Dan Gross: Dan Gross goes to New Fantasyland, Walt Disney World's latest attraction

Dan Gross' daughter Piper with Minnie Mouse.
Dan Gross' daughter Piper with Minnie Mouse.
Posted: December 12, 2012

ORLANDO, FLA. - The first time I went to Walt Disney World, I was 9 and only remember Space Mountain and Figment, the dragon from EPCOT.

A few years ago, I begrudgingly went with my wife after repeatedly asking her, "What adults without kids go to Disney World?"

Turns out the answer was a lot of people, and it was a great trip.

Last week we took our 18-month-old daughter Piper to "the happiest place on earth" (and I thought that was the Daily News) to experience the New Fantasyland, the largest expansion of the Magic Kingdom in the Florida park's 41-year history.

We had heard that Philadelphia sent more visitors to Disney World than any other region and, hey, if Disney World is that important to our community and our readers, then fine, send me there to see what this New Fantasyland is all about.

Anything I can do to serve our readers.

Singer Jordin Sparks and "Once Upon A Time" star Ginnifer Goodwin helped open New Fantasyland. Of course, keeping it synergistic, "Once Upon A Time" airs on Disney-owned ABC. ABC's "Dancing with the Stars" professionals Tony Dovolani and Chelsie Hightower were also on hand for some festivities and actor Andy Garcia, who recently narrated an event at Disneyland, toured New Fantasyland during a media preview the night before it opened to the public.

Key new attractions include:

*  Under the Sea: Journey of the Little Mermaid, in which you ride in a clamshell through an indoor course featuring music and characters from 1989 animated musical with the singing crab.

* The "Beauty and the Beast"-inspired Be Our Guest Restaurant. It's quick and casual for lunch but transforms its ballroom, featuring a huge wall in which it snows all the time, into a French-inspired full-service dining room by night with wine and beer, the first time alcohol has been offered at Magic Kingdom.

*  The Barnstormer: Featuring the Great Goofini, is a family-friendly non-scary roller coaster inside the Storybrook Circus portion just next to the improved Dumbo, the Flying Elephant, which has doubled in size.

On Dumbo, the Flying Elephant, Disney has introduced a pager system similar to those used at the Cheesecake Factory or other huge chain restaurants.

An air-conditioned "big top" circus area allows kids to play with a series of interactive games while waiting "in line." When your beeper goes off, you're ready to ride.

*  Enchanted Tales with Belle allows kids to take part in a play with Belle and Lumiere of "Beauty and the Beast," instead of a simple character meet-and-greet.

* Test Track, at EPCOT, has not only undergone an update but, like Dumbo, has also taken advantage of the keep-you-entertained-before-the-ride approach. Before you enter the car, you design it on digital touchscreens and then you see how your car does against your friends or family as you ride.

Turns out Test Track is the fastest ride in all of Disney World, reaching a speed of nearly 65 mph, faster than our favorite Disney World ride, Hollywood Studios' Rock 'n' Roller Coaster, which features the music of Aerosmith.

By taking the boredom and frustration out of waiting in line for a ride, Disney does what it does best, tries to ensure that the only person who is grumpy at its theme parks is actually Grumpy.

So is that business true about Philadelphia being the largest market for Disney World guests?

They won't say. The company doesn't give out attendance figures, but, according to one marketing department employee, the region is important enough for the company to sponsor our Thanksgiving Day Parade, which airs on Disney-owned 6ABC.

It wouldn't be like Disney World to play favorites between cities.

The whole concept is to make every guest feel like the most important visitor Disney's ever had.

It's strange to be smiled at, wished good morning or told to enjoy the rest of your day so frequently that it seems like an act.

But it's just the Disney way.

When your missing sunglasses are located, as ours were, the Lost and Found rep tells you she will drop them off at your hotel on her way home from work. When you ask where an attraction is, instead of pointing, the staffer, or cast member, as employees are called, will likely offer to walk you there.

Everything flows smoothly, everything runs on schedule, whether it's the shuttle buses between parks and hotels or the Magical Express bus to/from the airport.

If only SEPTA ran as smoothly.

What is considered above and beyond for most companies, is standard course for Disney. This is why the company opened The Disney Institute and trains companies around the world in customer service.

The Disney ethos could also explain why nobody ever seems to leave. In September 2011, when Disney World turned 40, we interviewed Southwest Philly native Bobbi Ferrilli, who had worked as a cocktail server since the day the park opened. Many veteran employees have also risen through the ranks over the years. One is Phil Holmes, now vice president of the Magic Kingdom, who has been there since before the park opened, initially delivering construction blueprints.

While New Fantasyland is open, its offerings are far from complete. Next year opens Princess Fairytale Hall, a new location where Disney princesses such as Cinderella, Aurora, Tiana and Rapunzel will meet their loyal fans.

In Seven Dwarfs Mine Train, scheduled for 2014, guests will travel from an outdoor roller coaster into a mine full of music and figures from "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs" and then back outside for more roller coasting.

But all of this is probably just the beginning. With its recent purchases of Marvel and LucasFilm, it probably won't be long until Disney World offers expansions to Thor's Asgard and Star Wars' Tattooine.

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