By Sarah Sekula
Special to CNN
ORLANDO (CNN) -- When Walt Disney World's New Fantasyland opens Thursday in the Magic Kingdom, guests will be in for a slew of magical moments, and they'll have plenty of room to enjoy them. This portion of the park nearly doubled in size, making it the largest expansion in the park's 41-year history.
"It gives guests another level of immersion," says Tom Staggs, chairman of Walt Disney Parks and Resorts. "We have technology to play with that Walt DIsney didn't have."
For instance, part of the expansion includes Beast's Castle, which sits atop Be Our Guest restaurant. During lunch hours, guests order at touch-screen kiosks and take radio-frequency devices to their tables. Once the pager is placed on the table, servers know exactly where to deliver the food. And voila, meals arrive within minutes via a glass-enclosed cart.
"Everything is fresh, made to order, and for lunch we are hoping for the bustling kind of energy like the movie scene (from 'Beauty and the Beast') in the dining room," says Lenny DeGeorge, Walt Disney World executive chef.
In the evening, the restaurant transforms into fancy table-service dining, inviting guests to feast upon French onion soup, mussels Provençal and charcuterie while sipping on French wines and beers. This is a first, since alcohol has never been served before in the Magic Kingdom.
In true Disney style, the decor inside and out is over the top. From the chandeliers to the walls to the terrazzo floor to the draperies, it's all true to the movie. Even suits of armor that whisper to passersby line the hallway. Guests then make their way into the grand ballroom, which has an entire wall of arched windows, complete with magical snowflakes falling upon the French countryside.
Faith Lee, from Lake Mary, Florida, appreciates the extreme theming. "I felt like a kid again entering (Be Our Guest restaurant)," she says. "It completely recreates the details of Beast's Castle to the most minute aspect."
Other areas of New Fantasyland involve similar attention to detail, completely immersing guests in the beloved Disney stories. The expansion, which has been in the works for more than three years, introduces two new areas ---- the Enchanted Forest, which focuses on Beauty and the Beast and The Little Mermaid, and Storybook Circus, an area inspired by the Disney animated feature "Dumbo."
Major focus on character time
Outside, to the far left of Beast's Castle is Maurice's Cottage, a provincial abode that houses an enchanted mirror. It spectacularly transforms into a portal whisking guests into the story of Beauty and the Beast. Once in the Beast's library, Enchanted Tales with Belle goes way beyond a typical meet and greet when Belle and friends invite guests to help act out the "tale as old as time."
Next door at Prince Eric's Castle, kids and adults alike will enjoy Under the Sea - Journey of the Little Mermaid (almost identical to the Disney California Adventure version). After walking through an interactive queue, guests board giant clamshells as animation and animatronics retell Ariel's story. Afterward in Ariel's Grotto, guests score one-on-one time with the redheaded mermaid herself as she poses for photos and signs autographs.
"For us, the Fantasyland expansion was more than we could have imagined," Lee says. "It was like being immersed in the stories of Belle and Ariel, not just visiting attractions."
Lee and her family were also impressed with Storybook Circus, which opened over the summer. This portion of the park includes a water play area, tame roller coaster and gift shop. The revamped Dumbo ride, with its new indoor queue lounge, is a crowd pleaser for parents who want to sit down for a bit and children who want to enjoy an elaborate playground. Guests receive a pager that virtually holds their place in line; it lights up when it's time to board the ride. Another option is to grab a FastPass and wait in a traditional line outdoors.
Overall, the new additions certainly have Disney fans aflutter, but will this translate to an influx of Orlando visitors?
Danielle Courtenay, chief marketing officer for Visit Orlando, thinks so.
"When any major new attraction opens in Orlando, there's always a positive impact in terms of increased awareness and interest in the destination," she says. "With New Fantasyland being the largest expansion in Magic Kingdom history, we are certainly optimistic that it will impact visitation for 2013 and beyond."
Princess Fairytale Hall is scheduled to open in 2013 in the former home of Snow White's Scary Adventures. Located in the Castle Courtyard in the center of Fantasyland, it will be a place for guests to meet Disney princess characters.
Come early 2014, the finishing touch will be a roller coaster, the Seven Dwarfs Mine Train, in the heart of it all. This family thrill ride will be an experience somewhere in between the tame Barnstormer, a re-themed "beginner's coaster," and the classic Big Thunder Mountain Railroad. With its patented train of vehicles that swing back and forth, the attraction will be the first of its kind.