into honoring the nostalgia of the flying saucers ride with Luigi’s ride buuuuuuut that ride was only around for about 6 years.” So I guess there’s no sense in trying if it was ONLY six years, no matter what memory inspired it, ten years might have been ok…I’m sure that if he had honored the nostalgia of a ride that was so successful it’s still running, he’d be slammed for “just” re-skinning the existing ride and putting it elsewhere. GAH!

    I mention all that because it’s from the same guy who rips Kevin Yee for noting flaking paint, etc. when he should look around at the miracle of everything surrounding him. There’s just that kind of chasm in the logic that can be off-putting to those of us with hope that New Fanstasyland will be great.

    I was in the New Fantasyland back in April, so there wasn’t that much to see, but in my mind what they did with Dumbo, the station and Barnstormer was fantastic (despite the ride being more or less the same), so I don’t understand stuff like Project Rumble’s second paragraph. I mean, all those questions, that’s not enough? Would it be better they weren’t there or would you rather wait several more years until everything is just perfect (or would have been a few years ago in 2012)? I know that how this reads sounds more outraged than I actually am, so please don’t take it like I’m being defensive or calling out Rumble, that post just happens to be handy. There is certainly stuff that needs to be fixed at WDW, but this is what they decided to do, and it’s really good stuff so far. I think that it has shown enough promise to stay optimistic about the quality of New Fantasyland.

    Who cares whether Mermaid is a clone? What if it’s based on the DCA version, but this time they got to do what they really wanted but couldn’t for one reason or another at DCA? I’m not saying it will be, I don’t know, but even if it’s the same, what does it matter? If it’s one of the few times in life you can visit, at least it’s there. I don’t imagine that most of the guests there will think “Meh, I can see it in California if I want..” Yawn and move on. I think it’s much more likely to be a lot of kids thrilled to see Mermaid come to life. If you were a kid the first time you rode Pirates, did it even cross your mind that there was one in California, too?

    I hold out hope that Seven Dwarfs Mine Train will be great as well, because of Radiator Springs Racers. Not because I think it will be the equivalent, but because expectations for RSR as a ride were not high either (say it with me – meh, just TEST TRACK 2), and based on reactions I’ve seen, they nailed it. So what if it’s not a super-thrill ride? If it’s a great ride, it’s a great ride! If we’re basing opinions on the drawings and crude animations I’ve seen out so far, that’s really short-sighted given the level of output lately.

    As for Belle’s meet and greet, it looked terrific. I have a feeling they are holding back a few things there. I could be wrong, but what I saw, I thought was super. I’m not the target audience for it (my daughter is), but it looked like it would be mind-blowing for them. Maybe if the Belle meet and greet isn’t your thing, maybe the Unhappy Hour at Gaston’s will be. I recall an interview with someone that was very young and for whatever reason was at Walt’s house and said something boyishly critical of Disneyland to Walt (don’t remember the complaint), but he (the kid, since grown obviously) remembered Walt saying to him after thinking a moment, “Well, Hell, you can’t make everyone happy.”

    So, I think what I’m saying is essentially, let’s be happy that what we are getting is really good stuff. It could have been Imagination Pavilion 2.0/SSE wand-level stuff, but it’s not. So keep your hopes up that other changes that need to be made eventually will get made (Phineas and Ferbcot! Tear down this hat!) but enjoy what is here. Things are heading the right direction.

    • Dave says:

      What a long post! Thanks for reading if you did! ;-)

    • Tom Bricker says:

      I agree that, generally, things are heading in the right direction. I also don’t begrudge anyone for pointing out their perceived issues with the parks, but I prefer to have balance: I bash a lot of things that I perceive are negative but I also try to praise everything I see that’s positive. Some people may not agree with my personal opinions on individual items or my philosophy in general. That’s just my personal stance, and I think that’s what’s “fair.” I think there are a lot of other people out there like me, but our voices get drowned out in the sea of overwhelming positivity and negativity.

      I like reading Jim Hill for history, but not much else. His opinions and “rumors” are all over the place, and the logic behind them rarely makes any sense to me. That’s just my personal take. I read his website for the historical pieces because I think he has an incredible grasp of history and at one time was very well connected.

  11. Sheilla says:

    In Walt’s words: Keep Moving Forward. That’s what the expansion is all about. I’m excited that their bringing in great new technology is ride design and it animatronics. Lumierre and the Wardrobe in the Enchanted Tales with Belle look incredible.

    We go about every two years and I think they are really on track with what the guests want like the new ques. They’ve made entertaining the guests who are stuck in line a priority cause I know one of my big complaints was being bored waiting in line. And being hot and bored waiting in line. Hence the indoor air conditioned play waiting for Dumbo. I actually think it is brilliant and wonderful.

    We’re getting two new castles for crying out loud.

  12. JT says:

    I think the New Fantasyland is going to be quite the improvement. Even as a kid, I felt very strongly that of all the lands, Fantasyland felt the least “developed” and “immersive” – odd, considering it should be the flagship land of the park.

    When you look at the big picture of the entire expansion and bring into play, the classic area of today, Storybook Circus and the Enchanted Forest, it’s a very impressive addition that really will cement Fantasyland in its rightful place as the flagship land of the Magic Kingdom.

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