Entering the Magic Kingdom Production Center — the top-secret warehouses where Disney World’s parade floats are stored and maintained — is like tiptoeing among sleeping giants (emphasis on the word “giants”).
Here, in the shadow of Splash Mountain and shielded from prying eyes and unauthorized cameras, Disney’s parade team is putting the finishing fairy dust on its Festival of Fantasy Parade, which will bring “Peter Pan,” “Pinocchio,” “Brave” and “Tangled” to life in March on Disney’s largest floats ever.
“You’ll see them coming because of their size and scale,” says Disney producer Kris Bunnell. “It will be the most grand parade we’ve ever done … like mini-Broadway shows rolling down the street.”
For the Disney crew, the supersized parade is a fitting tribute to the imminent completion of the new Fantasyland, the largest expansion of the Magic Kingdom since the park opened in 1971.
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Meanwhile, over at SeaWorld Orlando, they’ll celebrate their 50th anniversary this year with a new nighttime Shamu show. Legoland Florida will throw a weekend-long party following the release of the first Lego movie in early February. And this summer, Universal Studios Orlando will open a second Harry Potter section: the Wizarding World of Harry Potter, Diagon Alley.
Like Islands of Adventure’s Hogsmeade, Diagon Alley will be an expansive area of shops (Quality Quidditch Supplies), restaurants (Leaky Cauldron) and attractions (Knockturn Alley and Harry Potter and the Escape from Gringotts).
Fans of Harry Potter will fall under Diagon Alley’s spell, promises Mark Woodbury, president of Universal Creative. “And if you’re not a fan when you come, you’ll surely be one by the time you leave.”
Makeover at Fantasyland
But the big story at the biggest player in town is the completion of the new Fantasyland, which has slowly undergone a makeover worthy of Cinderella.
The home of the iconic “It’s a Small World” ride has welcomed Under the Sea, a shimmering tour of the Little Mermaid’s colorful underwater world, and upgraded Ariel’s Grotto, where the green-tailed redhead meets and greets admirers.
Be Our Guest Restaurant opened in October 2012, but parkgoers are still lining up at the Beast’s castle to chow on Mickey Meatloaf and Croque Monsieur inside one of three elaborately themed rooms.
Big Top Souvenirs began selling Disney paraphernalia and mouthwatering sweets inside an intricately detailed circus “tent” whose fixtures and display units are works of art in themselves.
And last September, Cinderella, Rapunzel and other royal types began welcoming little girls (and boys) to Princess Fairytale Hall. In two intimate but vibrant rooms (both designed and lit with amateur and professional photographers in mind), the princesses spend a few moments chatting privately with each visitor.
Even Dumbo got a do-over — two sets of highflying elephants now take off and land on the edge of Tomorrowland.
In March, Imagineers will place the final jewel in the Fantasyland crown when the Seven Dwarfs Mine Train leaves the station for the first time.
To board the family-friendly coaster, guests must first cross a stone bridge and meander through a woodland environment toward the Dwarfs’ cottage in the distance. The queue area will be dotted with barrels of glittering jewels and interactive features themed to mining.
The ride, whose track wends its way through indoor and outdoor sections (providing incredible views of Fantasyland and its closest neighbors, says one Disney employee), blends old and new. Guests will encounter Snow White, her seven little men and their animal friends from the 77-year-old film while secured in a coaster built with cutting-edge technology.
After studying the film’s mine scene and the movements of the dwarfs’ mine cars, Imagineers were able to create a coaster with cradle-like pivots that allow the vehicles to swing back and forth during the ride.
Says Dave Minichiello, director of Creative Development at Walt Disney Imagineering, “It moves like no other thing we’ve ever developed.”
Which takes us back to those towering, twisting and turning parade floats, like the steampunk-inspired Maleficent dragon, which stretches 53 feet in length and stands 26 feet tall. “There is so much movement and kinetic energy to all the floats,” Bunnell says. “There’s so much to see, so much to take in.”
And, so much to photograph, says technical director Chris Ort: “These will make fantastic panoramic shots.”
WHAT’S NEW AT ORLANDO PARKS
Universal Studios Florida: The Harry Potter universe just keeps expanding.
This summer, Universal Studios Florida will welcome the Wizarding World of Harry Potter, Diagon Alley. (The Wizarding World of Harry Potter, Hogsmeade, opened to great acclaim at Universal’s Islands of Adventure in 2010, and guests with a park-to-park ticket will be able to board the Hogwarts Express train to travel between the two.)
Universal’s Cabana Bay Beach Resort, home to 900 brightly colored guest rooms, 900 family suites, a lazy river and a bowling alley, is accepting reservations for stays beginning March 31, and CityWalk will undergo a historic expansion this year, adding established national brands (Starbucks and Menchie’s), up-and-coming concepts (Antojitos Authentic Mexican Food and The Cowfish, a sushi/burger bar) and Universal’s own creations.
Legoland: If Transformers and Battleship could inspire screenwriters, why not LEGOs?
“The LEGO Movie,” the first, full-length theatrical LEGO adventure, starring the voices of Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum, and arriving in theaters Feb. 7, will be celebrated during LEGO Club Weekend (Feb. 8-9), during which LEGO fans can enjoy a movie-themed building activity, a movie-themed scavenger hunt and meet-and-greets with costumed characters.
SeaWorld: After the documentary “Blackfish” stirred up controversy about captive orcas last year, SeaWorld endured a stormy few months, with several musical acts canceling appearances at the park.
SeaWorld no doubt hopes to leave those issues in 2013’s wake this year. On March 21, it will launch an 18-month celebration of its 50th anniversary. Watch for a new evening Shamu show, new animal encounters and the debut of a Surprise Squad, which will gift unsuspecting guests throughout the park with prizes and gifts.