Each spring, the annual Epcot International Flower & Garden Festival spruces up Spaceship Earth with Disney character topiaries. (BRUCE PECHO, HANDOUT / September 13, 2011)

ORLANDO, Fla. — Back in 1971, Disney promised us the World. And that's precisely what it delivered — in spades.

Walt Disney World's castle door flew open Oct. 1 that year, unwrapping an entertainment complex that would go on to vastly overshadow its Western sibling, Disneyland.

I was there, as a youngster, during that inaugural year, after begging my parents to take me.

I clearly remember my first Mark IV monorail ride, excitedly sliding across the car's seats, the four swinging doors loudly clacking open. Then my first wondrous glance at the gleaming turrets of Cinderella Castle. I was hooked!

The Walt Disney World experience became indelibly entwined with fond memories of fun, friends and family. Very moving and truly magical.

That's by design, of course. Walt Disney's design, fulfilling his biggest dream, transformed some 40 square miles of orange groves and woods into a paradise.

A vivid memory from my first visit was the Disney promise: that Walt Disney World would never be complete. It would be ever evolving, constantly growing, continually updated.

The magic of that promise has come to pass in glorious fashion.

When the World opened, it consisted of the Magic Kingdom theme park, two themed resorts at the Contemporary and the Polynesian, and the Fort Wilderness campground.

Today the San Francisco-size property houses four theme parks, two water parks, 25 Disney-themed resort hotels (seven with Vacation Club digs), the Downtown Disney entertainment district, Disney's Wide World of Sports complex, a cruise line, a wedding pavilion and more.

After 40 years and hundreds of millions of guests, that promise continues.

Far behind Cinderella Castle, a monumental project is rising from the Pixie dust: It's the stunning Fantasyland expansion, the largest in the history of the Magic Kingdom. When complete, Fantasyland will be doubled in size. Various phases will open throughout the next two years.

Amid the lush green forest covering the former 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea site, a castle of another sort spikes dramatically into the air. The central point of a new Belle neighborhood, the Beast's majestic castle will house Be Our Guest, a 550-seat restaurant presenting three dining themes: the lavish ballroom, gallery and West Wing from the classic "Beauty and the Beast" film. There will be fast food by day and table service by night.

Nearby, Maurice's cottage will beckon guests to Enchanted Tales With Belle, an interactive meet-and-greet. A 21/2-foot Audio-Animatronic Lumiere magically whisks guests through a mirror and into the Beast's library to join Belle for a retelling of their story. Elsewhere in Belle's village, guests can enjoy a rousing visit to Gaston's Tavern.

Turn the corner, and you will approach Prince Eric's castle and the seaside home of Under the Sea: Journey of the Little Mermaid, a sweeping attraction retelling the story of Ariel. Guests board clamshell omnimovers to bob above and below the waves, reliving the great scenes from the film, encounter an ominous 7-foot-tall Ursula and enjoy hundreds of singing and dancing Audio-Animatronic sea creatures. It's all topped off with a meet-and-greet with the "real" Ariel, a live character, and Scuttle's Scavenger Hunt, an interactive game for kids.

Smack dab in the center of the new Fantasyland forest will be the Seven Dwarfs Mine Train, a cross between a family coaster and a dark ride. Featuring an innovative new ride system with vehicles that sway from side to side responding to the track's every twist, guests are whisked inside and out on a rollicking jaunt through the Dwarfs' diamond mine to Snow White's cottage with, perhaps, a visit from the Evil Queen and Snow White herself.

Once the Dwarfs are in their new home, Snow White's Scary Adventures becomes Princess Fairytale Hall, a new meet-and-greet royal court for live characters Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty and all the princesses.

On the former site of Mickey's Toontown Fair, the new Storybook Circus area will boast a Double Dumbo. That's two carousels of Dumbo the Flying Elephant whirling guests on the classic flight from behind pachyderm ears. Straddling the Dumbo wheels, a Big Top tent will burst with interactive games.

Next door, the Great Goofini, a re-imagined Barnstormer roller coaster starring Goofy, will swoop guests on a daredevil mission.