Disney World's New Fantasyland isn't just an expansion; it's an immersion

It's finally here. This week marks the official opening of New Fantasyland for the general public and journalist reviews.

While the much anticipated expansion of the Magic Kingdom --the biggest ever in Disney history-- will offer visitors new, high-tech attractions -- it's also part of a growing trend among theme parks to create more immersive experiences that industry insiders say is necessary to attract new visitors while keeping the old.

"The Magic Kingdom is the iconic place at Walt Disney World and Fantasyland is the favorite land," said Meg Crofton, president of Walt Disney Parks & Resorts in the U.S. and France. "It's the heart of the Magic Kingdom and we're absolutely doubling the size of it, so I think that's major in our guests minds."

Magic Kingdom is consistently the most attended theme park annually, so Disney has to keep its experiences fresh to attract repeat visitors.

Some of the ways they hope to do that is to create an experience where guests can truly feel as if they've stepped into the worlds of "Beauty and the Beast" and "The Little Mermaid."  It goes beyond jumping on rides with backdrops taken from classic films; it's witnessing enchanted experiences, enjoying special food and drinks, and generally hanging out in familiar locations that previously existed only in these films.

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For example, in the "Beauty and the Beast" village, visitors can meet Belle by way of an enchanted mirror inside Maurice's Cottage, which also provides close encounters with lifelike Lumiere and Madame Wardrobe characters. Nearby at Gaston's Tavern, guests can lounge around, order uniquely-themed food and drinks, such as the eatery's signature LeFou's Brew, and even have a run-in with Gaston himself.  At the Under the Sea -Journey of The Little Mermaid, a classic dark ride-style attraction, guests are part of famous scenes and songs from movie "The Little Mermaid." Next door in Ariel's Grotto, guests can meet Ariel herself.

All this is debuting just six months after Disney similarly opened Cars Land to rave reviews at the Disneyland Resort in California, giving visitors a chance to tour Radiator Springs from Pixar's "Cars" movies. And Walt Disney World is also currently developing a major addition to Disney's Animal Kingdom theme park based on James Cameron's "Avatar," announced to be an equally full experience.

These attractions are grabbing the attention of theme park fans and drawing in huge crowds. So is this the wave of the future for theme parks? Some say yes, and is--in fact--a necessity.

It was for Cars Land according to Tom Staggs, chairman of Walt Disney Parks and Resorts. "The magic of the Pixar movies is most often about creating these wonderful, believable, but fantastic worlds," said Staggs. "And they're worlds that make you want to visit. So just building an attraction didn't seem like it was enough. We needed to build Radiator Springs. We need to let people be there."

While Disney has a history of creating themed lands since Disneyland first opened in 1955, this recent trend of basing impressively believable environments based on popular franchises began to emerge as the future of themed entertainment when Universal Orlando first raised the bar on theme park design with the unveiling of their Wizarding World of Harry Potter just two years ago.

Thierry Coup, a former Walt Disney Imagineer currently at Universal Creative, was the creative director for the Wizarding World, transforming J.K. Rowling's stunningly popular "Harry Potter" franchise into one of the most successful theme park projects ever built.

"It's quite a phenomenon," says Coup. "I think our guests are even more critical and more savvy and we have to keep raising the bar and that's what we've always planned on doing, but I think we've learned a lot from the Wizarding World of Harry Potter and obviously it's showing that we are not shy about bringing these great attractions now and in the future to our parks."

He emphasized that while the Wizarding World features a world-class ride, Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey, visitors are even more enamored with being able to step foot into Hogsmeade Village and Hogwarts Castle.

"People are not necessarily rushing right to Forbidden Journey first because they know there is so much to explore - that sense of exploration and discovery, which the Wizarding World of Harry Potter has created. Even if you were on your way to Forbidden Journey, you start seeing things around you and it kind of pulls you into the story, it pulls you into that world."

Case in point.  Coup said one of the most popular attractions at Wizarding World of Harry Potter isn't a ride.  Second only to Fobidden Journey is the Butterbeer, a drink mentioned just a few times in the Potter books and films but is wildly popular with Universal Orlando visitors. Details like this are what separate today's themed environments from those of the past.

Coup admits the success of the Wizarding World of Harry Potter is fueling Universal's theme park competitors to try to design and build even more impressive themed areas. "I think it's helping everyone in the industry - the realization that when you create something this immersive, it's very popular and the guests are loving it."

While Universal Orlando is working on an expansion to the Wizarding World (as well as building a variation in their Hollywood park) and Disney is building out New Fantasyland and its "Avatar"-based land, SeaWorld Orlando is creating a "realm" called Antarctica on the same scale as those projects.

"It's really enormous," said Brian Morrow, SeaWorld Orlando creative director. "We like to say it is a world within a world. It does live within SeaWorld, but once you enter it, you will be completely immersed in the land of epic ice." Featuring a headlining state-of-the-art ride called Empire of the Penguin, as well as giant icy scenery housing shopping and dining locations, Antarctica should compete with the massive creations of Disney and Universal when it debuts in 2013.

But not all are convinced this one–upmanship is always necessary to please tourists.

"Visitors laugh and scream just as much on the Zipper on a fair midway as they do riding a $100 million Disney attraction," explained Rick West, creative show writer at experience design company Thinkwell Group and founder one of the oldest theme park fan sites Theme Park Adventure. While West thinks the competition between parks helps add to the magic and improves the overall state of theme park entertainment, the whiz bang attractions may not appeal to the traveler looking for simple thrills.

"Fun is fun, and as designers, we need to remember that. Themed environments are great, but at the end of the day, people just want to have fun riding rides and being with friends and family. Everything else is eye candy and story enhancement."

And let's not forget about the price.  The three parks also compete for the title of most expensive theme park in the U.S.,and this summer all raised prices. Continued growth of these immersive experiences all depends on the theme park, the franchise, and how profitable such a major project will be.

"I don't know that the industry is going to trend toward adding whole areas/lands for very long. That type of expansion is really expensive, and let's face it - not too many companies out there can afford that type of investment all at once," said West.

In the end, it's all about storytelling --either through singular rides or entire worlds.

"I think that you'll see a blend," noted Staggs. "All in all though, it's all about immersing our guests in places and in stories that they can really related to, that they love, and that they want to share with the people that they love."