You'll really feel like you've stepped into the frame of a beloved animated classic at the 11-acre Fantasyland expansion at Walt Disney World in Orlando. New Fantasyland, which opened to the public Dec. 6, is likely to enthrall younger children, especially girls who now have more chances to meet their favorite cartoon princesses come to life.
We didn't want to just build more of Fantasyland, we wanted to create another set of adventures," said Chris Beatty, who spent more than four years as creative director of the expansion, estimated to cost about $425 million. (Disney has not disclosed actual figures.)
"The mock castle walls between the new and existing Fantasylands are a portal, signaling you're entering a new realm," Beatty added as he walked Newsday through the project. "Even the landscaping suggests the French countryside." Beatty referred to the young pines and oaks that are part of the 20,000 real and artificial plants that he and his Imagineer colleagues designed to suggest "a forest that will be the thread to link" the elements devoted to cartoon heroines Belle, of "Beauty and the Beast," and Ariel, of "The Little Mermaid."
A MARINE ORCHESTRA
Parkgoers passing the castle walls first encounter a version of the French village of "Beauty and the Beast," but there is no ride here. However, the adjacent area devoted to Ariel includes an impressive ride featuring more than 100 audio-animatronic undersea creatures bouncing about. Popping up several times is Ariel, in both her mermaid and human forms, with her prince.
The riders, sitting in mock clam shells, also pass the menacing Ursula the Sea Witch; at 71/2 feet tall, with tentacles spreading 12 feet, she's enough to give the youngest kids a shiver. Not to worry, though: Tunes from the film provide the background for the entire ride, and the "orchestra" formed by marine life is a delight. In the adjacent "grotto," children can pose for photos with a human version of Ariel.
The opportunity to meet Belle is far more elaborate. An interactive little play, "Enchanted Tales With Belle," involves about a dozen children and even a couple of adults.
Up to 40 people are admitted to a smallish room where a wonderful animatronic version of the film's Wardrobe character helps a costumed villager select audience members to hold props representing Chip the teacup, Mrs. Potts and picture frames. Once this "cast" is chosen, everyone steps through a magic mirror frame and into the library of the Beast's castle, where Belle presides over the play. It all takes about 12 minutes, and then comes the photo op.
There are two other elements to the "Beauty and the Beast" area: A village square with a comic fountain of the blowhard Gaston and his "tavern," where the menu includes fruity drinks, pork shanks and a cinnamon bun the size of a softball.
The area's centerpiece, a huge, gloriously decorated, sit-down restaurant with upscale cuisine. This restaurant, Be Our Guest, represents three rooms in the Beast's Castle. Using the theatrical trick of forced perspective, turrets of the castle appear to sit atop a huge mountain, all jagged, dark stone. The bridge to the restaurant's doors at the base of this mountain is lined with gargoyles, and the doorway flanked by other fearsome creatures.
Inside, two of the three dining rooms are warmly decorated -- these are the Rose Gallery and the spacious Ballroom. A third room, the West Wing, is darkly lit, a portrait of the former prince has been "slashed" by claws, the window curtains are in tatters.
The restaurant offers French cuisine -- mussels Provençal, pan-seared salmon with leek fondue -- but also steak. And Disney raised eyebrows when it announced that for the first time in the Magic Kingdom's 41-year history, wine and beer would be offered (dinner only).
DUMBO HAS A TWIN
The third element of New Fantasyland is Storybook Circus. Chief features here are a roller coaster named the Barnstormer (quite tame); a mock circus tent in which Minnie, Donald, Goofy and Daisy pose for photos, and the iconic Dumbo ride. Except that Dumbo now has a twin, with the side-by-side versions rotating in opposite directions. A kids' play area adjacent to the rides that lets those ages 2-12 burn some energy climbing and sliding within a netted, air-conditioned area. Benches circle the play space and are filled by adults who hold the sort of buzzer you get in busy restaurants: When there is room for your group on a Dumbo, your buzzer goes off.
"Dumbo has always been one of the favorite rides for kids in the Magic Kingdom, so it had some of the longest lines" and thus more waiting in the Florida heat, Beatty noted. To ease the situation, the Imagineers not only doubled up on Dumbo but provided the air-conditioned play area.
This is a significant effort to make the park experience more enjoyable. Taken with the much broader interaction with Belle, and the fairly lengthy ride through Ariel's undersea world, Disney has taken real strides to give younger kids a richer taste of the animated films they love.
IF YOU GO
Walt Disney World Resort is a half-hour drive from Orlando International Airport, served by every major domestic airline, and many international carriers. There is shuttle service between the airport and the resort.
Walt Disney World consists of four theme parks. The one-day, one-park admission is $89 for those ages 10 and older, $83 for younger children. There are various multiday or multipark passes that reduce the per-day cost (for an additional $35, the Park Hopper pass allows entrance to all four parks during the course of one day). Parking is $14 a day for cars, $15 for campers or RVs. Strollers, manual and electric wheelchairs and lockers can be rented.
There are some 450 hotels in greater Orlando. Many offer free shuttles to the ticketing area at the main gate. There are 35 hotels on the Disney property, most operated by Disney, with rates ranging from $84 to $1,260 per night. There are also cabins and campsites at Disney's Fort Wilderness Resort.
With menus heavy on Continental cuisine, Be Our Guest restaurant and Gaston's Tavern in New Fantasyland are the exception to the rule for most theme-park dining. Every park has restaurants, most with fast-food menus. All of the hotels on the property have restaurants. INFO 407-939-6244, disneyworld.disney.go.com
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