“Can I take your order, Princess?” the waitress asked me attentively, pen poised to paper ready to note down my request. Interactions like these are the norm at Disney World. It’s one of the hundreds of ways the place makes you smile.
Having never set foot inside a Disney park in my life, this particular princess was unsure what to expect from the whole experience. And an experience it truly is.
My Disney World experience began at the opening of New Fantasyland, a huge expansion to the Magic Kingdom. So huge, in fact, it’s the largest expansion in the park’s history, incorporating the already existing attractions which are vintage Disney – think Snow White and Cinderella and all those tales of princesses waiting for their handsome princes to materialise – along with the more contemporary Disney stories.
Arguably, the most important story in the New Fantasyland expansion is Beauty and the Beast. The tale is the inspiration behind the truly remarkable new attraction 'Enchanted Tales with Belle'. Set in an intricately decorated cottage designed to emulate the one in which Belle lived with her father in the film, visitors are encouraged to interact with the ‘real life’ Belle, as well as the characters from the film. The aim is to fully immerse visitors in Belle’s world. Children are selected to act out parts in Belle’s story, producing adorable smiles and infectious excitement in the process.
Smiles and excitement aside, the most astonishing part of the whole experience is the fact that the candelabrum from the film, Lumière, is also present in the cottage in talking, moving form. The Disney ‘Imagineers’ – designers, architects and animators who all work together to produce Disney’s incredible surroundings – have created Lumière in the most dazzling, advanced display of audio animatronics that Disney has ever attempted.
Lumière is 3D yet he moves and talks in exactly the same way he does in the film. The imagineers have truly brought him to life, in every sense imaginable.
'Enchanted Tales with Belle' isn’t the only New Fantasyland attraction inspired by Beauty and the Beast. There is also a stunning new restaurant, aptly named 'Be Our Guest'. The restaurant is an exact replica of the Beast’s ballroom in the film. Outside the windows, snow mystically falls and inside guests can see the enchanted rose floating in its case.
And Beauty and the Beast isn’t the only tale brought to life in New Fantasyland either. 'Under the Sea – Journey of The Little Mermaid' is a lovely attraction which allows guests to ride in a clamshell through the ‘ocean’ to music from The Little Mermaid. The clamshell journey takes visitors through recognisable scenes from the film where characters sing and dance along. There’s even the chance to meet Ariel in her grotto at the end.
All of these attractions sit perfectly within the rest of the Magic Kingdom, most of which feels as though they come straight from the pages of a pop up storybook.
Other Magic Kingdom highlights include 'Big Thunder Mountain', a brilliant mine train rollercoaster which, within minutes after disembarking, I queued to ride again. 'Splash Mountain' is just as fun, offering the chance for visitors to ride in log flumes which sends them through darkened tunnels before a steep, thrilling drop soaks everyone at the end. Disembarking rides, soaking wet and hysterically laughing was a common occurrence during my time at Disney World.
The imagineers aren’t finished with this park yet, either. Sitting in the centre of New Fantasyland is a work in progress – a ride devoted to the seven dwarves in Snow White. It’s a rollercoaster featuring mine cars which swing independently of the rollercoaster tracks in an attempt to emulate the movement of real mine cars. This motion has apparently never been attempted before, and the audio animatronics are set to be just as exciting.
This theme of innovation is what Disney World thrives on. What’s perhaps most clear is the intention to continue to expand and improve the parks. For every one land or ride completed, there are a further dozen in the pipeline. Seeing Disney in its completed entirety is completely impossible.
The attention to detail is exceptional. I stayed in one of the newest developments, Art of Animation, a sprawling resort with four themed wings, including The Lion King, Cars, The Little Mermaid and Finding Nemo. The entire hotel – exterior as well as interior – is themed and bursting with life and colour. Even the swimming pool plays music underwater. The finite attention to detail made a mockery of my prior assumption (as a Disney novice), that it would be gaudy and tacky.
In fact, for a Disney novice like me, the whole place was rather overwhelming. Having assumed there’d just be a few tame rides for children, I was quickly proved wrong. There’s an unbelievable amount to do and see.
Blizzard Beach is a perfect example. What appears to be an icy ski resort is actually a huge water park with rides for visitors of all ages. It also includes the terrifyingly named ‘Summit Plummet,’ a waterslide with a 12-storey drop, sending you down an almost vertical shoot at speeds of 60mph. It’s safe to say that I screamed all the way down and was visibly shaking by the end, but I’d do that (and the cable car ride to the top) again in a second.
Similarly, Epcot’s new 'Test Track' ride is hugely exhilarating. The ride is one of the first to incorporate Disney’s new idea to make queuing for rides enjoyable by allowing people to digitally design their own cars before racing them around the track. The climax is driving to massive doors which swing back to expose an outdoor track and a truly thrilling 65mph dash around it.
It was proof enough that Disney is more than just Dumbo rides. I also tried my hand at speed boating through the harbor surrounding Magic Kingdom. The motorised boats go pretty fast, and the harbour is also home to functioning ferries, dodging which is exhilarating in a whole other way! However, zooming around the sparkling water as the warm Floridian sun set on Cinderella’s Castle was a moment of pure escapism.
The fine dining experiences in Disney World are also very adult orientated. It’s no wonder Disney is attracting more multigenerational families if the food is anything to go by. Personal highlights for me included Citricos, the beautiful restaurant at the Grand Floridian resort. The service is impeccable, the food even more so. The perfectly seasoned butternut squash soup and beautifully presented, deliciously decadent deserts were almost too good to eat. I say almost.
And the Yachtsman Steakhouse restaurant provided me with the most mouthwatering, succulent, perfectly pink and tender steak I have ever eaten. Having tasted that, along with whipped potatoes and red wine jus, I can officially die happy.
The high-end restaurants at Disney World provided me with some of the best culinary delights I’ve experienced and is something the resorts should receive more credit for. That, and the intimate, warm environment which create the perfect setting.
The notion of socialising is also apparent in Downtown Disney which features yet another new addition in the form of Splitsville – a brand new bowling venue which combines bowling, food, drink and dancing all in the same area. The alleys are spread out in sociable sections, and the food (melt in your mouth cheeseburgers) was brilliant.
However, it was the evening before my departure from Disney World that the true impact of the place struck. I was watching the breathtaking IllumiNations fireworks, laser and water show at Epcot’s World Showcase area.
As the fireworks shot from the water beneath me and exploded spectacularly, deafeningly, in the sky, I realised that what’s unique – and addictive – about Disney is that it cocoons you from reality. The thought of leaving and returning to grey skies and hideous commutes was repellant.
At Disney, you escape into what is, for all intents and purposes, a brighter, happier, more carefree fictional world. And it’s this – the beautiful architecture, the attention to detail, the vibrant colours and sights, the dazzling night shows – which provide the foundations of what Disney hopes to give its guests: memories. Memories to last weeks, months and probably years after they’ve returned home.
That, and the desire to always be addressed as ‘princess’.
For information about a family break to Walt Disney World, call direct on 08448 008 111 or visit www.disneyworld.co.uk