Disney announces major upgrades, changes at its theme parks

Star Wars, Toy Story-themed lands join Avatar, other projects

It's said that Walt Disney never wanted his theme parks to be museums – that he preferred they continue to evolve and change and grow.

He'd be quite pleased, then, with the dramatic changes going on through his namesake vacation destinations, and particularly with an unprecedented series of announcements that were made over the weekend at the company's annual D23 EXPO.

Long story short – get those FastPasses in order.

A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away

Packing for a visit to a Disney theme park? Might want to leave the 'droids at home – they don't serve their kind in the cantinas of Tattooine, and if the company's Imagineers have their way, that's where you'll be headed in the coming years.

Walt Disney Co. CEO and Chairman Bob Iger confirms the company will build Star Wars theme lands at Walt Disney World and at Disneyland.

Walt Disney Co. CEO and Chairman Bob Iger wowed the more than 7,500 diehard Disney fans packed into the main hall at the Anaheim Convention Center at the D23 EXPO this past week by confirming that guests are going to be able to visit galaxies far, far away. New, immersive “Star Wars” themed lands are coming to the Disneyland park and to Disney's Hollywood Studios at Walt Disney World in Orlando, Fla.

The ambitious plans will bring the films – which became Disney property when the company bought Lucasfilm in 2012 for more than $4 billion – to interactive life at both the east coast and west coast properties. At more than 14 acres each, the “Star Wars” lands will include a chance for guests to be transported to the expansive worlds where the staggeringly popular ongoing space opera is set.

Here's what to expect: Immersively-themed lands with two signature attractions, including the ability to take the controls of the Millennium Falcon and the opportunity to step into an epic “Star Wars” adventure and into the middle of a climactic battle.

Artist renderings released by Disney show theme park guests strolling through scenes straight out of the films, including alien environments, futuristic structures and spacecraft zipping overhead. Disney execs painted an ambitious picture of what's to come, but further details – including a timeline for the massive project – remain sparse, currently.

You've got a friend in me

The further re-imagining of the Hollywood Studios theme park will continue, as Disney execs revealed a new 11-acre “Toy Story” themed land. Visitors will head to infinity and beyond by stepping into the worlds of Pixar films, including Andy's back yard – with two new attractions and an expansion of the Toy Story Midway Mania attraction. At this point in the project, people can expect a family-friendly roller coaster plunging through a toy-filled adventure on the back of Slinky the Dog; an alien saucers attraction where the little green claw-machine dwelling aliens from “Toy Story” take guests on a spin aboard their own spacecraft; and an additional track on the already-popular, line-spawning Toy Story Midway Mania – where guests take aim at 3D objects in a carnival-like atmosphere.

An artist's conception of the newly announced Toy Story-themed land at Walt Disney World's Hollywood Studios theme park.

The park itself, which is home to big screen-themed attractions like the Great Movie Ride, the Twilight Zone Tower of Terror, Star Tours and Aerosmith's Rock 'n' Roller Coaster, is also expected to take on an entirely new name. The new monicker has not yet been announced.

To make way for the planned changes, Disney has already closed the attractions located in its Animation Courtyard and the American Idol Experience, among several other in-park attractions.

These little beauties

Just across Crescent Lake and the World Showcase Lagoon, Epcot's gate-buster attraction, Soarin', is also getting an upgrade. The hang-glider simulating attraction, which currently flies guests over a number of California-based sites and locations, will soon take them around the globe. Soarin' Around the World will add a new film, new locations and a new experience when the third Soarin' theater opens sometime in 2016. The third theater, where guests actually experience the simulated flight, should also provide a little relief from the always-lengthy standby lines.

Dining at the backside of water

Not to be left out, the Magic Kingdom will get a new dining experience themed around its longtime Jungle Cruise attraction. Later this year, the Jungle Navigation Co., Ltd. Skipper Canteen will open in that park's Adventureland.

See you real soon

The number of changes and the pace of construction at the Orlando property, in particular, is head-spinning. The new, major projects come amid the already landscape-changing upgrades like the massive “Avatar”-themed land under construction at Walt Disney World's Animal Kingdom theme park. Pandora – the Land of Avatar, will include floating mountains, a nighttime jungle of bioluminescent plants and a new attraction called Avatar: Flight of Passage that will allow guests to fly with banshees. The multiple construction cranes rising up out of the central Florida foliage give a hint as to the pace of change over at Animal Kingdom. Pandora – the Land of Avatar, which is being led by the charismatic, instantly-recognizable Disney Imagineer Joe Rohde and Avatar creator James Cameron and his Lightstorm team, is expected to transport tourists to the far-flung world in 2017.

And it all coincides with the reinvention of Downtown Disney into Disney Springs. First up: this fall will see the opening of the aviation-themed Jock Lindsey's Hangar Bar. (Jock Lindsey was a pilot in the “Indiana Jones” films.) Drop in for fare inspired by Jock's globe-trotting, like a Hovito Mojito or Dr. Elsa's She-Deviled Eggs. It's set just by the Landing – which is the now-open section of Disney Springs and includes the pricey, yet memorable Boathouse restaurant. It's there that guests can also now hop aboard an Amphicar and motor right into Village Lake for a great, from-the-water view of the hopping shopping/dining district.

Also at Disney Springs: The newly-announced NBA Experience will replace the now-tired DisneyQuest; the Edison, a lavish, industrial-gothic eatery designed to look like a 1920s electric company; STK Orlando – a 14,000 square-foot, two-story modern steakhouse with rooftop seating; Morimoto Asia – a pan-Asian restaurant by celebrity chef Masaharu Morimoto. The Marketplace, the Landing and the West Side are all currently tied together by a new footbridge, making it easier to traverse the sometimes busy walkways that shuttle shoppers and revelers from one side of the eye-catching district to another.

It's getting difficult to keep up with the changes, but if Walt wanted his namesake properties to continue with the plussing and always offer something new and different, he'd have to think things are going according to plan.

Categories: Disney