Last summer I had the privilege of going to Walt Disney World for the first time since childhood. Now, I suspect that, when you read that sentence, you fell into one of two camps:
- Your cynicism glands started pumping harder or
- You became immediately giddy because you know I’m going to talk about magic
For both groups, this post should have something to entertain (though I do help it melts a few of you cynics along the way).
As you mayknow, the Fantasyland expansion at Disney included a number of new Beauty and the Beast features. This was a huge deal for me. Since the film came out in 1991, I’ve been smitten with the story, the animation, the music, the characters, everything. As an impressionable five-year-old, I didn’t really stand a chance—I mean, honestly, a brunette who loves to read, abhors the egomaniacal suitor, and shows grace to a tortured soul? Best Disney heroine, hands down. As a kid, my greatest aspiration was to be Belle, and in many ways, this is still true today. A few years ago, I even contemplated auditioning for the theme park role. While at Disney World this past September, (I confess) I bristled whenever I saw one of the actresses playing Belle. They were doing it wrong. All of them. She’s mine.
But I digress.
I wasn’t sure what to expect from the Fantasyland expansions, especially after being disappointed by the new Little Mermaid ride. Clearly riders were supposed to have the impression of being underwater, but riding in a plastic shell through a blue room and watching fabricated sea creatures spin around on dowels didn’t impress me. It wasn’t up to the usual ‘Disney standards’. I realized later that those Imagineers must have put all of their eggs into the Beauty and the Beast basket; it was a revelation, a transporting experience (and I use the term “experience” very intentionally). The wonder that was the new Beauty and the Beast Fantasyland did not just leave my inner child bedazzled. It intrigued every creative impulse in my body.
SPOILER ALERT. If you would rather go to Disney and be surprised by this glorious experience, do not finish reading my description.
We had heard rumors that the Be Our Guest restaurant was supposedly spectacular, so we decided to try it for lunch (dinner was out of the question—booked solid for months). The restaurant was housed by a man-made mountain, atop of which stood the Beast’s castle scaled with forced perspective to look far away. The line for lunch spilled out the door, but we were not dismayed. We perused the menu, drank free lemon water brought to us by costumed ‘cast members’ on a themed cart, and waited to enter through the restaurant’s elaborately crafted doorway in the mountainside. Once inside, our eyes adjusted to the light, and we found ourselves in a vestibule of vaulted stone and marble (faux stone and marble, but still impressive). To our left we saw a mosaic of the stained glass window image of Belle dancing with Prince Adam (Did you know that the Beast’s name is Adam? I learned this recently. No offense to you Adams, but you’d think the Beast’s name would be something a little more, well, Beastly…or at least French). It was at this moment, and my husband and in-laws can attest, that I started jittering with anticipation. The passage turned to the right, through a hallway lined with suits of armor. If we listened closely, we could hear their voices coming from their helmeted heads. At the end of the hallway we were given a rose-shaped token which would act as a locator and alert the waiters to where to bring our food.
Thinking about this from an experience design perspective, so far in our journey I was already impressed. No effort was spared, no detail skimped. The color scheme and lighting were just right for giving the guest a feeling of grandeur. From floor to ceiling embellishments like ornate tiles or stone carvings left me in a state of wonder. I thought about how these little touches could be both entirely unnecessary and utterly important at the same time. For an ordinary restaurant, they didn’t need to add fleur de lis carpeting or hang real tapestries on the walls. But this was an experience, and experience design needs to be holistic. You know it when you feel it. It shows when it succeeds.
We placed our order (it was what they call a ‘quick service’ meal on the Disney dining plan) and waited to be called to our table. A cast member opened the curtains and ushered us into the ballroom. Oh, the ballroom. Immense and ovular, the ballroom stood two or three stories tall surrounded by columns. At the far end the room we saw the great window, and just like in the film, we could see through it snow falling gently “outside” on the terrace. Our eyes drifted up to admire the ceiling mural covered with clouds and cherubs spanning the length of it. Three enormous chandeliers lined the center, each glowing with dozens of candles. At this point, I was probably jumping up and down, but I don’t really remember anything but mirth. Everything was right, just like the movie. We took pictures of three generations of couples dancing.
The experience did not end here. There were still two whole other rooms to go. Off to the left of the great windows was a dark room beckoning. We went in to discover the Beast’s lair known as the West Wing, in all its ramshackle glory. Torn purple drapes hung from the ceiling and the walls. One of them overlapped the remains of the painting of the Prince, ripped apart with claws. At an interval the lights would flicker, thunder would rumble, and the Prince’s image would transform into his beastly self and back again. In the corner the curtains pulled back to frame a floating, holographic rose in a glass case. Delighted, we sought out more. We crossed the ballroom again to explore the last room. There we found a large dining room with a canopied stage in the middle. On top of the stage was a statue of Belle and the Beast dancing, twirling slowly.
We returned to our table utterly amazed. This wasn’t just a restaurant. This wasn’t a ride. This was imagination fleshed out, a child’s fantasy leaping from the screen into three dimensions and living color. Somehow that day I walked through an animated film. And just in case I thought I was dreaming, the taste of the food assured me it all was real. Tuna salad nicoise and roast beef followed by passion fruit profiteroles and chocolate mousse—to be sure, “a dinner here is never second best.” Thank you, Lumiere. Thank you.
Believe it or not, I am only half finished with my story. Jump ahead to Part 2.