The State of Walt Disney World: Stardate 2015 – Part 1

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Since I’m not going to do a proper trip report for my recent trip to Walt Disney World, I thought I’d do this post covering some of my notable observations about the parks and their futures. I’ll start with my observations and speculation as to the various parks, with Animal Kingdom, the Studios, and Epcot covered in Part 1. Later this week, Part 2 will cover Magic Kingdom, Disney Springs, and my take on the overall state of Walt Disney World and the Resort’s future.

Other material that would typically be found in a trip report will be spread out over several other, topic-specific posts in the next few weeks (my Uber v. Rental Car at Walt Disney World experiment post and Getting Groceries at Walt Disney World are good examples of content that would’ve been randomly thrown into a trip report previously), including an upcoming series of posts that specifically cover my stay at the Bora Bora Bungalows in Disney’s Polynesian Resort. In other words, don’t fret too much if you’re disappointed about the lack of a trip report, as most of the stories you’d hear in one will be shared. The only difference here is that it won’t be presented in timeline form.

With that, let’s start by taking a tour of the parks and looking at the good, bad, and ugly of Walt Disney World: STARDATE SUMMER 2015…

Disney’s Animal Kingdom

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It’s Christmas 2017. The World of Pandora (AVATAR Land) has recently opened. Rivers of Light and other nighttime entertainment is still going strong, having debuted a year earlier. The park is regularly open until 10 p.m. or later, with E-Tickets still having long lines well into the evening as crowds pack the park. Disney’s Animal Kingdom has become the best park at Walt Disney World.

DON’T LAUGH. Although this might all sound far-fetched, this is not one of my normal, poor attempts at sarcasm. The more I hear about and see developments at Animal Kingdom, the more bullish I become about its future. Even before anything new opens, Animal Kingdom is the most thematically cohesive of any of the parks at Walt Disney World, and it’s also the one that is the best maintained (the combination of its age plus the intentional distress of so many areas doesn’t hurt). Until now, its problems have been two-fold, one feeding into the other: a lack of traditional theme park attractions and entertainment, and limited operating hours.

Although the World of Pandora won’t bring a ton of new attractions to the table, the new attractions it does bring will better balance the park as a whole, and this better balance means ‘animal fatigue’ won’t set in so soon, which is one of the typical reasons people (incorrectly) deride Animal Kingdom as a half-day park.

Likewise, the new environments and nighttime entertainment will make it a place guests want to visit into the evening, giving the park an entirely new dimension. I’m excited for the World of Pandora, source material be damned. I’ve hammered on this point repeatedly, so in the interest of brevity, I won’t reiterate in detail, but I do not believe the popularity of Avatar matters to the success of its land.

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I spent a lot of time at Animal Kingdom this trip. Despite the myriad construction walls, I really enjoyed myself there, and found myself constantly excited for the present and the future. For starters, the new Harambe Village area looks excellent. Festival of the Lion King now feels like it has a permanent home in a place where it actually belongs, and the level of detail all throughout Harambe Village is on par with the original areas of the park (excluding Dinorama, which I’m pretty sure Michael Eisner built by himself over the course of 5 hours during the middle of the night, while heavily intoxicated). Harambe Village feels like it has been there all along, which is a good thing given the coherence and quality of that original area.

Equally as important, this space and the new dining options at Harambe Market open up the park more and create additional space that will prove a relief from the crowds that will invariably come en masse once the World of Pandora opens. I think we will continue to see Disney retool other dining options (see Flame Tree BBQ) and other parts of the park to handle the increased crowds that they are (probably) projecting.

One thing I would like to suggest to the many real Imagineers who I would like to think read this blog (but probably don’t): bring back the Discovery River boat ride. I know no one exactly misses it, so I’m not suggesting it be brought back to appeal to nostalgia. Rather, once the area the boat circled has more to see, I think it will do better with guests, and a leisurely boat ride is always a good thing. Oh, and while I have your attention, please burn down Dinorama and give us an area truly worthy of the dinosaur heritage. I am happy to consult as a “dinosaur enthusiast with good taste” for a small fee (and by fee, I mean having a dinosaur named after me in the “Mesozoic Cruise” boat ride that obviously should be built).

Disney’s Hollywood Studios

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Disney’s Hollywood Studios is an embarrassing mess. I don’t think that’s an exaggeration. On the upside, it’s now a hat-less mess, which is a great sight that literally gave me chills, but it’s a mess nonetheless.

What is most troubling to me about Disney’s Hollywood Studios is that as attractions are shuttered in a park with an already-limited attraction slate, there is no news of the expansion project that is (hopefully?) inevitable. Given Disney’s typical pace of project progression from building, that means we are roughly 4-5 years away from stepping foot in whatever is announced from the date of the announcement. That means Star Wars Land (or whatever) is a “Coming Christmas 2019” project at the earliest. (I’m hoping there’s a stop-gap that can be constructed quickly while we all wait on what should be an awesome Star Wars Land.)

This also means that the “once in a lifetime” visitors of today will continue to pay for the park’s future growth as they are charged full price for a park with attractions that have been closed for cost-savings purposes without any work being done on the plots of land said attractions occupy.

I know I’ve expressed my disappointment about this before, but it’s a really, really big deal. I’d hazard a guess that this is the result of someone with a spreadsheet looking at the expenses that will be incurred by construction at Disney’s Hollywood Studios and decided to offset those costs by closing attractions. The problem with this is that it doesn’t account for the real-world impact on guests. (Whomever at Disney made this decision should really heed the wisdom of this clip…especially now that Randy Quaid is a free man!)

Disney’s coveted “once in a lifetime” demographic–or really anyone paying full price to Disney’s Hollywood Studios today–is essentially paying admission for attractions they won’t experience. That’s not right.

In general, the state of Disney’s Hollywood Studios right now is just sad. With the exception of a few bright spots, there isn’t much to do, and there also isn’t any sense of optimism, outside of the newly-restored view down Hollywood Boulevard. For me, optimism about the future here would be as simple as seeing some construction walls go up. Even better would be a “Preview Center” akin to Blue Sky Cellar that showed off Cars Land and Buena Vista Street during the overhaul of Disney California Adventure. Such a Blue Sky Cellar would fit perfectly at the end of the One Man’s Dream walk-through, and would make the whole situation more palatable.

Epcot

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Epcot, oh Epcot. I think I develop a mild case of Stockholm Syndrome when I visit Epcot. I still love large portions of the park and can understand why substantial change has occurred, but it still pains me to see such a brilliant concept for a theme park continually bastardized.

On this trip, Epcot was looking better than I have seen in a while. Part of this was due to Flower & Garden Festival, a time during which Epcot always seems to receive extra attention from the various beautification teams at Walt Disney World. However, it seemed like everything from horticulture to maintenance was on the upswing at Epcot. The park looked absolutely resplendent, and I thoroughly enjoyed simply doing laps around World Showcase and Future World taking in the sights, scents, and sounds.

There were a few new topiaries this year, but most were the same topiaries reused from previous years with new props. The Fab Five have been recycled again and again with the same poses–it’s time for something new. I can’t imagine it’s that costly to make a new wire frame (or whatever horticulture uses) to create new topiary poses.

The most notable new topiaries were the Anna and Elsa ones. This is nitpicking, but I am not a fan of the current trend in topiaries to include a ton of detail, such as defined eyes and faces. These ‘Frozen’ topiaries are the most glaring examples of this, but it has happened in the last few years elsewhere (Snow White, for instance). It leaves nothing to the imagination, and lacks the charm of the simpler topiaries. I realize this is totally in the realm of “personal preference” and is a totally minor thing, but I still wanted to put it out there.

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I would like to think the future is bright for Epcot, but I really don’t think much will happen once the whole ‘Maelstrom into Frozen’ project is done. I’m still holding out hope that conversion will be respectfully done and focus heavily on true Norwegian culture and locales and simply be hosted by the characters, but I’m not overly optimistic.

One character infusion I could get behind is Inside Out giving new life to the Wonders of Life pavilion. I had the chance to attend a screening of Pixar’s Inside Out, and it is absolutely fantastic. One of Pixar’s best, and a truly ambitious film that is basically the cinematic adaptation of Wonders of Life. Buzzy could have been a character in the film.

While the EPCOT Center fan in me doesn’t want to see further ‘toonification or IP tie-ins, the pragmatist in me realizes that it’s not a matter of this or restoring Wonders of Life to an original, unique concept. It’s this or nothing. I think the best case scenario of ‘things that could actually happen in the real world’ involves reclaiming the pavilion from special events as an attraction with the Inside Out characters. With the real world as a backdrop, I think Inside Out is a perfect fit that would improve Future World and strengthen its message.

I’d also love to see Journey into Imagination finally have its oft-postponed redo, but that also seems unlikely in the near-term. With as many projects as are on the table for Walt Disney World, I think Epcot will be neglected in terms of significant capital investments, but I’d love to be wrong.

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Okay, that does it for today. In State of Walt Disney World – Part 2, I cover the Magic Kingdom’s Tomorrowland problem, why I’m actually excited about Disney Springs (yes, you read that right), and my overall take on the state of Walt Disney World now and in the future. Until then, live long and prosper. (Given the ‘Stardate’ title, I figured I needed at least one Star Trek reference…)

Planning a Walt Disney World trip? If you’re interested in learning more about hotels, our Walt Disney World Hotels Reviews page is a good place to start. For where to eat, try out our Walt Disney World Restaurant Reviews page. If you want to save money on tickets or determine which type you should get, read our Tips for Saving Money on Walt Disney World Tickets post. Our What to Pack for Disney Trips post takes a unique look at unconventional things you should take on your trip. Once you arrive at the parks, our Walt Disney World “Ride Guides” are great for determining what to do and when to do it. For overviews of all of these topics and so much more, the best place to start is our comprehensive Walt Disney World Trip Planning Guide to make the most of your experience!

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Your Thoughts…

If you’ve been to Walt Disney World recently, what do you think about its current state and its future? Are you optimistic about things? Pessimistic? What excites you the most about the future of the parks? What disappoints you? I’d love to hear your takes on the present and future of WDW, so if you have any thoughts, post them in the comments!


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