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.