The Beast welcomes guests to his castle in the Magic Kingdom

The Beast welcomes guests to his castle in the Magic Kingdom

By Eileen Ogintz
Tribune Media Services

I missed the boat. Actually, it was a flying elephant.

Dumbo, the flying elephant attraction at Walt Disney World’s Magic Kingdom, is that iconic attraction that so many of us have pictures of our families riding at Disney World and Disneyland. Dumbo, of course, was an original Disneyland attraction when the park opened in 1955 and has always been one of the most popular rides there, as well as in Orlando. A car from the Dumbo the Flying Elephant ride is even at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C.

Waving from the giant flying elephant, Disney Imagineers say, is a bona-fide rite of passage, for kids — perhaps their first theme park ride — and one parents and grandparents recall happily from their childhoods and can’t wait to share with their children and grandchildren.

But despite all the times I visited with my kids, we never took that iconic photo. My husband reminded me that when my son Matt was small, he was too scared of Dumbo to ride. Probably other times, the lines were too long for three impatient kids, especially in the heat.

That’s exactly why the Dumbo attraction has now doubled in size — part of the historic New Fantasyland expansion that was officially unveiled with great fanfare at Walt Disney World this past week. Now, besides the chance to get that 21st-century Dumbo photo to share on Facebook and Twitter, there’s a really cool opportunity to step through the Enchanted Mirror in Belle’s cottage to the Beast’s castle where you not only get a hug from Belle but also have Lumiere the Candelabra and Madame Wardrobe talk to you as you plan to act out the story of how Belle and the Beast met (immersive storytelling is the new buzzword here, as Disney now puts you in the middle of your favorite tales).

One of the two new Dumbo rides at Magic Kingdom

One of the two new Dumbo rides at Magic Kingdom

“I know how it is all done and I’m bowled over, said Bruce Vaughn, Walt Disney Imagineering’s chief creative executive, adding that the wonderful Lumiere is one of the most advanced audio-animatronic characters the Imagineers have ever created. Your immersion in the story continues when you eat dinner inside the Beast’s castle, complete with windows that look out onto the French countryside where “snow” is falling. (And for the first time since the Magic Kingdom opened, you can have a beer or order a glass of wine at dinner.)

Board a clamshell and travel Under the Sea with Ariel in the Journey of the Little Mermaid, complete with count ‘em — 180 Audio-Animatronics set to the 1989 movie’s music. (I love the games you play with the tiny “crab” as you wait in line — all part of Disney’s efforts to make the queue part of the fun.)

You’ll find New Fantasyland just past the existing Fantasyland, beyond Cinderella’s castle. (Read more about what’s new in my travel diaries.) Did I mention that there are now three castles here for all those princess lovers?

All of this as Orlando heads into the holiday season, one of the busiest of the year with special attractions at every park. For discounted park tickets, check out Undercover Tourist, which can save you money on 49 Orlando area attractions, including Disney World as long as you buy your tickets on line.

Jon Georges, the Walt Disney Imagineering director of Creative Development, who helped lead the expansion, calls New Fantasyland a “once in a lifetime” project that doubles the size of the most popular land in the most popular theme park in the world.” The expansion required the skills of hundreds of people representing more than 140 different disciplines working on both coasts over the last five years.

Those efforts certainly seem to have paid off big time, say the first guests to try the new rides — and there is more to come in 2013 (A Princess Fairytale Hall) and 2014 (The Seven Dwarfs Mine Train coaster).

Bailey Coyne, 5, visiting from Minnesota, who had been Belle for Halloween, was now beyond excited to visit Belle’s cottage and the Beast’s castle. Another family told me they’d already ridden the Barnstormer coaster five times. “We’re making Disney history,” said Allie Lazar, visiting with her family from Vermont just for the opening, though they have a trip planned in January.

Locals were equally enthused, especially about the appeal to older kids. Just ask the 14-year-old and 11-year-old Orlando girls I brought with me to the opening — they are daughters of a colleague and visit The Mouse nearly every month. “There’s stuff here for all ages, even my mom,” said 11-year-old Nicole.

“I think you appreciate the magic even more than when you were a kid,” added 14-year-old Milica.

Tom Staggs, the chairman of Walt Disney Parks and Resorts, himself the father of sons and here for the opening, told me great care was taken so that even with all of the Princess Power unleashed here, there would be as much to appeal to boys as girls.

But what I like best is how New Fantasyland has been designed to de-stress a family’s visit. Now you no longer have to wait in the hot sun to ride Dumbo or grab a FASTPASS that gives you a specific time to return to the ride. Now, your kids can play in a new air-conditioned “big-top” (the climbing structures were a big hit with the local kids I brought with me) while you wait for your pager to tell you when it’s your turn.

“A game changer,” said Disney Imagineer Chris Kelly, who helped oversee the expansion of Storybook Circus, that includes not only Dumbo but the Casey Jr. Splash ‘N’ Soak Station where monkeys, elephants and camels squirt water, the Barnstormer coaster and Pete’s Silly Sideshow where you can get out of the sun while taking pictures and getting autographs from Minnie Magnifique and Madame Daisy (Daisy Duck as a fortune teller), among others.

Come for lunch at the Be Our Guest Restaurant and after you order on a touch-screen you are handed a magic rosebud so your food can be delivered to the table you choose. No standing with a tray looking for a place to sit. I also love that at night, the kids’ menu includes choices like turkey meatloaf made in the shape of Mickey Mouse Ears served with orange carrot sauce. “Kids are more willing to try new foods, especially when we make them fun and colorful,” said Maribeth Bisienere, vice president, Food and Beverage and Merchandise Operations Integration.

You’ll love the attention to detail — the book with its page partially eaten by a sheep at Belle’s cottage, the peanuts in the cement at Dumbo; the chalk marks in the ceiling of Big Top Souvenirs, as if acrobats had just left; the hidden Mickey at the Little Mermaid attraction that you can only see on Mickey’s birthday, Nov. 18.

No worries if you miss some of them — all the more to discover your next visit.

Thanks, Walt.