2016 saw a lot of new experiences come to Walt Disney World, and 2017 will bring even more! You know, this time last year I was on my latest Walt Disney World vacation, and I brought you along for a ride worth taking that day. That day was so much fun and I’m so glad I got to share a piece of our trip with you. Well, I haven’t been back to Walt Disney World since then, and already a lot has changed. If you haven’t been to the parks in a year or more, there is a lot of new magic awaiting us all. Today, we will look at what 2016 added to the Disney portfolio, as well as look ahead at what 2017 promises.
In the year 2016, Frozen lived Ever After, Star Wars launched more and more at Hollywood Studios, and shopping and eating sprang to new life at Disney Springs. Let’s soar around Walt Disney World to see what all awakened this past year.
This is the ride guide so I think we have to start with the rides! Frozen Ever After opened on June 21, 2016 in Epcot. This ride took the place of Maelstrom, much to the chagrin of some Disney nostalgics. However, the 2 hour lines that followed Frozen’s opening proved Disney rightly removed a dud, and replaced it with a stud! Don’t get me wrong, I always enjoyed Maelstrom, but the Disney public votes with their feet, and the traffic had all but died at the Norway pavilion. Frozen Ever After has certainly changed that with new state of the art Audio Animatronic versions of Anna, Elsa, Christof, and Olaf. The ride suffered from some technically difficulties in it’s opening days, but that hasn’t slowed down its popularity. Be sure to make this a top priority for Fastpass+ if planning a trip in 2017. Also, don’t miss the fabulous new meet n’ greet next door. Anna & Elsa opened their Royal Summerhus in 2016 and now can be found exclusively at Epcot.
Another ride in Epcot got a refurbishment in 2016. Soarin’ in the Land pavilion was closed for several months to add on a third theater. When it reopened in June last year it also debuted a brand new film. In fact, this ride debuted the new film in Walt Disney World, Disneyland, and Shanghai Disneyland. The new film entitled Soarin’ Around the World, takes you all around the globe. You can watch the dust kicked up by an elephant herd in Kilimanjaro National Park, fly over the Great Wall of China, and soar past the Eiffel Tower in Paris. I have to say I love the update. I don’t think the new film is as much fun as the original, but the word that comes to mind is breathtaking. This is another great option for Fastpass+. Don’t miss the ride that thrills small kids and grandparents alike.
A couple of other quick notes before we leave Epcot, check out the updated version of Turtle Talk with Crush. The totally awesome sea turtle that loves to talk to little human dudes added new friends to the show in 2016. You can now find Dory and her friends from the 2016 film, Finding Dory, over at Turtle Talk.
Speaking of friends, Epcot added several new character meet ’n’ greets at the Character Spot. This space was formerly part of the Innoventions pavilion, but is now home to Inside Out’s Joy & Sadness, as well as Baymax from Big Hero 6. Fastpass+ is currently not available for these characters so try to find them before the park gets too crowded.
Let’s move over to Disney’s Hollywood Studios. This is the park that saw the most change in 2016, although there is much, much, more to come. A lot of the change came in the way of closures. Lights, Motors, Action Stunt Spectacular was closed for good, along with the Streets of America and the Honey I Shrunk the Kids play area. All have since been completely demolished to make way for Star Wars land. To help tide over crowds until the new land is open, Disney debuted several new Star Wars offerings.
Star Wars Launch Bay took over the old Animation Courtyard and soon First Order Stormtroopers were found patrolling the area between Voyage of The Little Mermaid and Disney Jr. Live on Stage! Inside the old animation building, Star Wars fans can now drool over models and replicas from the movies. Life-size Stormtroopers, speeders, and more are all on display. You can even meet Chewbacca or Darth Vader inside the Launch Bay. In addition to all of this, a new nighttime fireworks show called Star Wars: A Galactic Spectacular was added after dark. Now, I’m a big Star Wars fan, but I have to say this was one of the highlights for me in 2016. This is one of the best fireworks shows I have ever seen in a Disney park, and that is saying something. I should note the show has changed since I saw it in early 2016. There are fewer fireworks and more projections used now, but I still think this is a show you don’t want to miss.
Star Tours: The Adventures Continue added a new scene from The Force Awakens in 2016, Jedi Training: Trials of the Temple got a new look and new characters, and there was even a daily show called Star Wars: A Galaxy, Far, Far, Away that debuted in front of the Chinese theater. Needless to say, Disney is doing a lot to keep the Star Wars momentum in full force until the permanent Star Wars land opens.
While that day is still a ways off, let’s move over to a park that was supposed to open some exciting new things in 2016. I’m talking about Disney’s Animal Kingdom. I say supposed to, because 2016 came and went, and still we have no Rivers of Light nighttime show. This was originally scheduled to open in Spring of 2016, but the show was pushed back throughout the year. Disney blamed technically difficulties, but as the year went on it became clear the show hadn’t received the stamp of approval from Disney CEO, Bob Iger. In fact, according to Jim Hill, Bob saw the show in late November of 2016. While he acknowledged it had progressed, he still didn’t feel it was up to the high standard set by Disney’s other night time offerings. Will we finally see this show light up the night in the Animal Kingdom in 2017? Well, we will get to that in a minute.
First, there was a new offering in the park that did open. The nighttime safari over at Kilimanjaro Safaris began welcoming guests in May 2016. Using some Disney magic, the Imagineers have bathed portions of the savanna in perpetual twilight. This gives guest visiting after dark the opportunity to see the wildlife in a whole new way. This opened after my last visit, so I am eager to get back to the park and see how it compares to the daytime experience. Stay tuned and I will report on this later in the year.
The thing I’m really excited about seeing is the other after dark option, the Tree of Life Awakenings show. This is a projection show that takes place on the park’s centerpiece, the Tree of Life. The show begins about 15 minutes after sunset, and runs every 15 minutes thereafter. Each show is only about 3 minutes long, but there are multiple versions of the show. I have watched this online several times, and I’m blown away with how far the projection mapping technology has come. It looks as though the tree really does awaken with life, as the static carved animals jump to life in full color. Don’t miss this show and when you go, try to get as close to a central viewing point as possible.
All right, that is by no means a comprehensive list of the new additions in 2016, but we did hit the highlights of the rides. Before we move onto 2017, I do have to plug Disney Springs. I was able to get over to the area formerly known as Downtown Disney in October, and wow has it continued to evolve! The transformation that has taken place over the past couple of years is really impressive. Disney Springs is now a great place to visit on your arrival day if you aren’t going to the parks. There are so many shops to explore, and some amazing new restaurants. If you haven’t been in the past year, you need to make time on your next visit.
Now it is time for 2017! With a whole new land opening in Disney’s Animal Kingdom, this year promises to be one to remember. Before we get into that, let’s talk about one new thing that has already come to Walt Disney World, Magic Bands 2.0. If you haven’t seen the new bands, just imagine the old bands with a larger center piece. This larger piece is actually detachable, making the new bands more versatile. If you aren’t a big fan of wearing something around your wrist you now have the option of punching out the center piece and attaching it to a lanyard, keychain, or device of your own making. Magic Bands 2.0 come in red, orange, yellow, green, blue, pink, purple, and gray. There are already Magic Band skins available in the market so you can personalize your band with your favorite Disney character or movie. I like the new larger bands as I think they show off this type of personalization even more! If you customize your bands on your My Disney Experience page, they will arrive in the mail about 30 days ahead of your trip. If not, gray bands will be waiting for you upon check-in at your Disney resort.
So, what new things can you access using your Magic Band 2.0? How about Pandora: The World of Avatar! Yep, it is almost here. The long anticipated and much talked about Pandora is scheduled to open this summer. If things stay on track, I think we might get lucky and see this new land premier in the early part of summer. If not, Disney will stretch the meaning of “summer” to late August or September. Whatever the case, I am pretty excited! I’m not a big Avatar fan, I only watched the movie for the first time last year. That was prompted by the new land opening at the Animal Kingdom. So, when I say I’m excited, it’s not because of my affinity for the 10 foot tall blue people. Nope, it’s because I think the Imagineers have pushed the envelope with this new land. A video was released just a couple of weeks ago with a sneak peek inside Pandora, and it looks amazing! So, what’s inside?
Well, two new rides will top the list when Pandora opens. The first is the Na’vi River Journey, and the second will be called Avatar Flight of Passage. The Na’vi River Journey will be the family friendly boat ride that slowly floats passengers through the bioluminescent forest of Pandora. Somehow, Joe Rhoede and the team of Imagineers have figured out a way to create plants that will light up just like in the movie. This won’t be virtual reality or some cheap trick, they will be real physical plants with bioluminescent veins. According to Avatar Director James Cameron, the end of the ride will have something pretty amazing, “You have never seen anything like in your life.”
The second ride, Avatar Flight of Passage will be a more thrilling ride that takes you flying through Pandora on the back of a banshi. If you haven’t seen the movie, these are pterodactyl-like creatures that the Na’vi use to fly all over the mythical land of Pandora. This ride will incorporate a combination of ride apparatus and screen simulation similar to that found on Soarin’. Don’t think this will be your peaceful journey around the world though. The Imagineers have said this ride is a few notches higher on the thrill scale when compared to Soarin’. It will be interesting to see what height requirement and level of thrill they have in store. Whatever that is, it seems Disney anticipates the ride will be very popular. While not confirmed, it is believed there are 4 theaters dedicated to Avatar Flight of Passage. That would be one more than we have at Soarin’, which means that they expect big crowds. When Pandora opens, I think it is safe to say, this will be your #1 Fastpass+ in Disney’s Animal Kingdom.
Beyond the two rides, Pandora promises to be a truly immersive experience. Having seen the magic of Cars Land out in DCA, I am really looking forward to another immersive environment from the minds of Disney. Cars has never been my favorite Disney/Pixar film, but I absolutely loved the feel of strolling through Radiator Springs. If Disney has pulled off Pandora in the way they did Cars Land, I think we are all in for a real treat.
Along with Pandora, we should finally see Rivers of Light take stage. Now, we already chronicled the problems with this show. Well, the new target for the show is an opening date that comes no later than the opening of Pandora. Actually, Disney wants to get the nighttime show up and running to get a feel for crowd control before Pandora opens up. That could mean we see the show finally debut sometime this Spring. Many have described Disney’s Animal Kingdom as a half day park in the past. However, once Rivers of Light is going and Pandora opens up, this may be the most fun filled full day you have at Walt Disney World in 2017. I for one, can’t wait to take a walk through the park late at night. I’ve never experienced Expedition Everest after dark, and I think that will be one of my new favorite coasters after I encounter the Yeti at night. How about you? Are you excited about Pandora and the new era of nighttime fun this promises to usher in at Animal Kingdom? I’d love to hear what you think. Click here to message me on Facebook.
There are a few things to look forward to in 2017 beyond Pandora. One of those has already begun over at Epcot. The Epcot International Festival of the Arts started on January 13th and will run through February 20th. Like other Epcot festivals, this one has limited time food offerings, musical artists, and presenters. Instead of focusing on horticulture like the Flower & Garden Festival, or the culinary arts like the Food & Wine Festival, this event focuses on art. Art in the form of painters, broadway performers, and even living statues. There are even more happenings to be found on the weekends. Come by the website this week for a link to the full list of entertainment, speakers, and more. If this festival proves successful, I think you will see it back in 2018 for an even longer engagement. Crowds continue to flock to Epcot for their festivals and Disney has noticed. This year the Flower & Garden, and Food & Wine Festival will combine to run 165 days. Who knows, one day Epcot may have a festival 365 days out of the year!
Over at the Magic Kingdom there is one polarizing character on his way out, and another on his way in. The first will be found over at Stitch’s Great Escape. Disney has already put Stitch in status by labeling the ride “Seasonal.” At the time of this podcast, Stitch’s Great Escape is closed, and we don’t know if it will open again. The current rumors have Wreck-it-Ralph coming to wreck Stitch’s fun. There is talk of a virtual reality Sugar Rush racing game, which would take over the circular theater now housing Experiment 626. While this sounds pretty cool, I’m waiting for the official announcement before I get too excited. Stay tuned for the good news, I mean update.
If you thought Wreck-it-Ralph was the polarizing figure on his way in, what’s wrong with you? Ralph may be a stink brain, but he’s awesome! No, the polarizing figure I’m referring to will be the newest member off an oft overlooked show in Liberty Square. That’s right, President Donald Trump will be joining the Hall of President’s in 2017. Love him or hate him, a new Audio-Animatronic version of our 45th President will take the stage along with his 44 predecessors. I happen to think this will give the hall a big boost in attendance. I mean, who doesn’t want to see how they pull off that hair in AA form? Or, will Trump be tweeting while the other Presidents are giving their speeches? What words will come from those pursed lips when his moment arrives? All of these questions and more will be answered when the hall reopens in July.
All right, leaving the Magic Kingdom, let’s move over to a place you probably haven’t been in a long time. I’m talking Disney’s Typhoon Lagoon water park! Many people forget, or just don’t know, that Disney has two great water parks. Typhoon Lagoon has been open longer than its newer brother Blizzard Beach. As such, Disney felt it was time to add a new ride to the park. Last year it was announced a new family raft ride titled “Miss Fortune Falls” would be opening in 2017. Well, it seems they had a slight change of heart when it came to the name. Just this month, Disney announced the new ride will actually be called “Miss Adventure Falls.” With no height requirement, this new ride will be a 2-minute journey the whole family can enjoy. If I had one criticism of Typhoon Lagoon, it was that all the slides were too short and the rides over too quickly. I think adding this longer slide to the park will help with that issue. Look for “Miss Adventure Falls” to open in spring of 2017.
Well, I can’t call this a true episode of the WDW Ride Guide without talking about the new Star Wars things coming in 2017. The newest film Rogue One has already made its way into Star Wars Launch Bay at Hollywood Studios. Some of the new items on display include a Shoretrooper Blaster, Krennic’s Imperial Shuttle, a U-Wing Gun Ship, and last but not least, a Death Star model!
Outside of the Star Wars Launch Bay you can now see the all black, super cool looking, Advanced Weapons Research Troopers from Rogue One on patrol. Over at Star Tours it looks like we will have to wait for Episode VIII in December before any new scenes are added to the ride. There have been no announcements about any scenes being added from Rogue One. If you just can’t get enough Star Wars, there is now a 7 hour guided tour available for $121 per adult. This is the ultimate guide to a force-filled day at Disney’s Hollywood Studios. If you want to learn more, click here.
Well, that covers a lot! Can you believe I’ve been talking this whole time about things added or being added in the course of 2 years? Sometimes I think Disney gets over criticized for construction projects not moving faster, and new experiences taking too long to come to fruition. When you have this many irons in the fire though, it’s hard to move much faster. Hopefully, today has provided even more excitement for your next Disney vacation. One of the things I love about visiting Walt Disney World is seeing all the changes from the last time I was there. The parks are such a unique blend of nostalgic classics like It’s a Small World, The Carousel of Progress, and Spaceship Earth, and new experiences like Frozen Ever After and Pandora: The World of Avatar.
It has been a great second year here at the WDW Ride Guide, and I’m more excited about year 3 than ever before. Our little podcast has covered over 60 rides and shows so far. Plus, we have had a lot of fun with our Top 5’s, Rider Roundtables, and Rider Response episodes. That is just the beginning though. 2017 will have even more rides, more Top 5’s, and more episodes geared towards helping you.
I hope you will keep coming back each week as we explore Walt Disney World one ride at a time together. If you have anything you would like to hear in 2017 let me know! We have a trip or two coming up this spring and I would love to do some research on your behalf.
I hope you have a wonderful week. Now let’s go make year #3 a ride worth taking!
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