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D23 Expo pulls back the curtain on blue sky brainstorming
Walt Disney believed in the power of storytelling, said Josh D’Amaro, chairman of Disney parks, experiences, and products. “We need those stories now more than ever,” he added near the beginning of his 105-minute presentation on Sunday at D23 Expo, the biennial confab and geekfest that celebrates all things Disney.
The charismatic D’Amaro weaved stories about attractions that are on the way, mostly filling in some details about long-gestating, long-ago-announced projects. He also revealed a few shows, new characters to meet and greet, and a new theme for a land. D’Amaro expounded a bit about a new attraction coming to Avengers Campus at Disney California Adventure that had been announced earlier at the expo. Beyond that, he did not drop any major bombshells about new developments.
Towards the end of his talk, however, the chairman teased the audience with tantalizing ideas, including possible new and reimagined lands at Walt Disney World in Florida. Concept art depicted over-the-top E-Ticket attractions and a Magic Kingdom expansion that would finally provide a home for Disney villains.
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The multiverse continues to expand at Disneyland
Perhaps the biggest park-related news coming out of the expo was the announcement of a new, as-yet unnamed, attraction at Avengers Campus. According to Marvel Studios’ Kevin Feige, who joined D’Amaro onstage at the presentation, guests will be able to “battle alongside all the Avengers against all the foes from anywhere and every when” in the multiverse spearheaded by a new baddie, King Thanos. Details are sparse, including when it might debut, but Disney is promising the major attraction will feature an all-new ride system.
Also on the way to the Marvel-themed land is The Incredible Hulk, an imposing walkaround character who is set to debut this week. The enormous, green guy made his debut alongside Feige and D’Amaro at the expo. In other character news, The Mandalorian and the adorable Grogu will be meeting and greeting visitors on Batuu at Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge in Disneyland starting in November. The two also crashed D’Amaro’s presentation.
Again, details were light (a recurring theme throughout the parks presentation), but D’Amaro said that the Pacific Wharf area at Disney California Adventure would be re-skinned as San Fransokyo from “Big Hero 6,” complete with appearances by the lovable robot, Baymax. Considering the Bay Area setting of the existing land, the reboot seems apt.
In other Disneyland Resort news, D’Amaro shared concept art and a few more details about Mickey & Minnie’s Runaway Railway, which is set to open in early 2023 in Mickey’s Toontown. The California version of the attraction will be housed in the El CapiTOON Theater. Kids will be invited to romp in the new Goofy’s How-to-Play Yard in Toontown, which will include a sound garden (an actual garden filled with interactive noise-making doodads–not to be confused with the Seattle grunge band).
In late 2024, Tiana’s Bayou Adventure, “The Princess and the Frog” makeover of Splash Mountain, will debut at Disneyland (as well as at Disney World’s Magic Kingdom). Charita Carter, executive creative producer at Walt Disney Imagineering, joined D’Amaro to say that the facade of the mountain will be illuminated with digital projections and lighting “to further enhance the sense of grandeur,” especially at night. “We’re going to use mist like a painter‘s canvas to create an amazing aura, which is something different from anything you’ve seen in an attraction,” she added.
Celebrating “100 Years of Wonder”
D23, which is the official fan club for folks who just can’t get enough of the Mouse, gets its name from 1923, the year that Walt and his brother, Roy, started their cartoon studio. 2023, therefore, will mark the legendary company’s centennial, and the parks will be participating in an anniversary commemoration dubbed “100 Years of Wonder.”
The focus, according to D’Amaro, will be at Disneyland in California, which will be getting splashy decor, the return of the Magic Happens parade, and two new nighttime spectaculars: World of Color – One at Disney California Adventure and Wondrous Journeys at Disneyland. The former will be an update of the long-running World of Color water screen and fountain show, while the Disneyland presentation will incorporate fireworks and projection effects and pay homage to Disney’s entire library of animated features. The new nighttime shows will debut in late January.
Epcot at Florida’s Disney World, meanwhile, will be getting a new nighttime spectacular in 2023 to mark the company’s 100th anniversary. It will replace Harmonious, which only debuted in October 2021 (to less than stellar reviews). It’s unclear whether it will be tied to the 100 Years of Wonder, but D’Amaro said that elements of the beloved “Happily Ever After” fireworks and projection extravaganza will be part of an update to the Magic Kingdom’s nightly show.
Disney World will finally activate the Grid–next spring
As D’Amaro admitted, “I know that we’ve been talking, and then we were talking…and then we were talking” about the long overdue TRON Lightcycle Run coming to Tomorrowland at the Magic Kingdom. Although the highly anticipated coaster has been testing and appears nearly ready to launch, the chairman said that we will have to wait a bit longer until spring 2023 for it to open. By the way, About Theme Parks paid subscribers will be able to get my take on the Shanghai Disneyland version of TRON as part of my exclusive innagural Rode It! Loved It! attraction review I’ll be posting later this month.
The walk-through Journey of Water, Inspired by Moana at Epcot will open in late 2023. In a surprise, D’Amaro said that Figment, the wonderful character featured in Epcot’s Journey Into Imagination attraction, will be returning as a meet and greet character in 2023. (Now if the Imagineers could get to work restoring the attraction to its original glory, that’d really be something.)
Speaking of restoring an attraction to its original glory, the Hatbox Ghost has been terrorizing foolish mortals at Disneyland’s Haunted Mansion since he returned to New Orleans Square a few years ago. D’Amaro revealed that the character, which features a stunning effect, will be coming to the Magic Kingdom’s Haunted Mansion next year.
On the high seas and around the world
Pivoting to the Disney Cruise Line, D’Amaro announced that the fleet’s sixth ship will be dubbed Disney Treasure, and that Aladdin and his posse will be in the spotlight. It will launch in 2024. He also shared some renderings of Lighthouse Point, the cruise line’s second private island that is now in development in The Bahamas.
Over the next couple of years, lands themed to the uber-popular Frozen will be opening at Hong Kong Disneyland, Walt Disney Studios Park at Disneyland Paris, and Tokyo DisneySea. In Hong Kong, guests will be able to ride the first Frozen-themed coaster, Wandering Oaken’s Sliding Sleighs. To help commemorate the company’s 100th anniversary, that park will also introduce a new statue of Mickey Mouse and Walt Disney on a bench. It takes its cue from the seminal moment when the company founder watched his children on one of the rides at a small amusement park and had the inspiration for Disneyland.
D’Amaro gave a first look at Zootopia Central Station, part of the new Zootopia land opening at Shanghai Disneyland. The cute concept art showed an apartment building with units designed for animals of all sizes. He also mentioned the Space Mountain makeover planned for Tokyo Disneyland.
Will Disney villains get their own land?
Along with Imagineer Chris Beatty and animator Jennifer Lee from Walt Disney Studios, D’Amaro really got the D23 audience going with new, big, bold, swing-for-the-fences attractions and lands. Unfortunately, they were all blue sky concepts, and the presentation reverted to a giant what-if pitch meeting, albeit one in which the rapt audience was highly receptive to pretty much everything offered.
The focus was on Walt Disney World, which may be no surprise given the major competition the resort will face when Universal Orlando debuts its third park, Epic Universe, which is expected to open in 2025. Given the snail’s pace that Disney takes with the development and construction of its projects, it’s doubtful the Mouse could pull anything major together in time to go head to head with its Florida rival in three years. But the company certainly has some wild ideas.
They showed grand-scale renderings of lands devoted to Moana and/or Zootopia (it was unclear whether the trio was pitching them as standalone or tandem IPs) that would transform DinoLand U.S.A. at Disney's Animal Kingdom.
“We see some tremendous opportunity here,” D’Amaro said. “A chance to tell new stories that fit right in with what Animal Kingdom is all about.”
They then switched to the Magic Kingdom and hinted at an expansion that would encompass a new land beyond the park’s current perimeter.
“What if we could pass over the spires of Big Thunder Mountain, and maybe there is a valley in front of us” Beatty posed before launching into drool-worthy descriptions of park odes to “Coco” and “Encanto.” One of the proposed attractions, he said, would allow guests to fly into the Land of the Dead, the realm featured in “Coco.”
The D23 fans then went bonkers when the parks chairman talked about a land that would be overrun by villains, a long-rumored, highly popular concept. Unfortunately, D’Amaro said that such a project wouldn’t be coming anytime soon. But, he assured the crowd, “we are not up here daydreaming. It’s important to me that you know these things are very real. They are very serious discussions that I’m having with our teams about the future of our parks and experiences.”
Well, okay Josh. We’ll be here daydreaming about the villains we will encounter on the jaw-dropping attractions you’re conjuring. Now, could you kick those serious discussions into high gear?
What news most excites you from Josh D’Amaro’s presentation? What Disney parks are you planning to visit in the near future, and what new attractions are you most looking forward to experiencing? Of the blue sky concepts presented, what resonates the most with you?