I find myself on a cobblestone path walking towards a quaint French cottage overrun with honey-suckle. Despite what my eyes would have me believe, I am not in Provence, Normandy, or any part of the French countryside for that matter. Rather, I am about to enter the theme-park version of Belle’s father’s cabin from Disney’s acclaimed Beauty and the Beast at New Fantasyland park in Walt Disney World in Orlando, Florida.
Once inside the chalet, I find a portrait of Belle and her mother, an assortment of books and sketches, as well as a wall with a growth chart to track Belle’s height. Using props, volunteers play out characters and retell the Beauty and the Beast story. An animatronic of the character of Lumière (the candelabra with a French accent featured in the 1991 film) invites guests to the library where he calls to Belle – all the while, Disney photographers stand by to document the experience.
“When you look at the history of the Walt Disney company, we all know it started with Walt, with all of the Disney characters we love on the silver screen, but if you fast-forward a bit, Walt was always looking to create an environment where the experiences wouldn’t be as passive as sitting in a movie theater or watching a cartoon. He wanted the guests to walk into the environment and be part of these stories,” my guide, who is a Disney Imagineer (a term used to describe the development arm of Disney responsible for the creation and construction of the theme parks), explains.
Although Walt Disney passed away before his resort opened its doors in 1971, the 40-square mile (to give you a frame of reference, that’s roughly twice the size of the island of Manhattan) recreation center, which includes four theme parks (Magic Kingdom, Epicot, Hollywood Studios, and Animal Kingdom), as well as two water parks (Blizzard Beach and Typhoon Lagoon), was built and continues to run on Walt’s unquenchable love affair with the art of interactive storytelling, with over 51 million visitors to Disney World each year. Case and point? The 66,000 people referred to not as employees by the Disney company but as “cast members” who help operate the resort, like the fully functional barbershop on Main Street U.S.A. in Magic Kingdom, the Bibbi Bobbidi Boutique beauty salon where little girls can get princess-inspired makeovers and royal etiquette lessons, and the “Test Track presented by Chevrolet” attraction in which guests can create their own custom concept vehicle before testing the simulated car on a real test track circuit. The list goes on. And on. And there’s still more to come, with the Seven Dwarfs Mine Train set to open in New Fantasyland in 2014.
But despite the ever-evolving park, the bottom line remains the same: there are no passive observers in Disney World. In fact, to travel to Disney World is to volunteer to become part of the cast in Walt’s amphitheater of make-believe. I’m reminded of the power of the Disney illusion throughout my stay at the Animal Kingdom Lodge, one of the park’s 23 resort options. And despite the mediocre food and tired room furnishings, I’m admittedly impressed by the six-story African-themed hotel’s savanna of gazelles, zebras, and giraffes that I can see from the terrace of my room – a vision that, at moments, manages to mentally transport me out of the entertainment metropolis and into an exotic, far-away locale.
What’s more, after several days of screaming my lungs out on a multitude of rollercoasters (for thrill seekers I suggest the Tower of Terror, Expedition Everest, Rock ‘n’ Rollercoaster, and Space Mountain), meeting Snow White and Cinderella at Princess Fairytale Hall, and eating my bodyweight in Mickey-shaped ice cream bars, to name but a few of my favorite activities, it was time to see how Walt’s vision translated on the sea – or more specifically, how his vision translated aboard the Disney Magic cruise ship. The three-deck vessel, replete with Art Deco-inspired furnishings, a grand piano, and giant portholes reminiscent of 20th century ocean liners, recently received a makeover (or as Disney would describe it, “was recently re-imagined”).
I was pleasantly surprised by my modern and elegant room accommodation as well as the excess of activities aboard the liner, which included everything from a 977-capacity movie theater and Broadway auditorium featuring award-winning musicals to a 37-foot-tall waterslide that launches guests through a translucent tube extending over the side of the ship, allowing the rider to peek at the ocean 112 feet below. On a cloudless day in the Bahamas, when the sky was an enchanted Cinderella’s dress blue, I tried the infamous Aquadunk. Standing on the third deck of the ship, I could see the white sand beaches of Castaway Cay, Disney’s private port-of-call island where we were docked for the day. “This is my 14th time down the Aquadunk!” an eager eight-year-old beckoned enthusiastically, nudging me toward the waterslide. “If I can do it, you can do it,” my pint-sized cheerleader encouraged, his gap-toothed smile in full view. And for the umpteenth time during my weeklong visit to Disney, I overcame my adult sensibilities, threw my hands in the air, and, dare I say, had an ever-so-magical time.