New Fantasyland, where Disney doubles down


You have a great gig," I said to the mermaid as I sat down beside her in the giant clamshell. "You don't have to schlep around."

We pressed our heads together and smiled for a photograph as she replied, "But I wish I had legs."

So goes small talk in Fantasyland. Correction: New Fantasyland, where old-guard princesses like Snow White and Cinderella are suddenly neighbours with the next generation of Disney box-office royalty: Ariel of The Little Mermaid and Belle of Beauty and the Beast. The kingdom, you see, has undergone some changes.

It was December 5, the night before the grand opening of New Fantasyland—the largest expansion in the 41-year history of the Magic Kingdom at Walt Disney World Resort—and the birth date of its founder. I was there to suss out the new additions.

Having been to this park more than two dozen times, beginning with family vacations when I was three, I figured I was qualified to review an expansion. Might the old magic be eclipsed by slick, new attractions? Would Disney be able to strike a delicate balance between nostalgia and innovation?

Fantasyland is the most popular land in the most popular Disney park in the world. Still, Disney had a problem. It had successfully minted a new generation of princesses in films, but it had nowhere to put them in the park. If Disney were the White Rabbit, it might have been muttering to itself, "I'm late! I'm late! I'm late!" It was time to catch up. And so, about five years ago, the company's "Imagineers" devised methods to make meeting the characters from the new tales more intimate and more orderly, even more entertaining.

To make all this fantasy a reality, Disney more than doubled the size of Fantasyland, to 21 acres from 10 acres. "It can't just be about nostalgia," Tom Staggs, chairman of Walt Disney Parks and Resorts, told me. I am a fan of the parks, but not a blind devotee. The Magic Kingdom is saccharine, expensive and homogeneous. At the same time, it is a place where families can be silly together.

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