Though Walt Disney World may have been accused of standing still in the face of growing competition from Universal Orlando, in reality nothing could be further from the truth as 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 than 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 just-announced Lowe’s Sapphire Falls). 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 for Walt Disney World as of September 2014.
10. A night-time show (and ride) for Disney's Animal Kingdom
Disney is investing hundreds of millions of dollars to expand the offerings at Walt Disney World's fourth theme park, which has often been (perhaps unfairly) accused of being a "half-day park" in the past. 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 as construction in preperation for the new show begins. In addition to the walls around the tree, 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 Studio Backlot Tour
Though the Studio Backlot Tour has been downsized significantly over the years, this ride was one of the original attractions hearkening back to the park’s MGM Studios days. However, on September 27, 2014, what was left of this attraction was closed forever.
We have no idea what will actually be taking the place of this attraction, but rumors are flying that a Pixar-themed play area or a version of California Adventure’s Cars Land could be headed for the space formerly occupied by the Studio Backlot Tour.
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. However, walls continue to dominate the landscape, and pop-up walkways around the many construction areas change almost weekly.
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 this year, to allow the new theater to debut alongside the updated film.
Meanwhile, it was confirmed this month that the Maelstrom ride in the Norway Pavilion will undergo a major renovation and become a boat ride based on Frozen, a movie that, of course, was inspired by Norway. Construction is set to begin on this new attraction next month and the ride is expected to make its debut in early 2016.
6. A new look for the Magic Kingdom's plaza
Walt Disney World is currently remodelling the Central Plaza "hub" 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 water areas around the existing Hub have been completely drained and preparations are being made to begin paving on the new sections. While much of the new area is still walled off, those who are tall enough to take a peek over the wall (or take a spin on the nearby Astro Orbitor or TTA) can check out the progress on this project.