On again, off again, on again? The saga of the Magic Kingdom’s Fantasyland renovation continues with a new rumor from an unexpected source – Al Lutz.
The MiceAge impresario has made a name for himself over the last decade by revealing the inner workings of Team Disney Anaheim, serving as the first to warn of the oncoming storm that was Paul Pressler. He assiduously documented the resort’s steep decline under the reign of Pressler and his successor Cynthia Harriss, including the disastrous opening of California Adventure, as well as its revival under the auspices of Matt Ouimet. His spies feed him a constant stream of rumors about upcoming changes to Disneyland and California Adventure, but rarely does he comment on Walt Disney World.
It thus came as a surprise when Walt Disney World featured prominently in his recent update. You’ve probably heard the news by now; according to Lutz, not only do plans for a redevelopment of Fantasyland continue in Florida, but they now have an added technological twist. Disney CEO Bob Iger is said to have already visited Orlando twice this year for presentations on the subject, and thought nothing has yet been greenlighted, Iger has given the plan his initial approval.
The rumors of a Fantasyland facelift began to circulate online last year. With California Adventure debuting a new dark ride based on The Little Mermaid in 2011, speculation began that Florida’s Magic Kingdom would benefit by receiving a clone of the E-Ticket. The ride would allegedly be placed on the former site of the 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea lagoon, and would anchor a newly redesigned Fantasyland.
Orlando’s Fantasyland, constructed in 1971, has the unfortunate distinction of being the oldest iteration of that land in all the Disney parks. The Magic Kingdom’s older sibling, Disneyland, received an entirely new Fantasyland in 1983, the same year that Tokyo Disneyland opened. Paris and Hong Kong followed, but despite a few cosmetic alterations Florida’s Fantasyland has remained the same.
In fact, in that time Fantasyland has lost two attractions – the Skyway and 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. It also tragically lost Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride in favor of The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh, and the space originally held by the Mickey Mouse Revue is now Philharmagic. There has been no expansion – by my count, Disneyland’s Fantasyland houses thirteen attractions while Orlando’s only has eight. Disneyland lacks only Philharmagic, as their Winnie the Pooh ride is in another land; Walt Disney World is missing the Circus Train, Canal Boats, Castle Walkthrough, Matterhorn, and dark rides based on Alice in Wonderland, Pinocchio, and – sigh – Mr. Toad.
While the planned renovations in Orlando would not come close to adding all these attractions, they would allegedly give the area a complete makeover and add the Mermaid E-ticket. Other less frequently repeated rumors from last year also mentioned a family rollercoaster themed to the minecars from Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, and the subsequent conversion of the old Snow White dark ride to something based on Beauty and the Beast.
These plans, along with all of the other expansion ideas for Florida, were said to be boxed last year when the economy went sour. As the Disney parks remain packed in Orlando, though, it’s hoped that the cash spigots are now open again.
According to Lutz, these plans are currently fighting their way through the gauntlet of the budgeting process and would indeed include the addition of the Mermaid attraction. The real surprise here is the technology that Lutz claims Imagineers hope to utilize in their remodeled versions of existing attractions.
Radio frequency identification, or RFID, is an emerging technology that many companies are now using to track information. The technology has seen a wide variety of uses, from embedded identification information in passports to swipeable keycards for mass transit and credit transactions. RFID involves a small integrated circuit that can either actively transmit information or passively wait to be activated by a remote source. The potential for the technology is nearly limitless, as are the privacy concerns surrounding its use.
Lutz claims that Imagineers hope to use RFID technology in concert with their new Fantasyland attractions. Tiny RFID chips could be embedded in park passes or other items, and if programmed with the right data could allow attractions to access personalized information about each guest. A crude analogue would be the old E.T. attraction at Universal, where guests would swipe cards when boarding and be greeted by name at the end of the ride. Using RFID, Disney could program chips with far more than a guest’s name.
This initiative, which is apparently referred to at WDI as “Next Generation” or “NextGen”, would allegedly begin at Walt Disney World but soon spread to California and beyond. Disneyland’s 750,000 annual passholders would be a prime target for these embedded chips, which would not only facilitate ride interactions but also allow the tracking of spending habits.
Upon the release of Lutz’s report, a number of sources chimed in to collaborate his story. Apparently WDI has very high hopes for RFID, and are looking at a number of ways to incorporate the technology into all aspects of the park experience. Possible uses involve upgrades to FastPass that would remove the need for physical card transactions, keyless room entry at the resorts, and integration with Photopass and other programs.
The other obvious reason for this expensive initiative is the potential for Disney to track everything guests do in the parks, from spending and eating habits to how long they’re waiting in line. While many will no doubt balk at the ominous potential for misuse of this system, it’s certain that Disney is already doing everything they can to track guest information. At least now they’ll be getting accurate information, which could possibly bode better than their existing survey methodology in which guest questionnaires can be worded to evoke a desired response. Of course, statistics can always be made to lie in order to produce a certain outcome, but the sheer amount of data generated by RFID tracking would make it difficult to skew conclusions and, say, pretend no one rides the Carousel of Progress or that anyone likes the Tiki Room UNDER NEW MANAGEMENT. It would also show me riding the WEDway over and over and… over and over, and I’m fine with Disney knowing that.
There are many possible creative uses for this technology, and I hope that WDI comes up with something really spectacular. They just have to be really, really careful about how they incorporate it. I can’t imagine anything potentially cheesier than having Peter Pan waving at the end of his ride and giving everyone in your boat personal shout-outs – talk about yanking you out of the illusion. The worst thing possible would be for them to incorporate this new technology and have it constantly screaming LOOK AT THIS! The absolute greatest moments of Disney illusioneering come when it’s totally unclear how an effect is achieved. The ballroom ghosts at the Haunted Mansion have befuddled guests for years – the focus is not the technology but the illusion. RFID should be used to make totally random and surprising things happen throughout the park, but not in a way that guests see it coming or immediately know why it happened. This is a fine line that the Imagineers are walking, and it can wind up astonishing or tacky. Here’s hoping they’re judicious.
Of course, keep in mind that this is all still unapproved. Al Lutz knows Disneyland gossip well, but has been known to get things wrong about Florida in the past. Enough people, though, have chimed in with words of support that this feels real. Hopefully the greenlight will come soon; those parks aren’t getting less crowded and Fantasyland isn’t going to fix itself.
UPDATE: Silly me – I write all this only to find out that Foxx had already posted a far more thoughtful dissection of the 1971 Fantasyland with several perceptive critiques and suggestions. I had never considered the obvious stylistic shift from Fantasyland West to East – indeed, if the entire land had as much atmosphere as the old Skyway station area it would be a great piece of design. I had always hoped that the 20K site would partially be used for a new version of Toad – where it, Pooh, and an Alice dark ride could collectively form an enclave of British facades to transition from the Italian and Gothic sections to the west. Foxx is correct – Fantasyland needs another body of water, and the return of certain landscaping elements. As seen in the photo at the top of this story, there’s a gaping hole where there should be some sense of depth and a back “wall” to the area. As it is, there’s only blue sky…