Details: Walt Disney World
We wind our way around the cottage of Belle, a.k.a. the Beauty in Disney’s animated classic “Beauty and the Beast,” and her father, Maurice. Surrounding us is a steady soundtrack of water tumbling in storybook falls and chirping (recorded) birds.
Eventually we make it into the cottage, where, of course, there’s more waiting. The room is done up like a cozy living room for the father-daughter pair. The Minnies rush to measure themselves against the height hash marks on the wall. Other tots attack the books on a table and chair, which are wisely not books at all but imitations anchored in place.
At last, a cast member — not employee, thank you very much — beckons us into yet another holding area, this one resembling Maurice’s workshop, where an “enchanted” mirror dramatically transforms into a door leading into another room.
“How does that work?” asks one child.
“It’s magic!” the cast member brightly replies, as if here, at Disney World, no other explanation is required.
Which it isn’t, really.
All about princesses
We start our day primed for princess-watching by waking up in our “royal guest room” at Walt Disney World’s Port Orleans Resort-Riverside. The recently renovated quarters feature pictures of Disney movie princesses and other fun-to-discover details, the story being that they’re mementos left for Tiana of “The Princess and the Frog” by her royal friends. So the faucets are magic lamps from “Aladdin,” the bench resembles the dog/footstool from “Beauty and the Beast,” and the shower curtain’s theme is, appropriately enough, “The Little Mermaid.” My favorite detail: The headboards that light up with a fiber-optic network to look like fireworks.
But our mission demands that we actually leave the room. It’s time to find some royalty, starting with Belle.
Enchanted Tales with Belle is part of an expansion — officially opened on Dec. 6 — that when completed will nearly double the size of Fantasyland in the Magic Kingdom, one of the four parks that make up Walt Disney World Resort in Orlando. It’s called New Fantasyland, Fantasyland being one of the Magic Kingdom’s six themed areas. Fantasyland is the land of classic Disney and fairy tales. Think Peter Pan, Pinocchio and Cinderella. It’s also home to the ride — and unstoppable earworm — It’s a Small World.
New Fantasyland capitalizes on the princess phenomenon that girls and their mothers love — or loathe. The other princess getting top billing is Ariel of “The Little Mermaid,” who has both a grotto where princesses-in-waiting can meet the under-the-sea royalty and a slow-moving ride that takes visitors through a condensed version of the film. Coming in 2014 is the Seven Dwarfs Mine Train, based on “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.”
Not long after arriving at the Magic Kingdom, we head straight for Under the Sea — Journey of the Little Mermaid. I’m a Disney World veteran many times over, so I’m eager to see this new explosion of fantasy. But something appears to be amiss at the Ariel ride; the lack of a line certainly can’t be due to a dearth of demand. The cast members stationed at the entrance confirm my suspicion: The ride is closed, though they don’t say why.
“Maybe we should go to the grotto and complain to Ariel,” my husband says, with a spoonful of snark.
As we regroup, we take the time to drink in the details of the expansion. Atop Ariel’s real estate sits Prince Eric’s castle, a seal with an “E” adorning a turret. Belle’s Village has a French accent, with signs in French and flower-filled window boxes. There’s a souvenir shop, a tavern and the Beast’s castle, where we hope to eat a late lunch.
Although we’re standing amid a sea of frills and sequins, much of the activity centers on the fountain depicting Gaston, the macho villain of “Beauty and the Beast.” Here, in front of the waterworks, is the man himself, a bit of a black bouffant pulled into a ponytail, red shirt cinched in at the waist. Maybe he’s in a Disney villain recovery program, because this Gaston is quite friendly and charming. Perhaps hordes of tiara-wearing girls have that effect on everyone.
Our princess ambitions foiled for the moment, I gear up to try another new experience: Disney World’s FastPass Plus card. FastPasses have been around for years. They allow for timed admission to some of the parks’ most popular attractions, sending pass-holders to the front of the line during an hour-long window. The catch? In most instances, you can have only one FastPass at a time.
Now Disney is in the process of testing the FastPass Plus card, which lets you select a limited number of FastPass attractions in advance. You then choose from one of several time combinations for your preferred rides or shows. We’ve lucked into participating in the pilot program.
We’d already tried our FastPass Plus cards the day before, at Hollywood Studios. Even though we had no problems, I can’t help holding my breath each time I touch the card to the lollipop-shaped reader. It’s almost designed to create suspense. After you tap the card, a white circle lights up and starts spinning, as if it’s thinking. Then the reader, which includes an outline of Mickey Mouse, glows green, and voila, you’re in. Whew.
The four-attraction roster we’ve loaded onto our FastPass card, in addition to the paper passes we collect, means that we’re ricocheting pinball-style from land to land trying to time everything just so. It seems as if we’re outsmarting the system, but between breaths, I can’t shake the feeling that somehow, it’s outsmarting us.
Into the castle
The Ariel ride has reopened. The advertised waiting time is 20 minutes — score! — but it turns out to be double that. Disney makes the queue more interesting with a game that allows our hand gestures to tell a little animated crab behind a plastic window whether the treasure he hauls out matches the rest of what’s around him. I see a lot of these interactive games during our visit, something I don’t remember from my last visit, eight years ago.
The ride itself is pretty tame. We sit in a clamshell vehicle that conveys us through scenes from the movie. Most striking is the animatronic technology. The figures in older rides — Pirates of the Caribbean, Peter Pan’s Flight — are stiff, with unnaturally smooth faces, as if they’ve been embalmed. Here, they look much more real, from Ariel’s hair that bobs as if she’s underwater to the chiseled torso of her father, Triton.
The constant motion between rides helps us work up a Beast-like appetite, so we head to his castle for lunch. We stand in line on the bridge that leads into the restaurant. The designers have worked in lots of elements inspired by the film, including the Beast’s crest on the gates, gargoyles guarding the doors and a mosaic above the entrance modeled after the stained-glass windows shown at the beginning of the movie.
After a few minutes, we’re allowed into the castle. It may as well be a movie set, except for the fact that the source material was, of course, animated. A group of tween-ish girls in front of us is singing the movie’s eponymous romantic ballad. Suits of armor lining the hall chatter away. Sensory overload.
By day, Be Our Guest is a so-called quick-service dining option where you order your meals at a touch-screen terminal and then choose a table where waiters will bring food. It doesn’t matter where you sit, because each table gets a palm-sized disk with a rose on it that helps servers unite the dishes with their intended consumers.
The main dining room has a high frescoed ceiling, lots of marble and floor-to-ceiling “windows” behind which animated snow is falling. Two smaller rooms flank the main space, one patterned after the forbidden west wing of the Beast’s castle, complete with a hologram-like wilting rose that in the movie ordains the time the Beast has to redeem himself with love so that he can turn back into a human. The other room houses large images of scenes from the movie, as well as Beast and Belle figurines that dance in graceful circles.
So charmed, we take another gander at Enchanted Tales. The 70-minute estimated wait hasn’t budged. It’s almost time for our FastPass Plus entry into the Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh. If we do that, we can then use our regular FastPass at the Barnstormer kiddie coaster in Storybook Circus, the other revamped themed area in New Fantasyland. Then it’s back to Belle.
But first we make an impulse decision. The stand-by wait for Dumbo the Flying Elephant is down to 10 minutes. It probably helps that the park now has two of these rides that spin you around in your own pachyderm, which you can maneuver up and down.
We don’t wait in a traditional queue. Instead we get an electronic buzzer, a la the Cheesecake Factory, and bide our time in a circus tent where children can romp around on the indoor playground. We just sit on the periphery, and as an almost-30-year-old sans offspring, I worry that I look annoyed at the shrieks around me, or just plain out of place. But Disney’s meant for kids of all ages, right? When it’s our turn to ride, I let my husband operate the altitude control stick while I try not to get too nauseated by the relentless whirling. I guess I’m not quite as much of a kid as I used to be.
Next door, the Barnstormer takes all of about a minute to ride, which is infinitely shorter than the time we waited to board, even with our FastPass. Still, it’s a nice change of pace from the more intense roller coasters.
The pace slows a lot more once we bite the bullet and start our wait for Enchanted Tales.
Inside, in the post-magical-mirror room, the brassy, lilac-hued Wardrobe from the movie stands at attention at the front. She’s a sort of hybrid, an actual closet merged with a head that has both animatronic and projected facial features.
She welcomes us and further explains why we’re here: As a surprise for Belle, we’re going to re-enact the night that she and the Beast fell in love. The cast member, hoarse from a long day of enthusiasm, I presume, assigns roles to some of the audience to play. I hang back, preferring to watch the spectacle.
After several minutes quietly surveying the room, Wardrobe springs back to life and bids us farewell as we stream into the Beast’s library.
In addition to being awed by Wardrobe and her colleague Lumiere, the candelabra figure in the library, we enjoy the children’s acting. It’s all quite cute.
By the time we leave the cottage, the sun has set. The pint-sized princesses are all turning into Sleeping Beauties. We slowly make our way toward the front of the park, our speed slackening as we stop in various souvenir shops. I walk out of one, and my breath catches in my throat as Cinderella Castle comes into full view, illuminated in purple and dripping with white icicle lights. It’s beautiful — even, yes, magical.
We go into another store on the park’s Main Street. When we come out, it’s snowing — Disney’s manufactured version of the white stuff, anyway. The flakes come puffing out of the building rooftops. I grab my husband’s hand.
I may not have an elegant ball gown on, but I think that even a Disney princess would be hard-pressed to experience a better fairy-tale ending.
Details: Walt Disney World