New Fantasyland vs Wizarding World of Harry Potter: Does Disney have a fighting chance?
I have two costumes hanging in my closet that I am proud of due to their intricately detailed qualities. They are the costumes I alternate between most frequently and the ones I devoted the most time to completing with authenticity. They are the characters I find most closely resemble my alter egos and that I relate to best: Hermione Granger from Harry Potter and Belle from Beauty and the Beast.
When the Wizarding World of Harry Potter opened its doors back in June 2010, I wasn’t just at the grand opening, I made the three hour drive from South Florida to Orlando just to spend two hours in the park the moment I found out the park was doing a soft open.
Just over two years later, it’s Belle’s turn. In the largest expansion in Disney World history, New Fantasyland will be opening it’s doors December 6th for Orlando visitors to experience life under the sea with Ariel and Belle’s pre- and post-provincial life. Disney World Passholders anxiously battled busy Internet servers last Monday to snag a spot in the Passholder Preview Days next month, so imagine my surprise when I heard that Disney World was hosting a ‘Dress Rehearsal’. Once again, with a fervor and excitement I hadn’t felt since The Wizarding World of Harry Potter opened, I jumped in my car and drove three hours with my fingers crossed, hoping Belle’s Village would be open and waiting for me when I arrived. Thankfully, it was!
New Fantasyland is the first Disney World expansion since Universal Orlando opened the Wizarding World of Harry Potter, so naturally, this section will likely be highly compared to Harry’s world. The most immediate downfall I found in Disney’s New Fantasyland is the use of forced perspective. Where the Wizarding World of Harry Potter has a near scale Hogwarts at its focal point, New Fantasyland has built two castles, Beast/Prince Adam’s and Prince Eric’s, but both are smaller castles meant to be viewed as though far in the distance. Prince Eric’s castle is, admittedly, larger, but Beast’s castle is so clearly a small castle meant to be viewed in forced perspective that I fear the day a bird lands on it revealing the castle’s tiny stature or appearing to be an avian monster attacking Belle’s ‘little town’.
Hogwarts 1 - New Fantasyland 0
Small castles aside, the rest of Disney World’s New Fantasyland does not disappoint. It seems the Imagineers really stepped it up after seeing the competition’s detailing in Hogwarts and Hogsmeade village. Gaston’s Tavern is covered in antlers (he really does use antlers in all of his decorating!), Belle’s cottage features tiny details of her childhood alive in every nook and cranny, and Ariel’s Under The Sea ride not only pays homage to 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, the now closed attraction which was sited near the current ride’s location, with a etched Nautilus submarine hidden within the rock cove, but also houses one of the most intricately detailed hidden Mickey’s I’ve ever encountered (once a year, on Mickey’s birthday, the sun will cast a shadow through the rocks to form a hidden Mickey on the floor below for one hour). But the detail that really sets New Fantasyland apart are the expertly fantastic characters. Currently, Belle can be found in the Enchanting Tales with Belle attraction and Ariel (in her fin) meets you in her grotto. Both are amazingly accurate and entertaining to a tee. But the most finely tuned character literally wandering around New Fantasyland is Gaston. Almost an attraction in himself, I found myself spending large portions of time simply watching Belle’s vain and egotistical would-be suitor interact with guests in an impeccable manner. From his mannerisms to his off-the-cuff exchanges in conversation, Gaston has quickly climbed the ranks for me after having met him in the park. I was more than impressed by how well Disney conceived their characters and felt slightly deflated by the fact that the Wizarding World lacked in this section greatly. Sure, I could meet random Hogwarts students or random Beauxbatons students or random Durmstrang students, but the randoms aren’t what draw us in. Universal’s frog choir is entertaining, but I have walked right past it more times than I haven’t. And honestly, don’t get me started on the Beauxbatons and Durmstrang show. I’ve been going to the Wizarding World multiple times a month since its opening, and if pressed for information at this very moment, I couldn’t tell someone what happens at that performance aside from some minor rhythmic gymnastics with ribbons and staffs and then a photo op with obscure and unnamed students. The most characterized person in the Wizarding World is the Conductor of the Hogwarts Express, but he is more informational rather than a big personality to draw you in. Gaston, on the other hand, literally traipses through Belle’s village, seemingly without boundaries like normal Disney characters, approaching unsuspecting woman and thanking them for visiting him, shouting that women shouldn’t read books because it ‘gives them ideas’, and admiring himself in every reflection he finds, including your sunglasses. For me, this type of on-point characterization sets New Fantasyland apart in a way that Disney fans can appreciate and Potter fans can only long for.
Hogwarts 1 - New Fantasyland 1
On the subject of Gaston, Gaston’s Tavern is almost certainly the Hog’s Head Pub’s newest rival. Both feature dark, wooden decors, barrels of ‘ale’ placed decoratively at the bar, and finite details from their respective stories. While Gaston’s Tavern does not have any actual alcohol (for the first time ever, The Magic Kingdom will be lifting it’s dry park rule ONLY for the new Be Our Guest Restaurant inside Beast’s Castle, but will only be serving wine and beer in limited beverage counts), the Tavern does have a new drink poised to rival the Wizarding World’s Butterbeer. LeFou’s Brew, named after Gaston’s bumbling, smart-alecy sidekick, is, perhaps, a more refreshing version of Butterbeer. Sold only in a frozen format, LeFou’s Brew is a no-sugar added frozen apple juice drink with a hint of toasted marshmallow, topped with an all natural mango and passion fruit foam. Having drank Butterbeer countless times at this point, I naturally assumed this drink in Gaston’s Tavern would be sweet like the drink I was used to in Universal and so my taste buds were sent into temporary shock tasting the more tart flavours of the fruits. Personally, I’m not a huge apple juice fan, but I did find the sweeter addition of the toasted marshmallow dressed up the drink just enough that I went back for seconds! The passionfruit and mango foam on top of the drink was not as sweet as I expected either, and in fact, I forgot it was a frozen drink and initially tried to drink it without a straw which is a very bland task as I only managed to consume foam. Grab a straw and allow the flavours to melt into each other though, and the flavour is delicious. LeFou’s Brew, actually, tastes closer to The Wizarding World of Harry Potter’s pumpkin juice since both are heavily apple juice based, though Disney’s is not as spiced nor does it come bottled in order to bring home or mail to friends outside of Florida. To me, Butterbeer has always tasted like cream soda meets shortbread. The density of the drink feels heavier as I consume it and many times I feel so full that draining the cup becomes almost difficult due to the sweetness. LeFou’s Brew, however, is a light enough drink that I had no problem slurping the last refreshing sip in the hot Florida sun. The drink is sure to be a hit for Disney World and the fact that it can be purchased with not one, but two styles of souvenir mugs (a stein featuring Gaston on one side and Beast on the other or a goblet featuring Belle) is sure to make repeat customers a must. As for which drink is better? I think it comes down to your preference for sweet versus fruity. People who want a sweet candy-coated beverage will always prefer Butterbeer, but for those who want something light, refreshing, and admittedly more health conscious, LeFou’s Brew would be the clear winner. Disney has made a definite contender against Universal’s hit wizarding beverage.
Hogwarts 2 - New Fantasyland 2
All that remains, for me, are the unknowns. During New Fantasyland’s Dress Rehearsal, I managed to experience everything except previewing the centerpiece of the new section, Be Our Guest Restaurant. The restaurant based on Beast’s castle, is being regarded as one of the most spectacular and anticipated portions of New Fantasyland. During Dress Rehearsals, guests are only being allowed to preview it for about an hour a day. I, however, missed out on the first day I was there and the gates were never opened on the second day due to a tour group with ‘high profile attendees’. Having spoken to Disney Cast members, however, I am assured that while Hogwarts may be the grander castle on the outside, Beast’s castle wins hands-down on the inside. The castle is split into three dining areas: the Ballroom, the Rose Gallery, and the West Wing, featuring the enchanted glass-domed rose. Of course, it’s hard to compare a ride in Universal to a restaurant in Disney World, especially one that is still yet to be seen, but I tend to lean more towards Beast’s Castle winning out only because it allows for more freedom. Inside Hogwarts is a ride where you are confined to a certain track. The rest of the exploration can be done while in a queue or through the Hogwarts Tour which essentially follows the queue without the pressure of having to move as quickly. If Be Our Guest lives up to what it is being made out to be, Beasts Castle will be a more free-roaming castle to explore. The dining areas will not be confined and, for a guest, the experience may feel more transformative without the added element of queue barriers. But again, this is all speculation.
The other speculation has to do with what is still under construction in both theme parks. After much anticipation, Universal Orlando has announced a new Wizarding World of Harry Potter expansion, but the details of what will actually be there are yet to be revealed. One heavily suspected rumour is a Gringott’s Bank mine car roller coaster. Similarly, the final phase of New Fantasyland, slated to open in 2014, is the Seven Dwarves Mine Train roller coaster. While a Gringott’s ride is likely to be a bit scarier versus what will likely be a family friendly Disney ride, I’m under the impression that the Disney coaster will be closer to being like Thunder Mountain rather than Flight of the Hippogriff and it is being called the first roller coaster to move in a wobbling motion on the track. So, we shall see. Additionally, Disney is set to open a new Princess Fairytale Hall where guests can meet and greet with their favourite Princesses in 2013, which means more characters which are unlikely to appear in the Universal expansion.
For me, one of the biggest differences between New Fantasyland and The Wizarding World of Harry Potter are the attractions vs shopping ratio. In it’s current Dress Rehearsal set up, New Fantasyland (and the Fantasyland Storybook Circus which quietly opened this past summer) has nine attractions including rides and character meet and greets. We also know the expansion will have at least two more attractions, but potentially more that are yet unknown. As for merchandise and moneymaking, New Fantasyland and the Fantasyland Storybook Circus has exactly two shops, a tavern, and a restaurant. In contrast, The Wizarding World of Harry Potter, before the unknown expansion elements, has seven attractions (this includes counting the Hogwarts Choir and Triwizard shows separately and includes the Conductor as an attraction) and five shops, a pub, and a restaurant. If the expansion continues accordingly, it’s safe to bet that there will be more shops than attractions, a criticism that is already a disappointment to some fans who feel the Wizarding World of Harry Potter is more of a strip mall rather than a theme park.
Despite it all, at the end of the day it really comes down to the fandoms and the draw the theme parks provide. The Harry Potter fandom certainly has a larger fan base than the Disney Princesses appear to have, but Disney is putting up a heck of a fight and only time will tell if their hard work will provide the competition Disney hoped for. In the end though, magic, fantasy, and story telling prevails in both parks and in a world full of such troubles and strife, what more could you ask for really?