Category Archives: Imagineering

Tale as Old as Time, Part 2

At last, the long awaited Part Two of our experience to the Fantasyland expansion of Disney World, this time complete with video! See Part 1 Here.

On our last day at the parks we made sure to prioritize a trip to Enchanted Tales with Belle, the new interactive Beauty and the Beast experience. We weren’t sure what to expect considering we that were a group of adults and that this was most likely designed for young kids. But we had heard that the animatronics were not to be missed, so we gave it a go. As we turned the corner into Fantasyland we kept turning down a cobblestone path leading up to a thatched roof cottage with a stable attached. We wound our way through the farm-style fencing up to the house. Quickly I realized, “Wait, this is BELLE’S house and stable!” Remember in the movie when Belle goes out to the stable to feed the chickens and kicks the bucket of food over while swearing never to be Gaston’s “little wife” because she wants much more than this provincial life? That’s the one.

Belle’s living room

The line moved slowly but there was plenty to entertain. It was, however, about 200 degrees out, so we did feel a bit like melting into a puddle and calling it a day. The line twisted around the outside of the house and led through a door into Belle’s and Maurice’s living room—air conditioned and everything, thank the Lord. With the relief from the heat came a renewed sense of curiosity for our surroundings.  Between exposed wooden beams and yellowy-cream walls, the tables and counters were covered in stacks of Belle’s books and strewn about with Maurice’s blueprints for his inventions. On the wall hung a portrait of a young Belle next to who we were to deduce as Belle’s mother. We spotted along the opposite wall pencil markings—Belle’s growing heights over the years.

At intervals of about 10-15 minutes, a big door would open and a Disney cast member, dressed in culottes and tunics, would usher a new group into the next room. We (somewhat) patiently waited our turn. At last, our large party was welcomed into the “experience.” (Again, I use that word carefully and intentionally. Then again, I don’t know what else to call what followed. It was neither a ride nor a play nor a game, so experience is all I can say.) We followed a corridor down to another room where the cast member informed us that we were in Maurice’s workshop. Indeed, tools and blueprints and schematics and odds and ends appropriately suggested ‘eccentric inventor.’ The one component that looked out of place was a giant mirror hanging on the wall. The cast member explained that this was a magic mirror given to Maurice by the Beast so that he could talk to Belle whenever he liked. The cast member asked us all if we wanted to see how it worked.

The magic mirror

“Yes!” rang out young voices all around us. OK! The lights went dim and the mirror began to smoke and glow green. Slowly and seamlessly the mirror grew wider and taller. Before we knew it the glass had disappeared to reveal a secret passageway. Awesome.

The passage led through a short corridor and opened up into a broad, brightly lit hall, and who was there to welcome us but the Wardrobe in all her boisterous hospitality.

The Wardrobe hands out roles

With the help of the cast members the Wardrobe distributed from within her cabinets props for all of the children present, as well as any of the adults (Josh)

My knight in shining armor

who wanted to play along. She explained that, when we went into the next room, Lumiere would help us surprise Belle and reenact the story of how Belle met the Beast. After a moment or two of rehearsal, into the next room we went. We shuffled in and sat on benches facing a large fireplace. On top of the mantle sat the man—er—candelabra we’d all been waiting for. Lumiere welcomed us with broad sweeps of this brass arms and his charming, smirking smiles. He gave all of the kiddos (and Josh) their instructions to yell “Surprise!” when Belle arrived. “Are you ready?” “Yea!” The lights when down, the door on the left opened, and Belle came in. SURPRISE! Belle was appropriately surprised. Music played as she greeted us. With cues from Lumiere and some prodding from the cast members, the children (and Josh, who was a suit of armor) reenacted the Story of Beauty and the Beast, complete with a “Be Our Guest” parade around the room.

The experience

As if I were not already delighted, there was a particular moment that won all of our hearts. You might think that one of the young boys would jump at the chance to play the role of the Beast. On this particular occasion, however, this was far from the case. It was, in fact, a little girl in a Cinderella outfit who eagerly claimed the part. On went the Beast’s red cape and the play was cast. Half way through the play, the time came for the Beast to give a mighty roar. The lights when down, the spotlight went up, the music turned off, and then we heard it—tiny, sweet, and delightful: “rooooaaaar!” I later overheard the little girl’s mother tell a cast member that for months this little girl was desperate to play the role of the Beast, therefore making this a dream come true. A “Disney moment” if ever there was one!

As I reflect on these magnificently interwoven elements of acting, animatronics, timing, comfort, interactivity, etc., I realize how easily it all could have gone off poorly. It could have felt painfully cheesy, but we were all too impressed to think too hard about it. It could have been disastrously awkward if we had had to wait for too long to go from room to room, or if something else had broken down in the system, but there was never a moment’s doubt. We could have felt like cattle, what with all the shuffling we did, but our curiosity kept us moving. The professionalism, the high standard of service, and there being so much to look at completely prevented all of these possibilities. I noticed that a huge key to the success of this experience was the wherewithal of all of the cast members.

My favorite salt shaker

It is no easy task to herd kids with their costumes and their anxious parents on what must be an exceedingly tight schedule. Neither is it simple to keep so many people not only happy but enthralled, and keep yourself practically invisible in the process. I had heard tell of the exemplary Disney customer service. I even read a little book about it called Lessons from the Mouse, all about how other businesses can apply the Disney customer service standard. But here it was, in living color, making it possible for hundreds of people every day to leave behind their cares of the hot and sweaty world outside. No one does this better than Disney, and they do their best to prove it every day.

Here are a few clips from the experience strung together for your viewing pleasure. Be sure to admire the flexibility of the animatronics, the expert facilitating skills of each of the cast members, and best of all, the little roar.

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Tale As Old As Time, Part 1

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:

  1. Your cynicism glands started pumping harder or
  2. 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.

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