Ending months of online speculation, Disney took the opportunity of a recent Parks and Resorts press event to reveal a number of changes to the previously-announced expansion of the Magic Kingdom’s Fantasyland area. Prompted by criticism of the earlier plan’s heavy focus on character “meet-and-greets”, the so-called “New Fantasyland” unveiled last week will incorporate a new attraction that hearkens back to Imagineering proposals predating the expansion’s announcement in September of 2009.
The plan, as originally announced, centered on areas themed to various animated features. The Little Mermaid would be represented by a new dark ride and a meet-and-greet location for Ariel, while Beauty and the Beast inspired the Be Our Guest restaurant, Belle’s village featuring Gaston’s Tavern, and an interactive experience in Belle’s home called “Enchanted Tales with Belle”. Other interactive meet-and-greets took place in a French chateau from Cinderella and Aurora’s cottage from Sleeping Beauty, and a new photo location was also included for Winnie the Pooh. The original Dumbo the Flying Elephant attraction would be relocated and doubled in size with the addition of a second spinner; it was also to recieve a large, indoor interactive queue. Adjacent to Dumbo was the re-themed Barnstormer coaster, and while that attraction’s new theme was not announced at the time, a subsequent article in Disney’s official twenty-three magazine revealed that it involved circus clowns.
The vaguest element of the plan, as announced in 2009, was its second phase which would add a “Pixie Hollow” area based on the direct-to-video Tinkerbell films. Pixie Hollow, which would appear as an oversized forest, would, along with the relocated Dumbo attraction, occupy the current site of Mickey’s Toontown Fair. That land, which originally opened as the allegedly “temporary” Mickey’s Birthdayland in 1988, would finally be demolished to make way for the Fantasyland expansion. Disney executives were reluctant to commit to any details about Pixie Hollow at the time of its announcement; at the D23 Expo in 2009, they practically admitted that the plans were unfinished and subject to change. This area seemed to also focus on a character meet-and-greet, but hints persisted that Imagineers were working on some sort of larger interactive experience or perhaps even a small dark ride. Pictures emerged last year of a scale model of Pixie Hollow that incorporated a carnival ride similar to Mater’s Junkyard Spin which will debut in Anaheim as part of the California Adventure “Carsland” expansion in 2013.
Yet almost as soon as these plans were announced, they began to change. The intentional vagueness with which Disney had described Pixie Hollow led many to believe that its plans were far from concrete, and during 2010 rumors began to emerge that the area had been the first to be cancelled as Imagineers began to reconsider and retool the Fantasyland plans. Soon the rumors claimed that much larger changes were afoot, and that the maligned meet-and-greets had been scrapped. It became obvious that something was afoot when Disney began to intentionally leave the meet-and-greets and Pixie Hollow out of their public discussions of the expansion, when concept art appeared in the parks for everything but these areas, and when construction began in earnest for the Little Mermaid attraction and Belle’s restaurant but the rest of the site sat noticeably fallow.
“Insiders” on message boards claimed that plans were definitely changing; said to be safe were the Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast areas, which had been well-received and were already under construction, as well as the “Dueling Dumbos” spinner and queue. Money from the cancelled Pixie Hollow, it was said, would be combined with the budgets for the now-aborted Cinderella and Aurora meet-and-greets to fund a new attraction. As the year passed, the rumors became more specific, until these supposed insiders had provided a slew of specific details about the new attraction and the reconfigured plan. Perhaps surprisingly for this internet age, the rumors turned out to be absolutely true.
The centerpiece of the new plans will be the Seven Dwarfs Mine Train, a combination dark ride and mild roller coaster that will occupy the large plot formerly earmarked for the Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, and Winnie the Pooh meet-and-greets. With Snow White moving into these new digs, the current Snow White’s Scary Adventures dark ride will be closed to make way for Princess Fairytale Hall, where the various characters left homeless due to the reconfigured plans will be relocated for a centralized meet-and-greet location.
The Seven Dwarfs attraction, which Disney describes as “a rollicking, musical ride into the mine ‘where a million diamonds shine,’” was actually part of New Fantasyland rumors that predated the 2009 expansion plans. Reported here in 2008 after stories appeared at Blue Sky Disney and elsewhere, the family-friendly ride disappeared into obscurity when it didn’t make it into the official announcement. Thankfully it made a return when it became apparent that more traditional attractions were needed in the park.
After moving to its new site between the Barnstormer and Tomorrowland’s Speedway, Dumbo the Flying Elephant will anchor a new “mini-land” now referred to as Storybook Circus. This new theme will tie together Dumbo with a re-themed Barnstormer and Toontown Fair train station; the Barnstormer will retain its aviation angle but will now feature “The Great Goofini” with more circus-heavy theming. The circus approach to the area will attempt to blend these seemingly disparate attractions while setting them apart from the obviously unrelated fairytale trappings of Fantasyland proper. It will also allow Disney to retain the garish circus tents of Mickey’s Toontown Fair, which were originally slated for demolition to make way for Pixie Hollow but which will now, at least temporarily, be either refurbished or replaced until Imagineering decides upon future plans for the area.
Also depicted in the new concept art is a water play area in the middle of the expansive circus area. The water feature is themed to the Casey, Jr. train from the film, but as that theme is also being used for a snack cart elsewhere in Storybook Circus, this might merely be an instance of artistic license in the concept art. We had spotted Casey, Jr. in art that was displayed at the 2009 D23 Expo, and when asked afterward about the possibility of Disneyland’s classic Casey Jr. Circus Train coming to the Magic Kingdom, Imagineers said that it might appear in some form. Now, for the time being at least, Casey will take the form of a quick service dining location.
So now that we know what the plan will look like, what is the time frame for all these changes? With the “Under the Sea – Journey of the Little Mermaid” and Beauty and the Beast areas already underway, we can expect to see them come online sometime in late 2012 or early 2013. Toontown Fair will close on February 11th to go under the knife; once it has been cleared and sent to that great scrapyard in the sky we can expect Dumbo to shut down for his relocation. We don’t have any timeline yet for the rest of the Storybook Circus changes, including a re-themed and re-opened railroad station. The last of the new attractions, the Seven Dwarfs ride, has no announced timeline but I doubt we’ll see it before 2014.
The big mystery is what will happen after these changes take place. Some say the idea to replace the current Snow White dark ride with a princess meet-and-greet location is only temporary; the first rumors about the new Fantasyland called for Snow White’s Scary Adventures to be replaced by a new attraction, but it’s unknown if that’s still in Disney’s plans.
So I know what you’re dying to know is what I think of these plans. Well, I like them. Certainly more than the earlier plans, and I even liked those despite their attraction-light nature. I’ve always seen the Fantasyland expansion as a very necessary place-making opportunity, and even aside from the Mermaid attraction I felt it would bring a new sense of vitality to the landscape. Ever since the closure of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and the Skyway, Fantasyland has lacked critical visual elements of motion, water, and greenery as well as the “back wall” to the area that the sub lagoon’s rockwork and palm trees used to provide. The result was that everything north and east of the Carousel felt flat, exposed and desolate. Even if it did nothing else, the expansion promised to add some variation to the terrain, some moving water, and a lot of greenery.
Of course, it is better to have something to do amidst all that greenery so the addition of a new attraction is welcome. There are many in the fan community that are upset the loss of Snow White’s Scary Adventures, but for whatever reason I simply can’t be bothered to care. The ride, which received a major overhaul in 1994, had been greatly changed from its bizarre 1971 incarnation and had the distinction of being the least interesting dark ride in what is probably the fourth-most-interesting Fantasyland in the world. I can’t really get riled up about Snow White getting a major upgrade in ride quality, even if I’m not thrilled about any attraction being replaced with a meet-and-greet. We can only hope that situation is temporary – and not a Mickey’s Birthdayland type of temporary. The fact remains that even with the expansion Florida’s Fantasyland lags far behind its California counterpart in terms of attractions, and it’s unfortunate to have a show building used for something besides a ride when the Magic Kingdom is still missing Disneyland’s Alice in Wonderland, Pinocchio, and Mr. Toad rides as well as the Storybookland Canal Boats and train.
The addition of castle walls that will set the traditional “medieval faire” areas of west Fantasyland apart from the new Fantasyland Forest and its themed areas should create a nice sense of space, and if the wonderful new queue for The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh is any indication, it should all be visually quite appealing.
The real concern, for me, is Storybook Circus. In the original plans this was a much smaller area around the Dumbo spinners, but with the cancellation of Pixie Hollow the circus has taken over a much larger footprint. The announcement is vague – what will go in those old Toontown circus tents? – but it’s clear that the circus theme will be very prominent.
I feel like this is a problem. It’s not really a matter of whether circuses are “relevant”, it’s an issue of whether anyone – and I mean anyone – likes circuses at all anymore? It’s rather ironic, since Disneyland was perhaps one of the biggest factors in the decline of circuses as mass entertainment, but people mostly see circuses anymore as a quick and easy opportunity for some easy punchlines at the expense of dirty carnies and dangerous attractions (not to mention animal rights concerns). Then there’s the issue of clowns; it seems inconceivable today that there was an era in which clowns were seen as whimsical or in any way beloved, and in fact they have become a frequent intense phobia for many. No one wants to run off a join the circus like they did in Walt’s day, so is this an appealing idea for the expansion?
In many ways the Imagineers were trapped with this. The idea of creating film-specific areas around each attraction at first led to a circus-themed queue for Dumbo, but then the Barnstormer became an orphaned attraction without land or theme. Instead of ditching that kiddie coaster, they tossed it in with the circus theme. When Pixie Hollow fell through, the circus expanded to include the train station and the rest of the former Toowntown Fair. Imagineers have developed a number of circus-themed attractions over the last fifty years, some of them quite appealing, but perhaps it would be best to hope that they have a trick up their sleeve for future phases of the expansion which will cede the former Pixie Hollow plot for something more inspiring – something really iconic that would anchor that back corner of the park and provide a wienie par excellence.
But that’s all for the far-too-distant future. For now we can just sit back and watch as Ariel and Belle’s kingdoms slowly – too slowly! – and inexorably creep towards completion. Soon Toontown Fair will mercifully be gone, and the new face of Fantasy will finally be on the way. Thank heavens that, in the end, the bulk of the expansion looks like it will be worth the hallowed real estate it occupies.