ORLANDO, Fla. — More magic is coming to Walt Disney World's Fantasyland.
This powerful new breed of sorcery can transport ordinary vacationers into the storybook world of some of their favorite Disney characters.
A massive shower of industrial-strength pixie dust has more than doubled the size of Fantasyland and transformed the area behind Cinderella Castle into a sprawling Enchanted Forest — real trees, by the way — that brings all the new elements together.
It's the biggest expansion in the 41-year history of the Magic Kingdom. This isn't just an expansion; it's an immersion.
When you enter this elaborately detailed new land, you get the oddest sense of deja vu, as if you've been here before. In fact, you have — on the big screen.
Now you can walk into the frames from some of your favorite Disney films and experience the music, the smells, the sights and sounds for real.
With a wave of the wand, New Fantasyland, as Disneyites are calling it, officially opens Thursday. I got an early view with the November "soft opening," and that preview did not disappoint.
Remember the awe that washed over you the first time you laid eyes on the spires of Cinderella Castle? Get ready to double that feeling the first time you spy the Beast's Castle and Prince Eric's Castle.
"Your vacation at WDW is really defined by your time at the Magic Kingdom," said Chris Beatty, senior creative director of "Imagineering" on the project. "And Fantasyland is the heart of the Magic Kingdom." That's the reason Disney expanded Fantasyland.
Just beyond new castle walls lies the Enchanted Forest, a pivotal setting in many Disney stories. It's the gateway to a painstakingly accurate re-creation of Belle's entire world from "Beauty and the Beast."
Maurice's cottage sets the stage for "Enchanted Tales with Belle," a revolutionary meet-and-greet with costumed characters. A wall mirror spectacularly transforms into a glowing portal whisking you from Maurice's workshop to the Beast's library.
An amazing life-size talking Madame Wardrobe is only a precursor to meeting Belle herself as well as what I think is the most lifelike audio-animatronic yet: a flamboyant Lumiere.
In the distance, across a foreboding stone bridge, the Beast's Castle majestically rises above the trees. The entrance and lobby are just as dark and ominous as in the film, each straddled by large, grotesque gargoyles. But as you venture through the various castle rooms, the atmosphere becomes warmer and inviting.
Tucked inside, the Be Our Guest restaurant offers seating for 550 in three elaborately themed dining experiences, each with their own magical flair.
The stunning Ballroom makes jaws drop (just watch the guests' faces as they enter) with its three amazing crystal chandeliers, the lavish ceiling fresco and the magical snow falling outside the 18-foot-tall arched windows.
Breathtaking. But then, that's what the Imagineers intended.
"The richness of all the characters and storytelling in 'Beauty and the Beast' is really something we wanted to offer to our guests," Beatty said. "We wanted to stay true to the stories that we're trying to tell and make an emotional connection with our guests."
It does! The West Wing feels appropriately dark and menacing. A mesmerizing holographic rose slowly rotates under a glass bell jar. Nearby, a portrait of the prince, clawed by the angry Beast, hangs above a fireplace.
Every 15 minutes, a petal falls from the rose, a clap of thunder resounds, lightning flashes, and the portrait momentarily changes to the Beast, a truly stunning effect. Don't miss this!
As you enter the Rose Gallery, the dramatic orchestral score of the Ballroom seamlessly segues to the tinkling of a music box, apropos as you now face a 7-foot-tall music box with statues of Belle and the Beast twirling amid paintings and tapestries of the various "Beauty" characters.
Though the restaurant is a formal dining room in the evening, it starts the day with fast-food service, and it does so with a flair never seen at WDW before. In the Beast's parlor, you're given a "rose" — actually a radio-frequency device stamped with a rose — and you order your food by swiping oversized touch-screen kiosks. Then take the rose to any empty table within the three rooms.
A few minutes later, a server delivers your order in an elegant glass-encased cart. No more schlepping trays of fast food from a serving window and searching for a table.
This truly is a groundbreaking dining experience. Be sure to examine the gorgeous stained-glass window on your way out of the castle.
No visit to Belle's world would be complete without seeing her village and stopping at Gaston's Tavern. Outside stands a gaudy statue of Gaston.
Inside, antlers are used liberally in his decorating, as well as a portrait over the fireplace that captures all of Gaston's arrogance. Grab a pint of LeFou's Brew (apple juice with a hint of toasted marshmallow), then actually meet Gaston, who will gleefully spread more than a little love for himself.
My advice? Watch "Beauty and the Beast" just before visiting. You'll be amazed at the massive amount of detail infused by the Imagineers.
"New Fantasyland was truly a team effort between all facets of Disney Imagineering," Beatty said. "But it's not just the Imagineers. It's all the teams in WDW — the costumes, the food, the merchandise — who came together to bring these great stories to life."
Towering at the edge of the Enchanted Forest are the spires of Prince Eric's Castle, home to New Fantasyland's premier attraction, Under the Sea — Journey of the Little Mermaid. This meticulous likeness beckons guests into an elaborately decorated queue, incorporating rock work, waterfalls, the grotto and Ariel's treasure trove. These elements start the story before you get inside.
Once you board your clamshell vehicle, this E-ticket attraction takes you on a magnificent five-minute retelling of Ariel's entire story, with all of the incredible music and songs performed by 183 colorful audio-animatronics characters, including a spectacular almost 8-foot-tall Ursula with her steaming caldron and crystal ball. Built on the former home of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, look for the hidden homages concealed throughout the impressive queue.
Then mosey on over to Ariel's Grotto to meet the costumed mermaid character herself.
Off on the eastern edge of the Enchanted Forest lies Storybook Circus, which opened earlier this year (see sidebar).
Get this; even more magic is coming. The Princess Fairytale Hall opens next year, creating a permanent home for meet-and-greets with all the princesses who don't have homes elsewhere in the Magic Kingdom.
Then, in 2014, the Seven Dwarfs Mine Train debuts as a kid-friendly roller coaster that weaves its way through the Dwarves' diamond mine on an innovative ride system that allows each car to swing independently.
Keep your eyes peeled for both Snow White and the Evil Queen; they'll be there too.
After that, who knows what's next for New Fantasyland? That's the beauty of the beast. Walt Disney's Florida kingdom just keeps on expanding.
Single-day tickets are $89 for ages 10 and older, $83 for 3 to 9. Multiday tickets are better values.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun