Construction Impact at Disney World?

There were a ton of attraction announcements at the recent D23 Expo that will impact visits to Walt Disney World. In this post, we’ll share the expected implications these projects will have on future WDW vacations between now and 2021, which is the year when the last of the work will be completed.

That’s right: 2021. What was presented was, essentially, a 5-year plan for Walt Disney World. I point this out to underscore a couple of things: first, it’s not like Walt Disney World is going to become a sea of construction walls come mid-August as all of these projects start at exactly the same time. These projects (along with a handful of unannounced ones) are going to be spread out.

Second, when this many projects are announced over this long of a timeline, there should be a bit of restraint in your excitement. Not only will it take a while to see this all take shape, but not all of it might take shape. Longtime fans are probably familiar with Eisner’s infamous “Disney Decade” and just how much of that never came to fruition…

Even under Iger, Disney has not been shy about killing or “changing the direction of” projects. Remember Hyperion Wharf? The Pixie Hollow phase of New Fantasyland? Other projects have been announced or hinted at, and happened. (One maximum of Disney rumors should be: Phase II never happens.)

I’d like to think that things are different this time. The Disney Decade was more ambitious than even this, and Eisner got overzealous with an (at the time) much smaller Disney Company. This time, it seems like the stars are aligned: Wall Street wants to see investment in the parks, especially with other profit centers misfiring. Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge is poised to draw a boatload (or several million boatloads) of guests to Florida, all of whom will need ‘other stuff’ to do. Disneyland just demonstrated what celebrations can do for attendance, and Walt Disney World’s 50th Anniversary is around the corner. Etcetera.

Of course, I’m sure the workers building show buildings in EPCOT Center during the 1980s didn’t think those would still be sitting empty today, either. Things change. Several of the announcements made for Walt Disney World this go-round are vague and remote, and it’d be quite easy to quietly drop a few of them if earlier projects go over budget, the economy sours, or there’s a change in leadership at Disney before the projects get too far along. Other variables could also come into play, but I think those three things are more likely than not to actually occur.

The last one of those is an inevitability. Bob Iger planned on stepping down as CEO in 2018, but had his contract extended through July 2019 due to difficulties with Disney’s succession plans. Given his rumored political aspirations and a potential 2020 run for office, another extension seems unlikely. That means whatever is not already being constructed in 2019 is vulnerable as a new CEO quickly tries to make his or her mark.

I know–suddenly this sounds like the Wet Blanket Society News, rather than an exuberant blog post about what is an otherwise bright future for Walt Disney World. And, to be sure, I think the future is bright for the Florida parks. I think there are plenty of additional announcements to come, and that we are going to see more construction than what’s listed here. I’d just caution against getting too excited for any specific project that has yet to break ground. An announcement is not quite that conclusive.

Anyway, here’s my take on how construction of the in-park projects announced at the D23 Expo will impact Walt Disney World guests…

Epcot Re-Imaginging – In addition to specific attractions being added to Epcot, concept art was shown indicating a redesign that’s been dubbed the “Epcot Central Spine Redesign.” This looks like a beautiful, green space reminiscent to the Gardens of Imagination at Shanghai Disneyland.

While this project may seem low-priority since it’s not exactly sexy and wasn’t even formally announced, my suspicion is that it’s actually high-priority. It’s this kind of high-level refresh at the front of the park that acts as a signifier to guests that this is a new park. Epcot 2.0 (or perhaps 3.0 if you count the mid-90s incarnations).

In this regard, it’s very similar to what Buena Vista Street did for Disney California Adventure. Even though there was no E-Ticket addition, it made an excellent first impression, and showcased a “new” park.

It’s also similar to Buena Vista Street in terms of what it will mean for operations. With Buena Vista Street’s construction, there was actually a stretch of time where guests entering the park were routed backstage, behind Soarin. The Central Spine is not quite that close to the very front of the park, and could conceivably be built in two stages.

Still, it presents a massive impediment to guest flow. Just as constructing Buena Vista Street after Cars Land opened would’ve been disastrous from an operational perspective, so too would working on this after the Guardians of the Galaxy or Ratatouille attractions open.

Moreover, even though this is not a “sexy” project that will compel guests to book a trip, it likely does have implications for revenue. All of that green, shaded space? How perfect is that for Epcot’s nearly-perpetual festival seasons? In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if that’s the real motivation behind this project in the first place.

How outlandish does this scenario sound: surveys showed that guests would’ve spent more time and money at Food & Wine Festival if conditions were better. Solution: consolidate most booths at the front of the park where there’s more foot traffic, increase the amount of shade, add some pleasant park-like atmosphere and, boom, 200% increase in festival revenue. (That’s purely hypothetical, but I think it passes the smell test.)

With all of that said, my expectation would be that construction on this begins in late 2018 or early 2019. With Universe of Energy closing in August and permits already filed for Ratatouille, construction on both of those is likely by early 2018.

The last time the Ratatouille dark ride was built (at the Walt Disney Studios Park in Paris), it took a little over two years. I’d expect roughly 2-3 years for each of those attractions, putting their openings sometime in 2020.

A re-imagined park entrance will take considerably less time to complete, but nothing says it can’t open earlier than those attractions. Having it ready to go for Food & Wine 2019 may be desirable, but my guess would be that sometime in 2020 is more realistic in order to have a simultaneous, full-scale relaunch of Epcot.

As for the impact on guests, it’ll be significant in terms of flow and general aesthetics. However, this impacts exactly 0 attractions, unless you count meet & greets and Club Cool (AND I DO!). If anything, all of this construction will discourage some guests from visiting Epcot (or postponing visits), so it could be a net-positive on crowds.

The good news is that almost everything else happening throughout Epcot should be far less noticeable…

Space Restaurant – Construction of the unnamed restaurant (Eating: Space? Too bad Auntie Gravity’s is taken!) being developed by Patina Group for Future World will not impact guests. The Space Restaurant will be to Mission: Space as Coral Reef is to the Living Seas pavilion.

Attached, but off around the corner with a separate entrance. It’s likely the only way guests will even know this is being built is if they happen to see it while whizzing by on the last straight-away on Test Track.

The “when” of this project is unknown; construction has yet to begin. I would speculate that this is being built for future–not current–demand at Epcot, somewhat akin to Tiffins at Animal Kingdom. Arguably, Tiffins opened a year too early. Will the same occur with the Space Restaurant, or will it be timed to open along with Guardians of the Universe of Energy?

Reflections of China – While I’m sure someone, somewhere will cry ‘vacation ruined!’ because they miss Reflections of China during its brief refurbishment to upgrade technology and refresh the CircleVision theater, most guests probably won’t notice. This should be akin to the changes made to Soarin’ prior to it receiving the new film. Aside from a small sign out front of the building while the tech upgrades are made, guests shouldn’t even notice this.

The timeline for this is also curious. Use of tenses during the D23 Expo presentation suggests the technology is still in development, and filming has yet to begin. If that’s the case, the new film is still at least 18 months away–probably more like 2-3 years away. (Is it safe to say that all of this Epcot stuff will just debut in 2020?!)

Ratatouille: Kitchen Calamity – The new Ratatouille dark ride being added to France should have minimal impact on World Showcase. The diagram we made for our Ratatouille Dark Ride Coming to Epcot post back when permits leaked shows exactly where this will go, and most of the work will occur backstage, behind the existing France pavilion. During a later phase of construction, we’d expect a wall to go up on the promenade between France and Morocco and landscaping is done there. The bulk of construction should not be noticeable to guests.

Likewise, once the Brazil pavilion is announced, its construction should have a minimal impact (save for the large wall between Germany and Italy).

Guardians of the Universe of Energy – Not the attraction’s actual name…but it should be. This is yet another low-impact project. With the existing building facade being preserved, This should be a matter of construction walls blocking the paths leading to the pavilion. Well, there’s one other minor major detail…

The big question is whether the Joffrey’s Coffee on one of those paths will become victim to the construction, or if it’ll be relocated. Construction will likely be more noticeable from Avenue of the Stars than from within the park. On Page 2, we’ll cover what to expect from construction projects in Disney’s Hollywood Studios and Magic Kingdom…including the Joffrey’s Carts in those parks! 😉

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