By TAMARA LUSH
LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. (AP) â¿¿ Derrick Weitlich and his friend Leslie Martinez arrived at the Magic Kingdom at 5:40 a.m. Thursday, wanting to be among the first to visit the park's New Fantasyland.
Getting up early was worth it, said these Melbourne, Fla., Disney fans, who estimated that they have visited the park some 180 times.
"I love Beauty and the Beast," said Martinez, while standing in front of the new Gaston's Tavern restaurant. "And I'm very picky when it comes to details about Beauty and the Beast."
Martinez and Weitlich weren't disappointed. From the antlers lining the walls in the tavern to the animatronic Ariel in the Under the Sea-Journey of the Little Mermaid ride, they were impressed with the New Fantasyland.
It's the largest expansion project in the park's 41-year history. The new spaces are built on what was once the site of the 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea experience, and the expansion doubles the size of the original Fantasyland. The central Florida theme park near Orlando is blending classic Disney characters (like Dumbo, the flying elephant) and newer, popular hits (like "The Little Mermaid") with the multimillion dollar expansion.
"It's really about immersing people in a number of stories, characters and music that they love," said Walt Disney Parks and Resorts Chairman Tom Staggs.
New Fantasyland sits just past Cinderella Castle, with two sections: Enchanted Forest, where visitors will find Belle from "Beauty and the Beast" and Ariel from "The Little Mermaid," and Storybook Circus, which is inspired by the Disney film "Dumbo."
Among the highlights: a ride called Under the Sea-Journey of the Little Mermaid, which tells Ariel's story, and Enchanted Tales With Belle, a walk-through experience that features a magical mirror and costumed characters.
Staggs said that the expansion allows families to "be a little more relaxed" while in the park, calling the spaces "more enjoyable."