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What lies beyond Big Thunder Mountain?
Parks and attractions news highlights from Destination D23
Greetings from Walt Disney World. I’m here to cover Destination D23, the biennial event held at the Florida theme park resort for members of D23–the “D” stands for Disney, while the “23” refers to 1923, the year the company was founded–the Mouse’s most fervent fans. There are exhibits, exclusive shopping opportunities (I scored a new Walt Disney Imagineering-emblazoned hat to replace my old one), special in-park happenings, and more. But the 2,500 or so attendees most look forward to the panel presentations about the many things under Disney’s vast umbrella, especially the one that covers what’s on the way to the theme parks.
“Over the next decade, we are going to have more projects underway than at any point in our history,” declared Josh D’Amaro, the personable chairman of Disney parks, experiences, and products, who again presided over the presentation that kicked off the panels yesterday. “We are planning to invest billions of dollars in destinations around the world.”
That’s a bold statement. But if the gathered superfans were hoping for definitive announcements about major new parks, lands, or attractions, they didn’t get any. Instead, D’Amaro and the other presenters who joined him on stage filled in some of the blanks about projects already underway, offered some incremental reveals, and hinted at some aspirational future concepts, especially ones being tossed around for Walt Disney World. And they are doozies.
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The most far-reaching talking point was about a new land at Disney World’s Magic Kingdom. It was a follow-up to the parks panel delivered last year at the D23 Expo in Anaheim, California (Disney’s much larger fan event that takes place in the intervening years) at which Imagineers discussed potential blue sky projects. One of them focused on what they might conjure beyond the peaks of Big Thunder Mountain. At this year’s presentation, Bruce Vaughn, a veteran Imagineer who returned to the fold earlier this year, expounded more on what may be on the way–and now seems much more likely to actually happen.
“I’m blown away by the scope of what we’re planning,” Vaughn said, adding that it would be similar in scale to the massive Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge lands at Disneyland and Disney World. “I think this would be the biggest thing we’ve done in the Magic Kingdom, probably even bigger than New Fantasyland.”
No details were given about what such an expansion beyond the park’s current berm might entail (last year there was tantalizing talk about a land devoted to Disney Villains as well as flying into the Land of the Dead from “Coco” ) or when it might take place. D’Amaro cautioned that there is “still a long way to go,” but revved up the audience by declaring, “we are about to go into overdrive.”
Vaughn also razzle-dazzled the crowd by saying that the planned makeover of Dinoland U.S.A. at Disney’s Animal Kingdom might focus on either the Indiana Jones franchise or “Encanto” and adopt the tropical Americas region of South America and Central America as its setting. The Indy theme could be a natural given that the Dinosaur dark ride in the Disney World land uses the same ride system as the wonderful Indiana Jones Adventure: Temple of the Forbidden Eye attraction in Disneyland. Then again, with the most recent Indy sequel, hasn’t the franchise run its course?
So, what is coming to Disney World?
It wasn’t all speculation at the parks panel. There was a lot of focus on Epcot, the Disney World park that has been undergoing a radical, multi-year transformation. The interactive, walk-through trail, Journey of Water, Inspired by Moana, will officially open on October 16. I got to preview the charming experience, which is a tranquil, yet playful oasis amid Epcot’s tumult, and will be reviewing it soon. Guests will be able to take selfies with Moana just outside the trail, when the character comes to the park starting next month.
Speaking of meet and greets, the beloved Figment arrives at the park today. This is not the diminutive dragon-ish character, who has been an Epcot icon since the park debuted, but an oversized, more human scale one. (Here’s hoping the Imagineers can get one little spark and restore Journey Into Imagination to its original grandeur.)
Leaning into the we’re-all-in-this-together vibe of the failed Harmonious lagoon show, Jeff Vahle, Disney World’s president, announced that its replacement will be called Luminous The Symphony of Us and will debut December 5. He said that the fireworks and laser presentation “is going to touch your heart and will continue our long tradition of amazing nighttime entertainment at Epcot.”
It was also revealed that the intrusive construction walls surrounding World Celebration at the front of Epcot will finally come down this December when the new land is scheduled to open. That seemed surprising, since it appears construction crews still have a ways to go. Perhaps the most exciting Epcot news is that Test Track will go into the auto body shop. Ditching the Tron-like look and feel, Imagineers will return to the pavilion’s original attraction, World of Motion, and its “spirit of optimism” as inspiration for the do-over. No dates or further details were given.
Elsewhere at Disney World, tough luck for It’s Tough to be a Bug!, as a new “Zootopia” show will replace the Animal Kingdom show in the Tree of Life theater at some point in the future. The Hatbox Ghost will appear (and mysteriously disappear) at the Magic Kingdom’s Haunted Mansion starting in late November. And you’ll be able to yo ho with a grog of rum at a new Pirates of the Caribbean-themed watering hole planned for the park. The macaw that once served as a barker bird at the entrance to the attraction will return to the tavern. Big Al and his furry brethren will star in an all-new show, the Country Bear Musical Jamboree, slated for 2024. The Grand Ole Opry-style revue will feature the crooning bears’ takes on Disney tunes. Finally, the beguiling Ahsoka from the popular Disney+ streaming series, will appear as part of Star Tours at Disney World as well as at Disneyland and Disneyland Paris.
The E-Ticket Avengers attraction planned for Avengers Campus at Disney California adventure came into a bit more focus. Imagineer Brent Strong shared a peek at the world- and reality-jumping vehicle under development that will lift technology elements from Tony Stark, Wakanda, and Xandar.
Sharing news from parks outside the U.S., presenters showed images from the new Frozen-themed land coming to Hong Kong Disneyland this November as well as the Zootopia land and its Hot Pursuit attraction debuting at Shanghai Disneyland later this year. They also discussed the Frozen land planned for Disneyland Paris.
Prior to Destination D23, Disney Cruise Line revealed some details about the Disney Treasure that will set sail in 2024. At the panel, Thomas Mazloum, president of Disney Signature Experiences, shared that the next ship will be called Disney Adventure and will be based in Singapore. Purchased from a bankrupt competitor, Disney is retrofitting the unfinished vessel, which will resemble the other ships in the fleet and offer the same kinds of experiences when it launches in 2025. Mazloum also told the D23ers that the cruise line’s second Bahamian island destination, which is scheduled to welcome passengers starting next June, will be called Disney Lookout Cay at Lighthouse Point.
D’Amaro promised the assembled that there would be “things you can’t even imagine are possible” coming to the parks. Here’s hoping we learn soon what Disney’s creative crew are imagineering as they venture beyond Big Thunder’s frontiers.
What do you think/hope lies beyond Big Thunder? What’s your reaction to what may be planned for Dinoland U.S.A. as well as the other announcements at Destination D23?