LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. -- When Disney's Imagineers brainstormed several years ago about what a larger Fantasyland at Magic Kingdom could include, the discussion turned to opportunities for character meet-and-greets -- which had become as popular with younger guests as traditional rides.
Fantasyland, after all, is the heart of any Disney park, the place where beloved characters step out of animation cels and come to life.
"Our guests expect good classic attractions like Pirates of the Caribbean and the Haunted Mansion. At the same time, no trip would be complete without going to meet Mickey and Minnie or your favorite princess," said Chris Beatty, an Imagineer.
"We thought, we really need to give these characters a home. You don't want to be walking down the path and just happen to run into them."
The outcome: Fantasyland will have four new venues specially designed for character meet-and-greets when the expansion is completed in 2014.
The largest part of the Orlando expansion opened Thursday, and among the new features is one from "Beauty and the Beast" that elevates a simple meet-and-greet into an attraction with classic Disney storytelling.
The team envisioned a setting in which an encounter with a character would be more personal -- even magical, Beatty said, "like the ad you see on TV, a girl and Cinderella walking hand in hand through the castle. Or think of a little boy the first time he sees his favorite villain."
In Enchanted Tales with Belle, instead of meeting her out on a walkway, guests enter the cottage where she and her father live. They see Maurice's workshop with his tools and oddball creations as well as other features that are recognizable from the movie -- the wishing well, the fireplace, a table, Belle's books, a teapot on a shelf.
Guests go through a magic mirror to Beast Castle, where a character from the movie, Madame Wardrobe, invites them to take a role in the tale Belle will tell -- perhaps as a window or a footstool or a dog -- and hands out cardboard cutouts that identify them. In the library, they meet Lumiere and Belle, take photos, and join in the storytelling as Belle recounts the Beauty and the Beast tale up to the night where they fall in love.
The experience "is just as powerful as a traditional ride. You are really there in the moment," Beatty said. "It's an incredible journey through 'Beauty and the Beast' ... and Belle is the icing on the cake."
In addition to Enchanted Tales with Belle, two other meet-and-greet sites are new in Fantasyland. At Pete's Silly Sideshow in Storybook Circus, which opened in October, Goofy, Donald, Daisy and Minnie are circus stars. At Ariel's Grotto, which had its grand opening Thursday, the Little Mermaid, daughter of King Triton, will meet her subjects.
When Princess Fairytale Hall opens next year, Aurora (Sleeping Beauty), Tiana, Rapunzel and other princesses will greet guests in the hall next to Cinderella Castle.
"The guest feedback we get is characters, characters, characters," said Rick Sylvain, a Disney spokesman. "People have such an emotional connection to our characters, whether it's Jack Sparrow or a princess."
The evidence: You can get a Fast Pass to meet Mickey or the princesses -- temporarily sharing his space -- at Town Square Theater on Main Street.
The Disney website lists about three dozen characters who appear regularly in the Orlando-area parks. That number doesn't include variations on the same character such as Sorcerer Mickey or Mickey the explorer (in Animal Kingdom) or Mickey in Halloween or Christmas garb.
"Meeting characters became this thing in the past 10 or 15 years. It went from 'I saw Mickey Mouse on Main Street' to 'I've got five or six characters I have to see and I want to see Belle in her blue outfit and Donald Duck in his sombrero,'" said Len Testa, co-author of the "Unofficial Guides" to Disney parks series. "For a lot of people they're as important as the rides."
That interest also shows up on the "Unofficial Guides" app for the parks. "After we put in all the rides, people asked us, 'What about the characters? You have to tell me how long I'll have to wait for Belle when she comes out.' [Character appearances] are the single most important thing people ask for. They want to know 'Where can I find Donald in his sombrero?'"