Once Upon a Screen? A Look at Disney’s Ultimate Dream Castle

© Mattel / Disney

As big of a fan as my daughter is of staring at video games and apps, her favorite thing in the world is to play is with her Barbies and princess dolls. I’m always on the lookout for ways to spice up our time huddled around the dollhouse to keep both our attentions captured and get the most out of our play time together.

The Ultimate Dream Castle from Disney and Mattel offers a chance to combine the imaginative play of a dollhouse with the technology of an iPhone app to create a magical experience. But with my unending effort to get her away from the screens to make full use of her imagination, is that even an option I want to give her? My daughter and I put the Ultimate Dream Castle and its app through the princess paces to see if screen time and play time can live happily ever after together.

To begin with the obvious, yes, this castle is a lot of pink and purple plastic. Any princess-loving little one would be delighted to find a three-foot tall castle under the Christmas tree this year, so it’s immediately a safe bet to get one if you have ample room in the budget.

The layout of the palatial dollhouse is open and wide, which was nice for getting my comparatively giant hands in there with room to maneuver, an ability we lack in our current dollhouse. On each of the three floors, there are rooms themed to favorite Disney princesses, which are accompanied by accessories like an oven or little friends like Pascal from Tangled.

The biggest hit of the Ultimate Dream Castle was the elevator fashioned out of Rapunzel’s hair, which spins princesses up and down the outside of the castle. My four-year-old spent the most time with that feature, concocting elaborate reasons why a doll might need to travel by hair, and then making the princess promptly throw up from motion sickness. Play-time gold.

ariel-AR
Magic Mirror‘s AR in action.

She was so enamored with the elevator and castle, in fact, that she had very little interest in the iPhone/iPad Magic Mirror app made for the castle. I wasn’t particularly saddened by that, as playing with her Barbies and princesses is a fantastic way to engage her imagination, but I wanted to check out the app to make sure we were getting the most out of the castle.

Magic Mirror includes games and activities, as well as effects triggered by the castle’s rooms that can be viewed through the iPhone’s camera. Like most AR apps, there is a struggle with getting the app to respond in just the right spot. It might be because the room didn’t have enough light, but after several frustrating tries of attempting to get the app to recognize an area of the castle, my daughter wandered away and went back to playing with her dolls. The times the app did work, it did little more than give her a smile, and didn’t add much to the overall play experience.

As the games in the app can be played without the castle, and a code to get Magic Mirror free comes with the toy, it’s not a complete lost cause, but our time with the Ultimate Dream Castle showed us that she prefers to keep her dollhouse play time and screen time separate. Even if the app worked 100% reliably each time, nothing can trump her limitless imagination and the adventures with (dizzy) princesses it creates.

The Ultimate Dream Castle comes with more than enough “real life” accessories and play time possibilities that the interactive app shouldn’t be the main reason to pick this castle over any other dollhouse. The Magic Mirror app would work well as a pause between playing sessions or when the family is out and about, but the Ultimate Dream Castle stands on its own as a dream-come-true dollhouse for any lucky kid who loves to play with dolls.

Kelly Knox is a freelance writer in Seattle, WA, where she contributes to local parenting magazines. She also writes for StarWars.com, Geek & Sundry, and more. You can find crafts and art projects for geeky families at her blog The St{art} Button.