Shell shock: Making sense of yesterday’s big Disney World announcements

At the D23 Expo yesterday, Disney made a little bit of news related to their U.S. theme parks. You may have noticed. In fact, during Bob Chapek’s Parks & Resorts presentation yesterday, so much stuff got announced that I’m still reeling. Disney World has always been my area of expertise compared to Disneyland, so focusing there let’s try to inventory everything we learned yesterday:

Mickey and Minnie’s Runaway Railway to replace the Great Movie Ride

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I’m having difficulty getting too worked up over this. The announcement of GMR’s closure in less than a month is undeniably shocking (especially in light of the recent TCM sponsorship), but the ride has been on the chopping block for years and even using all my armchair-Imagineer powers, I can’t think of a good way the Great Movie Ride could be saved or made relevant without a major overhaul or complete replacement. I love Alien and Raiders of the Lost Ark, but they are the most recent films physically represented and they were not that old when the ride opened. Incremental changes to the script and clip reels have kept the Great Movie Ride alive for the past decade, but the attraction has lost much of its broad relevance and stands more as a symbol of what Hollywood Studios used to be than what it can become.

I’m sure the new attraction will be very impressive and popular, and there are much worse things that could have ended up in the Chinese Theater than an elaborate dark ride based on Mickey Mouse. The folks I feel for are all of the Cast Members that worked and developed a connection with the attraction over the years. It’s a sad but inevitable moment, like the closure of JAWS. Just because it was necessary doesn’t mean it hurts any less.

TRON coaster coming to Tomorrowland

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While this announcement isn’t really a surprise, the fact that it’s not going to take out the Tomorrowland Speedway definitely is. For whatever reason, the noisy, gas-guzzling go-karts are not going anywhere. I understand the nostalgia and historical value of not razing an opening day attraction, but this seems like a surprising missed opportunity to get rid of a major headache.

As for what we’re getting, it’s not very mysterious: it’s going to be a clone of the TRON Lightcycle Power Run attraction that has been operating for about a year in Shanghai. Like another Shanghai transplant, the Seven Dwarfs Mine Train, the TRON ride seems a little cooler in concept than execution. However considering that this is a major net gain, and an E-ticket to boot, this is a fairly positive (if easy to green-light) decision. My main concern is with traffic patterns; two of the most popular attractions in the park will be within spitting distance of each other. This mistake was made at the then-Disney-MGM Studios with the addition of Rock ‘n’ Roller Coaster, and the rest of the park was allowed to slowly suffocate to death. Will Space Mountain go down for a major refurb once the new coaster opens?

Unspecified Guardians of the Galaxy attraction to replace Universe of Energy

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It’s a weird and sort of tragic coincidence that the only two “moving theater” attractions of their kind, the Great Movie Ride and the Universe of Energy, are shuttering on the same day. I love Ellen’s Energy Adventure, but the only argument to keep it is nostalgia; the pavilion originally owes its existence to an oil company sponsorship, and the heavily pro-oil show feels slightly sinister in today’s climate (especially since the sponsor dropped out). I’ll miss the elaborate large-format projection setups, but I think that’s mostly my thing.

We know next-to-nothing about the new experience that will go into the Energy building, but if I were a member of this project’s design team I would be salivating. The facility is absolutely massive and could house any kind of show scene you could imagine. Instead of awkwardly co-opting a ride system the building was purpose-built to handle, they could put anything in there. Hopefully it won’t get turned into an empty warehouse like the original iteration of Test Track, but if the masterful refurbishment of the California Tower of Terror is any indication, we have a lot to look forward to here.

Ratatouille attraction coming to Epcot’s France pavilion

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I was nervous about this, but it looks like Impressions de France is staying. The fact that we get an expanded pavilion and a clone of the Ratatouille ride from Disneyland Paris (the imposingly-named Ratatouille: L’Aventure Totalement Toquée de Rémy) is a nice bonus. The ride is a hybrid of 3D screens and physical sets, and plays like The Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man or Transformers: The Ride 3D in slow motion. While it kind of hurts to see one of the nicer World Showcase pavilions get sullied by Disney characters, the Norway boat ride conversion hurt way more. The floodgates have already been opened, and the stuffy, adult-y vibe that I love so much about World Showcase is no longer sacred.

Gondola transportation system, Minnie Vans announced

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Gondolas are cool. I’m okay with this. The transportation situation in the Epcot resort area already feels a little saturated, but it’s not my money. The Uber-like Minnie Vans seem like a perfectly logical thing for Disney to do from a business standpoint. I only hope the gondola system doesn’t wreck all the sightlines in World Showcase.

New theater coming to Main Street, U.S.A.

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This was not expected, but makes a lot of sense considering another trend Disney has been so fond of in the last few years: generic, multi-purpose spaces in the theme parks. The Premiere Theater at Hollywood Studios has been used for just about anything you can think of, from Star Wars Celebration panels to film screenings to larger-scale productions like a Frozen stage show. It’s been so successful, another even more bare-bones space, the Sunset Showcase, was built in a backstage area near Rock ‘n’ Roller Coaster and can be used for just about anything, most recently host to a gaudy dance party designed to keep Guests amused as they waste away waiting for their FastPass+ reservations they made six months ago.

This new theater on Main Street looks to be closer in scale to the Hyperion Theater in California Adventure, which hosted the highly successful Aladdin show for many years before switching to a Frozen show. More important than any individual show that gets put in the theater , though, is the capacity added to the front of the park. With New Fantasyland and the upcoming addition of the TRON coaster, the entire north-east quadrant of the Magic Kingdom will be constantly, completely swamped. A big show on Main Street will do a lot to distribute crowds around throughout the day.

The big question is, where is the theater going? The concept art isn’t very helpful, but my best guess would be the recently-remodeled (formerly) backstage bypass walkway that runs behind the east Main Street buildings, subsuming the existing backstage parking lot.

With the TRON coaster eating the parking lot behind Space Mountain and the new theater taking over the lot behind Main Street and Tomorrowland, where are those poor managers and executives going to park?!

Star Wars-themed hotel announced

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I’m ambivalent on this one, even though I’m a big Star Wars fan. The concept art looks incredible, of course, but I’m very concerned about the accessibility of the experience both in terms of cost and capacity. This is going to be the first major themed experience in Disney World that I’m worried most Guests will not be able to experience. I’m not getting this from the official description (which is filled with flowery buzzwords like ‘immersive’ and ‘revolutionary’ that don’t move me), but this appears to me to be a logical extension of all the things that Disney has been messing with at WDW in the past few years that aren’t new rides, like MyMagic+/FastPass+, dessert parties and other upcharge experiences like Wild Africa Trek and cabanas. One more thing to make the theme park experience a little less democratic.

I hope I’m blowing this out of proportion, but I have concerns.

 

New Disney Riviera Resort near Epcot to open Fall 2019

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After the furious patter of announcements during the presentation you could be forgiven for overlooking this one, but a massive new Disney Vacation Club resort is still a big deal. The rooftop restaurant is going to be a huge hit. I personally prefer the DVC resorts that are a little more intimate, especially Old Key West (I don’t like Saratoga Springs very much, it’s too big and impersonal), but seeing how desperate Disney is to shove DVC units into every nook and cranny they can find, they’ll be happy for the extra 300 rooms.

China pavilion to get new film with seamless digital projection

I may be the only person that cares about this, and this got completely buried under the news avalanche, but I care about this. While it’s sort of sad to see another unique projection installation get transitioned from film to digital, I can attest that the digital restoration/projector upgrade for Impressions de France was an unqualified success and that film jumps off its five screens like it never has (and it probably saved the attraction from being axed by Ratatouille). The current China film is an awkward rework of the original 1981 presentation, awkwardly dubbed with new footage shoehorned in. A brand-new all-digital CircleVision film has the potential to look pretty spectacular.

Mission: SPACE to reopen with two new ride experiences

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Mission: SPACE has always been a bit of a problem. If we want to go way back I’m still bitter about Horizons, but the pavilion has always suffered for having a thrill ride too far ahead of its time and not suited to its audience. Compared to Soarin’ and either version of Test Track, SPACE almost always had a precipitously shorter line and didn’t seem to make a huge impression on Guests minutes, hours and days later. What happened?

A lot of things. Few attractions have been ‘tweaked’ as frequently and infamously, and like reshoots for a movie, post-opening alterations don’t necessarily indicate a problem but they often do. I happened to visit Disney World during the attraction’s soft opening period in August 2003, and have seen at least three different versions of the safety videos (I also think the spinning was toned down considerably during the first few months, but have not been able to confirm this). The original pre-show did not mention motion sickness, and instead warned about ‘loud noises.’ If we read in between the lines, it seems clear that Disney and the Imagineers didn’t really have a firm idea of what they built and how it would affect people. Never mind the fact that the ride is loosely based on Mission to Mars, an infamous flop of a movie.

Giving Guests the option to choose spinning or non-spinning versions of the ride was an ugly but probably necessary Band-Aid for Disney attraction that was brand-new, but somehow already festering. Designing two completely different ride experiences for Orange and Green is an elegant solution for a few reasons: it will hopefully make the Green experience seem much less lame, it will give provide sort of an “extra ride” for folks who can handle both Green and Orange, and it makes the whole thing look more intentional. I don’t see a big downside to this.

Space Restaurant

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Sure, okay?

Whew, is that everything?? Note, I’ve left out the other big, non-WDW-specific announcements like the Marvel area coming to California Adventure and the new cruise ship.

What does this all mean? This is a massive, massive announcement – in some ways this is just as big as if they announced a new park. Disneyland in particular has been the beneficiary of lavish upgrades and new attractions while the additions to WDW have felt mostly smartphone-based. Disney World people have felt neglected for a long time, and this feels like something of a corrective. Epcot and Hollywood Studios have been in serious need of help for a long time, and it’s finally happening. These sweeping changes are a decade late, at least, but it’s better late than never and I find myself in the weird position of being cautiously optimistic. Stay tuned.

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