LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. -- 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."We thought, we really need to give these characters a home. You don't want to be walking down the path and just happen to run into them."
The outcome: Fantasyland will have four new venues specially designed for character meet-and-greets when the expansion is completed in 2014.The largest part of the Orlando expansion opened Thursday, and among the new features is one from "Beauty and the Beast" that elevates a simple meet-and-greet into an attraction with classic Disney storytelling.The team envisioned a setting in which an encounter with a character would be more personal -- even magical, Beatty said, "like the ad you see on TV, a girl and Cinderella walking hand in hand through the castle. Or think of a little boy the first time he sees his favorite villain."In Enchanted Tales with Belle, instead of meeting her out on a walkway, guests enter the cottage where she and her father live. They see Maurice's workshop with his tools and oddball creations as well as other features 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.The experience "is just as powerful as a traditional ride. You are really there in the moment," Beatty said. "It's an incredible journey through 'Beauty and the Beast' ... and Belle is the icing on the cake."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, which had its grand opening Thursday, the Little Mermaid, daughter of King Triton, will meet 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."The guest feedback we get is characters, characters, characters," said Rick Sylvain, a Disney spokesman. "People have such an emotional connection to our characters, whether it's Jack Sparrow or a princess."The evidence: You can get a Fast Pass to meet Mickey or the princesses -- temporarily sharing his space -- at Town Square Theater on Main Street.The Disney website lists about three dozen characters who appear regularly in the Orlando-area parks. That number doesn't include variations on the same character such as Sorcerer Mickey or Mickey the explorer (in Animal Kingdom) or Mickey in Halloween or Christmas garb.
"Meeting characters became this thing in the past 10 or 15 years. It went from 'I saw Mickey Mouse on Main Street' to 'I've got five or six characters I have to see and I want to see Belle in her blue outfit and Donald Duck in his sombrero,'" said Len Testa, co-author of the "Unofficial Guides" to Disney parks series. "For a lot of people they're as important as the rides."That interest also shows up on the "Unofficial Guides" app for the parks. "After we put in all the rides, people asked us, 'What about the characters? You have to tell me how long I'll have to wait for Belle when she comes out.' [Character appearances] are the single most important thing people ask for. They want to know 'Where can I find Donald in his sombrero?'"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 in the Magic Kingdom
Here's a rundown of the Fantasyland expansion and other attractions opening this past week:Most of the new Fantasyland elements are already operating. The stars are two new castles.
In the Beast Castle is 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 first time that alcohol will be served in the Magic Kingdom (although the other Disney World parks have been serving alcohol for years).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.The first elements of the Fantasyland expansion opened this spring: the twin Dumbo rides -- one new, one newly renovated and both with lights and water features; Goofy's junior roller coaster, which was re-themed as the Barnstormer with the Great Goofini (Goofy as a stunt pilot); a new Fantasyland train station; and the Casey Jr. Splash 'N' Soak water play area.Just opened elsewhere
Test Track, which has been closed since spring, has reopened at Epcot. The basic track and ride are still the same, with updated sound and visuals, but the attraction has expanded to include a design-your-own virtual concept car feature before the ride and a check on how your car would have performed against other riders' designs afterward.In Downtown Disney, where Pleasure Island nightclubs that closed in 2008 are gradually being replaced by more family-oriented entertainment, the new Splitsville bowling alley is an anchor. Four cities, including South Miami, already have Splitsvilles, but the 30-lane Orlando one is the largest. It also features live entertainment, a menu that includes sushi, burgers, pizza, steaks and drinks in a bowl for groups and guzzlers.Fantasyland 2013
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.Fantasyland 2014
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.