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This week, Walt Disney World officially opened the largest expansion in the history of the Magic Kingdom. New Fantasyland is an extension of regular Fantasyland (home of classic Disney rides and many, many strollers). When guests enter the Enchanted Forest, they arrive at Maurice’s Cottage — a cozy stone and shingle structure that houses Enchanted Tales With Belle. Here, a “tale as old as time” is told with the help of an impressively lifelike Lumiere, Belle herself and a few volunteers from the audience.

Just through the grove of shady trees and past the gurgling stream is a bridge that leads to the new Be Our Guest Restaurant, which is set inside Beast’s castle. The castle itself is an imposing structure situated in the nearby mountains – which are a testament to Disney’s Imagineers and their skill with forced perspective! By day, Be Our Guest is a quick-service lunch spot, while by night it transforms into a table-service dinner restaurant. Around the corner is Gaston’s Tavern — just look for the statue of the “Beauty and the Beast” villain. Here you can try a meaty pork shank, a gooey cinnamon roll or sip on some of LaFou’s Brew — a sweet concoction of frozen apple juice and toasted marshmallow topped with mango foam.

The Storybook Circus section of New Fantasyland hosts the Barnstormer roller coaster, the Casey Jr. Splash ‘N’ Soak Station, and Dumbo the Flying Elephant. There are now 2 of these soaring spinners, and time waiting for your flight into the big blue yonder can now be passed inside an air-conditioned circus tent. Parents are issued a pager that lets them know when it’s time to climb on board.

While these new additions are cause for celebration, the gem of New Fantasyland remains behind construction walls. The Seven Dwarves Mine Train — an innovative new coaster — is scheduled to open sometime next year. Sidle up to the walls and hear the clinking and clanging of the Dwarves hard at work on this new attraction.

- Bill Burke

Bill Burke is an award-winning humor columnist and writer with 20 years experience in the newspaper and magazine industry. He is the author ofMousejunkies (Travelers’ Tales 2009) and Mousejunkies: Second Edition (Travelers’ Tales 2011) –a humorous look at Walt Disney World addiction.

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The world can breathe a collective sigh of relief: A royal baby is on the way. Prince William and Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge, are expecting their first child after 19 months of marriage (and intense media scrutiny).

With today’s royal revelation, the world is abuzz with speculation: Will it be a future king or a future queen? What will the baby’s name and title be?

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Dinosaur Park in Laurel, MD

The downpour that accompanied Hurricane Sandy last week may prove a boon for travelers in search of dinosaur bones. Turns out, when it rains, layers of earth steadily shift, sometimes revealing traces of prehistoric giants long buried in fossil-rich grounds. READ MORE

 Apple Picking

Everything’s coming up apples in Washington State. While the Midwest and Northeast saw an early spring, a hard freeze and then a drought this year, the Northwest is enjoying an apple bonanza: We’re talking 108 million bushels, each a hefty 40-lbs. box. That’s a whole lotta apples — slated to be the second highest number on record in Washington State. READ MORE

Samantha Brown Expecting Twins

Travel Channel’s Samantha Brown is about to embark on her biggest adventure yet: motherhood! Samantha, who’s been our girl-meets-world host for the last 12 years on Great Weekends, Passport to Europe, Samantha Brown’s Asia and more, announced to her fans yesterday via Facebook that she and her husband, Kevin O’Leary are expecting … twins! “We have waited such awhile for the love of a child, but our path faced strong headwind. Our troubles have past and now, at long last … Our joy doubled, we’re expecting twins!!!!” READ MORE

By Bill Burke

The ongoing expansion at Walt Disney World’s Magic Kingdom has taken a few noticeable steps forward in the past few days.

A massive statue of “Beauty and the Beast” villain Gaston has arrived on-site, and is now being put in place in the midst of the as-yet unfinished Belle’s Village section of Fantasyland Forest. Gaston, who will take his place in a fountain, joins the Be Our Guest restaurant (a new quick service by day/table service by night restaurant set in Beast’s Castle,) Gaston’s Tavern (actually a misnomer, because the Magic Kingdom is a dry park) and Bonjour Gifts.

Here are the latest projected dates for the largest, most expensive expansion in Magic Kingdom history:

- Under the Sea: Journey of the Little Mermaid is a dark ride bringing guests below the waves to join scenes from the classic Disney film. Disney projects this attraction will open by the holidays in 2012.

- Enchanted Tales with Belle where guests will be transported by a magical mirror into an immersive storytelling experience is expected to open by the holidays.

- The Seven Dwarfs Mine Train, a coaster using a first-of-its-kind ride system where the attractions’ mine cars swing back and forth through a curving, plunging diamond mine, will open in 2014.

- Princess Fairytale Hall – Say goodbye to the Snow White’s Scary Adventures attraction, and say hello to Tiana, Cinderella, et al. Meet Disney’s royalty in the Castle Courtyard right in the center of Fantasyland. A castle entrance of stone, stained glass windows and princess portraits will lend this meet-and-greet area a noble atmosphere. Expect to get your princess hugs by late 2013.

Already open in the ongoing project are the Great Goofini’s Barnstormer coaster, the Casey Jr. Splash ‘n’ Soak Station, the Fantasyland Train Station and now 2 Dumbo the Flying Elephant attractions. As one whirls through the sky clockwise, its twin takes guests on a counter-clockwise journey. The queue area for the newest Dumbo attraction is inside, awash in glorious air conditioning and featuring a play area for kids to cavort in. Parents are given a pager, which alerts them when its time to get back in line.

Also this week, guests have discovered that Disney has quietly opened free Wi-Fi access throughout the Magic Kingdom. Agree to Disney’s terms-of-service and you’re on your way. Speeds and connection have been reported as spotty, as is cellular service in the park. The Wi-Fi is expected to play a role in Disney’s NextGen system, designed to take advantage of technology to better customize and enhance guest experience.

Disney rolled out free Wi-Fi throughout its resorts earlier this summer.

By Mommy Points

I didn’t realistically consider attending the 2012 Olympic Games in London until June of this year. I am normally the type of person who plans big trips like this way in advance, so taking this trip on the spur of the moment was out of character for me. However, it was actually surprisingly simple to plan this exciting last-minute trip to the Olympics — without breaking the bank.

By now, anyone who could get to the Olympics is already there. But the following tips are just as handy for your next big trip. READ MORE

Space is one of those destinations that will always fascinate, regardless of whether we’ll ever be able to go or not. (If you happen to have $200K lying around, then start planning your trip now!) But you can explore the history of space travel here on earth. The display of NASA’s space shuttle Enterprise opened last week at Intrepid Sea, Air and Space Museum in New York City.

In the Intrepid Museum’s Space Shuttle Pavilion, Enterprise — NASA’s very first space shuttle — is elevated 10 feet off the ground, so you can walk directly underneath it. An elevated viewing platform also allows you to get a better look. Intrepid Museum is one of the few places in the world to offer an up-close view of a space shuttle. READ MORE

Summer Hull of the blog Mommy Points shows us how to take advantage of travel rewards points and miles to make the most of our vacation dollars with her new Travel Channel web series. By breaking down the often-complicated frequent-flyer programs out there, Summer makes it easy for anyone to redeem miles and points in exchange for memorable family vacations.

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 Casa de Campo 

Chances are, if you’ve been keeping up with the Kardashians, you know that the famous family stayed at Casa de Campo in the Dominican Republic. But Casa de Campo is more than a respite for the rich and famous – as one of the best sporting resorts in the world, it’s offering its guests the opportunity to get away with family and friends to create their own 2012 summer games in the Caribbean.

Enjoy their luxurious accommodations, world-class sports facilities and 5-star meals while following the actual games on big screens displayed throughout the resort. When you’re not following the official Olympic Games, Casa de Campo’s summer inclusive package includes sporting adventures such as tennis, horseback riding, skeet shooting, 63 holes of legendary golf on 3 Pete Dye-designed courses, and an array of water sports ranging from freshwater fishing and kayaking along the Chavon River (backdrop to 1979 film, Apocalypse Now!), to deep-sea fishing in the Caribbean Sea and sailing at the 370-slip Marina & Yacht Club. Guests work with preferred travel professionals or the resort’s concierge service to personalize their adventure itinerary.

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