It’s already been a very busy Walt Disney World news week, and we’re thus back with another roundup of the top stories. In this WDW update, we share another example of early off-season crowds, Beacons of Magic being installed on Spaceship Earth, NBA Experience’s demise, Cirque’s comeback, big ‘Ohana improvements, and more.
At the beginning of that crowd report, we “joked” that it was necessary to share wait time data. Otherwise, we’d get the inevitable “I go every year and last week was the busiest it’s ever been!” comments. Of course, there was a chorus of those anyway, albeit mostly on Facebook, where the official mantra might as well be ‘comment without reading.’ Anyway, if what’s happening with Star Wars: Rise of the Resistance at Disney’s Hollywood Studios doesn’t convince fans that Walt Disney World attendance is down, literally nothing will.
The weekend started out normally enough, with Star Wars: Rise of the Resistance boarding groups being gone in an instant each morning at 7 am. However, the 1 pm drop on both days was different. There was still availability at 1:01 pm, which may not sound like much, but it’s something we haven’t seen since January or February.
Things got really weird on Sunday. The virtual queue for Star Wars: Rise of the Resistance remained open until 7 pm. And it didn’t end then because the ride ran out of boarding groups–the attraction began accepting guests on a walk-up basis, using the standby line. For roughly the last hour Disney’s Hollywood Studios was open, Star Wars: Rise of the Resistance had no wait.
However, we’ve been watching Star Wars: Rise of the Resistance for the last two days, and the 1 pm virtual queue has not filled in seconds either day. Above is a screenshot from today–the virtual queue was open after 2 pm.
In fairness, this is not entirely due to low crowds. Star Wars: Rise of the Resistance has had a great run in terms of efficiency for the last few days. However, that alone does not explain what’s going on here. To the contrary, wait time data from Disney’s Hollywood Studios indicates that this is an across-the-board drop.
Keep in mind, many schools still haven’t gone into session and Walt Disney World hasn’t yet felt the full brunt of the vacation cancellations. As we said in that crowd report, it’s going to be a great month-and-a-half leading up to Walt Disney World’s 50th Anniversary! (After that, all bets are off.)
Speaking of low/no crowds, Walt Disney World announced the permanent closure of the NBA Experience at Disney Springs, prompting a collective shrug from fans. The 44,000 complex was a joint effort between Disney and the NBA, and featured 13 interactive and hands-on activities.
The separately-ticketed NBA Experience technically spent more time (temporarily) closed than open while the venue was operational. It replaced DisneyQuest, which closed 4 years ago. Repurposing and construction on that venue took 2 years, with NBA Experience open from August 2019 until March of last year.
The totality of our NBA Experience coverage was construction updates and a lame running joke where I pretended to forget what was replacing DisneyQuest and feigned surprise that the project hadn’t been cancelled. My commentary repeatedly questioned whether the market for such a huge venue dedicated to a single sport existed among Walt Disney World visitors.
It did not. Even while open, NBA Experience struggled to draw guests and offered aggressive Cast Member deals. Obviously, the closure of Walt Disney World and subsequent slowdown during the phased reopening didn’t help. However, business has been booming at Disney Springs for over a year at this point.
The closure of NBA Experience was inevitable. We didn’t cover the NBA Experience while it was operational because there was zero reader interest. We didn’t receive a single comment asking when we’d review it.
It would be easy to dunk on the NBA Experience closing after less than a year of operations, labeling it an air ball (as Universal did) or Disney misjudging its demographics. On the surface, those assessments are valid. Directly, NBA Experience almost certainly lost tens of millions of dollars.
However, its legacy for the Walt Disney Company and even Walt Disney World as a whole is a bit more complicated, and an open question no one can assess from the outside looking in.
Notably, the opening of NBA Experience was attended by high profile current and tired NBA players, NBA commissioner Adam Silver, and former Disney CEO Bob Iger–the latter did not even attend the opening of Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge at Walt Disney World. To my recollection, the last Florida opening Iger had attended prior to that was Pandora – World of Avatar.
The gala grand opening for NBA Experience–outsized given its significance to Walt Disney World and its revenue generating power–reflected the strategic importance of the NBA to the Walt Disney Company. Iger was present because of that, and his relationship with Adam Silver. Heck, the NBA Experience itself very well could’ve been a vanity project that Disney undertook only because the NBA was so important to the company.
Ultimately, the strength of Disney’s relationship with the NBA was vindicated last summer when the league chose Walt Disney World as the home of its “NBA Bubble” last summer. While many Disney fans grumbled about it at the time, the NBA Bubble was huge for Walt Disney World.
The NBA Bubble filled hotels that otherwise were not being booked, helped keep thousands of Cast Members employed, and–perhaps most importantly of all–was an early, high profile success story that the company still touts as proof of its ability to safely operate Walt Disney World. It would be a stretch to say that the NBA Experience is what paved the way for the NBA Bubble, but it’s safe to say the overall strength of that relationship–of which NBA Experience was one integral piece–absolutely helped. Here’s hoping there will be a documentary someday telling the full story on how the NBA Bubble came to fruition. Whether it’s a direct failure, indirect success, or a little of both, the NBA Experience was never going to last more than a few years.
Sticking with Disney Springs, we now have an official opening date for the next Cirque du Soleil production at Walt Disney World. Drawn to Life presented by Cirque du Soleil & Disney is scheduled to open on November 18, 2021.
Tickets will go on sale to the general public on August 20, 2021. Annual Passholders may purchase pre-sale tickets now.
Cirque du Soleil’s “Drawn to Life” is the successor to “La Nouba,” which ran for almost two decades in the iconic white circus tent on the Westside of Disney Springs before closing over 3 years ago. Originally, “Drawn to Life” was slated to debut last spring, shortly after the closure of Walt Disney World.
If you’re on the fence, we’d recommend waiting to purchase tickets. It’s worth reiterating that Cirque du Soleil did a very poor job of handling refunds last year. The debut of “Drawn to Life” was cancelled at the absolute last minute, long after Walt Disney World announced the closure of the parks and travel came to a screeching halt. Cirque du Soleil denied refunds on “Drawn to Life” tickets well beyond the point it was patently obvious to literally everyone that the show wasn’t happening. This was such a problem that some readers were forced to initiate chargebacks with their credit cards.
Next, some news right out of a Disney movie. Good triumphs over evil, like Simba defeating Scar or Prince Hans being foiled by ice (I guess?). ‘Ohana is already modifying its modified menu, bringing back some familiar favorites and exorcising the menu of its most abominable additions.
Here’s a look at the old modified menu:
Previously, the ‘Ohana Dinner Skillet included “Wood-fire Grilled Teriyaki Beef, Island Shrimp Casserole, Roasted Eight-way Chicken with Polynesian-inspired Chimichurri Sauce, Kielbasa Sausage, ‘Ohana Noodles, and Roasted Broccolini.
Gone is the island shrimp casserole, which we described as a new “Beverly Challenge.” Also leaving the menu is the roasted chicken, which we said tasted like it had been slow-cooked under a heat lamp. Ditto the sausage, which we described as “fine.” The scones and biscuits–which we did like–are also leaving.
Now, the ‘Ohana Dinner Skillet features “Wood-fire Grilled Teriyaki Beef, Spicy Peel-n-Eat Shrimp, Grilled Chicken with Polynesian-inspired Chimichurri Sauce, ‘Ohana Noodles, Roasted Broccolini”
Additionally, Signature ‘Ohana Bread with Honey Butter will be served in place of the scones and biscuits. Without tasting any of this, I can say definitively and without hesitation that this will be a significant upgrade to ‘Ohana. Just getting rid of that abysmal shrimp casserole is addition by subtraction. Everything else sounds like a net positive.
While it’s not the old ‘Ohana menu, it’s pretty close. These changes are enough to convince us to revisit ‘Ohana, although we’ll probably wait until Disney Enchantment starts. We’ve been eating out a lot (and are several reviews behin!) with more meals to come in the next few weeks. For further thoughts, read our Family-Style Dinner Review: ‘Ohana Means ???
This is one of the several Walt Disney World dining improvements we hinted at in yesterday’s Boma Buffet Reopening Announcement (speaking of which, that article was updated at 6 pm yesterday with confirmation of the buffet’s return, and menu details). Hopefully, the other announcements are still on the way.
Finally, Walt Disney Imagineering has shared an update on the Beacons of Magic being installed on Spaceship Earth. As a reminder, this is part of Walt Disney World’s 50th Anniversary, and will occur during the 18-month celebration on the icons in all four parks.
At Epcot, this is permanent new lighting on Spaceship Earth that will continue beyond “The World’s Most Magical Celebration” as a defining feature of the reimagined EPCOT.
Per Imagineering, the new lighting system for Spaceship Earth is a programmable LED lighting system invented by Imagineers. Above is a look behind the scenes of the project, led by Imagineers Jason Read and Galen Lande.
Installation of the system on Spaceship Earth is nearly complete, and testing is underway. Jason, Galen, and their team are leveraging a “pre-cueing” system to pre-visualize and program this new system virtually. This allows them to test different ideas before locking in on the best look. Looks pretty promising from these photos!
That’s a wrap on this Walt Disney World news roundup. However, you might want to keep an eye peeled tomorrow. The very busy Walt Disney World news week should continue, so stay tuned!
Are you excited, cautiously optimistic, or pessimistic about Star Wars: Rise of the Resistance boarding passes being easier to score in the next 45 days? Thoughts on the Beacons of Magic on Spaceship Earth? Please to see ‘Ohana’s menu improve? What about the end of NBA Experience or new beginnings for Cirque du Soleil at Disney Springs? 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!