As a year-end post, we thought it would be interesting to recap and review the 10 most popular and biggest Walt Disney World news stories of the year. All in all, 2023 has been pretty good for WDW news, with more positive announcements than we’ve seen in the last few years.
It was a big bounceback year for Walt Disney World, and one of transition. The year started out with pent-up demand still running hot, but that didn’t last long. Between an internal forecast of a slowdown and returning CEO Bob Iger’s stated desire of improving guest satisfaction, a number of incremental improvements were made over the course of the year–some coming within the first weeks of the year.
Nevertheless, the news cycles have had ups and downs. As attendance and hotel occupancy have dropped, the quality and quantity of discounts–both for resorts (primarily) and tickets (to a lesser degree) have increased. The second half of this year through Spring 2024 actually have the best deals since 2019. On the other hand, prices continued to increase on Genie+ line-skipping, food & beverage, and various upcharges. That’s just one example of the ‘mixed’ nature of this year’s news. There are plenty more, as illustrated by the selection of top stories…
Free Parking Returns– Before the year started, we made a list of 7 Good Changes Returning CEO Bob Iger Could Make at Walt Disney World. At least 5 of those things happened in 2023, depending upon how you count. With that said, if I had to expand that list to 14 or 30 entries, I don’t think I would’ve thought to include ‘restore free resort parking’ on the list. Being a pre-closure change that had already exhausted its ‘outrage cycle,’ it’s just one of those things that struck me as a done deal–too late to undo.
To be clear, the introduction of the parking fee was the most controversial change we had ever seen made by Walt Disney World at the time it occurred. Not only did our post garner over 300 angry comments, but Walt Disney World got hit hard by negative reviews on crowdsourced travel sites like TripAdvisor and Google. I had never seen fans so mad–although backlash to the subsequent elimination of free FastPass and Disney’s Magical Express did exceed that response.
So I guess I shouldn’t have been completely surprised by the move to restore free parking. It just struck me as something that had been fully normalized in the ensuing years, and was viewed as a “free revenue stream” by Walt Disney World. As a symbolic and precedent-setting change, I think a lot of fans underestimate just how big of a deal this was–but since many don’t drive, they overlooked it. Suffice to say, if this can be undone by Walt Disney World 5 years after the fact, who knows what other unpopular changes can be rolled back down the road.
TRON Lightcycle Run Opening Date– After approximately 84 years of the most glacial construction I’ve ever watched (CommuniCore Hall shouts “hold my beer” from a distance), TRON Lightcycle Run finally got an opening date.
Equally as notable, it ended up debuting ahead of schedule during the heart of spring break season. (So kudos to Walt Disney World for opening it 2 weeks ahead of the announced date…that was ~2.5 years after the original target…that was already a long build time for a coaster in a warehouse.)
What’s open is open, and there’s no sense fixating on the past. TRON Lightcycle Run is an excellent addition to Magic Kingdom; a new fan-favorite attraction at Walt Disney World. Even for non-thrillseekers, it’s an atmospheric area that feels almost like its own little outpost; it’s a beautiful spot for watching the fireworks or simply hanging out at night.
Star Wars: Galactic Starcruiser Closes – The closure of Starcruiser was no surprise. Even prior to it opening, we had ‘warned’ fans to visit early, as it was clear from the way it was built that Disney had no plans to pivot when creating Star Wars: Galactic Starcruiser. It would either be a spectacular success or colossal failure, with almost no middle ground.
They bet the farm on this immersive ‘choose-your-own-adventure’ experience, hoping that this role-playing, hyper-themed environment, and interactive entertainment endeavor. Disney really thought it would be a success. Failure was not an option…until it was the only option.
What surprised us was that Starcruiser failed so fast. I don’t think anyone saw that coming–that Disney would declare defeat in only about the span of a year. While fans still hold out hope that it’ll be turned into a regular resort, we explain Why Walt Disney World Will NOT Reimagine Starcruiser Into a Star Wars Hotel.
For our part, we don’t think that this Star Wars Story is finished just yet. Although there are some limitations on what can be done due to the tax write-down of $200-$300 million taken on Star Wars: Galactic Starcruiser. Nevertheless, we expect to see some of the technology, ideas and entertainment from Starcruiser find new life–not as a multi-day experience, but more likely as a dinner show or single-day upcharge excursion. But we shall see whether Disney has the appetite to throw good money after bad and take another risk.
Imagineering Not Moving– This one is easy to forget, in no small part because this announcement came on the exact same day as the news that Star Wars: Galactic Starcruiser was closing. Citing the return of CEO Bob Iger and “changing business conditions” for the company, Parks Chair Josh D’Amaro explained in a memo to employees that the company would not move forward with construction of its Lake Nona Creative Campus and would no longer ask more than 2,000 Southern California-based employees to relocate to Central Florida.
Given the timing, most fans and commentators attributed Disney pulling the plug on the Lake Nona Creative Campus to the fued with Florida (see below). The company itself did not, however, which is notable because they were otherwise attempting to win the war of public opinion. It’s likely that standoff with the state didn’t help, but our understanding is that the move had been in jeopardy for a while, and Iger’s return was its death blow.
The Lake Nona Creative Campus is an excellent example of Bob Chapek’s sloppy and unmeasured approach, demonstrating that it’s possible to do the right thing in the wrong way. There are a lot of critics of Bob Iger who view the two as indistinguishable, but there’s a difference both of degree and execution. The devil is in the details, and Iger is usually meticulous and exacting.
To that point, we hope Disney does move forward with a large-scale Central Florida campus for Imagineering. If there truly are plans to invest $17 billion in Walt Disney World and $60 billion in Parks & Resorts as a whole, then Imagineering’s depleted ranks will need to be replenished. With Epic Universe core creative wrapping up, there’s an opportunity to poach talent from Universal. Hire new talent in Florida rather than forcing families to relocate. It’d be a win for morale and Walt Disney World, which is unquestionably the epicenter of the Disney Parks universe.
Disney vs. DeSantis– I don’t know what can be said about this ongoing legal battle between Florida Governor Ron DeSantis plus the Central Florida Tourism Oversight District versus Disney CEO Bob Iger and the Reedy Creek Improvement District that hasn’t already been said. You either care about this and are still following it closely or don’t and have moved on. You’ve also likely formed an opinion on it, and are entrenched in that. Either way, no recap or relitigation of the dispute is necessary.
In my view, it’s time for both to move on and repair their mutually advantageous relationship. While the cases continue to move through courts, that has seemingly started to happen; both Iger and DeSantis have been mostly-silent on the matter and are no longer trying to win in the court of public opinion. Thankfully.
Everyone loses and no one wins–except those who traffic in outrage and controversy–when the state and one of its largest businesses are at odds. With the public portion of this dispute (hopefully) in the rearview mirror, I would bet that Disney’s corporate ranking will actually improve for the first time in several years (see Disney’s Reputation Falls Further in 2023).
Jollywood Nights Christmas Party– Over the summer, Walt Disney World announced that Hollywood Studios would be hosting its first-ever hard ticket holiday party. This was big news–a major new event always is–but what pushed it over the top was the range of reactions from excitement to confusion.
From the get-go, there were major concerns of another DHS disaster event, following in the footsteps of Villains Unleashed. The vision for Jollywood Nights was fantastic, but the lineup was unfocused and lacking in confidence–trying to offer something for everyone rather than its core competencies.
Unsurprisingly, night one did not go well. Capacity was not properly allocated to the things event attendees actually wanted to do and there was, essentially, an operational melt-down. More surprisingly, Walt Disney World recovered for night two and beyond in spectacular fashion, addressing almost every issue in relatively short order.
The party still is not perfect and those initial reviews might’ve doomed its chances of returning for 2024. We sincerely hope that’s not the case. Although our review was fairly scathing, we did praise the “bones” of the event. Jollywood Nights was a good idea, and it could be great counterprogramming to Mickey’s Very Merry Christmas Party if given the chance.
No Dream Lights for Christmas Again – Walt Disney World announced ‘A Frozen Holiday Wish,’ which functioned as indirect confirmation that the Cinderella Castle Dream Lights would once again not return despite complete operational normalcy and no 50th Anniversary (previous excuses for not showing the display).
The new lighting show wasn’t very good. I was actually surprised at just how underwhelming it was, as even the “projections” were fairly flat. (You know those live photos on your phone that show a little bit of movement? That’s the new Frozen icicle projections.) Part of that wasn’t the show’s fault–the old one wasn’t that great, either. It was carried by the wow-moment of the Cinderella Castle Dream Lights being illuminated for the first time each evening. The characters were just the icing on the cake. This year, there was no cake–it was all icing.
As for the Cinderella Castle Dream Lights, we’ll never pass up the opportunity to sing their praises. Those icicle lights were one of our favorite things about Christmas at Walt Disney World for the decade-plus prior to them being cancelled in 2020. We spent many a late night on Main Street, simply gazing down at those resplendent lights, savoring the scene. I lost count of how many times we did this over the years–probably over 100.
For those who have never had a chance to see the Cinderella Castle Dream Lights, they are nothing short of spectacular. No projections can match the more than 200,000 tiny white lights that illuminate Cinderella Castle and transform it into a veritable ice palace. On paper or even in photos, it might seem simple and commonplace. In person, the display was anything but that.
The Dream Lights would stop you in your tracks, with the resplendent physical display being an absolute jaw-dropper. Words, photos, and video absolutely cannot do it justice. I’m not normally one for the flowery language in Disney’s press releases, but even the company’s marketing teams undersold the Cinderella Castle Dream Lights. Whatever praise you’ve heard about the Dream Lights, it’s true. All of it. Do the right thing and bring back the Dream Lights in 2024, Disney.
Tropical Americas Announced – In the last year-plus, Disney has tried to make splashy non-announcement announcements for its theme parks. This started at last year’s D23 Expo, while Chapek was still at the helm. The initial reaction to the Animal and Magic Kingdom expansion proposals was excitement. Once the dust settled and fans realized just what had and, more importantly, had not been announced that gave way to skepticism, pessimism, and downright dismissiveness.
If those announcements happened in 2019, they’d be the #1 stories of the year. This year, none even made the list. Set against the backdrop of countless cancelled projects, a lot of the goodwill and patience fans might otherwise have had with these non-announcement announcements was already exhausted. Now, these public blue sky brainstorming sessions just feel like a tedious tease or annoying to many fans.
The only somewhat substantive announcement that did make the cut is official confirmation of the Tropical Americas at Animal Kingdom. Even with that, the news could’ve been much bigger–perhaps Disney should’ve waited until they were ready to really-for-real announce Indiana Jones Adventure and whatever the Encanto thing is gonna be. But maybe that’s the big news for the 2024 D23 Expo.
Disney Dining Plan Returning – After a few years of being “temporarily unavailable,” the Quick-Service Disney Dining Plan (QSDDP) and standard or regular Disney Dining Plan (DDP) are now bookable for arrivals starting January 9, 2024.
Although we’re hardly Disney Dining Plan diehards, we’re glad to see it coming back. We heard from many readers who have been anxiously awaiting its return–some of whom were even postponing trips until the DDP was available. Our major hope is that this leads to even more normalcy on the food front, as it’s one of the few areas at Walt Disney World that is still far from firing on all cylinders as compared to pre-closure.
Although it’s very much a love-it-or-hate-it thing, the Disney Dining Plan is neither inherently good nor bad. It can be a great tool or a terrible waste of money depending upon how it’s used. For some people, the Disney Dining Plan is great. For others, it’s awful. Like so many things at Walt Disney World and in life, it’s not one-size-fits-all.
Lightning Lane Advance Booking– With the release of vacation packages for the new year, Walt Disney World announced several changes on the horizon that would take effect January 9, 2024. Each of those comes close to making this list, but far and away the biggest and most popular change is advance booking of Lightning Lanes is coming to Walt Disney World in 2024 in response to guest feedback.
From what we’ve heard, Walt Disney World made the decision to offer advance booking of Lightning Lanes before figuring out the logistics, and there’s no reason to believe it’ll be ready in less than a month at this point. Given how little is still known, it wouldn’t be surprising if the new system doesn’t launch until Spring 2024. Our guess is that the goal is to have this ready for Spring Break, which would mean a launch of early March 2024.
Pretty much everything else is also unknown about advance booking of Lightning Lanes, including how many days prior to arrival guests will be able to make ride reservations. Our expectation is that it’ll be a much shorter timeframe than the old FastPass+ system, but far enough in advance that people with weeklong trips can book Lightning Lanes for the duration of their trips ahead of traveling. It’s also unknown what the reservation limits will be, but our guess is 3 to start, and likely with a tier system for some of the parks. In all likelihood, this is going to look a lot like FastPass+ but paid.
We’ve pointed out repeatedly that every line-skipping system has winners and losers. That diehard fans favor FastPass+ not just because it was free, but because they were the big winner. First-timers and low-knowledge visitors–demographics underrepresented on fan sites for obvious reasons–frequently found little to no last-minute FastPass availability for “good” rides and complained as a result.
All of that is still true. Consequently, we really hope that Walt Disney World finds a way to thread the needle and balance the competing interests and preferences of planners and less knowledgeable guests. But we also have to recognize that Genie+ has added ridiculous amounts of friction and uncertainty to the guest experience, and that’s even after it has made tremendous strides and improvements in the last year-plus.
Walt Disney World is absolutely making the right call by changing the Lightning Lane system. And, from what we’ve heard, the new service will have much better balance. They are also, thankfully, taking the time to get it right rather than rushing for a January 9 launch of a glitchy and half-baked product. (It should go without saying, but it’ll still cost money.)
Beyond just this, I’m generally optimistic for 2024 at Walt Disney World. The post-reopening period was rough for the parks, with a lot of negative changes. I think 95% or more of Walt Disney World fans would agree with this assessment. There’s not really any denying that without putting your head in the sand or mindlessly cheerleading everything Disney does.
However, and this is where I’m probably going to lose a lot of you, I’d argue that the corner has already been turned. The most obvious date to pinpoint for that would be November 20, 2022. That’s the date Iger ousted Chapek, and is when Cast Member morale immediately began improving. It certainly hasn’t all been smooth sailing since then, but 2023 has been–on balance–more positive than negative.
That’s despite this year, by Iger’s own admission, being a time of transition and fixing things that were broken. With a lot of these growing pains in the rearview mirror, things can improve even more in 2024. We’ve already started to see this with fixes to the guest experience, as pent-up demand exhausted itself and Walt Disney World realized it had to be more responsive to fans. There were a number of positive changes made, but they were too small and took too long. That’s precisely the argument we made in our recent article, Walt Disney World Could Fix the Guest Experience by Improving These Things.
I’m optimistic that a lot of that actually will happen in 2024 at Walt Disney World. As everything starts to settle down, more operational normalcy will continue to resume, and pent-up demand burning out to an even greater degree will force more positive changes. Perhaps I’m foolish and 2024 will be a step backwards, but I’m pretty confident that when doing this recap a year from today, the top news stories will be even more upbeat and positive. I guess we shall see!
If you were making a list of the biggest news of 2023 at Walt Disney World, which stories would top it? Think it’s been a mostly good or bad year? Where do the various changes/additions rank for you? Do you agree or disagree with our assessments? Think there’s any stories we snubbed? Any questions we can help you answer? Hearing your feedback–even when you disagree with us–is both interesting to us and helpful to other readers, so please share your thoughts below in the comments!