By Sarah Sekula, published in USA TODAY, photo by Matt Stroshane
ORLANDO — When Walt Disney and his animators named the Seven Dwarfs, there were many monikers that didn’t make the cut, including Baldy, Burpy, Tubby, Dizzy and Wheezy. The ones that did stick, however, have been lovable household names since 1937, when the classic film Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs hit the big screen.
Now, with the Magic Kingdom’s Seven Dwarfs Mine Train attraction, which will open May 28, they will shine again. And this time, in an even bigger way. Throughout the attraction, Disney “imagineers” tell the story from the dwarfs’ perspective. In fact, Snow White doesn’t even make a cameo until the very end of the ride.
“This is the next chapter in the story,” says imagineer Mark Kohl.
Billed as a family-style coaster, it features toe-tapping new music, a first-of-its-kind ride system and audio-animatronics that would make Walt proud. As the most anticipated part of New Fantasyland, the coaster completes the largest expansion in Magic Kingdom history and becomes the first new roller coaster at Walt Disney World since 2006.
USA TODAY got an exclusive behind-the-scenes tour and was the first to experience the roller coaster.
“The ride system is unlike anything we’ve seen,” says Lou Mongello, a Disney expert who has written three books about Disney World. “It looks and acts like a true mine cart while still being accessible enough for kids, parents and the entire family.”
Comin’ ’round a mountain
With tame 31-foot and 41-foot drops and no upside-down turns, it’s something that even a kindergartner could handle. Imagineers even found a way to nearly nix that horrible clicking noise you normally hear on a coaster before a drop. You know, the part that often bumps up the butterflies in your stomach that much more.
Here’s the rundown: After boarding rustic-looking, wood-carved mine cars just like the ones in the movie, riders are whisked away to the countryside. By design, the ride vehicles are mounted in cradle-like pivots and sway independently as they swing around the track with each twist and turn.
Almost immediately after takeoff, the car rocks to the left and then to the right, and the G-forces go right down through your seat. As a result, it is delightfully smooth.
But it’s not all fast-paced. During the middle of the ride, while you are inside the mountain, there’s a slow-motion section where you see the dwarfs in their natural habitat. Sporting lifelike expressions and movements, they are the most advanced audio-animatronics ever created by imagineers.
How’d they pull it off? “It really starts with the team looking at all the classic motions that are in the original animation,” Kohl says, “from how they move their arms to how they position themselves.”
Before heading back out of the mountain, you’ll see shadows of the dwarfs marching homeward, as they did in the movie. To re-create them exactly, animators painstakingly traced over original film footage, frame by frame, in a process called rotoscoping.
The views aren’t too shabby, either. At the top of the second lift, you can see other New Fantasyland attractions, including Maurice’s Cottage and Beast’s Castle. Then, the track drops, passing under a trestle and looping around the mountain crossing. At the foot of the mountain, the train goes back to cross a pool at the bottom of a waterfall.
It’s perfect for parkgoers such as Morehead City, N.C., resident Tisha Kirby, who plans to visit Magic Kingdom in September with her husband and 7-year-old daughter. “I’m excited to have another ride to go on with my (family).”
Of course, it wouldn’t be Disney without an element of surprise. In this case, it comes courtesy of the Evil Queen disguised as an old hag. At the end of the ride, which spans 2,000 linear feet of track, she can be seen knocking on the door of the dwarfs’ humble abode. And you get a glimpse of Snow White dancing with the dwarfs inside.
As you exit the ride, you’ll see the cottage’s exterior, a meticulously detailed representation, right down to the wisteria vine and the birdhouse at the front door. The film was carefully studied to get just the right color combo for the roof shingles, the slope of the roof’s eaves and the etched woodland creatures that decorate the house.
Whistle while you wait
To imagineers, it’s less about the ride and more about the story as a whole. That’s why the experience begins with an elaborate exterior in the form of a massive mountain smack dab in the middle of New Fantasyland. And it’s all accurate; the fabricated rocks were put together in 6-foot pieces that precisely correspond to the film.
Guests begin by walking across a stone bridge through the Enchanted Forest, set on a faux rolling countryside with rushing waterfalls and birds chirping (some real, some not).
As you inch closer to the mine, things get more interactive. For starters, there are three mining-themed stations; each has a touch screen that allows guests to virtually sort and wash gems from the mine. As the jewels flow by in a wooden trough, guests touch and drag them, matching them by color and shape.
Nearby, at the jewel-washing station, there are 12 spigots corresponding to the notes of the musical scale. As you place your hand below each spigot, a note plays and the water lights up. These entertainment pieces represent a parkwide focus to lessen the pain of standing in line.
“I can still remember the endless line for Space Mountain before Fast Pass,” Kirby says. “But if there is a game with sparkling jewels on a touchscreen, I might not even get my daughter on the ride.”
Once you approach the doorway with “vault” carved into the wooden crosspiece, there’s another interactive element involving seven large barrels. Spin them and glance upward to spot images of the dwarfs.
As with any Disney ride, it’s all about the details, so keep your eyes peeled. For example, next to Doc’s workstation in the mine, you’ll see a carved wooden clock with the figures of two miners striking an anvil. It’s an exact replica of the one seen in the film. Plus, scattered throughout the attraction are at least 450 props, including picks, shovels, barrels and hoists. There are even places where the dwarfs have carved their names into the wood.
Mongello sums it up best: “I think this attraction may have all of the requisite elements for a new classic.”