LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. -- 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."
Thursday's grand opening happened twice: once for media and bloggers in front of Gaston's Tavern and then again on the steps of Cinderella Castle, with cheering park visitors. Staggs was joined by actress Ginnifer Goodwin, singer Jordin Sparks and, of course, Mickey Mouse. Sparks sang a medley of songs from Disney movies.
Two of New Fantasyland's highlights have yet to open. A ride called Seven Dwarfs Mine Train is still under construction, as is Princess Fairytale Hall -- where guests can go to meet all of their favorite Disney princesses at once. Disney officials said the princess experience will open next year and the ride is expected to open in 2014.
For Disney traditionalists, never fear: Many of the park's long-standing beloved attractions like Cinderella Castle, and rides based on "It's a Small World" and "The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh" remain open.
Be Our Guest Restaurant is new, and offers a different Disney concept. Folks who eat lunch will be served at the counter, while dinner guests will be served tableside. It will also serve wine and beer with dinner, which is the first time alcohol is being sold at the Magic Kingdom. The meals at Be Our Guest are French-themed.
Some old favorites have been improved. An additional Dumbo ride was added -- one Dumbo carousel goes clockwise, the other counterclockwise -- two castles were built and the Barnstormer roller coaster was remodeled. Other areas were spruced up and redecorated.
"I think they did the themes so well, the transitions from one area to another," said Weitlich, who is 31. He and Martinez, who is 29, come to the park at least twice a month.
On Thursday, they bought T-shirts that said "A Brand New Happily Ever After," posed for photos and drank LeFou's Brew, a sweet drink based on apple juice and toasted marshmallows. The pair said they were going to get to know New Fantasyland just like the rest of the park.
"For not being cast members, we're pretty good," said Martinez.