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 (like the under-construction 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 February 2015.
12. 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. A new, expanded Tree of Life has been unveiled at the park as of February 2015, however, it is unknown if this larger tree (which now features protruding "roots" with animal carvings) features the technology that is being installed on the larger tree structure to prepare for this show.
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. Disney has not officially announced the commencement of construction, but the impending closure of the Backstage Safari tour implies that work may have already commenced
11. The transformation of Disney's Hollywood Studios
Though 2014 saw many huge closures at Disney's Hollywood Studios (the Hollywood Backlot Tour, The Legend of Captain Jack Sparrow, and The American Idol Experience, among others), the most shocking development to come from this park was the planned demolition of the Sorcerer's Hat park icon. Though the hat had its fans, demolition began in earnest at the beginning of January, and is expected to be completed by the end of this month (only bare steel structural elements remain). The hat will not be moved anywhere (it's clear that the hat is being demolished rather than dismantled) and it doesn't seem likely that anything will replace it in this space.
In addition to the removal of the hat, it has been all but confirmed that a Toy Story Playland (similar to what can be found at Walt Disney Studios, Paris as well as Hong Kong Disneyland) will be moving in the area formerly occupied by the Backlot Tour attraction. This new area will feature several themed play structures with characters from the Toy Story films as well as rethemed flat rides.
WDWNT reports that there are three rides in the works for this new area. The first will be a clone of the RC Racer flat ride attraction currently found at Disneyland Paris and Hong Kong Disneyland (pictured above). The second will be an attraction tentatively titled "Woody's Round-Up" which will be a re-themed version of Mater's Junkyard Jamboree featuring horse-drawn carriages. The third ride is rumored to be a trackless Toy Story-themed dancing car ride similar to the ride recently confirmed to be replacing Luigi's Flying tires at Disney California Adventure.
Because of all these changes, rumors have also been swirling that a second name change could be in the cards for Disney's Hollywood Studios in the near future
10. 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.
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. Construction on the still-unannounced The Hanger is ongoing, and this restaurant may also open with phase one of Disney Springs (it was originally rumored to be opening with phase two, but construction is quite far along).
The West Side parking garage is 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. You can check out the latest construction photos (including new looks at The Hanger, The BOATHOUSE and more) here.
Several new stores have also opened at Disney Springs, incuding Chapel Hats, an additional Sunglass Hut location, and a new shoe store. These new stores are located in the area between the current Marketplace and the bridge to the West Side, and are part of the "phase 1" opening of this emergent space.