Walt Disney World has been accused of standing still in the face of growing competition from Universal Orlando. But there are some big changes coming to the resort over the next few years.
Disney has chosen to invest its money in a different way to Universal, which has focused on building major new attractions (such as the Wizarding World of Harry Potter - Diagon Alley) and more hotels (such as the Cabana Bay Beach Resort). But the company is spending money on Walt Disney World - a lot of it. Over the coming years, the results of this spending should start to become more visible to guests.
There are many changes coming to Walt Disney World, but some will have a bigger impact than others. Here's a look at 10 of the biggest updates that are in store.
10. A night-time show (and ride) for Disney's Animal Kingdom
Disney's is investing hundreds of millions of dollars to expand the offerings at Walt Disney World's fourth theme park, which has often been accused of being a "half-day park". Disney's Animal Kingdom has always closed earlier than the resort's other theme parks, partly because of the need to protect its animal residents from excessive noise. However, Disney is now working to install a new night-time show, and will begin opening the park until late.
The show will be hosted around and above the Discovery River and will feature live music, floating lanterns, water screens and swirling animal imagery. Confirmed to be named "Rivers of Light", it is also expected to include the illumination of the iconic Tree of Life. That will involve replacing all 100,000+ artificial leaves on the tree with new ones that light up. Although no opening date has been specified, barges containing props and equipment for the show have already been spied on the river.
The Tree of Life is currently completely walled off, leading some to speculate that it is undergoing the refurbishment required to become part of the Rivers of Light show. In fact, there are construction walls all over Animal Kingdom right now, as Disney readies the park for the nighttime crowds that it will soon have to handle.
In a linked development, Kilimanjaro Safaris, one of the most popular attractions at Disney's Animal Kingdom, is about to become two attractions in one. A new night-time version of the safari will be launched on an unspecified date, and is expected to feature an updated storyline and a focus on animals that are largely noctural.
Disney has now filed the first construction permit associated with the project, with an expiration date of December 31, 2015. It covers electrical upgrades to the ride to enable night-time operation.
9. The removal of the American Idol Experience
The American Idol Experience has been entertaining guests at Disney's Hollywood Studios since February 2009. Based on the hit talent show of the same name, it offers budding singers the chance to perform on stage in one of the park's enormous soundstages. Guests can audition throughout the day, and a select few will then be given their chance in front of a live studio audience. At the end of the day, one lucky contestant is awarded a coveted "Golden Ticket" to jump the line when the American Idol auditions hit their home town.
After five years of showcasing Orlando's latest musical talents, The American Idol Experience will hang up its microphone for good on August 30, 2014 (several months earlier than originally announce). There's no official word on a replacement, although many Disney fans are keeping their fingers crossed that the attraction's closure is a sign that Star Wars Land is on its way to Disney's Hollywood Studios in the near future.
8. The transformation of Downtown Disney
The existing Downtown Disney area is set to be transformed into a new shopping and entertainment district dubbed Disney Springs by 2016. The update will be more than a simple facelift - Disney intends to double the number of shops, restaurants and entertainment venues in the area, boosting the total to more than 150 establishments. Two new multi-story parking garages will also be constructed, as well as new roads to improve the flow of traffic. Parking will be free, while Disney Springs will remain free-to-enter.
Fittingly given its Florida location, Disney Springs will feature a theme centred around an idealised version of turn-of-the-century lakeside town. Disney promises that it will create a "welcoming, comfortable space where families can enjoy time together and instantaneously feel right at home".
Recent developments have included the completion of the new Marketplace boat dock, allowing river taxis to once again run between the West Side and the Marketplace. This will come as a big relief to many visitors, as parking at the Marketplace is currently near-impossible due to construction work on the new parking garages.
Disney has also released a little more information on the backstory of Disney Springs, which will revolve around a small town growing out of a natural spring found in central Florida. You can learn more about the evolving storyline in the official video below:
You can find out more about Disney Springs by reading our analysis of the plans.
7. The overhaul of two Epcot favorites
Soarin' is one of the most popular attractions at Epcot, often commanding wait times in excess of two hours. Nothing is confirmed as yet, but the attraction is expected to undergo a major transformation by 2016 that will see its ride film replaced and additional capacity added.
First up on the list of changes to this attraction is a brand new movie to replace the current "Soarin' Over California" film. This will be a clone of the film being produced for Shanghai Disneyland's own version of Soarin', which will debut alongside the Asian park in late 2015. Rumored international locations include England, France, Italy, Egypt, India, China and Japan. Domestic landmarks are also expected to be featured in the new film, with the Grand Canyon, the New York City skyline, and of course, Walt Disney World in the mix.
Along with the new film, Disney is said to be considering adding a third theater to help curtail those lengthy wait times. Construction could begin later in 2014, to allow the new theater to debut alongside the updated film.
Meanwhile, rumors persist that the Maelstrom ride in the Norway Pavilion is set to undergo a major renovation. This would see it becoming a boat ride based on Frozen, a movie that, of course, was inspired by Norway. There's no official confirmation yet, but the rumors were given new life by the removal of Maelstrom from the FastPass+ system beyond
6. A new look for the Magic Kingdom's plaza
Walt Disney World is currently remodelling the Central Plaza area of the Magic Kingdom, adding new pathways, gardens, restaurant seating and fireworks viewing areas.
The Central Plaza sits in front of Cinderella Castle, at the end of Main Street, USA. As well as acting as the gateway to the Magic Kingdom's themed lands, it is also a popular place for guests to stop and rest. In addition, it acts as a regular viewing spot for the Wishes fireworks display and the park's parades.
A second ring of pavement will be added to the area, replacing the former Plaza Swan Boats waterway in front of the Crystal Palace. This will create more space for guests to view the fireworks and parades, and will also make it easier for them to exit the area at the end of the shows. Alongside this, additional trees will be added, along with sculpted gardens. Seating outside of the Casey's Corner and The Plaza restaurants will be expanded, nearly doubling in size.
With the entire project finishing in 2015, the expansion of the Magic Kingdom Central Plaza is in full swing. The concrete support for the new bridges and Fastpass+ viewing locations are nearly finished.
New railings are being installed around the Central Plaza starting with the Adventureland bridge and Casey’s Corner. The new railings are brass and much nicer than the current green railings that have been used for decades.