Published November 27, 2012
When Walt Disney World officially debuts its New Fantasyland expansion of the Magic Kingdom theme park in December, visitors will have their first opportunity to step into a time machine and visit the 1991's "Beauty and the Beast."
From an enchanted trip to Belle's childhood cottage to encounters with the pompous villain Gaston, Disney has created a new village transporting guests to that world.
The crowning jewel of that village is the Be Our Guest restaurant, eerie and foreboding from the outside but warm and inviting within, encouraging all patrons to try one of the most highly-anticipated menus in Disney's history.
"I have never at my time with Walt Disney Imagineering seen a restaurant come with such anticipation and hype," admitted Chris Beatty, creative director overseeing the entire New Fantasyland project. Though the establishment doesn't officially open until Dec. 6, Disney has already unveiled it in recent weeks, first opening its heavy wooden doors to allow lucky travelers to peek inside. "We're seeing lines out the door just to come inside and look in the ballroom," Beatty excitedly explained.
What has been revealed is far more than just a restaurant. Like any great Disney attraction, Be Our Guest tells a story. Tucked away atop sharp, rocky hills is the Beast's castle, trapped in the cursed moment before Belle breaks the spell. As guests cross a stone bridge lined with tormented gargoyles, Disney lets the story of the Beast's transformation unfold through architecture and design. Beatty underscores the importance of layout, noting "the average guest may never see this, or really understand the story behind it, but for us it's so critical to help tell that transition – that metamorphosis of who the prince is, as he was turned into the Beast."
Continuing into the foyer and down a suit of armor-lined hallway, there is a feeling of coldness, decorated with hard stone, metal, and desaturated tones. "You still feel like any moment you could be escorted out – you could be thrown out of the castle," said Beatty.
But the mood shift as guests enter the study, welcoming with soft wood finishes and a roaring fireplace. From there guests come across the most famous of "Beauty and the Beast" settings: the ballroom. Adorned with gold and marble, giant chandeliers illuminate the impressive space that feels, as Beatty puts it, "almost like Belle and Beast could dance in at any moment." Artificial snow is even seen gently falling outside giant picture windows. Entering the ballroom is the ultimate wow moment.
This ballroom is the largest of three dining rooms of the restaurant, each representing "different time zones," as Beatty called them. The Beast's ominous West Wing is the smallest and Beatty's own favorite, offering a glimpse into darker moments from the film. Through special effects, the movie's iconic rose drips pedals as a storm rolls in outside. A portrait of the Beast as a young prince flashes to a more menacing form with lightning strikes. The Rose Gallery dining room represents the rest of the film's "enchanted objects," like Chip and Mrs. Potts through tapestries. The room's centerpiece is a glorious music box featuring a rotating sculpture of Belle and the Beast in their famous ballroom dance.
Though Be Our Guest does not feature "character dining," dinner guests will be delighted to find the Beast himself making appearances within, available for pictures nightly in his study. The restaurant can seat close to 550 guests, immersing them into recognizable places from the classic animated film.
The design of the Be Our Guest restaurant is only half the story. A team of chefs developed menus inspired by French cuisine, rooted in familiar flavors for American audiences. Chef Michael Deardorff, a 25-year Disney veteran, is now fine tuning not just one menu, but two distinct offerings, different for lunch and dinner services. Disney has created their most unique dining experience to date, not only through an immersive environment, but also with split-level dining, in which a quick service variation is served for lunch while traditional table service takes over for dinner.
Unlike dinner at Be Our Guest, no reservations are required for lunch, allowing any Magic Kingdom guest to enter, order food via kiosks, and quickly be served table side. A technology-filled rose is given to guests to auto-magically connect their order to whatever table they choose.
The lunch menu is by no means the usual chicken strips and burgers.
"We're trying to change the image of the traditional quick service," emphasized Deardorff. "Make food a little more wholesome, a little more nutritionally balanced." Options are "built for speed," including two sandwiches, French onion soup, and a tuna niçoise salad. The steak sandwich hasn't been a big success but the soup and tuna salad have received high praise. One of the biggest lunch menu stars is intended for children, a turkey meatloaf that Chef Deardorff claims to be "one of the best meat loafs I've ever had."
Dinner at Be Our Guest is far more elaborate, though food presentation is simple. Among the best appetizers are the platter of assorted cured meats and sausages and the French onion and potato leak soups. Entrees are all far superior to any other Magic Kingdom food, but across the grand scope of excellent Walt Disney World dining, there are better choices for the price. The best tasting Be Our Guest options include the thyme-scented pork rack chop with a complex mac-and-cheese and layered ratatouille that stands out as one of the most flavorful of the bunch. The menu's strip steak is hit or miss, beautifully seasoned but sometimes chewy. Adults dining at Be Our Guest also have the option of pairing dinner with beer or wine, a first for the Magic Kingdom.
But the real star of the lunch and dinner menus is dessert, with six decadent French sweets: three cupcakes and three cream puffs. There is no wrong choice here, as they are all equally rich and delightful. Flavors include strawberry cream cheese, triple chocolate, lemon meringue, and passion fruit. No one should leave Be Our Guest without enjoying at least one of these options.
And yes, there's the "Grey Stuff," made famous by a single lyric sung by Lumiere. Initially absent from the menu, chefs quickly discovered its importance. "The blogs lit up about the grey stuff and it was like, that thing took on a life of it's own," told Chef Deardorff. "We all look at each other like, 'What the heck is the grey stuff?'" Going back and watching the film, Deardorff and his team created a sweet mousse-like concoction, though its specific flavor remains a secret. It's sugary sweet and smooth. But not every guest gets to try it, as it's reserved for those celebrating special occasions, such as a birthday or anniversary.
With the Be Our Guest restaurant still in its infancy, Deardorff admits there are some bugs still to be worked out. He plans to update the menu twice a year, swapping out seasonal offerings based on fresh ingredients. And he believes it's only the beginning for this type of Disney dining, acting as a "prototype" for future theme park establishments.
Imagineers have exceeded many expectations with their attention to detail throughout the elaborate Be Our Guest restaurant, an immersive experience that rivals almost any ride in the Magic Kingdom.
"In the end if we've done our job right it has that emotional connection and that attachment to our senses that you would expect just from a major attraction," says Beatty. The best "Beauty and the Beast" experience is not a ride and not a show, but a chance to dine in one of the most famous dinner scenes ever to grace the big screen. "It's definitely a highlight of New Fantasyland - absolutely," Beatty concludes.