Play Pavilion Plans Paused at EPCOT

Walt Disney World has announced the ‘Play Pavilion’ will replace Wonders of Life at EPCOT. This post shares basic info, concept art, construction progress (or lack thereof), and commentary about this news related to the overhaul of the former Future World. (Updated January 15, 2023.)

This new pavilion will replace the defunct Wonders of Life, and will offer first-of-their-kind experiences devoted to playful fun. For the last several years, Wonders of Life has served as the Food & Wine ‘Festival Center’ and most recently has been the subject of rumors about a year ago, ranging from a Marvel addition to Inside Out). Now we have an answer to what’s happening with it.

The space will be transformed into an innovative, interactive city with games, hands-on activities, and Disney character meet & greets in an energetic metropolis. This ‘Play Pavilion’ (which is what we’re calling it and is not the pavilion’s final name) will debut during Walt Disney World’s 50th Anniversary.

January 15, 2023 Update: Journalist and insider Scott Gustin is reporting that Walt Disney World is “re-evaluating the original concept that was planned” for the Play Pavilion at EPCOT. This means that was was previously announced several years ago will almost certainly not come to fruition.

This is relatively unsurprising. The Play Pavilion has been paused since the parks closed, which was almost 3 years ago. Walt Disney World has not shared a substantive update since then, and recently removed the Play Pavilion from the ‘coming soon’ section of park maps and official website. Given all of this, there’s no reason to believe the original concept for the Play Pavilion will ever come to fruition.

There’s also the reality that this was to be an interactive experience that leaned heavily into technology and flavor of the month intellectual property, with the whole pavilion loosely inspired by Ralph Breaks the Internet, the 2018 movie that had much more of a contemporary quality than most of Disney’s other animated films.

Much of the Play Pavilion was actually developed around that time, and significant work was done on the exhibits prior to the closure. It actually wasn’t that far from being done and could have opened in 2020 had things not gone sideways. When the parks did reopen, there was understandable trepidation about all things “interactive” (it took another full year before playgrounds started reopening).

At this point, it’s unclear what will happen with the Play Pavilion. A lot of the work that has occurred was to the physical infrastructure of the building itself, repairing the roof and updating the interior. Then there’s the R&D for the interactive elements, some of which presumably could be recycled with different IP or in different places (it’s entirely possible some of what’s in the Disney Wish kids clubs is similar to elements of what was planned for the Play Pavilion).

With Guardians of the Galaxy: Cosmic Rewind reinvigorating this area of EPCOT, it’s likely plans for the Play Pavilion will remain paused forever. The real estate is too valuable and high-traffic, and significant money has already been spent to modernize the facility itself. It’s more likely that Imagineering will revisit the specific plans, and turn the pavilion into something centered around a specific IP or brand–more Marvel, perhaps.

To that point, Disney has continued to play around with the pavilion even after the concept was reportedly shelved. Walt Disney Imagineering filed a permit with Orange County for a “General Contractor package” (that’s the verbatim improvement description), which is likely an umbrella permit for the general contractor to resume work in transforming the former Wonders of Life into the Play Pavilion.

Balfour Beatty is listed as the general contractor, and they have extensive experience with major projects in the Orlando area. Just off the top of my head, they were responsible for the work within Pandora – World of Avatar, Gran Destino Tower, Reflections Lakeside Lodge, plus Cabana Bay & Loews Sapphire Falls Resorts at Universal Orlando and the Dr. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts.

Most notably, the permit lists an expiration date of December 31, 2024. Typically, this is not indicative of a completion or opening date for a project or attraction, but it does indicate the latest date when all construction is expected to be finished. Due to the closure, we’ve seen some permits need to be re-filed due to prematurely expiring, but that’s not the norm.

Typically, there’s a buffer between the expiration date of a permit and the intended opening date. Meaning that Walt Disney World almost certainly intends up opening something in the space that was intended to be the Play Pavilion before late 2024.

Other than Tiana’s Bayou Adventure replacing Splash Mountain, there are not major projects on the horizon for Walt Disney World in 2024 or 2025. This means that smaller-scale offerings, like the Play Pavilion, will be necessary as marketable new additions. (We’ll continue calling it the Play Pavilion here, even though whatever happens in this space almost certainly will end up having a different name.)

The only other potential additions on the horizon are “potential expansion” opportunities and “early concept exploration” for Dinoland USA at Animal Kingdom. One of those is a Moana Mini-Land at Animal Kingdom that would replace Dino-Rama; the other is a Zootopia Expansion for Animal Kingdom that would be built beyond Dino-Rama. The concept art show that both of these proposals are simultaneously viable.

Both of these were first unveiled at the D23 Expo last year, and were rumored to be very close to being greenlit–but that was before Chapek was fired and Bob Iger returned as CEO. Iger may want to go in a different direction. Either way, it’s highly unlikely that either land would open anytime soon–the best case scenario is probably a phased opening in 2026 and 2026.

This leaves a gap in 2024/2025 (depending upon the year that Tiana’s Bayou Adventure actually opens). Whatever ends up being built in the Play Pavilion’s place could almost certainly have a quicker turnaround time.

Our expectation at this point is that the Play Pavilion will not open until Spring 2024 at the absolute earliest. The opening will likely be dictated by the degree to which Imagineering goes back to the drawing board with the Play Pavilion. We literally have no clue whether Play Pavilion is 90% done or 10% done–the percentage likely depends upon what can be recycled for a new concept.

As for what Play Pavilion was/is going to offer, it’s expected that it’ll be the new home to an Animation Academy-like experience where guests will learn how to draw Disney characters. Nick and Judy Hopps from Zootopia will host an interactive game called Hotel Heist. In a recent book, the company also revealed that there will be a monorail game. Interactive, contact-less arcade style games are also likely to appear in the Play Pavilion.

The Play Pavilion is also expected to be the primary home to character meet & greets in Epcot. Those for Wreck-It Ralph and Vanellope, Joy and Sadness, Baymax and other characters will all be permanently relocated from their current locations to the Play Pavilion. Other attractions that called the Wonders of Life home–like Body Wars and Cranium Command–will not return when the Play Pavilion opens.

None of these projects or the Central Spine are anything new, but it’s good to hear an update on them. With so much of the Epcot re-imagining in flux, there’s always the possibility of previously-announced projects getting cut. Anyway, on with the commentary from the original announcement of the Play Pavilion…

Our Commentary

The concept of the Play Pavilion is not a slam dunk, but I’m cautiously optimistic about this. For starters, it’s the less obvious concept but one that could have the larger overall impact for Epcot.

Wonders of Life becoming the Play Pavilion means that it won’t instead become anything related to Marvel, as previously rumored. As someone who doesn’t want to see Future World turned into ‘Super Hero Land (But Only the Handful of Properties We Can Use And Don’t You Dare Say the “M” Word)‘ this is great news to me.

It’s also good news from the perspective that there’s the potential for the Wonders of Life pavilion consolidating what is currently a decentralized IP presence around Future World into one building, which is currently unused. This hopefully will be the park’s main meet & greet location, with other pavilions remaining (or in some cases, becoming) character-free.

While we don’t yet know what this re-imagined pavilion will entail, we do know that it’ll open in time for Walt Disney World’s 50th Anniversary, which is a very quick turnaround time for something just announced. Given that and the likelihood that Innoventions is going away, I’d expect it to be something along the lines of exhibits featured there. If the concept art is to be believed, this pavilion will be more ambitious and imbued with a ‘Progress City’ sensibility, which is definitely befitting of EPCOT Center.

Speculation beyond that seems premature. Given rumors from last summer about testing in Cranium Command, I wonder if that theater attraction will be revived in some form (albeit, apparently, without the Buzzy Audio Animatronics figure). It’s far less likely that the Body Wars simulators could return, but that space could be repurposed and house an attraction. These aren’t even predictions, more just thinking aloud about the possibilities for this ‘Play Pavilion.’

For selfish reasons, I’m totally fine with Walt Disney World going character heavy in this pavilion, and I really hope that concept art is accurate, and this features Inside Out characters. Heck, give Wreck-It Ralph a presence in there, too. My basis for this is it could satiate management’s desire for intellectual property in Future World, and pave the way for a subsequent Journey into Imagination redo that does not involve IPs. Of course, this is just wishful thinking on my part.

It appears that Walt Disney World wants to toe the line between placating longtime fans and appealing to the expectations of first-time visitors expecting a Disney experience. That wouldn’t be my personal first choice for the direction of Epcot’s future, but if that is the approach, it’s better than I expected. I’ve expressed a lot of enthusiasm in this commentary section, but that shouldn’t be confused for unbridled excitement for Epcot’s future, generally.

I have no delusions that the ‘old’ EPCOT Center is ever returning. It’s been gone for two-plus decades, and there was never any chance of that park returning. However, it appears that there will be a lot in this ‘new’ park to appease fans like me, and even with a lot of compromises being made, I’m hopeful that the Epcot of ~2023 will be better than the one of today. This news makes me feel even more confident in that hope/belief, and I’m excited for the Epcot of tomorrow.

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Your Thoughts

What do you think of these Epcot announcements? Cautiously optimistic about the Play Pavilion? Do you agree or disagree with my commentary? 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!

56 Responses to “Play Pavilion Plans Paused at EPCOT”
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