Weeks before publicly announced preview dates, this morning Walt Disney World quietly soft-opened the New Fantasyland expansion area of the Magic Kingdom to all park attendees. Included in this special preview were the majority of the areas inspired by “The Little Mermaid” and “Beauty and the Beast,” including the new dark ride Under the Sea ~ Journey of the Little Mermaid, Ariel’s Grotto meet-and-greet, Gaston’s Tavern, and Enchanted Tales with Belle. While guests could cross an ominous bridge and approach the Be Our Guest restaurant, they were not permitted inside quite yet.
Construction walls that have persisted in the park for years have recently been greatly reduced, with access to the new Fantasyland Forest now blocked only by rows of planters and Cast Members who today allowed guests inside for the first time. Though there is much construction still to be done in the area, the large portion of this theme park expansion is now nearly complete, almost ready for its December 6 grand opening. Much like the recent previews of Enchanted Tales with Belle, today’s soft opening of New Fantasyland was a test to train Cast Members in their new roles and gauge guest reactions, giving the design team a chance to make tweaks in the coming weeks ahead.
Video: New Fantasyland dress rehearsal begins in the Magic Kingdom
Inside New Fantasyland, the lucky guests who were part of this first preview had the opportunity to be astounded by the level of detail featured throughout the new area, encompassing all who entered into an entirely new world surrounded by trees, waterways, elaborate mountain ranges, and plenty of Disney details.
Take a spoiler-heavy look around each of the previewed portions of New Fantasyland below.
New Fantasyland Forest
The area that houses the “Beauty and the Beast” and “The Little Mermaid” sections of New Fantasyland is called the Fantasyland Forest. It will ultimately be lined with fresh foliage, though much of that will come in later phases of the expansion. For now, winding paths, running waterways, and some lush landscaping, particularly around the Be Our Guest restaurant, make it a distinct difference from some of the drab concrete walkways that line the majority of the rest of the older Fantasyland areas.
Under the Sea ~ Journey of the Little Mermaid
Borrowing a ride from the Disney California Adventure theme park, Under the Sea ~ Journey of the Little Mermaid immerses guests into the world of “The Little Mermaid” for the first time as a dark ride at Walt Disney World. In the tradition of classics like Peter Pan’s Flight and Snow White’s Scary Adventures (now gone from the Magic Kingdom), this new attraction lets guests climb into clamshell vehicles and glide through scenes and songs taken straight from one of Disney’s most beloved classic animated feature films.
But unlike the ride at the Disneyland Resort, this new Magic Kingdom version sits inside a highly themed area that includes massive seaside rock work, home to Prince Eric’s castle. Within, guests pass by a shipwreck marking the entrance to the ride and wander through caverns while waiting to board.
The ride itself is nearly identical to the west coast version, from Scuttle introducing the story to impressive appearances by Ariel, Sebastian, Flounder, and one of Disney’s most lifelike Audio-Animatronics figures to date, Ursula. It’s a long Omnimover-driven attraction that fits perfectly in the Magic Kingdom.
Video: Full ride and queue of Under the Sea ~ Journey of the Little Mermaid in New Fantasyland
(The ride portion of this video features binaural audio, so wear headphones for the best experience!)
Slideshow of Under the Sea ~ Journey of the Little Mermaid:
Scuttle’s Scavenger Hunt
Guests waiting for Under the Sea ~ Journey of the Little Mermaid can pass the time by joining in Scuttle’s Scavenger Hunt, featuring an Audio-Animatronics figure of that famous bird-brained seagull from “The Little Mermaid.” Through posted signs, Ariel and Scuttle invite guests to join in the fun of adding to her collection of whosits and whatzits galore by pointing to various objects throughout the queue, after which little blue animated crabs will grab those items and tuck them away.
Video: A closer look at Scuttle’s Scavenger Hunt, the interactive queue in The Little Mermaid ride
Also tucked away along the seaside, separate from Under the Sea ~ Journey of the Little Mermaid, is Ariel’s Grotto, a chance for guests to meet The Little Mermaid herself. It’s quite similar to the previous meet-and-greet of the same name that was once located in roughly the same area of the Magic Kingdom, but its theme has been greatly enhanced with far more detailed work. And guests will enjoy privacy while meeting with Ariel, one group at a time, engaging in conversation before taking pictures and getting autographs.
Video: Meet-and-greet with The Little Mermaid at Ariel’s Grotto in New Fantasyland
Be Our Guest Restaurant
Though not open to guests yet, the approach to the new Be Our Guest restaurant is impressive unto itself, requiring the crossing of a bridge lined with ghoulish gargoyles, getting closer to jagged rocks, and Beast’s castle lurking in the distance high above. And what a sight it is, particularly the giant waterfall cascading across the rocks nearby. Though the dining experience inside is sure to be a happy and festive occasion, there’s a certain sense of foreboding in reaching it.
Preview: Be Our Guest restaurant entrance, bridge, waterfall, and scenery
Borrowed directly from “Beauty and the Beast,” this entire area of New Fantasyland recreates the feeling and environment of the beginning of the film, down to its centerpiece, a fountain featuring Gaston and LeFou. And this is where Gaston himself meets with guests, always hilarious and full of himself.
Video: Meet-and-greet with Gaston in front of his tavern and fountain in New Fantasyland
Unique treats are offered inside this equally unique establishment, warm and inviting but somewhat off-putting, just like Gaston himself. Lined with antlers and plenty of wood textures, Gaston’s Tavern wants everyone to pull up a chair and order a drink – of LeFou’s Brew that is, a concoction borrowed from Cars Land and given a new name for its Florida home. But the tavern also serves pork shanks and cinnamon rolls, which should both prove to be popular menu items.
Tour Gaston’s Tavern in Belle’s Village
Slideshow of Gaston’s Tavern:
Enchanted Tales with Belle
The one area of New Fantasyland that has already been seen by many a Magic Kingdom visitor in recent weeks is Enchanted Tales with Belle, housed within Maurice’s Cottage, ultimately transporting guests magically within the walls of Beast’s castle and back. The experience is essentially the same today as it was during recent previews, though a few exterior details have been added, shared below.
Bonjour Village Gifts
Modeled after Belle’s favorite little bookstore, Bonjour Village Gifts offers a variety of New Fantasyland and Beauty and the Beast items, as well as much of the usual Disney merchandise. But its details are where this store’s charm lies.
Video: Tour Bonjour Village Gifts in New Fantasyland
Slideshow of Bonjour Village Gifts:
More still on the way…
Even as official opening day approaches, there is still much more work to be done in New Fantasyland, culminating in 2014 with the Seven Dwarfs Mine Train coaster. Sooner, the Be Our Guest restaurant will begin dinner service on November 19 and will be available for tours during special preview engagements before that. Princess Fairytale Hall will debut sometime next year.
Today’s soft opening was unannounced and there are no guarantees any portion of New Fantasyland will be open to Magic Kingdom guests outside of previously-announced previews. Annual pass holders may sign up for specific preview times and dates on Monday, October 15, 2012, at noon ET. All others interested in seeing New Fantasyland in advance of its December 6 grand opening will have an opportunity to preview the area beginning November 19, 2012, after which it will be open daily.
More photos of New Fantasyland: