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Theme park guide: Disney opens Art of Animation Resort; 'New Fantasyland' slowly rolls out

LAKE BUENA VISTA — Walt Disney World doesn't like to be tweaked by competitors of any size. That pesky boy wizard over at Universal Orlando is the major reason behind the $425 million "New Fantasyland" in the works for the Magic Kingdom. • And you better believe the success of the Nickelodeon Suites Resort across I-4 is a catalyst for Disney's newest hotel, the Art of Animation Resort, which attempts to offer affordable suites while immersing families in popular movie themes, not to mention an epic pool. • Opening on May 31, the 87-acre hotel was originally intended as an extension of the adjacent Pop Century, a "value resort" themed via decades. But no one could garner much excitement about the '40s through the '20s (although the Great Depression is a swell name for a bar!). So the Imagineers at Disney went back to the drawing board — literally.

Themed around four classic flicks — 1989's The Little Mermaid, 1994's The Lion King, 2003's Finding Nemo and 2006's Cars — Art of Animation uses filmmaking as an architectural thread. The cavernous lobby is bedecked in original sketch work; as guests get farther into the front-desk area, the black-and-white art slowly becomes more defined, more colorful, Timon, Pumba, Simba all taking shape.

The Finding Nemo wing will be the first to open, with suites starting at $248 a night. On June 18, guests will walk through a fully realized Radiator Springs, including the Cozy Cone Motel, to get to their Cars rooms. The Lion King, with a playground instead of a pool (and a life-sized Pride Rock), roars into being Aug. 10. The Little Mermaid units, which will be the last to open, are the only standard rooms at the resort; they will start at $94.

From what I saw on a private tour, the Art of Animation is a wildly inventive improvement on Pop Century, not to mention worlds better than the — let's see, how can we put this? — "basic" All-Star Resorts. If the "value" price is a bit steep, Disney has gone all out to try and make it worth your wallet:

JUST KEEP SWIMMING . . . AND SWIMMING: With a whopping 310,000 gallons, the Nemo pool is the largest non-waterpark pool on the Disney property. Wet 'n' wild play areas feature life-sized re-creations of Nemo's pals — including flapjack octopus Pearl, a.k.a. "You made me ink!" And yes, Pearl, one of 2,500 sculpted figures at the hotel, "inks" here, too.

AND THE LAMPS ARE JELLYFISH! Only the Nemo rooms (or "underwater retreats") were ready for preview, but they were spacious and fun, especially if you're, say, 4 years old. Ceiling lights are encased in bubbles, giving the impression of being under the sea. Bruce the shark's submarine is the kids' bathroom, with the great white himself grinning on the shower curtain. If you forgot his famous mantra, it's right there on the porthole mirror: "Fish are friends . . ."

BUZZ LIGHT-LIER: The centerpiece of the lobby is a chandelier aglow with 77 genuine storyboards encased in glass. In a cool twist on the Hidden Mickey phenomenon, Pixar progenitor John Lasseter has signed one of them. (Psst: Think Mater.)

KIDS ARE ALRIGHT (MOM'S NOT TOO SHABBY, EITHER): The front-desk area, a swirl of rainbow colors, will be the first at a Disney World hotel to offer personal check-in booths instead of a long counter. The kids' waiting area next to the front desk will include a sketch artist and screening room. Just to make things fair, in the nearby video game room (four-person air hockey, sweet!), there's a lush parents lounge very close to the pool bar, which is called "The Drop Off." We totally love that.

GOOD CHOW, BAD NAME: The quick-serve food court is also quartered according to flick, with gorgeous artwork on the walls. It looks spacious and potentially yummy (Mongolian barbecue, gelato station), but the deluxe cafe's name is a hackneyed groaner: "The Landscape of Flavors." Ugh. C'mon guys.

Sean Daly can be reached at sdaly@tampabay.com. Follow @seandalypoplife on Twitter.

If you go

Disney's Art of Animation is at 1850 Century Drive, Lake Buena Vista. The Finding Nemo suites officially open on May 31. Rates start at $248 a night. A suite includes two bathrooms, a kitchenette and three sleeping areas to comfortably accommodate six guests. For reservations and more information, call (407) 934-7639.

MAGIC KINGDOM

Give Disney's creative team $425 million and 26 acres to play with, and who knows what sort of magic they'll whip up. That's the price and scope of the New Fantasyland project, which continues its rollout in July. The entire sprawl won't be completed until 2014, but here's a loose rundown of what's coming when:

July

Second Dumbo the Flying Elephant ride: Moms and dads will appreciate the second pachyderm more than the kiddos. As part of Fantasyland's new Storybook Circus area (which includes rejiggered incumbent Goofy's Barnstormer, now a stunt-themed coaster), the twin Dumbos will whirl clockwise and counterclockwise, adding water and light shows plus cool Disney details (check out the storyboards giving the ride narrative oomph). Not sure how much two rides will lower wait times — Dumbo will always be a slow-loading spin — but at least the queues will wind through an air-conditioned big top.

Casey Jr. Splash Soak Station This water park is hidden behind a privacy wall, but a peek reveals the animal train from the movie Dumbo, including a pesky monkey that gets his hands on a water hose.

Holidays

Under the Sea: Journey of the Little Mermaid and Ariel's Grotto: Think the Winnie the Pooh ride with singing crabs and purple bikinis. This ride already exists at Disney's California Adventure in Anaheim, but the Magic Kingdom version should trump the original in presentation alone, as a seafaring paradise is already visible above the construction walls. Ariel's Grotto will be a meet-and-greet.

Enchanted Tales With Belle, Be Our Guest Restaurant and Gaston's Tavern: Perhaps the most impressive architecture spied over the construction walls is the Beast's looming castle, which, thanks to forced perspective, looks both awesome and far, far away. That will house the Be Our Guest restaurant, which will offer both full table service and quick-snack meals — not to mention immersive views of the movie's various sets. Enchanted Tales With Belle will be a meet-and-greet with the princess in her dad Maurice's cottage. And perhaps most intriguing is the villain Gaston's Tavern; alcoholic beverages are a no-no in the Magic Kingdom. Will this change at Gaston's?

2014

The Seven Dwarfs Mine Train: An indoor-outdoor steel roller coaster with ride cars that rock back and forth. Seeing as it is replacing Snow White's Scary Adventures, which closes on May 31, here's hoping this ride packs a few solid thrills.

Theme park guide: Disney opens Art of Animation Resort; 'New Fantasyland' slowly rolls out 05/23/12 [Last modified: Wednesday, May 23, 2012 1:21pm]
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