When Disney's Imagineers brainstormed several years ago about what a larger Fantasyland at Magic Kingdom could include, the discussion turned to opportunities for character meet-and-greets, which had become as popular with younger guests as traditional rides.
Fantasyland, after all, is the heart of any Disney park, the place where beloved characters step out of animation cels and come to life.
"Our guests expect good classic attractions like Pirates of the Caribbean and the Haunted Mansion. At the same time no trip would be complete without going to meet Mickey and Minnie or your favorite princess," said Chris Beatty, an Imagineer.
The outcome: Fantasyland will have four new venues designed for character meet-and-greets when the expansion is completed in 2014.
The largest part of the Orlando expansion opened a few weeks ago, and among the new features is a "Beauty and the Beast" attraction that elevates a simple meet-and-greet with classic Disney storytelling. In Enchanted Tales with Belle, guests enter the cottage where Belle lives with her father, Maurice. They see Maurice's workshop with his tools and oddball creations and other items that are recognizable from the movie: the wishing well, the fireplace, a table, Belle's books, a teapot on a shelf.
Guests go through a magic mirror to Beast Castle, where a character from the movie, Madame Wardrobe, invites them to take a role in the tale Belle will tell -- perhaps as a window or a footstool or a dog -- and hands out cardboard cutouts that identify them. In the library, they meet Lumiere and Belle, take photos and join in the storytelling as Belle recounts the Beauty and the Beast tale up to the night where they fall in love.
In addition to Enchanted Tales with Belle, two other meet-and-greet sites are new in Fantasyland. At Pete's Silly Sideshow in Storybook Circus, which opened in October, Goofy, Donald, Daisy and Minnie are circus stars. At Ariel's Grotto, the Little Mermaid, daughter of King Triton, meets her subjects.
When Princess Fairytale Hall opens next year, Aurora (Sleeping Beauty), Tiana, Rapunzel and other princesses will greet guests in the hall next to Cinderella Castle.
Doug Ingersoll, author of "The Complete Idiot's Guide to Walt Disney World," agreed with Beatty that Enchanted Tales with Belle takes character meet-and-greets to a new level. "What's exciting is that Disney is incorporating technology into the meet-and-greet experience." In the past, he said, they were simply played by characters. "Now it's a 3-D action scene that makes the experience come more to life."
New this year
Most of the new Fantasyland elements are already operating. The stars are two new castles.
The Beast Castle contains a 500-seat restaurant, Be Our Guest, with scenes, props and music from the 1991 film and French-inspired cuisine, since the tale is set in France. At lunch, guests order from touch-screen menus and get a rose that they take to their table; the rose tells the food cart where to find the table. At night, it becomes an upscale sit-down, table-service restaurant with wine and beer available.
The Village at the base of Beast Castle has Gaston's Tavern, a snack bar that, despite its name, does not serve alcohol but an apple-juice-based "brew." The character of Gaston himself sometimes greets guests.
Enchanted Tales with Belle is also next to Beast Castle.
A second castle, that of Prince Eric, houses Under the Sea: Journey of the Little Mermaid, modeled after the Disneyland ride. Guests will go under an aqueduct and into the grottos -- "sort of like they're going under the sea," said Chris Beatty, an Imagineer. Clamshell-shaped cars similar to those in the Haunted Mansion take guests through scenes from the movie, accompanied by music from the film. Afterward, you can join the Little Mermaid in the Ariel's Grotto meet-and-greet.
Pete's Silly Sideshow, which opened in early October, is a meet-and-greet spot in Storybook Circus.
Updates through 2014
Princess Fairytale Hall, in the courtyard of Cinderella Castle, will have stained-glass windows and decor that will give it the feel of a regal tournament, Beatty said. It will be the meet-and-greet home for Disney princesses who don't have their own spots.
The last element of the Fantasyland expansion will be the Seven Dwarfs Mine Train, a steel roller coaster on which guests sit in swinging buckets. The coaster will dive underground and rumble through a mine in which gems sparkle from the walls. The tale of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, which was Disney's first full-length animated feature film, lost its home at Magic Kingdom when Snow White's Scary Adventures closed this spring to make room for Princess Fairytale Hall; the new coaster will give the tale a new home.
Mickey as sommelier
Perhaps the biggest surprise in the Fantasyland expansion is a change in Disney policy: For the first time in the park's 41-year history, alcohol will be served in the Magic Kingdom.
At Be Our Guest, the new restaurant in Beast Castle, wine and beer will be available with dinner. Sample menus list wines from France and California and beer from France and Belgium to accompany the restaurant's French-inspired cuisine.
With the new restaurant, guests can now buy adult beverages in all four of Disney's Orlando parks; Magic Kingdom was the last holdout.
Disney declined to discuss the decision, but the park's fans are talking.
"There is definitely some trepidation over the fact that alcohol will now be sold in the Magic Kingdom," said author Doug Ingersoll, "People think it doesn't match with Walt Disney's perspective for the park."
"Disney's rationalization for it is that the Be Our Guest restaurant is a French restaurant and everyone expects them to sell wine in a French restaurant," said Len Testa, co-author of the "Unofficial Guides" to Disney parks series. "What they want is the revenue from selling alcohol."
But he added that guests aren't likely to be getting drunk on expensive ($8-$17 a glass) wine.