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Fantasyland’s Secret Weapon (It’s Not Dwarfs in a Mine Train)

Cinderella Castle at Dawn - BlakeIn the world of modern theme parks, the more immersive, the better.

Guests want to be fully engrossed in fictional realms of their favorite stories. Imagineer Tony Baxter said (on WDW Radio, in fact) that immersing the guest is nothing new and that it’s been the focal point of Disney attractions since Jungle Cruise first immersed guests into the African jungle back in 1955. That’s true, but the technique for that immersion is now decidedly different. It is not enough to be a passive bystander and watch the action of an attraction take place in front of you. There is now an intrinsic desire to step into that action as it materializes all around you—and not just watch it happen, but be part of it, maybe even playing a role in it and influencing what happens within the story.

It is not the standard anymore for a new attraction to debut all by itself, no strings attached. There won’t be a time in the foreseeable future when that will happen again. First pioneered by The Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal, attractions now open in bundles, threaded together by a large amount of physical land that extends the attraction’s story beyond a show building and into the atmosphere, usually in the form of an expansion. That’s the trend on the rise. Thinking ahead to the future lineup of Walt Disney World, it’s clear that this is the dominant plan. Toy Story Land, the Star Wars expansion, Pandora: The World of AVATAR… they’re all massive undertakings that are more than just one individual attraction. Even Frozen Ever After won’t just open as an individual ride, but will have an accompanying character greeting building and re-imagined Norwegian atmosphere.

New Fantasyland Concept ArtImagineering’s first foray into this method of storytelling came with two projects built simultaneously on both coasts: Cars Land for California and New Fantasyland for Florida, both of which opened in 2012, the former all at once and the latter in phases leading to a 2014 completion. New Fantasyland doubled the size of the existing Fantasyland with major attractions surrounding animated classics of both legendary and contemporary eras. For the most part, the dust has settled surrounding the project’s newnessthat’s not to say its attractions don’t generate crowds (they most certainly do), but the expansion is no longer headline news. We’re used to it. It’s been broken in.

That does not, however, mean that it is not worth taking a closer look at. In fact, in assessing the handful of experiences that work in tandem to create New Fantasyland, I’d wager that the one that exemplifies this immersive trend more than any other isn’t what you might think. Ariel has plenty of special effects that plop us in the middle of her story, but that’s not quite it. Those seven dwarfs make for a quick, fantastic attraction, but that’s not what I’m thinking of, either. No, my money (and priority) is on the little town, the quiet village, where every day is like the one before and a certain princess has a hankering for telling her story: Enchanted Tales with Belle.

Enchanted Tales with Belle - BlakeEnchanted Tales with Belle is the archetypal Disney attraction, and yet it is so unique from anything before it. It is completely and wholeheartedly a product of its time, and yet embodies the emotions associated with a Disney vacation that have remained ageless for generations. It is essentially a souped-up photo-op, and yet as we experience it, we never once think of it that way because of the effectiveness of its story, which has a history of its own.

The attraction has its origins in Storytime with Belle, a long-running, small-scale show in Fairytale Garden, the space now occupied by Merida’s character greeting. Belle enlisted the audience’s help in telling the story of Beauty and the Beast, complete with guests in different roles using costumes and props. In what amounts to the most elaborate re-imagining of any individual attraction in Disney theme park history, Storytime with Belle became Enchanted Tales with Belle, swapping out Fairytale Garden for nothing short of the Beast’s castle.

Now a full-fledged, multi-part attraction, Enchanted Tales with Belle begins in Belle’s cottage, bringing the same magic that Mickey and Minnie’s homes brought to Mickey’s Toontown Fair. There is something intrinsically special about observing where the characters live that adds believability to their existence, and that quality sets the stage nicely as guests wait in the Belle queue. Through an extremely cool moment that I won’t spoil here, we wind up transported inside the Beast’s castle, where remarkable Audio-Animatronics versions of Madame Wardrobe and Lumiere, and of course Belle herself, in person, assist us in telling the Beauty and the Beast story.

If you pay close attention, you’ll notice that our little adventure is actually much more than a way to spend 15 minutes. There’s a reason Belle’s all dolled up in her ball gown: We’ve gone back in time to the very middle of Beauty and the Beast, just before Belle and Beast have their famous dance. It turns out Belle is a little nervous and could use some moral support. So, the next time you watch the film and you reach that scene, you can know you had a personal hand in making it happen. (I guess she was so caught up in the moment that she disregarded it was the first human contact she had had since being trapped in the castle all that time.)

fantasyland-expansion-concept-artThe attraction is the sole remnant of a proposed trio of similar venues that would give guests personal encounters with Disney princesses. In addition to Enchanted Tales with Belle, originally New Fantasyland was also slated to include Dreams Come True with Cinderella and A Birthday Surprise for Sleeping Beauty, both employing the same format of visiting each princess in her home (or, in Cinderella’s case, her stepfamily’s chateau) and partaking in some sort of activity with each character. Upon reviewing developing projects, then-new Disney Parks Chairman Tom Staggs felt that the New Fantasyland expansion had plenty appeal for girls, but none for boys (and also probably saw the obvious cloned feel of all three princess experiences). It was at his suggestion that Cinderella and Aurora’s houses got the boot in favor of Seven Dwarfs Mine Train. (In the accompanying concept art, note the Tremaine home and Briar Rose’s cottage where the dwarfs currently hold residence.) Surely if three attractions all juxtaposed next to each other were so identical, none of them would hold much value individually, so it is with its exclusive nature that Enchanted Tales with Belle shines.

The likability of Enchanted Tales with Belle comes in its simplicity. If you’re expecting an E-Ticket, this isn’t the place to go, but in terms of character Meet & Greets, you won’t find a more elaborate one anywhere on Disney property. If you’re expecting the usual picture-and-autograph fare… well, talk about exceeding expectations. The enjoyment will come here for appreciating the experience for what it is: a really good character encounter.

New Fantasyland at Dawn - BlakeCertainly the technology at use gives the attraction added value (especially with the enchanted objects), but the real quality that makes this experience special is the opportunity it allows for the guest. Think about it: The change in locale from Fairytale Garden to a fully constructed environment is what pushes the envelope of the attraction’s appeal. I couldn’t have asked for anything more of my first visit to New Fantasyland, which drove this point home. It was the morning of 2013’s 24-hour day, and New Fantasyland was my party’s first destination after the park opened at 6 a.m. The sun was just beginning to peak over the trees, a slight chill was still in the air, there were barely any guests around, and a Cast Member greeted us at the entryway to Belle’s home with a friendly, “Bonjour!” And that’s when it hit me: I was in the little town… it was waking up… and the people were saying bonjour. I was in the exact moment from the film. That is truly the key behind these land-hogging expansions: They allow that moment of realization to be possible for guests.

And once that realization is made, what happens next is (what I believe to be a justifiable example with which to use the word) magical. When you really stop to remove yourself from the moment and look around at the scene before you, it’s exactly the word to use. A robotic candlestick is singing “Be Our Guest” while lights flash and a procession of grown adults is following a picture-perfect princess in a march around the room. Some other helpers are standing in the corner, being as still as suits of armor just because the princess told them to. She says she needs our help to fall in love with a beast. By all accounts, this is pretty absurd. And yet, as the music plays, you find yourself clapping along with everyone else. Because maybe in that procession is your daughter, who idolizes Belle’s very being, or once did. Perhaps in the corner is your roommate, who usually puts up a macho front but is now gleefully following orders from Belle (from Belle!). In this space, there are no social norms, no preset rules, no judgment. We’re allowed to play in this fantasy. This is a reprieve. This is a safe place. Everything in this moment is ok. Enchanted Tales with Belle provides the rare opportunity to believe, if only for a moment, that fantasy can become, and does become, real.

(New Fantasyland concept art copyright Disney.  All other photos from the author’s personal collection.)

BlakeBlake is a college student focusing on Film and Creative Writing. He enjoys making his family of six watch the parade on Main Street and then sprint to Frontierland in time to see it again. You can follow Blake’s random Disney ramblings on Twitter at @olddirtyblake, or at BlakeOnline.com.