For decades, families entering the Magic Kingdom headed straight to Fantasyland behind Cinderella Castle. Little girls in Sleeping Beauty dresses held hands with the princesses. Little boys in Mickey Mouse ears flew with Peter Pan.
Everyone hummed It's a Small World.
But along with the magic came a mundane reality: crowds and long lines, made worse by mediocre food. Visit the park during the holidays, and you know: Disney can become an unenchanted place.
Disney "imagineers" hope to improve on that with the opening of the $425 million New Fantasyland, the largest expansion in the park's 41-year history. It nearly doubles the size of Fantasyland from 11 to 20 acres, making it the Magic Kingdom's largest section.
With it will come more visitors, but also more room to spread out. Designers hope that by expanding the experience with more attractions, restaurants and retail, people will spend more time — and money — and be less inclined to go somewhere else.
"It's definitely going to help with family audiences," said Jim Hill, a theme park analyst who has been writing about Disney for 30 years. "They weren't having trouble drawing in people, but it will make people extend their vacation and make people who haven't been to Disney World in a few years come back."
Several of the most anticipated features of New Fantasyland open Thursday: Enchanted Tales with Belle, Under the Sea Journey of the Little Mermaid, Ariel's Grotto, Be Our Guest restaurant and Gaston's Tavern. A soft opening began Nov. 19.
Disney has unfolded the section in phases, starting in July with the opening of the Barnstormer roller coaster, a water play area, a circus-themed gift shop and a revamped Dumbo the Flying Elephant, which now has an indoor play area for kids while they wait. The Princess Fairytale Hall opens next year, followed by the $50 million showpiece finale — the Seven Dwarfs Mine Train roller coaster in 2014.
Tom Staggs, chairman of Walt Disney Parks and Resorts, has said the improvement to Fantasyland was needed.
"It was straining to take up all the demand that was placed on it," Staggs told USA Today. "It was something we had our eyes on for a long time."
Some of New Fantasyland's features appear taken straight out of Universal Orlando's Wizarding World of Harry Potter up the road. Universal has Butterbeer, a frothy, butterscotch, nonalcoholic drink that poured in about $5 million in sales during first six months. Disney has LeFou's Brew, a frozen apple drink. Universal has Hogwarts castle. Disney has Beast's castle.
But for all the similarities, New Fantasyland isn't a case of one-upping Universal, experts say. Disney doesn't need to. The park attracted 17.1 million visitors last year, far ahead of Islands of Adventure's 7.7 million and, closer to home, Busch Gardens' 4.3 million.
"Universal made a major statement with Harry Potter that they were going to become a major player, but when you think about the New Fantasyland, it's about increasing the capacity of the park," said Len Testa, co-author of The Unofficial Guide to Walt Disney World and president of the Touring Plans website. "It's not a response to the gauntlet Universal threw down. It's really about reducing the wait times and providing more things to do in the park."
Despite the picture-perfect decor and acute attention to detail, Fantasyland is not ground-breaking, he said. The mermaid ride mimics one at Disneyland Resort in California, but with an interactive queue that lets guests direct images of little blue crabs on a screen. Ariel's Grotto is a character meet-and-greet.
More noteworthy, Testa said, is the Be Our Guest restaurant, which for the first time in the park's history serves beer and wine at dinner and a French-inspired menu with ratatouille and mussels provencal. (Reservations are required for dinner, which is booked until April; lunch has walkup counter service.)
"I used to tell people that if you do one thing in the Magic Kingdom, it's don't eat in Fantasyland," he said. "Now the food is great."
After years of adding single attractions, theme parks have discovered it's no longer enough. At $89 a ticket, customers want a more sophisticated, full-immersion experience with attraction areas and quality dining and retail options.
"Parks are starting to understand after 50 years that food is the second most important experience to the guest (after attractions). They have to do it right," said Dennis Speigel, president of International Theme Park Services in Cincinnati. Next to tickets, food brings in the most revenue.
Universal started the trend with Harry Potter and its highly themed rides, restaurants and shops. Disney followed this year with Cars Land inside Disney California Adventure and now with New Fantasyland. All are big investments that will yield major returns for the next 15 to 20 years, Speigel said.
Disney will benefit from an attendance boost but doesn't necessarily need it. The Magic Kingdom already attracts an average of 47,000 people a day and can reach its 70,000 estimated capacity during peak days. Any big increase like Universal, which saw a 36 percent boost from Harry Potter after its June 2010 opening, would make the park too crowded to enjoy.
Testa expects New Fantasyland will fuel a more modest increase of 5 to 10 percent, similar to when the Soarin' hang-gliding ride opened at Epcot in 2005. Still, that would be significant. Last year, the Magic Kingdom's attendance inched up just 1 percent. Universal's, by comparison, jumped 29 percent.
"Disney is perfectly happy not boosting attendance, but they want to increase revenue," he said.
The Magic Kingdom, like other parks, aims to achieve that by upping the per-person spending on food, merchandise and other items. It's no accident that the Bonjour! Gift Shop sells $98 shadow boxes of Belle and $40 sets of fine dinner plates. Dinner entrees at Be Our Guest range from $15.99 for the rotisserie Cornish hen to $29.99 for the strip steak.
Hotel stays add to the pot. Disney covers about 30,000 acres and has more than 25,000 hotel rooms on the property. When a room is empty, that's a revenue opportunity lost.
Even more game-changing than New Fantasyland will be the park's Fast Pass Plus and Next Gen initiatives set to launch sometime next year, said Hill, the theme park analyst. Fast Pass Plus, which Disney started testing at Magic Kingdom earlier this year, will allow visitors to book attraction times at the park to reduce wait times. Next Gen will provide online booking of attraction times, meal reservations and even spots along the parade route months in advance.
"It will change the theme park experience into almost a cruise ship experience," Hill said. "It's aimed at people who are coming back every 3.75 years."
Also on the horizon is Disney's recent purchase of Lucasfilm, the maker of the Star Wars movies. Disney plans to make three more Star Wars movies and incorporate the theme into one of its Orlando parks, possibly at Hollywood Studios, where it already has a Star Wars-related ride. Like the Harry Potter franchise, Star Wars will have multiple movies as fodder for future attractions.
"It's a very good time to be a Disney fan, and it's also a very good time to be a Disney shareholder," said Lou Mongello, online host of WDW Radio. "Disney does a great job of putting you in a bubble where you forget everything else."