Encountering Old Friends in New Disney Neighborhoods


Entering Under the Sea - Journey of the Little Mermaid // Photo by Maureen Stone
Entering Under the Sea - Journey of the Little Mermaid // Photo by Maureen Stone


A visit to Walt Disney World in Orlando these days after several years away is not unlike returning to a favorite neighborhood to discover that several old friends have graduated to bigger homes that have either been newly built or renovated. Disney’s famed Imagineers, perpetually scheming to make things better for new or first-time Walt Disney World visitors, have tapped creative and sometimes mysterious technology to even transform waiting time into part of the family entertainment value in some of the most popular attractions.

Two key impressions became top of mind in recalling a recent tour of the new Fantasyland at the Magic Kingdom. One was that Disney storytelling, visible in the tireless attention to physical details in the reimagined attractions, is central to each new guest experience. The second was that the “immersion” of the guest in each attraction, often via live and unexpected star character encounters, has taken the traditional concept of interaction between Disney guests and cast members to a new level. Live characters can now be encountered everywhere in the Walt Disney World parks, well beyond the traditional encounters that still occur opposite the Magic Kingdom entrance on Main Street USA and in the shadows or confines of Cinderella’s Castle.


The Rose Gallery - Be Our Guest Restaurant // Photo by Maureen Stone
The Rose Gallery - Be Our Guest Restaurant // Photo by Maureen Stone


Be Our Guest Restaurant

The visual Disney stratagem became clear during a recent media group visit to the new Fantasyland, the largest expansion of the Magic Kingdom in its 41-year history. During each stage on the tour, Disney Imagineering Communications Manager Diego Parras reminded the participants that in each reimagined or new attraction the Disney story is in the details. Visitors arriving at the new Be Our Guest Restaurant in Fantasyland’s imposing Beast Castle walk the same entry hall of armored knights that Belle encountered upon her own castle arrival in the film. The restaurant’s Rose Gallery room features a centerpiece music box, said to have been carved by Belle’s carpenter father Maurice, complete with life-size figures of a dancing Belle and the Beast.

Above the Be Our Guest Restaurant Ballroom // Photo by Maureen Stone
Above the Be Our Guest Restaurant Ballroom // Photo by Maureen Stone


The Be Our Guest ballroom dining area, replicating the space where Belle and the Beast danced in the film, is adorned with French chandeliers, Belgian-style tapestries in the foyer, cherubs cavorting on a fresco ceiling, and a perpetual light snowfall beyond the wall of windows at the rear of the space. An adjacent, slightly eerie West Wing dining room has the rose that reduces the remaining life of the beast with each falling petal.


A time-saving application of Disney technical stagecraft is the procedure for arriving diners to pre-order their menu selections from computer monitors. Guests are handed mobile devices for each table that guide servers in authentic European period costumes to efficiently deliver course selections. Lunch entrée choices include a croque monsieur ham-and-cheese sandwich, a braised pork served coq au vin style, and a vegetable quiche. Several media guests were delighted by a filling, tangy tuna nicoise salad that included several generous slices of fresh sushi-quality tuna priced at under $14. Despite a dinner capacity of 340 for dinner and 546 for lunch, table reservations at Be Our Guest are hard to obtain at this writing, except for early lunch, so travel agents should advise clients to plan well ahead.


The New Enchanted Forest Below Beast's Castle // Photo by Maureen Stone
The New Enchanted Forest Below Beast's Castle // Photo by Maureen Stone

Live Encounters With Belle and Ariel

A prime Disney character encounter in the new Enchanted Forest is found in the new Enchanted Tales with Belle attraction set in Maurice’s cottage inside Belle’s village. Here guests step into Maurice’s workshop and then through his enchanted mirror into Beast’s castle. As described by Imagineer Parras and experienced by our group, no two encounters with Belle in this attraction are alike.

Audience members receive props to become story characters, including Maurice, the horse Philipe, Mrs. Potts, Chip the teacup and two knights. The group, directed by the talking candelabra Lumiere, surprises the live Belle arriving in the library before her evening dinner with the Beast. Audience characters meet and greet Belle and join her in a march to the tune of the song Be Our Guest, an activity particularly exciting for young members of the audience and their parents, most sporting their own cameras to record the encounter.

Nearby Belle’s village in the new Enchanted Forest is a second new Fantasyland castle, this one the home of Prince Eric, the romantic interest of Ariel, the Little Mermaid. Visitors queue along the babbling streams leading into Eric’s castle for the new Under the Sea-Journey of the Little Mermaid attraction. Dave Minichiello, Imagineer and creative director of the Little Mermaid experience, noted that “we are working on more and more immersive guest experiences.”

Minichiello’s creative teamwork is evident to guests who, after riding the Ariel adventure re-created in the space of the former 20,000 Leagues Under the Seas attraction, can immediately queue up to meet the star of the show. Next door, in Ariel’s Grotto, the live Little Mermaid, fresh from her escape from Ursula the Sea Witch, displays impressive swimming fins and a sunny personality in welcoming each guest individually to an encounter with her colorful friends under the sea.


Guests help perform Enchanted Tales of Belle // Photo by Walt Disney World Resorts
Guests help perform Enchanted Tales of Belle // Photo by Walt Disney World Resorts


Innovation Under the Big Top

Storybook Circus is the second new Fantasyland area. It is as atmospherically different from the Enchanted Forest as Belle’s French village is different from Dumbo’s traveling circus in mid- America. The centerpiece of Storybook Circus is Dumbo, the Flying Elephant, a classic ride that has been doubled in size by Disney Imagineers. The reimagined ride features 32 flying Dumbos in colorful new colors, with one set of the elephants flying clockwise and the other counterclockwise.

Dumbo has a new, innovative pre-ride entertainment area that helps solve the problem of overheated young children who have limited ability to endure long waiting lines. This air-conditioned indoor children’s playhouse is packed with interactive games. Here the kids amuse themselves with new friends while their parents or guardians hold a circus ticket pager that notifies them when it is their turn to board one of the Dumbos.

Before or after the Dumbo ride, guests can enter Pete’s Silly Sideshow under a circus tent for more live character encounters, including visits with Minnie Mouse as the circus star Minnie Magnifique: Daisy Duck as fortune-teller Daisy Fortuna; Goofy as the Great Goofini stunt pilot, who is also star of the Barnstormer family roller coaster opposite the Dumbo pre-ride playroom; and Donald Duck as the snake charming Astounding Donaldo. The characters are surrounded by a tent space populated with an abundance of Disney character merchandise and snack foods, some of the vintage variety found in circus midways of past American generations.

Disney Imagineer Dave Minichiello in the Beast's chair // Photo by Maureen Stone
Disney Imagineer Dave Minichiello in Gaston's chair at Gaston's Tavern // Photo by Maureen Stone

Magic Kingdom Openings in 2013-14

Media members were given a sneak peak of the construction progress on Fantasyland’s new 7 Dwarfs Mine Train, scheduled to open in 2014. Imagineer Diego Parras said his creative team strives to incorporate pre-ride guest experiences and character encounters in surprising new ways in the 7 Dwarfs attraction next year. Guests will queue for the ride in shady areas, with separate Fastpass lines available for skipping longer waits. Riders will board the attraction inside the mine shaft.

“Each train will be a chain of five vehicles, with each car able to rock and sway,” said Parras. “There will be a roller coaster element and music from the Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs film will be heard throughout the environment…We expect to have separate character encounter areas.”

Based on viewing the hordes of family guests during the recent Magic Kingdom visit, the new Princess Fairytale Hall, now under construction near Cinderella’s Castle and opening later this year, holds the potential to be the biggest Disney hit among the park’s new attractions. Many young girls were adorned as Disney princesses decked in tiaras, ball gowns and party shoes as they walked with their families through the park. Little princesses and their families will one day soon enter Princess Fairytale Hall through castle walls with stained glass windows to a large gallery adorned with portraits of their hero princesses. There they will await live individual “audiences” with real Disney royalty from Cinderella to Sleeping Beauty (Aurora), Tiana (from the Princess & the Frog), Rapunzel, and others.

Guests preparing for their Fairytale Hall visit can find Disney princess attire for purchase at Walt Disney World Shops, including Castle Couture in the Magic Kingdom, and the Bibbidi Bobbidi Boutique in the Disney Village, where Princess hair stylings and makeup packages are also being offered. The princess movement is real and visible at the new Magic Kingdom, as well as elsewhere in Walt Disney World where princesses have other guest encounters. There were hints that more boys’ attractions may factor into Disney’s future plans to help equalize the new guest excitement that Belle, Ariel, and the Disney princesses have generated.


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