ORLANDO, Fla. -- "You have a great gig," I said to the mermaid as I sat down beside her in the giant clamshell. "You don't have to schlep around."
We pressed our heads together and smiled for a photograph as she replied, "But I wish I had legs."
So goes small talk in Fantasyland. Correction: New Fantasyland, where old-guard princesses like Snow White and Cinderella are suddenly neighbors with the next generation of Disney box-office royalty: Ariel of The Little Mermaid and Belle of Beauty and the Beast. The kingdom, you see, has undergone some changes.
It was Dec. 5, the night before the grand opening of New Fantasyland -- the largest expansion in the 41-year history of the Magic Kingdom at Walt Disney World Resort in Orlando, Fla. -- and the birth date of its founder. I was there to suss out the new additions, including Ariel's Grotto (where, like me, visitors can have their picture taken with the Little Mermaid); Bonjour! Village Gifts, where aspiring princesses can snap up $64.95 Belle costumes; and the Be Our Guest Restaurant, where, in defiance of Florida weather, soft, romantic snow perpetually falls outside the windows.
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Having been to this park more than two dozen times, beginning with family vacations when I was 3, I figured I was qualified to review an expansion. I remember gingerly wrapping my arms around Pluto. I remember walking into the Haunted Mansion, fear rising in me like the ghosts that would soon materialize. I remember being surprised, as I peeked over the edge of my boat in It's a Small World, to spy hundreds of pennies shimmering in the water. I wondered how many of those wishes would come true.
So, of course, I longed to see how Fantasyland had changed. At the same time, I was apprehensive. Might the old magic be eclipsed by slick new attractions? Would Disney be able to strike a delicate balance between nostalgia and innovation?
I came to find out.
Making room for more
Fantasyland is the most popular land in the most popular Disney park in the world (the company has 11 theme parks in the United States, Europe and Asia). Still, Disney had a problem. It had successfully minted a new generation of princesses in movie theaters, but it had nowhere to put them in the park. Millions of little girls and boys grew up in the 1990s with The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast. Yet Ariel and Belle had neither ride nor realm in the Magic Kingdom.
If Disney were the White Rabbit, it might have been muttering to itself, "I'm late! I'm late! I'm late!" It was time to catch up. And so, about five years ago, the company's Imagineers -- who have expertise in 140 disciplines, like electrical engineering, landscape architecture and graphic design -- began dreaming up ways to put visitors into their favorite new fairy tales, from eating croque monsieur in the Beast's castle upon a hill to riding through the Little Mermaid's grotto under the sea. They devised methods to make meeting the characters from those tales more intimate (perhaps a bit too intimate in the case of the Little Mermaid, who poses with fans in a bandeau top) and more orderly than the street encounters I grew up with, which could be chaotic. And while they were at it, they looked for ways to make waiting in line entertaining.
To make all this fantasy a reality, Disney more than doubled the size of Fantasyland, to 21 acres from 10 acres. Along the way, there were casualties, like Snow White's Scary Adventures, a ride that had been in the park since it opened in 1971. Purists grumble when a classic ride like that is shuttered. Yet evolution is as much a part of Disney's DNA as mouse ears.
"It can't just be about nostalgia," Tom Staggs, chairman of Walt Disney Parks and Resorts, told me the next morning as I stood beside him in a rose garden peering up at the spires of Cinderella's Castle.
When touring a fake French village, it helps to bring along a real Frenchman. Olivier Flament, director of revenue management for Walt Disney Parks and Resorts U.S., suggested we begin at Enchanted Tales With Belle, an attraction that resembles the country cottage home of Belle and her father in Beauty and the Beast.
Inside, visitors meet Belle and use props to help re-create the fairy tale. It's part role-play, part princess meet-and-greet, and part of Disney's broader plan to make visitors' interaction with its characters longer and more personal. As a child, I met characters mainly by stumbling upon them in the streets: a delightful surprise. But because there were no lines, it generally rewarded only the pushiest children and paparazzi parents.
The upside of the newer arrangements is that there are not only lines, but also Disney cast members to ensure that each child has a chance to meet a character. Plus, it provides a splashier backdrop for photos. In Ariel's Grotto, for instance, you meet the mermaid underwater in front of a supersize seashell.
The trade-off, however, is serendipity: that lucky feeling when, out of the blue, you run into Donald Duck. When I asked an Imagineer about this, I was told there would still be street appearances, though I can't help but wonder if there will be fewer of them. In 2013, other princesses -- including Cinderella, Rapunzel and Tiana -- will have their own meet-and-greet domains in the new Princess Fairytale Hall, suggesting that chance encounters on the sidewalks will be less frequent.
Princesses aside, the real eye-popper at Enchanted Tales With Belle is Lumiere, the flamboyant talking candelabrum from Beauty and the Beast, and one of the most advanced Audio-Animatronics characters Disney has ever created. He moves with the whimsical, boneless freedom of a cartoon character, and yet he is three-dimensional.
As he sat atop a mantle talking to the audience, moving his eyes and lips and flailing his arms like a cartoon in 3-D form, I experienced what in Disney parlance is known as an "eyes up, jaws down" moment. When I was a child, I was dazzled by the Audio-Animatronics in Pirates of the Caribbean. With age came the ability to see the workings of the magic. But Lumiere makes even a grown-up say wow.
I asked Tim Warzecha, a senior project manager with Walt Disney Imagineering, about the technology. "This is a difficult question," he said. "Lumiere is real."
I suddenly felt like Alice trying to converse with the Caterpillar in Wonderland.
"Our characters," Warzecha said, "are real."
Oh! Got it. My inquiring about Lumiere's technology was to Warzecha -- a guardian of illusion -- the equivalent of suggesting that Santa Claus isn't real. (Which, incidentally, I'm not suggesting.)
Eventually, I learn from Chris Beatty, creative director for New Fantasyland, that Lumiere is among the first characters the Imagineers developed with Disney's feature animation group. In the past, he explained, Imagineers would gather in a room with, say, a mechanical hand and attempt to interpret how a cartoon would move in three dimensions. But for Lumiere, they asked feature animation group members to translate their own cartoon. The result? An astonishing re-creation of the original animation.
"We've never had that partnership before," Beatty said. "You're getting to see the animator's vision."
The Beauty and the Beast theme continued at the Be Our Guest Restaurant, Disney's most immersive and sophisticated eating experience. The entire park is full of themed dining spots, like Tony's Town Square Restaurant (inspired by Lady and the Tramp), but none as transporting. At Be Our Guest, a stone bridge leads to wrought-iron gates and into the castle, where there are three dining rooms. The main area is the ballroom with a 20-foot coffered ceiling painted with clouds and cherubs. Beyond 18-foot-tall windows, snow falls like ticker tape against a night sky.
But the most compelling room is the West Wing, modeled after the dark, forbidden space in the film. On a table, a glass bell jar containing a red rose slowly sheds its petals (the Beast can become a prince again only if he falls in love before all the petals fall off).
A big challenge for any theme park is line management, and Disney takes it seriously. There is typically something to do or watch to take the pain out of waiting. And the lines in New Fantasyland are some of the most entertaining yet.
In Under the Sea: Journey of the Little Mermaid, songs and Audio-Animatronics re-create the story of the animated film. Guests board clam-shaped vehicles that glide through various scenes, including the mermaid's underwater grotto. The ride is similar to others Disney has done, but the line for it is more interesting because you can play a nifty game with digital crabs created using the Pepper's Ghost effect, according to David Minichiello, director of creative development with Walt Disney Imagineering.
Should you happen to be in line for Ariel's Grotto at high noon on any Nov. 18 (Mickey Mouse's birthday), you may find a "hidden Mickey" -- images or outlines of Mickey Mouse that are slyly added to the design of a building or an attraction. There are hundreds of them in the parks (the book Hidden Mickeys: A Field Guide to Walt Disney World's Best Kept Secrets attempts to catalog them), but on the 18th, sunlight will stream through the rocks to create one of the most unusual (and fleeting) hidden Mickeys.
These interactive lines have long been a Disney specialty, but even Disney found it challenging to wrangle people at Dumbo the Flying Elephant, which has been expanded and set in New Fantasyland.
How to fix the line? Imagineers simply got rid of it. Now, visitors enter an air-conditioned circus-themed play area with slides and climbing nets. A sign says "Play while you wait!" Instead of standing in line, guests receive a pager (it's like being at the Cheesecake Factory) and can play until they are notified it's their turn to fly.
"What was a couple of minutes on Dumbo is now an immersive 15 minutes," said Phil Holmes, vice president of Magic Kingdom Park.
New Fantasyland is cotton candy: light and sweet. It made room for princesses loved by Disney's youngest fans without crowding out my memories.