Though Walt Disney World may have been accused of standing still in the face of growing competition from Universal Orlando Resort, in reality nothing could be further from the truth as there are some big changes coming to the resort over the next few years.
This month brings several updates from Disney's Hollywood Studios, which has now been confirmed to be getting two new attractions before the end of the year. Disney Springs also has gotten a few updates this month, including confirmation of two new dining locations opening soon and a new traffic development that should help ease congestion in this area.
16. Star Wars comes to Disney's Hollywood Studios this December
Though we know that Star Wars Land is coming to Disney's Hollywood Studios (more on that in a little bit), Disney wants to get this property in the parks as soon as possible. One way it is doing this is by quickly overlaying the Magic of Disney Animation building with a Star Wars theme and creating a walkthrough attraction.
Though this new attraction has only been under construction for a few weeks, it is expected to open this December, just in time for Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens to hit theaters. Inside the attractions guests will be able to check out props from the films, meet a variety of characters and even grab a Star Wars inspired treat from the snack bar.
15. The Jungle Navigation Co. Skipper Canteen comes to the Magic Kingdom
Back in February, permits were filed to convert the Liberty Tree Tavern restaurant kitchen into a facility that would support not one but two restaurants, and now it has finally been confirmed that a new Jungle Cruise-themed restaurant is coming to the Magic Kingdom. Officially named The Jungle Navigation Co. Skipper Canteen, this new location will be taking over the space occupied by the former Adventureland Veranda restaurant.
Interestingly, this new dining location will tie into the Society of Explorers and Adventurers, which has been absent from Walt Disney World since the closure of the Adventurer's Club in 2009. Alberta Falls, the proprietor of this new location, is the daughter of the late founder Albert Falls, who is a member of the Society of Explorers and Adventurers. In an unprecedented move, it was confirmed that some narrative changes will be coming to the Magic Kingdom's Jungle Cruise ride to support the story and theme of this new restaurant.
While this restaurant is supposed to welcome its first guests later this year, construction has been slow going, with some speculating we may not be able to check this new location out until early next year.
14. Wilderness Lodge gets a massive facelift and expansion
With the completion of the expansion of the Polynesian Village Resort in 2015, Disney's Wilderness Lodge is the next hotel in line to get a major refurbishment. This two year long refurbishment has already kicked off, and when complete, will bring a new restaurant to the resort as well as a size upgrade for the Hidden Springs pool.
In addition to these changes to existing facilties, Disney's Wilderness Lodge will also be getting waterfront bunglows similar to what was constructed at Disney's Polynesian Village Resort. These bunglows are expected to be part of the DVC program and will probably command high point prices like the ones across Bay Lake.
13. The last days of Disney's Hollywood Studios
Last February, the remnants of the Sorcerer's Hat at Disney's Hollywood Studios came down. However, we learned recently that in addition to the removal of the former park icon, this park will be getting a whole new identity soon. Though we don't know what the new name of this park will be or when it will take effect, one thing is for sure: the days of "Disney's Hollywood Studios" are numbered.
In preparation for this new identity, many of the park's attractions have been shuttered in the past 18 months, including The American Idol Experience, The Legend of Captain Jack Sparrow, The Studio Backlot Tour, The Magic of Disney Animation, and most recently it was confirmed that the Osborne Family Spectacle of Dancing Lights would not be returning after this year. Though we don't have official confirmation yet, attractions Voyage of the Little Mermaid and One Man's Dream are also expected to close in the very near future as this park gets ready for its total reboot. Props have already started disappearing from One Man's Dream in preparation for its removal, although no firm closing date has been announced yet.
Though this year's D23 expo came and went without confirmation of a new name, we are still expecting to hear news about a massive rebranding of this park, sometime in the near future.
12. Star Wars Land will break ground in 2016
Though it was rumored for several years, it was finally confirmed in August that Star Wars Land was indeed coming to Disney's Hollywood Studios. And in possibly even better news, ground will be broken on this new land in 2016.
We still don't know much about placement, but the recent announcement that the Osborne Family Spectacle of Dancing Lights would be pulled after 2015 lends validity to the theory that the Streets of America (and possibly Echo Lake) will be part of the construction.
As for what will actually be contained in this brand new land, we know that there will be two rides: one simulating a flight aboard the Millenium Falcon and another based on the new trilogy that puts guests in the middle of a battle with The First Order. You can read more about these new attractions here.
In addition to the two new rides, there will also be a new intergalactic cantina restaurant, and plenty of opportunities to interact with "in character" cast members (similar to the experiences guests have with in character team members over at The Wizarding World of Harry Potter).
While we know that work will begin sometime next year, predictions are all over the place when it comes to when we might actually be able to visit a galaxy far, far away, with many saying it will likely be 2020 at least before this new land is actually built.
11. The Sunset Showcase Theater to open in December
After several months of not-so secret construction down on the far side of Sunset Boulevard, Disney has finally made its new “flex space” theater project official. Now confirmed to be named the Sunset Showcase Theater, this new venue will essentially replace the outgoing Premiere Theater as a home for special events, and will open in December with a "Club Disney" dance party. You can read more about this new entertainment offering here.
10. A night-time show 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, and work on installing LED leaves has begun in earnest as of April 2015. Interestingly, though construction has not yet completed on seating areas or show structures, projection and sound testing has already begun, and the project has been reportedly fast-tracked to open in 2016, a year earlier than anticipated.
9. Sunset Kilimanjaro Safaris
In a related 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.
This project was officially unveiled in August, and will feature special lighting that will "magically extend the glow of the sunset" in the evening hours. Two new species have been confirmed to be introduced as part of the new attraction: African wild dogs and Hyenas.
8. Toy Story Land confirmed for Disney's Hollywood Studios
Toy Story Land was officially announced in August during the D23 convention, and as expected it will take over the space that was formerly occupied by the Studio Backlot Tour. Though we don't know when ground will be broken on this new area (or when it might open) we do have a lot of information about the new attractions that are being constructed as part of this new land.
First up is a family-friendly roller coaster with vehicles shaped like Slinky Dog that will zoom around a winding track, passing through tunnels and other landmarks around Toy Story Land. The second attraction will be a spinning flat ride that will feature a giant Buzz Lightyear standing guard over the famous little green aliens from the Toy Story series, who will take guests around in flying saucer-shaped vehicles while The Claw (oooohhh!) dangles above.
In addition to these new attractions Toy Story Land will also bring a new entrance to the existing Toy Story Midway Mania ride. We've got more details on Toy Story Land here.
7. Downtown Disney officially becomes Disney Springs this fall
The existing Downtown Disney area currently being transformed into shopping and entertainment district Disney Springs by 2016 (although the name Disney Springs will officially replace Downtown Disney this October). 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 at Disney Springs include the recent opening of The Hangar bar and Moriomoto Asia Restaurant. In addition, two new restaurants have been announced to be coming next year. First up in The Ganachery, which will be a high-end chocolate shop owned and operated by Disney. The second is a Florida-inspired table service restaurant named Homecoming: Florida Kitchen and Southern Shine, which will be operated by celebrity chef Art Smith.
Finally, in transportation news, a direct I-4 link to Disney Springs is now operational, which should help ease some of the congestion in this area.
6. The death of DisneyQuest
In summer 2015 it was announced that DisneyQuest would be closing its doors permanently sometime in 2016. Though this so-called "indoor theme park" never quite met expectations, many are sad to see this long-standing complex go, especially because it is being replaced by an NBA-themed restaurant. Though we don't have an exact closure date, we do know that Disney has stopped selling annual passes that include DisneyQuest, which suggests that by summer 2016, this complex will already be gone.
5. Soarin Around the World to debut at Epcot next year
A third theater is in the works for Soarin' and construction has been underway for over a year. However, even though the thought of this popular ride getting some much needed extra capacity is certainly cause for celebration, an even more exciting development has been confirmed: a new film!
This new, international version will be titled Soarin' Around the World and will completely replace Soarin Over California, playing in all three theaters when it debuts next year. You can check out a "making of" video below:
4. Norway gets Frozen
Meanwhile, the former Maelstrom ride in the Norway Pavilion is well on its way to becoming a boat ride based on Frozen, which we now know is named Frozen Ever After. We recently got a few details about this new ride, including confirmation that the ride would use projection-enhanced animatronics similar to those already in use at the Seven Dwarfs Mine Train and will feature characters not only from Frozen but from the short Frozen Fever as well.
It was also confirmed in June that the new building under construction in the expansion pad next to Mexico will indeed be a Frozen meet and greet. Officially named Royal Sommerhus, this will be a traditional meet and greet experience, similar to the Princess Fairytale Hall at the Magic Kingdom.
3. 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.
This project is currently in its final phases, with the only work remaining in front of Cinderella Castle. Though few walls remain, expect them all to come down before the holiday season arrives.
2. Even more advanced planning tools
It's already possible to schedule time slots during which you can experience major attractions without queuing using the FastPass+ system. And we expect that to evolve even further over the next couple of years.
This evolution actually began several months ago, as Disney rolled out ADR reservations for quick service breakfast and lunch at its Be Our Guest restaurant. Though the launch of this system had its problems, we expect other high-volume quick service restaurants to get similar systems in the near future.
Most recently, Walt Disney World has rolled out a special shopping app that allows guests to link their tickets to My Disney Experience and then purchase souvenirs directly from the app, to be shipped either to their hotel room or to their home. Guests wanting to shop in person at the parks can also use this new app to view inventory at different stores and search for specific items. You can learn more about this amazing new app here.
1. Pandora - The World of Avatar
Disney's decision to base a new land at Disney's Animal Kingdom on James Cameron's Avatar has divided opinion among fans, but there's no doubt that the company is going all-in to try and make the collaboration a success. Pandora - The World of Avatar will be more on less on the same scale at Disney California Adventure's sprawling Cars Land, and will be anchored by a very impressive looking "floating mountain" centerpiece that may rival the park's existing Tree of Life icon in terms of scale.
The entire land will replicate the dense, alien forests of the planet Pandora from the film. Paths will be scattered along twisting gigantic roots, exotic flora, and perhaps an appearance or two from local creatures as guests make their way to the mountain in the distance. Recreating the most impressive of the visually-stunning film's scenes, Pandora will come alive at night as every tree, plant, stream, and even path glows with supernatural, alien bioluminescent colors.
We can expect two main attractions in Pandora when it opens - the first, known now as "Flight of Passage" will replicate a flight over the massive and mystifying terrain of the planet. Bob Iger recently took a test ride on a prototype mock-up of this attraction, and said "It felt so real, so lifelike, there’s never been anything like it.”. The second will be a boat ride through Pandora's forests, complete with a host of audio-animatronic creatures.
We recently got an updated look inside Pandora thanks to a video released by Disney which shows glowing floors, colorful props, and shows off miniature models of the entire land. However, recent reports indicate that construction delays have hit this new land, which now may opening as late as 2018.