Walt Disney World has pulled back the curtain a bit more on its ‘Beyond Big Thunder’ plans for Magic Kingdom expansion outside the existing footprint of the park. This post discusses possibilities for Coco, Encanto, and Villains lands in the longer-term.
This news was shared during the “A Celebration of Disney Parks, Experiences and Products: Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow” presentation at Destination D23 on September 8, 2023. Disney Parks, Experiences and Products Chairman Josh D’Amaro offered a sneak peek at concept art for the future in addition and teased what was to come in a few years.
This was one of many announcements and reveals at the 2023 Destination D23. Others include a reimagining of Test Track at EPCOT, Pirates of the Caribbean tavern in Magic Kingdom, new scene with Ahsoka in Star Tours, a first look at the Audio Animatronics in Tiana’s Bayou Adventure, and much more. And that’s just what has been shared so far for Walt Disney World! We’ll have a recap of every announcement very soon.
Josh D’Amaro was joined on stage by Bruce Vaughn, who recently returned to lead Walt Disney Imagineering. Vaughn first expressed surprise that D’Amaro would pull back the curtain on the creative process, as normally WDI doesn’t like to do that. Vaughn further indicated that he’s been blown away by the concepts being explored for Magic Kingdom.
He said the project scope and scale are on par with Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge or Pandora – World of Avatar. Vaughn also indicated that the project would likely exceed New Fantasyland over a decade ago. Nothing else was shared–no new substantive details, just a reiteration of intent to expand Magic Kingdom Beyond Big Thunder.
None of this is really a huge surprise. Josh D’Amaro first got up on stage to talk about this about a year ago at the D23 Expo, when he was joined by Imagineer Chris Beatty and Jennifer Lee, the Chief Creative Officer of Walt Disney Animation Studios. They didn’t provide any substantive details or even an official announcement, instead being careful to use language crouching the presentation, indicating that this is an “early concept exploration” and one of the “potential expansion opportunities” (but also more concrete than a blue sky brainstorming session).
Earlier this year, both CEO Bob Iger and D’Amaro have done interviews or presentations and repeatedly doubled-down on their intentions to expand Walt Disney World. During a JPMorgan conference, D’Amaro was directly asked about expansion plans for Magic Kingdom and how Walt Disney World could grow capacity. He said that management and Imagineers are already at work on improving the guest experience at Walt Disney World and adding capacity in several ways. (The location–a JPMorgan conference–is significant for reasons we’ll discuss in a bit.)
In addition to that, earnings calls and shareholder meetings have included teases of Bob Iger’s plan to invest $17 billion in Walt Disney World. Again, no specifics in any of this, but both have mentioned “ambitious plans that to continue to grow these theme parks” and have expressed excitement for Walt Disney World’s future.
As has been discussed elsewhere, the initial excitement for the tease of Coco, Encanto & Villains lands quickly soured–positive sentiment gave way to cynicism about these possible plans. That’s totally fair, especially in light of Disney’s not-so-stellar track record in building things that were announced at past D23 Expos.
However, we think this time is different. (Famous last words.) As we’ve discussed previously on multiple occasions, Walt Disney World continues to outperform, and investors have been taking notice of its success for the past year-plus. This coupled with Wall Street souring on streaming (at least a bit) means investors once again want Disney to finally start to bet bigger on its theme park business.
That part is the key–Wall Street wants the company to spend money building expansions at Walt Disney World, rather than continuing to simply milk the cash cow. This is one of those rare occasions where the stars align and what’s good for investors is good for guests. Expanding Magic Kingdom improves capacity, gives the park more drawing power, and is just plain fun for fans. (All lessons learned back in 2009, proving yet again that history repeats itself!)
This is actually a big part of why that seemingly-random blue sky discussion occurred on stage at the last D23 Expo. Like a child with a short attention span, Wall Street had just started to lose interest in streaming prior to that, and begun asking more questions about the future of Disney’s theme parks. With nothing greenlit or funded, talking about “possibilities” was the best Disney could do.
Those are air quotes because they weren’t simply possibilities then, and that’s still true today. Barring unforeseen circumstances, Magic Kingdom expansion will happen this decade, and it’ll be beyond the berm in the area ‘behind’ Big Thunder Mountain Railroad. It’s the specifics that are iffy, meaning what intellectual properties the area will feature, as well as the unifying theme or motifs of the land or mini-lands.
Within the next decade, we fully expect to be able to walk from Big Thunder Mountain Railroad to Haunted Mansion without passing Tiana’s Bayou Adventure. From our perspective, that beyond the berm expansion is less a matter of “if” and more “when” and “what.” Our expectation is that it actually will be some combination of Coco, Encanto, and Villains (but not “Cocoland” or “Encanto Land”). The better question is when and, frankly, that’ll probably be closer to 2033 than 2023.
Given how far into the future that is and how much things can change, and how long this post already is…perhaps it’s better if we save the ‘Beyond Big Thunder’ discussion for another day. Maybe the same could’ve been said to Josh D’Amaro, and that it’s premature for him to tease it at Destination D23 given how much can and will change, and Walt Disney World’s recent track record even with official announcements.
To each their own on that. Personally, I’d rather hear that the company does have plans for Walt Disney World and doesn’t just intend upon letting the parks stagnate. Even if the specifics aren’t worked out, plans haven’t been greenlit, or funding isn’t there–I still appreciate knowing that something is planned and coming.
Even with the constant refrain about $17 billion worth of investment at Walt Disney World, it’s still tenuous at this point. There’s a lot to sort out in the meantime before that spending starts–from the future of streaming, potential ESPN and Hulu deals, 20th Century Fox acquisition debt, and the current standoff with the state. But those are short-term speedbumps and Magic Kingdom expansion is a long-term solution to an ongoing issue. It will happen.
If all goes well, the decade to come at Walt Disney World could be bigger than the prior one. The current plan to invest $17 billion amounts to more than was spent on New Fantasyland, Pandora, Toy Story Land, Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge, the EPCOT overhaul, new resorts, and a significant amount of infrastructure. (As previously discussed, a lot of money was wasted on things that didn’t come to fruition or were short lived.) If even more money is invested without the misallocations of resources, it could be a blockbuster decade for Walt Disney World. It’s just going to be at least a few years of waiting while the near-term speedbumps are addressed and construction commences.
What is your reaction to Bruce Vaughn and Josh D’Amaro discussing park expansion in the existing footprint of the park and beyond the berm at Magic Kingdom at the 2023 Destination D23? Think this can be reconciled with the near-term cost-cutting, or would you rather not build anticipation for something several years out, or that may never come to fruition? What potential plans have you most and least excited? Anything you’re hoping does not end up coming to fruition? Do you agree or disagree with our assessments? 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!