After lots of waiting, Magic Kingdom's Fantasyland expansion is open - sort of. The park's grand opening is Dec. 6, but the expansion had its soft opening Monday, which means guests can experience Under the Sea - Journey of the Little Mermaid, Be Our Guest restaurant, Enchanted Tales with Belle, Ariel's Grotto, Gaston's Tavern and a gift shop.
Keep in mind these are just previews of the attractions, so while you can get into the new area, the hours could be limited.
The $425 million Fantasyland expansion continues with the opening of Princess Fairytale Hall in 2013 and the Seven Dwarfs Mine Train in 2014. Those will join the Little Mermaid ride, a continuously moving attraction similar to Epcot's Finding Nemo ride in which guests travel through movie scenes in giant shells, and Enchanted Tales with Belle, a tour of her childhood home and an encounter with the magic mirror that transports guests into Beast's Castle, where they are greeted by Beauty and the Beast characters.
If you haven't been to the park this year, you'll also find a new Storybook Circus section where the old Toontown used to be, with a Casey Jr. Splash and Soak Station, and two Dumbo rides. That area opened in July.
We managed to get a sneak peek at the Fantasyland attractions, including dining at the new Be Our Guest restaurant. The lunch and dinner spot takes the counter out of walk-up service and gives it a more relaxing sit-down meal feel - with a bit of Disney magic thanks to GPS technology.
Guests order meals on a touch screen and are given an electronic rose that has a glowing Mickey on the side. Touch that Mickey to one on the screen and the meal is registered. Take the electronic rose and choose a seat anywhere in the castle's three rooms and servers follow tracking devices to magically deliver the order.
At a visit to one of the park's first soft openings in early November, the rolling carts took a toll on the decor, chipping some pieces of tile out of ornate rose-patterned floor mosaics an hour and a half after the castle doors opened.
The lunch at Be Our Guest ranged from about $9-$13 for options including a steak sandwich, turkey breast sandwich, quinoa salad, seared tuna and vegetable quiche. That's about the price of a counter service meal elsewhere in the park. The kids menu is not your typical kids fare, including grilled steak, grilled fish, rice pilaf and whole-grain macaroni.
For dinner, the restaurant will serve rustic French cuisine that includes Cornish hen and ratatouille, and make history as the first restaurant to serve alcohol inside the Magic Kingdom.
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It could get crowded
One of the challenges of seeing the new Fantasyland is crowds. The Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays are just about the busiest times of the year at Disney.
The website touringplans.com, which tracks park attendance and recommends when to visit, ranks the dates to visit Disney World on a scale, with 1 being the least crowded and 10 being most crowded. For example, Sunday, Dec. 9, is a 3, and the Tuesday and Thursday after that (Dec. 11 and 13) drop to a 2. Starting Dec. 15, most days rank a 5 to 7 with a solid 10 for every day from Dec. 22 through Jan. 1.
Keep in mind that Thanksgiving week is also one of the park's busiest, but veteran Disney-goers know that the weeks between Thanksgiving and Christmas are a sweet spot during which the decorations are up, but there are less crowds.