By Sarah Sekula, Special for USA TODAY
ORLANDO -- Move over, Butterbeer: There's a new brew in town.
When New Fantasyland opens in Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom Dec. 6, LeFou's Brew - a frozen apple juice concoction named after a Beauty and the Beast character - may well go head to head with Butterbeer served in Universal's nearby The Wizarding World of Harry Potter.
It's already a hit with parkgoers who have attended the dress rehearsals. So is Beauty and the Beast's Gaston. Once a minor character in the theme park, this biceps-curling guy has turned into more of a rock star, challenging 5-year-olds to push-up contests and tromping around Gaston's Tavern, a quick-service restaurant featuring roasted pork shanks and chocolate croissants.
That's just a small sampling of the food and entertainment smorgasbord in New Fantasyland, which nearly doubles the size of this portion of the park, from 11 to 21 acres, making it the largest expansion in the park's 41-year history. Dreamed up by more than 1,000 Disney "Imagineers," it also adds more whimsy to the Magic Kingdom.
USA TODAY got an exclusive behind-the-scenes tour of the multifaceted attraction as well as a first look at the Seven Dwarfs Mine Train scheduled to open in early 2014.
This family-friendly coaster, with no upside-down turns, will be the centerpiece of the expansion. "It's right there in the heart of it, which poses a bit of a construction challenge," says Tom Staggs, chairman of Walt Disney Parks and Resorts. "But at the same time, (this attraction) will really complete it."
Set on rolling countryside, it will take guests into the "mine where a million diamonds shine" while navigating 31-foot and 41-foot drops. With its patented train of vehicles mounted in cradle-like pivots to allow them to sway independently as they swing around the track, the coaster will be the first of its kind. Spanning more than 1,900 feet of track, it will give visitors a glimpse inside the dwarfs' cottage.
Since July, the expansion has unfolded in phases, starting with Storybook Circus, which includes a water play area, gift shop, character-greeting location, roller coaster and revamped Dumbo ride that now has an indoor queue lounge. Guests receive a pager that holds their place in line. Children have a playground and adults have comfy seating while they wait.
Beast's Castle, though, is easily the star. Sitting atop Be Our Guest restaurant, it appears more grandiose than it actually is, thanks to the forced-perspective architecture. Outside, a stone bridge leads guests among rocky cliffs, a majestic waterfall and gargoyles. (Want to take one home? Bonjour Village Gifts sells gargoyle chalices and Minotaur candle holders.)
Inside, the restaurant's interior re-creates the look of the film. At the far end of the stately ballroom, the 18-foot-tall arched windows reveal the French countryside; to the left is the West Wing, to the right the Rose Gallery.
"We live to get even the smallest details right," says Bruce Vaughn, chief creative executive of Walt Disney Imagineering. "Even the projected snow that can be seen falling outside the windows was inspired by the movie."
Notably, it also is the first time alcohol will be served in the Magic Kingdom, and it's Disney's first flex-casual restaurant, which allows for quick service by day and fine dining by night. During the day, it seats 546 guests for such dishes as croque monsieur and braised pork. Guests order at touch-screen devices and take a pager to their tables.
By placing the pager on the table, "we know what orders are at what tables," Staggs says. Within minutes, servers bring the meals out on fancy carts; it all feels like the bustling dining room scene from the movie.
"We're even making the ketchup from scratch using carrots," says Lenny DeGeorge, Walt Disney World executive chef. "And the meatloaf also has vegetables, so kids are getting their vegetables and don't even realize it."
Come evening, the restaurant transforms into elegant table-service dining for 340 guests. Mussels Provençal, French onion soup and charcuterie are on the menu, along with French wines and the leading French beer, Kronenbourg 1664.
Outside, to the far left of Beast's Castle is Maurice's Cottage, which houses Enchanted Tales with Belle, an immersive experience that "allows guests to see themselves in the story," Vaughn says. The magic mirror becomes a portal into the Beast's Castle, where a talking wardrobe entertains and guests can have an engaging encounter with Belle.
After waiting two years to visit New Fantasyland, Amanda Jacobson from Ocoee, Fla., feels overjoyed. "It was awesome," says Amanda, 9. "It was better than I expected."
Her mother, Jennifer, agrees: "I can't believe Disney afforded audiences that much one-on-one time with a character. I hope they don't change it."
Next door, the Under the Sea - Journey of the Little Mermaid takes guests below the surface along with "the carp with the harp" and "the newt with the flute." In Ariel's Grotto, guests have one-on-one time with the mermaid herself.
Surprisingly, for Sharon Moore, 27, who visits the parks at least once a month, the queue was a bigger hit than the ride.
She particularly enjoyed walking by screens where she could direct tiny blue crabs who are collecting whozits and whatzits. A wave of the hand tells the crab to get rid of the item, a thumbs-up says keep it.
"There was so much to see and do (in line) that I wanted to stay longer."
Likewise, annual passholders and Disney Vacation Club members are atwitter. Walt Disney World opened preview slots to them in October. However, the online system was inundated with visitors. As a result, the park added 11 days of previews.
Judging by the enthusiasm, "I think it will rejuvenate the Magic Kingdom and will add turnstile clicks in great numbers," says Duncan Dickson, a former Disney executive who teaches theme park management at the University of Central Florida.
Why the expansion? Fantasyland has been the most popular part of the Magic Kingdom since the park opened.
"It was straining to take up all the demand that was placed on it," Staggs says. "It was something we had our eyes on for a long time."
If you go ...
Cost: $89 ages 10 and up; $83 ages 3-9; under 3 free.
Dining: The first dinner seating for Be Our Guest Restaurant will be Nov. 19. Guests may make reservations at 407-939-3463 or disneyworld.com/dine.
Coming Soon: Disney expects to open Princess Fairytale Hall in 2013 in the former home of Snow White's Scary Adventures.