After years of planning, it took just 12 minutes to officially open the latest addition to Fantasyland, the largest expansion in the Magic Kingdom's 41-year history.
Walt Disney World rolled out fireworks, a cavalcade of Disney characters and princesses, and a "Welcome to New Fantasyland" banner at Thursday's grand-opening ceremony in front of Cinderella Castle.
Afterward, thousands of Magic Kingdom guests made their way to the new section behind the castle. Among them were Danielle Vanden Avond and Ben Hebel of Green Bay, Wis., who explored Fantasyland with their 4-year-old daughter, Emma.
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"This is where we've been the whole time so far," said Vanden Avond, who last visited Disney World as a child. Emma's favorite princess is Ariel, and they gave high marks to the new Under the Sea — Journey of the Little Mermaid ride and meeting its star, Vanden Avond said.
"[Emma] got to take a picture and give her a hug," said Hebel, a first-time Disney World visitor.
They ate at Gaston's Tavern, right in the heart of the Fantasyland section devoted to Disney's "Beauty and the Beast" film.
The Wisconsin family fits the key demographic for Disney, said Julie Neal, author of "The Complete Walt Disney World" guidebook.
"The audience is a 5-year-old and her parents," she said. "I think they've really harkened back to what Disney has always done best. They've unabashedly gone after that young audience, sincerely, with no shame and without cutting corners."
The attractions to open in the latest phase of the $425 million project include the Under the Sea ride, featuring dozens of Disney's famed Audio-Animatronics; Enchanted Tales With Belle, an interaction with the lead female character from "Beauty and the Beast"; Be Our Guest Restaurant, serving French cuisine and the first Magic Kingdom outlet to offer beer and wine; and Gaston's Tavern, a small counter-serve eatery that — despite its name — does not offer alcohol.
Guests have previewed those stops for several weeks. They are in the general vicinity of the old 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea attraction, which closed in 1994.
Inspiration for the new land came from an old source: the vision of Walt Disney, who wanted Disneyland visitors to go on "journeys with animated characters," said Chris Beatty, creative director of the Fantasyland expansion for Walt Disney Imagineering.
Be Our Guest transports visitors into the ballroom from "Beauty and the Beast," Beatty said. "It is so much fun to watch people walk in. … They feel like they are in Beast's Castle."
"I think the restaurants are the biggest strength," said Matt Hochberg, co-host of the "WDW Today" podcast. "You can definitely see inside Be Our Guest and Gaston's Tavern that a lot of detail has gone into it, and that has really stuck out.
"It's hard not to compare it to [the Wizarding World of Harry] Potter land at Universal [Orlando], and it's certainly not as immersive as that," he said. "It's not complete yet, so you can't really render judgment."
More Fantasyland additions are coming. Next year, Princess Fairytale Hall will house royal meet-and-greets with guests, and the Seven Dwarfs Mine Train roller coaster is scheduled to open in 2014.
Storybook Circus, a new subset of Fantasyland built on the former site of Mickey's Toontown Fair, opened this summer. Rides there include a re-themed Barnstormer coaster and Dumbo the Flying Elephant, which now features two spinning carousels and an indoor queue that doubles as a playground. A water-play area, stores, remodeled train station and character meet-and-greet area fill out Storybook Circus.
"Old" Fantasyland attractions remain at Magic Kingdom, including "it's a small world," Peter Pan's Flight, the Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh, Prince Charming Regal Carrousel, Mad Tea Party and Cinderella Castle.
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