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 11 of the biggest updates that are in store for Walt Disney World as of December 2014.
11. 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.
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.
10. The removal of the Studio Backlot Tour, Sorcerer's Hat and transformation of Disney's Hollywood Studios
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. A month later, nearby attraction The Legend of Captain Jack Sparrow, walk-through attraction was also closed.
Currently, rumors are swirling that a version of the Pixar Playland currently found at Walt Disney Studios, Paris as well as Hong Kong Disneyland will be moving in the area occupied by these two attractions. This new area would feature several themed play structures with characters from the Toy Story films as well as rethemed flat rides.
The Sorcerer's Hat park icon has also been scheduled to be removed this January. Taken together alongside other closings at Hollywood Studios (The American Idol Experience and The Hollywood Backlot Tour also closed in 2014) it seems like a large overhaul is underway at Disney's Hollywood Studios, and a second name change could even be in the cards for this park in the near future
9. The transformation of Downtown Disney into Disney Springs
The existing Downtown Disney area currently being transformed into shopping and entertainment district 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, and Disney Springs will remain free-to-enter.
Fittingly given its Florida location, Disney Springs will feature a theme centered around an idealized 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 official announcement of The BOATHOUSE (and yes, that name is in all caps), Morimoto Asia and STK Orlando. These three restaurants will open in spring 2015 as part of the first phase of Disney Springs, known now as The Landing.
The West Side parking garage is also now open, although construction is not 100% complete. Though work continues on outside of the structure, visitors to the area can park on several of the parking garages' levels and can use the elevators. Though the walkways to and from the parking garage are not usable, temporary scaffolding has been erected to get guests from the garage to what is (as of now) still Downtown Disney's West Side.
8. Disney’s Animal Kingdom gets two new restaurants and Africa doubles in size
Disney surprised everyone last November by announcing a brand new expansion for Disney’s Animal Kingdom. This latest development will have three components, the first of which will double the current size of Africa, adding a new marketplace area with a quick-service restaurant and several shops.
The second part of the expansion will see the addition of an as-yet-to-be-named table service restaurant to the Discovery Island area of the park and the third will be the construction of a walking path the goes directly from Africa to Asia.
The first part of this expansion has already begun construction in the Harambe area of Africa. Though this is certainly a big project, Disney expects this expansion to be completed by late 2015.
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 will be building a third theater to help ease long wait times. The land behind the existing Soarin' theater has been cleared and construction cranes have been spotted recently, suggesting that vertical construction has indeed begun on this additional theater.
Meanwhile, the former Maelstrom ride in the Norway Pavilion is well on its way to becoming a boat ride based on Frozen. Maelstrom closed for good in October and contruction on the new ride is well underway. WDWNT recently posted a series of photos from inside the ride structure that show heavy construction, suggesting that the forthcoming Frozen ride will be more than just an overlay of the former Maelstrom attraction, as was originally rumored.
6. A new look for the Magic Kingdom's plaza
Walt Disney World is currently remodeling 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 blocked 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.