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Why it Took 20 Years to Convert 20,000 Leagues to a Mine Train

Thirty-nine months, 3 1/4 years… That's the amount of time that will have passed from when Walt Disney Parks & Resorts first announced that it would be adding the Seven Dwarfs Mine Train to the Magic Kingdom's New Fantasyland area to when the very first WDW visitors will actually get the chance to ride this family-friendly coaster.

Mind you, that's nothing in comparison to the nearly two decades that it took the Imagineers to finally convince Mouse House managers to fund the construction of a new attraction for this part of that theme park. Something that would then fill that long-vacant spot on the Magic Kingdom's map where "20,000 Leagues Under the Seas" once stood.

Yeah, ask any long term WDW visitor about "20,000 Leagues" and they can then fill you in on what this Fantasyland attraction was like. How you'd first board a replica of the Nautilus and then cruise past recreations of memorable moments from that Academy Award-winning 1954 Walt Disney Production.

Of course, were you to ask members of Walt Disney World's maintenance staff, you'd find that these folks would have some very different memories of "20K" to share. They'd tell you about how the water from Fantasyland Lagoon kept leaking down into the Magic Kingdom's Utilidors system. They'd also probably reveal that the diesel engines that powered this fleet of subs were prone to breakdown. Given that these heavily themed ride vehicles weighed 40 tons apiece, each Nautilus was extremely difficult to drag back into port.

So given all of the maintenance problems associated with Disney World's "20,000 Leagues" ride, the Magic Kingdom decided to shut down the subs on September 5, 1994. However, fearing how the public would react when it came to the closure of this opening day, Disney World officials didn't actually admit that "20K" was kaput until October of 1996, which is when they opened the Ariel's Grotto meet-n-greet area right next to the now-empty Fantasyland Lagoon.

But given that -- when you factored in the size of Fantasyland Lagoon as well as that massive behind-the-scenes show building which most of "20,000 Leagues" show scenes were housed in -- Walt Disney World now had this 10 acre-wide hole right in the middle of the most popular land at its most popular theme park, which is why the Imagineers then began pitching all sort of ideas for possible "20K" replacements. Among the concepts that were proposed during this period were a Disney Villains Village (where the centerpiece attraction was to have been a flume ride where WDW visitors -- having narrowly escape being squished between the massive hands of Chernabog (Fantasia) -- were to have then splashed down to safety in the old "20,000 Leagues" lagoon) as well as a Little Mermaid's Lagoon (which -- to avoid dealing with Central Florida's often-brutal summer temperatures and afternoon thunderstorms -- was to have been built mostly indoors).

One of the other attractions proposed for this now-vacant spot on the Magic Kingdom's map was a family-friendly coaster themed around the "Heigh-Ho" number from "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs." But after preliminary development of the Seven Dwarfs Mine Train was completed in the late 1990s / early 2000s, word came down from high at Disney that Imagineers were to concentrate their efforts on rides, shows and attractions which were based on the Company's newer franchises, rather than a at-that-time nearly 70 year-old animated film

That is why -- when Walt Disney Parks & Resorts officially announced the New Fantasyland project back in September of 2009 -- the Seven Dwarfs Mine Train was nowhere to be seen. In its place on the original site plan for this then-$350-million project was a massive Disney Princess meet-n-greet. Where -- on one side -- you could enter a full-sized recreation of Lady Tremaine's chateau and then watch as the Fairy Godmother conjured up Cinderella's gown for the ball. And on the other side of this highly themed show building, you could visit the humble cottage where the Three Good Fairies had hidden Princess Aurora away from Maleficent. 

Meanwhile, right next door to the old "20K" show building, Mickey's Toontown Fair was supposed to be flattened to make room for Pixie Hollow, which was this brand-new "land" for the Magic Kingdom that was supposed to built around the Disney Fairies franchise.

So what happened with Cinderella's chateau, Princess Aurora's cottage and Pixie Hollow? Why did Disney decide to drop these three original elements of the New Fantasyland plan in favor of the Seven Dwarfs Mine Train and Storybook Circus? What changed is that -- in January of 2011 -- Jay Rasulo, the Chairman of Walt Disney Parks & Resorts, swapped jobs with Tom Staggs, the then-Chief Financial Officer of The Walt Disney Company.

And the big difference between Tom & Jay is ... Well, Staggs has three sons. Who -- at the time he took over Disney Parks & Resorts -- were ages 4 to 11. And as the story goes, when Tom reportedly showed his boys the plans for New Fantasyland, they supposedly told their Dad that the Imagineers' plans for this part of that theme park were far too girly.

So even though work was already well underway on this expansion of the Magic Kingdom (In April of 2010, Disney brought a 70-ton crane into the Magic Kingdom. Where -- after all the Guests went home for the night -- they then hoisted the 120-ton tree that served as the center of Pooh's Playful Spot up out of the ground and then moved it to over by the entrance to The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh. Where that tree now serves as the marquee for this Fantasyland dark ride), Staggs ordered the Imagineers to revisit their plans for New Fantasyland with the emphasis then being placed on adding more attractions to WDW's premiere park which would appeal to young men.

This brings us back to why it's taken so long for the Imagineers to complete construction of the Seven Dwarfs Mine Train. Given the initial construction fence for New Fantasyland went up in February of 2010 and it wasn't until January of 2011 Tom Staggs officially revealed that the original plans for this project had radically been revised, that's why work on the Seven Dwarfs Mine Train began so much later than every other aspect of this Magic Kingdom expansion.

But the upside is this new family-friendly coaster is supposed to begin its soft opening / test & adjust phase in late March / early April. And barring any unforeseen technical issues, the Seven Dwarfs Mine Train will officially open as part of a media event that the Walt Disney World Resort will be holding April 30th - May 2nd.

And given that Snow White is famous for having sung "Someday my prince will come" ... Well, it only makes sense that this would be the Disney theme park attraction where your patience will ultimately be rewarded.

So please hang in there, folks. It won't be that much longer before you can then journey deep into the Seven Dwarfs Mine and see for yourself that place where " ... a million diamonds shine."

By: Jim Hill

Orlando, FL – 02/25/14 

 

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