The 13 BIG Changes That Are Coming to Walt Disney World (Winter 2016 Edition)

Originally published in Theme Park Tourist..

Change is constant at Walt Disney World, and for this winter’s update on all of the big changes happening around the resort we take a look at an exciting addition at Disney Springs with interesting implications for the future, some new developments at the Magic Kingdom, plus CEO Bob Iger confirms that Disney is planning to build more hotels at Walt Disney World sometime in the near future.

13. Tomorrowland gets a makeover

While it wasn’t ever officially announced, over the past few weeks Tomorrowland at the Magic Kingdom has been getting a quiet makeover, with the iconic red rocks at the front of this land getting a metallic blue new sheen and attractions like the Carousel of Progress getting new exterior paint and signage. Even Space Mountain has gotten some subtle upgrades in the form of new lighting and a cleaned up outside. And while not confirmed, these Tomorrowland upgrades are likely also going to pave the way for for what is strongly rumored to be a Wreck-It Ralph virtual reality attraction, currently said to be targeting a late 2017 or early 2018 opening. We’ve got a lot more information about this rumored new attraction here.

12. Drones now officially flying overhead at Walt Disney World

Though Disney patented special drone technology known as “Flixels” for some time, in late 2016 the resort was granted permission from the FAA to fly drones over its own airspace. Not even a week after this approval was first announced, Disney announced a limited-time offering that would see drones forming a giant Christmas Tree over Disney Springs during the Christmas season. Though not technically a show, this entertainment offering will be a crucial test for this new technology, and should pave the way for more sophisticated use of drones around the resort in the near future.

11. Marvel slowly creeps into Walt Disney World

Five years ago the thought of Marvel characters in Walt Disney World seemed unthinkable, thanks to the iron-clad licensing deal Marvel signed with Universal back in the 1990s when Marvel Super Hero Island was being developed for Islands of Adventure. However, fast-forward to today, and guests can find Doctor Strange at Disney’s Hollywood Studios, as well references in the parks to characters like Daredevil and Spider-Man. And of course, we would be remiss not to mention the rumor about a Guardians of the Galaxy-themed attraction either coming to Epcot or Disney’s Hollywood Studios sometime in the next five years.

Though Disney is certainly starting small with Marvel at Walt Disney World (and certainly working within legal constraints), it looks like characters from this Universe will be a big part of the resort’s future moving forward, in as much of a capacity as they can be under the terms of the current legal contract.

10. More hotels confirmed for Walt Disney World

During a recent earnings call, Disney CEO Bob Iger hinted that more hotels could be on the way soon for Walt Disney World, saying  “We also have other kinds of expansion opportunities, like hotels, for instance.” Iger continued to say, “Not only do we have the property, but we’ve seen such high occupancy rates in Orlando and California, we believe it would be smart for us to build more hotels out … at both sites.”

While we don’t know when or where more hotels are going be built at Walt Disney World, it looks like more expansions are coming…and soon!

9. Rivers of Light still on the way to anchor nighttime experiences at Disney’s Animal Kingdom

Image: Disney

Though evening operations at Disney’s Animal Kingdom began in spring 2016, the Rivers of Light nighttime spectacular experienced some unspecified technical difficulties and was delayed. Though this show was temporarily replaced by Jungle Book: Alive with Magic show this summer, this show closed in September, leaving this park without a nighttime show for the fall. However, extensive testing has been going on both during and after park hours for Rivers of Light, and many are speculating that the show will still debut in 2016, possibly in just a few days!

8. New transportation in and out of the Magic Kingdom

Image: South Florida Water Management District

Earlier in 2016, Disney filled permits with the South Florida Water Management District to redevelop World Drive. For those unfamiliar, World Drive is a major artery of Walt Disney World’s transportation and is the road that brings guests past Disney’s Hollywood Studios and the BoardWalk Resort, right up to the Magic Kingdom’s Transportation and Ticket Center, before continuing past the Contemporary Resort and then tapering around far side of Fantasyland.

According to the recently filed permits, Walt Disney World will be adding a flyover ramp which will route traffic directly from World Drive so that guests heading for the resort-area hotels can bypass the Magic Kingdom parking plaza altogether. In the opposite direction, another newly-constructed flyover ramp will allow traffic heading from the Contemporary Resort side of World Drive to continue on World Drive beyond the Magic Kingdom parking plaza, directly en route to the BoardWalk Resort and Disney’s Hollywood Studios.

In addition, Disney will be widening World Drive as well on both sides of the street, transforming the two-lane sections into three lanes and the three lane sections into four lanes. It has also been heavily rumored (though not explicitly confirmed by the recently-filed permits) that the parking toll booths at the front of the Magic Kingdom will also be replaced during this extensive roadwork.

7. The end of Innoventions and the erosion of Future World

It was only a year ago that we witnessed the demise of Innoventions West, as this former technology exhibit space was closed and then subsequently converted into character meet and greets. And even though some have criticized this move as one that is not consistent with the theme of Future World, it looks like we may be in for a repeat, as both The Sum of All Thrills and Storm Struck closed permanently earlier this year, leaving this side of Innoventions nearly empty, with only the recently-opened Colortopia exhibit still in operation inside this space. Even though we expect this exhibit to stick around a little bit longer, inside sources suggest that Disney will not be renewing their contract with Colortopia sponsor Glidden, and will be closing this exhibit, (and subsequently the whole of Innoventions East), at some future date.

No announcements have been made about the future of Innoventions East after these closures, but with the character meet and greets doing so well on the other side of the park, we wouldn’t be surprised if Disney decides to expand this concept, stuffing more characters into the other side of Innoventions. However, considering rumors suggest that the nearby Universe of Energy could be closing soon as well to reportedly make way for a Guardians of the Galaxy attraction, it’s possible that this new space could tie into that development as well. Either way, hopefully we’ll know something soon about what the future holds for Future World, and sadly, it doesn’t seem to be all that futuristic.

6. Star Wars Land will break ground soon

Image: Disney

Though it was rumored for several years, it was finally confirmed in August 2015 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 sometime this year.

The goal for this land is to fully immerse guests in the world of Star Wars, with authentic food, scenery and of course attractions that look like they would fit right in next to an X-Wing.

 Image: Disney

The first of two planned rides for this new area is a still-unnamed Millennium Falcon simulator that will allow guests to the Millennium Falcon themselves, turning, banking and even firing weapons in this ambitious new experience.

Though the Millennium Falcon attraction will be cutting edge, the First Order ride will be more of a classic dark ride that will use a motion base ride vehicle to move riders through scenes with screens (similar to what guests currently experience at The Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man at Islands of Adventure).

In addition to the two new rides, there will also be a new intergalactic cantina restaurant, a high-end “dinner club” 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).

Image: Disney

While we know that work will begin sometime in the near future (land has been cleared but vertical construction has yet to get underway) 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 completed.

5. 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 structures, Disney’s Wilderness Lodge will also be getting waterfront bungalows similar to what was constructed at Disney’s Polynesian Village Resort (you can see work being done on these structures in the image above). These bungalows are expected to be part of the DVC program and will probably command high point prices like the ones across Bay Lake.

4. The last days of Disney’s Hollywood Studios

Image: Disney

Back in February 2015, the remnants of the Sorcerer’s Hat at Disney’s Hollywood Studios came down. And though it has been more than a year since that hat was destroyed, insiders suggest that this park will be getting a whole new identity sometime in the near future, perhaps in time for either Toy Story Land or Star Wars Land to open. 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.

3. A new slide for Typhoon Lagoon

Image: Disney 

Disney has confirmed that when Typhoon Lagoon returns from refurbishment early next year, there will be a new ride to experience at this park. Named Miss Fortune Falls, this new attraction will be a lengthy family raft ride that will tell the story of fictitious Captain Mary Oceaneer, a treasure-hunting heroine who got stranded at Typhoon Lagoon years ago by a rogue storm.

During this two-minute raft ride (the longest raft attraction in all of Walt Disney World) guests will embark on a journey through Captain Oceaneer’s past before plunging into a white-water adventure where they can see unique artifacts that Captain Mary Oceaneer collected on her many treasure hunts around the world.

2. Toy Story Land is on the way for Disney’s Hollywood Studios

Image: Disney

Toy Story Land was officially announced last 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.

Image: Disney

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, named Alien Swirling Saucers (don’t try and abbreviate that) is inspired specifically by the first Toy Story film and will be designed to look like a play set found in Andy’s room, and will allow guests to board rocket shaped toy vehicles while aliens fly around in toy flying saucers wielding “The Claw”, which will dangle menacingly above.

Land where Toy Story Land will eventually sit has been completely cleared, but like Star Wars Ladn, vertical construction has yet to begin in earnest.

1. Pandora – The World of Avatar set for 2017 opening

Image: Disney

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.”.

Image: Disney

The second will be a boat ride through Pandora’s forests, which we now know will be called Na’vi River Journey. As expected, this attraction will offer a C-Ticket family ride experience that will take guests via canoes through a mysterious, sacred river hidden within Pandora’s bioluminescent rainforest. While on this attraction guests will encounter exotic glowing plants and amazing creatures before a finale sequence that will feature a Na’vi shaman, who has a deep connection to the life force of Pandora and sends positive energy out into the forest through her music. Recent permits confirm that this ride will be housed entirely indoors, like Pirates of the Caribbean.

Though we know a lot of the basics about what to expect at this new land, it was revealed recently that James Cameron, producer Jon Landau and Disney Imagineer Joe Rohde will be on hand at the upcoming D23 Destination D event taking place November 19 and 20 at Disney’s Contemporary Resort to reveal brand new details about this new land. And while we’re expecting to hear a lot about the attractions in this land during this presentation, we’re also hoping to get confirmation of an opening date, rumored to be sometime in late 2017.


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Don Korta
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