LAKE BUENA VISTA — The new Dumbo ride won over Tina Busch after one spin conjured memories of a childhood rite of passage. "It's the first ride our family takes every time we come here," said the 32-year-old mother of two from Beaumont, Texas. "I was 5 the first time I rode Dumbo on my first big vacation away from home." The new retro-style spinning ride that opened at Walt Disney World last week sports lighted fountains, Dumbo's mom's adoring face and golden storks delivering the flying cartoon elephant. Soon, Disney will open a second Dumbo ride next door to shorten the notoriously long lines. And parents will find some relief once the lines move inside a new air-conditioned tent outfitted with a themed play area to occupy their young kids.
It's just the start of the biggest-ever expansion of the 142-acre Magic Kingdom park, which will double the size of Fantasyland with a 26-acre addition. By adding multiple rides, restaurants and gift shops in one swoop, the project dwarfs $90 million Splash Mountain, the last major Magic Kingdom ride addition that debuted two decades ago. Already the budget is headed toward $400 million, topping what rival Universal Orlando lavished on its blockbuster Harry Potter attractions two years ago.
"Fantasyland is the heart of the Magic Kingdom, the place where most people gravitate," said Chris Beatty, project creative director. "So we want to take guests to some familiar places they have never been before."
After two years of work, portions of the big project can be seen above the wooden barriers. But Disney, which has said it will open new areas as they are completed starting later this year, is still wrestling with whether to wait until its all done in 2013 or even 2014. That's because the last attraction started — a runaway train ride coaster — sits in the middle of the project.
Because of the Florida heat, the addition is designed to create a hilly, shady forest and glade countryside that lie beyond a new castle wall that will go up behind the iconic Cinderella castle.
The headliners are largely rooted in Disney classic films, including:
• Seven Dwarfs Mine Train. A family coaster, a bit slower than Big Thunder Mountain, barrels through a diamond mine to tunes like Heigh Ho Heigh Ho and Whistle While You Work. The mine car buckets swivel side to side, creating a gliding sensation that was confirmed in a mock-up Disney engineers mounted on a pickup.
• The Castle of the Beast. From Beauty and the Beast, this country village features a turreted castle built a bit smaller than Cinderella's only to create an illusion it's miles away. The big draws will be a costumed-character-led tour of Belle's Cottage and a 550-seat French restaurant. Dining rooms range from the ominous Beast's lair to the Be Our Guest scene and the grand ballroom where Belle and the Beast danced.
• Under the Sea — Journey of the Little Mermaid. A clone of the classic, animatronics-laden Disney dark ride that opened last summer at Disney's California Adventure park. The Florida version adds a preride introduction to the story around an underground grotto of waterfalls. The ride's arrival revived many Disneyphiles' 20 year "death watch" for a live show with the same theme at Disney's Hollywood Studios park.
• Storybook Circus. Now half open, this is the former Mickey's Toon Town Fair rebuilt as a Depression-era town when the circus comes to town. Sidewalks around the train station are embedded with elephant footprints and painted concrete that looks like peanut shells. A kiddie coaster is redone with Goofy as the inept star in a stunt show. Unopened is the second Dumbo ride and a splash play area by a circus rail car with elephants squirting water.
• Home of the Disney Princesses. Moved to Main Street Town Hall until a new home is built for Cinderella, Aurora, Tiana and Rapunzel in the shell of Snow White's Scary Adventure, which closes May 31.
The addition will increase the capacity of Disney's most popular park, which draws 17 million visitors a year, from 66,000 people a day to 80,000.
While the addition was on the drawing boards five years ago, Disney changed course once Universal upped the ante among the big theme parks with its hugely successful multiattraction Wizarding World of Harry Potter.
"Disney instantly lost the U.K. vacation market they had owned for years that now goes straight to Universal," said Jim Hill, whose Jim Hill Media produces an insider theme park design blog. "The Fantasyland addition combines everything Disney does best only more of it: magical storytelling, rides, food, merchandise and the ability to shake money out of people's pockets."
Now all of the big parks have followed Universal's lead. A $1 billion addition to Disney's California Adventure is anchored by the Pixar-inspired Cars Land. SeaWorld is adding a multiattraction Antarctica. A multiattraction corner of Disney's Animal Kingdom is being designed as a tribute to the film Avatar.
"The big parks are forsaking single new attractions in favor of what the trade calls attract-areas that give them multiple revenue streams and something bigger to market," said Dennis Spiegel, president of International Theme Park Services, an industry planning consultant.
The Fantasyland expansion is packed with tons of insider Disney detail. Informally named after Disney's top creative executive John Lasseter, "Lasseter's Look" is a spot fulfilling his request for a full view of the steam engine coming into the station. Signs calling the circus town Carolwood Park are an homage to the miniature train village Walt Disney built in his backyard. And designers have sneaked plenty of hidden Mickey ears into landscaping, murals and architecture.
"When I told the design people I could only find a few of them, they replied 'Good, that's how it's supposed to be,' " said Beatty.
The expanded Fantasyland also will open as Disney's $1 billion Next Generation technology initiatives alter the Disney vacation experience.
The company is talking of character encounters that go beyond the current meet-and-greets. Disney hotel guests would carry dinner and ride-line reservations booked from home on a digital card. The bands could help character performers put a child's name, birthday or pet into their spiel. Disney also is testing a costumed Mickey Mouse that talks and moves it mouth.
In recent tests at the Main Street character station, handlers were told to tell children who ask if Mickey talks: "It depends on his mood."
Staff writer Mark Albright can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8252.