Disney World recently opened the latest expansion to its Magic Kingdom theme park called "New Fantasyland," which features several attractions built around popular films like The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast. The whole place has been designed to look like a storybook brought to life, and in keeping with the spirit of the new area, spectators at a recent media event were greeted with a visit from a surprise guest: a giant, fire-breathing dragon. From the ground, onlookers watched as the mechanical beast soared through the sky, flapping its wings, roaring as it moved its head, and shooting fireworks out of its mouth.
There's been some speculation about a flying dragon for Disney's park since back in 2010 when the company filed a patent outlining just such a contraption. At the time, the patent filing coincided with the announcement of another area of the park themed after James Cameron's blockbuster film Avatar (which is due in 2016), and it was assumed to be related to that.
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Then this past summer, passersby near a small airport in California spotted a winged dragon going for a series of test flights, and soon after, Disney launched a small viral marketing campaign encouraging people to "spot the dragon." Disney finally debuted its creation by having it swoop over a crowd of surprised guests during a media event before New Fantasyland's grand opening.
The dragon flies on its own without wires, but not because of the wings and tail. According to the patent filing, it's actually an ultralight aircraft using an inflatable parawing combined with a rear-mounted fan, which a single pilot uses to steer and keep the vehicle airborne. The parawing and cockpit are camouflaged to blend in with the night sky, rendering them practically invisible when lit with a bright spotlight from below. Everything else – flapping wings, moving head and tail, fireworks – is all to distract the audience from the true flight elements, giving it the appearance of an autonomous flying creature when viewed from the ground.
If the videos online are any indication, Disney's new dragon moves in a very natural way and certainly looks believable. With a majestic musical score and some ferocious roars piped in over the loud speakers, guests can really get the sense that a giant mythical creature has taken to the skies overhead.
At this time, Disney is billing the dragon's emergence as a "special, one-night appearance," though Disney has stated it could make a surprise return at any time and any place. For now, future park-goers can at least enjoy what New Fantasyland has to offer, but they should probably keep an eye on the sky above just in case.
Check out Disney's official video below to see the dragon taking its first flight over Cinderella's castle.