If you've been around Disney Parks enthusiasts long enough, eventually you're bound to hear complaints about "book report" rides – times when Imagineers simply condense a 90-minute film into a 3-minute dark ride, sending guests passively traveling through scene after scene, in order, hitting the same notes, songs, and plot points as the film. Frankly, "book report" rides can be a bit of a bore. They're just somewhat creatively uninteresting, aren't they? Like, "Oh, coming up next is the scene where Ursula casts the spell. Then they'll do 'Kiss the Girl.' Yep, I remember this." These quick, three-dimensional retellings rely heavily on nostalgia (since there's certainly not enough time to tell the full story or to earn any of the nuance and emotion that these films are so known for) and, almost always, fail to capture your favorite moment with the weight and wonder of the film.
So when Tokyo Disneyland announced a new Beauty and the Beast E-Ticket dark ride, there was little doubt among fans that it would be a "book report" ride... but at least it would be a well-deserved one! After all, surprisingly few anchor attractions have come from Disney's '90s staples, and Beauty and the Beast is often considered one of the greatest films of all time! So if any timeless tale in Disney's portfolio deserved an epic E-Ticket retelling, it would be Belle's.
Fans could practically picture it: shuffling through a French town just steps behind Belle as villagers sing of her oddity and smarts; entering a Tavern to the robust chorus of "Gaston," traveling through wolf-infested wooded with our frightened heroine and coming upon a castle where great mystery awaits, passing through the forbidden West Wing, watching the Beast and Belle dance together in a snowstorm...
Yet when The Enchanted Tale of Beauty and the Beast opened in September 2020, none of those scenes awaited within... So is Tokyo Disneyland's Beauty and the Beast ride a "book report"? Weirdly, no. It's something even stranger... and maybe, something entirely new. And as for the mixed reception YouTube viewers have given this distinctly different dark ride experience? Well, we'll let you be the judge...
Technology tells a story
For about as long as Disney Parks have existed, Imagineers have been expanding their toolbox of storytelling tech. Seriously, to look into the kinds of rides and on-ride narratives at Disneyland, Walt Disney World, and beyond is to see storytelling change as new technologies enter Walt Disney Imagineering's portfolio.
Think of Disneyland's 1955 Opening Day dark rides – Snow White's Scary Adventures, Peter Pan's Flight, and Mr. Toad's Wild Ride. On these zippy dark rides through painted panels and flat facade sets, Imagineers had envisioned that guests would become the hero of each respective story; that they'd personally experience the frights of the Wicked Witch, the wonders of flight over London, and the mayhem of motormania. That's why, for the first thirty years of the park's history, guests wouldn't actually see Snow White, Peter Pan, or Mr. Toad in the rides bearing their names.
By 1967, think of how things had changed! The invention of a high-capacity, high-efficiency ride system (for "it's a small world") inspired a big narrative change in Imagineering. On Pirates of the Caribbean, guests sailed through larger-than-life scenes picking up bits and pieces of conversation. Walt likened the experience to being at a cocktail party, where guests might hear new dialogue on each ride-through.
The next massive leap forward was, without a doubt, the invention of the simulator. On STAR TOURS and Indiana Jones Adventure, a narrative wasn't just unfolding around guests; it was happening to them; because of them. The age of the simulator set a new standard by not just allowing guests to pass through Imagineered worlds, but to be a part of them; to finally become the hero of the story Walt had hoped back with those Fantasyland classics.
When Tokyo Disneyland debuted Pooh's Hunny Hunt in 2001, it, too, seemed like a radical technological leap. Now, multiple vehicles at a time could be pulsed into a ride, diverging down different paths, reversing and turning in different directions, and even dancing around one another. Through its subsequent installations in Mystic Manor, Remy's Ratatouille Adventure, STAR WARS: Rise of the Resistance, and Mickey & Minnie's Runaway Railway, LPS dark ride technology has indeed expanded Imagineering's capabilities by allowing vehicles to circle around rooms, stop for show scenes, and separate and regroup from other vehicles as needed. And since multiple vehicles could enter a scene at once, they could also linger a moment rather than rushing forward to make room for the next car in the name of capacity.
So when Disney announced their newest trackless dark ride, fans took note. Given the ride system's auspicious debut and its headlining uses since, would Tokyo Disneyland's Enchanted Tale of Beauty and the Beast become a new magnum opus of trackless dark rides?
Tales as old as time
In 2009 (and 2011), the big news out of the semi-annual D23 Expo was the announcement of a long-sought-after New Fantasyland at Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom. Thought to be a response to the Wizarding World of Harry Potter, the transformation of the eastern half of the park's Fantasyland would at last strip away the pastel tournament tent style that Disneyland had undone in the '80s. But Magic Kingdom's revitalized storybook land would borrow from the formula Hogsmeade had invented by bringing to life mini-areas (what Disney would call them today, "neighborhoods") themed primarily to two films from the Disney Renaissance.
Here at Theme Park Tourist, our recent movie-by-movie dive into the rides of the Disney Renaissance revealed something surprising. It turns out that – despite the generation-defining slate of animated films Disney released in the '90s – even the fairy tale pillars of the Disney Renaissance (1989's The Little Mermaid and 1991's Beauty and the Beast) hadn't exactly had their day in Disney Parks. New Fantasyland would fix it, with "neighborhoods" recreating Prince Eric's seaside castle and Belle's provincial French town.
Even if New Fantasyland would finally gift these two timeless Disney hits with permanent, built-in recognition in the Parks, what they didn't feature between them was a single E-Ticket ride. Sure, Beauty and the Beast would gain the unique walkthrough / meet-and-greet / mini-show Enchanted Tales with Belle and the gotta-see-it, hot-ticket Be Our Guest Restaurant. The Little Mermaid would fare better by way of receiving a family dark ride, carbon copied from Disney California Adventure. But sure, these were not the end-all-be-all of Disney's love letters to two of their biggest films ever... Right? (A later revision to the plans added the Seven Dwarfs Mine Train to act as the land's anchor, sacrificing the Lost Legend: Snow White's Scary Adventures in exchange.)
In 2016, the Oriental Land Company (owners and operators of the Tokyo Disney Resort) brought their own project to the table. Reconfiguring grander plans they'd initially released in 2015, Tokyo Disneyland would begin work on a New Fantasyland that would focus almost entirely on Beauty and the Beast. The sensational new mini-land would bring to life Belle's village, the Fantasyland Forest Theater... and a new E-Ticket ride themed to the film... to our count, the first ever E-Ticket ride themed to a movie of the Disney Renaissance...
Far flung fantasies
Naturally, it's not unusual for casual theme park fans and Imagineering fans to focus on the Disney Parks in the United States. Sure, there's a sense that cool things are happening across the sea, but for most Americans, the Disney Parks in France, Shanghai, Hong Kong, and Tokyo are merely "bucket list" destinations. Sure it's mind-boggling to step into the Modern Marvel: Mystic Manor, or to imagine what the Lost Legend: Space Mountain - De la Terre á la Lune must've been like... but generally, fans of the U.S. parks seem to agree that what happens overseas stays overseas. In other words, "Wake me up when TRON Lightcycle Power Run comes to Magic Kingdom," right?
Typically, it's only once an international Imagineering project actually opens that Disney fans pile on board the bandwagon, begging Disney to bring the finished project stateside. (And yes, we, too, await Mystic Manor's arrival in California Adventure, or Journey to the Center of the Earth coming to Animal Kingdom). Those first point-of-view videos captured by adventurous theme park explorers are usually American fans' first real glimpse into what Disney is doing outside of the U.S. (and usually, outside of America's tried-and-true portfolio of Marvel, Pixar, and Star Wars).
So sure, among Disney Parks fans, there was a latent sense that Tokyo Disney Resort was building a Beauty and the Beast attraction. And doubtlessly – given the resort's history – it would be the definitive, no-holds-barred, Blue Sky, un-budget-cut version of a Disney Renaissance E-Ticket. But after its 2016 announcement, most Disney Parks enthusiasts simply turned their attention back to stateside projects...
Until about two years ago. That's when the first mouth-watering teaser from Walt Disney Imagineering suddenly elevated expectations for this Japanese E-Ticket, and began the preemtive chorus of pleas to bring it to Florida and California. In a surprisingly robust reveal, Disney posted a sneak peek behind the making of the ride that's worthy of the Imagineering Story. Sure, fans got the footage we expected – like how artisans carefully sculpted and crafted every square inch of the park's then-under-construction recreation of the Beast's castle, shaming Magic Kingdom's Polly Pocket miniature version. But it also revealed something big...
One of Disney's more quiet revolutions in the last decade or two has been its incredible advances in Audio-Animatronics technology. Since our Countdown of the Best Animatronics on Earth was initially written in 2014, we've found ourselves updating the list every few months as unbelievable Audio-Animatronics debut in seemingly every headlining Disney ride. The so-called A-100 figures – operating off of electronics rather than fluid hydraulics – are capable of unimaginable realism. But even still, we hadn't seen anything quite like the figures that would star in the new Tokyo ride.
A figure of Belle, seating in a plush chair with a book in hand.
A figure of Belle, frightened and shrouded in a travel coat, arm outstretched with a flickering lantern as she walks – yes, walks.
A figure of Belle standing with her horse, Phillipe, as in the film's "Belle (Reprise").
A figure of Belle and the Beast standing together in their "Beauty and the Beast" yellow dress and suitcoat.
Now there was no denying: given Tokyo Disney Resort's seemingly bountiful budgets, Disney's trackless dark ride technology, radical advances in the Audio-Animatronics area, and one of Disney's most beloved, sensational, adventurous, and epic movies ever, Tokyo's Beauty and the Beast ride would be among the greatest E-Tickets of all time. For two years, fans readied for this ride's debut. They fitted blueprints into Magic Kingdom and Disneyland, imagining how the ride could be duplicated back to the U.S.; they dreamed of puttering through provincial towns, racing through wolf-infested woods with Belle, dancing through a tavern as villagers sing an ode to "Gaston," and watching as the Beast and Gaston battle along stormy rooftops...
Then the ride opened, and what awaited inside wans't exactly what most had expected.