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 firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @seandalypoplife on Twitter.