Destination D23 was held at the Contemporary Resort over the weekend, and Parks Chairman Josh D’Amaro shared a lot of news during his presentation, “A Celebration of Disney Parks, Experiences and Products: Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow.” This ‘report card’ ranks all of the announcements for Walt Disney World, and grades the keynote as a whole.
To be blunt, I think I watched a different presentation than many Walt Disney World fans. If you thought the announcements were lame or weak for the Florida parks, this might be the wrong post for you. At least, if your mind is completely made up and you have no interest in counterpoints or differing perspectives.
Honestly, I was taken aback at all of the negativity towards D’Amaro’s Destination D23 presentation, including among some of my friends who were right there in the room next to me. It felt like an “am I so out of touch?” moment for me. Like Principal Skinner, I also think it’s the children/everyone else who is wrong, and will make my case for that here…
Sneak Peek at Tiana’s Bayou Adventure Audio Animatronics
Moana’s Journey of Water Opening Date
EPCOT Overhaul Updates
That’s it for Walt Disney World.
With the exception of ‘Emotional Entertainment,’ everything on that list happened. (Luminous: Symphony of Us is not enough to count for the entertainment prediction. The material part of that was a Summer Nightastic style season of entertainment with new, returning, or reimagined spectaculars. That did not occur.)
Our prior Destination D23 Wish List did contain a lot more (including a reimagining of Journey Into Imagination for like the 7th consecutive D23 event), but it also noted that it was “overtly optimistic–if even 25% of this ends up coming to fruition, I’ll be very happy.” The batting average for that is tough to calculate, since several things that weren’t on my radar ended up getting announced, even if most of what I was hoping would happen didn’t.
In large part, our expectations were tempered because Destination D23 is not the same as the D23 Expo. It started out as a history-oriented event (called D23’s Destination D) that was absolutely awesome for geeks like us and had maybe 1-2 newsy items per year. It wasn’t until 2018 that it really became the off-year Expo, and even then, the biggest news was the names of the attractions in Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge. Everything else was updates, opening seasons, or returning/limited time entertainment. That’s literally it.
To further put things into perspective, Josh D’Amaro ‘announced’ that “churros are back” at the last Destination D23. The bulk of the presentation was oriented around a return to normalcy, with only a few nuggets of news about the international parks, Disney Wish, Cosmic Rewind, and Star Wars: Galactic Starcruiser.
Fast-forward two years, Star Wars: Galactic Starcruiser is now on the precipice of closing rather than opening, and fans were optimistic about a bigger slate of announcements. And there was at least some basis in reality for that. Plenty was discussed at the D23 Expo without actual confirmation, and both D’Amaro and CEO Bob Iger have been teasing for months that billions of dollars of investments are on the horizon. Given all of that, it’s perfectly reasonable that fan expectations were higher than normal for a Destination D23 event.
Against that backdrop, let’s rank all of the Walt Disney World news, followed by a summary and grade for Josh D’Amaro’s presentation as a whole…
N/A. Moana’s Journey of Water Opening Date – This one was an inevitability, and something would’ve had to have gone horribly wrong if it wasn’t revealed. Our prediction called for an opening date in the second half of October 2023. That ended up being accurate, with the earliest possible second-half opening as possible: October 16, 2023.
N/A. Figment Meet & Greet Opening Date – Ending with Figment was the obvious crowd-pleasing move, low-hanging fruit epitomized. I would’ve preferred the Figment Finale be official confirmation of a Journey into Imagination reimagining, but I’m not surprised that it didn’t happen. As for Figment, debuting his meet & greet before September 22 and giving D23 Members a sneak peek at the character was a nice touch.
N/A. Tiana’s Bayou Adventure Sneak Peek – This is a tough one. On the one hand, I think it would’ve been smart to spend way more time on Tiana’s Bayou Adventure. The Audio Animatronics exhibition at the event was extremely underwhelming; I figured it was going to showcase AAs from Tiana’s Bayou Adventure and the new Frozen attractions. I think that Disney hasn’t done a great job at generating hype for TBA, in large part because they squandered a lot of the opportunity by focusing on stuff ancillary to the attraction.
On the other hand, Tiana’s Bayou Adventure ended up being sidelined during Destination D23 because there were a ton of other–arguably better–things to discuss. So it’s tough to be “disappointed” by the lack of emphasis on this when what was focused on was more interesting to me. I just think Disney really needs to recalibrate their messaging on Tiana’s Bayou Adventure. Show us more nextgen Audio Animatronics!
12. Hatbox Ghost Materializing – Although an update was expected, this gets ranked in last place (rather than N/A) because it was worse than anticipated. For one thing, Hatbox Ghost isn’t just missing the start of spook season, he isn’t being installed until after Halloween–sometime in November (no date given).
For another thing, I just feel bad for Imagineer Daniel Joseph, who was tasked with getting up there and delivering a line about Hatbox Ghost being an unhappy haunt. We’ve attended a couple of geeky D23 presentations by Joseph in the past, and can assure you that he is one of us.
I appreciate the original motivation for bringing Hatbox Ghost to Walt Disney World as an olive branch to give the fans something we want. But at this point, the company has given Florida fans several other olive branches…maybe we’re good on them?
11. Ahsoka in Star Tours – Ahsoka will become part of Star Tours: The Adventures Continue at Disney’s Hollywood Studios, Disneyland, and Disneyland Paris in Spring 2024.
This almost goes unranked for me. We got burnt out on Star Wars and MCU a while ago, so we haven’t seen Ahsoka on Disney+ (embarrassingly, I thought the show was animated until like 3 weeks ago). Some people seem to really love it, while others passionately hate it…so about par for the course with all things Star Wars these days. Nevertheless, new Star Tours destinations is a good thing and I’m impressed that they continue to update the attraction even post-Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge.
10. World Celebration Debut Date – Addition by subtraction, baby! Or something along those lines. I was dreading yet another D23 event that hypes up the “endless possibilities” of EPCOT and whatever other word soup they’d have ChatGPT generate. And unfortunately, that did happen during a later panel at Destination D.
Mercifully, this nonsense was mostly withheld from the D’Amaro keynote. Just a quick passing reference to the World Celebration opening in December and thus wrapping up the multi-year transformation of EPCOT. I don’t even think he said the word “CommuniCore,” which I view as a good thing. This has gotta be the most underwhelming and anticlimactic 4-year project in the history of Walt Disney World. Drawing more attention to it would’ve been a bad idea.
9. Asha from Wish – How many times have I complained about Walt Disney World being slow to bring new characters to the parks or declining the marketing budgets for Disney+ shows or movies? It seems like the message is finally being heard. (Well, except with Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge.) From an objective perspective in terms of what this symbolizes, it’s bigger news than it might otherwise appear on its face.
Personally, I couldn’t care less about meeting a face character. And honestly, I’m more than a little bitter that Asha is appearing in person while Valentino is snubbed. But I’m also holding out hope that Disneyland gets the bigmarketing budget for Wish, and brings back the “running of the goats” (Google it) as a tribute to the true star of the new movie. All joking aside, I’m really excited for Wish and hope it lives up to the 100-year legacy of Walt Disney Animation Studios.
8. Luminous: Symphony of Us – We got a name for the new nighttime spectacular at EPCOT and an official debut date of December 5, 2023.
At the risk of being intolerably optimistic, I like that Walt Disney World gave us absolutely no other details about Luminous: Symphony of Us. I would argue that they overshared when it came to both Harmonious and Enchantment. Look where that got us! Obviously, that wasn’t a direct result of hype…but the massive disappointment I felt when watching both for the first time certainly was not helped by the sense of anticipation.
It’s possible that this is what Walt Disney World learning a lesson looks like. Now, the why of that is unclear. The inveterate optimist in me says it’s because they know is going to be a winner with guests; they want the ‘wow’ and organic/viral marketing of people seeing Luminous IRL for the first time and posting it all over social media.
The more pessimistic possibility is that everything is coming together at the very last minute and the creative still isn’t firm for Luminous. I think there’s probably a little truth to both. But either way, this is the savvy move for Luminous: Symphony of Us, especially after overhyping Harmonious failed.
Nothing of substance was said about the Beyond Big Thunder expansion in Magic Kingdom, but Vaughn both contextualized it and said what a lot of fans were thinking in lightly chiding D’Amaro for how this was handled at last year’s D23 Expo. (Obviously, this was scripted and rehearsed, but the sense of self-awareness was nice to see.)
It’s pretty clear they’re nowhere near ready to announce the Beyond Big Thunder expansion, so I was pleased that they did not daydream about what characters and film franchises it could include. However, I was happy to see that it was at least acknowledged with the above, plus a mention of its scope and scale. This means it is happening, but the specifics aren’t settled and the timeline is distant. Obviously, an official announcement would’ve been best, but what we got threaded the needle of ‘reasonable and appropriate’ for me. To each their own on that, though.
6. Soarin’ Over California Returns – This ranks pretty highly on the merits alone. The OG Soarin’ is better than Soarin’ Over CGI, and I’m really happy that other Disney fans will be able to experience it again for the first time since 2016…or even ever. (We’ve done it many times during its limited engagements at Disney California Adventure, and will happily ride again at EPCOT.)
More than that, it ranks highly for what it symbolizes. It’s one thing for Disneyland to bring back something on a seasonal basis–that happens all the time every single year. It’s another entirely for the flagship vacation destination to do it.
Over the years, I’ve lost count of how many times someone from within Walt Disney World has “explained” to me why they couldn’t possibly have seasonal overlays or limited-time offerings like Disneyland. For the last decade, my rebuttal has been that it’s a lame excuse that maybe would’ve passed muster years ago, but not anymore as the Central Florida population continues to explode and Disney Vacation Club membership grows. Beyond that, most first-time tourists won’t know what they’re missing and might very well end up preferring the thing that locals love. (Case in point, Haunted Mansion Holiday.)
Seeing Soarin’ Over California return to EPCOT for a limited run was thus a huge surprise, even if it has happened numerous times at Disneyland. It’s pretty unprecedented for a still new(ish) attraction to be replaced by an overlay–and at the last minute after tourists have already booked trips. It’s impossible to say whether this reflects a paradigm shift, but it’s a good sign that, taken with other news, leaves me incredibly optimistic.
5. Zootopia Tree of Life Show – I like It’s Tough to Be a Bug. Or rather, the idea of it. I actually don’t watch it that often–pretty much just when I need to kill time at Animal Kingdom (e.g. I’m done with the park but it’s still too early to Hop to EPCOT).
That cuts to part of why this is so surprising–that Walt Disney World would announce significant investments in not one, but two stage shows at Destination D. The other reason is that this effectively takes Zootopia out of play for Animal Kingdom, which is huge news and very much fine by me. (Sentiment I may come to regret when it’s time for expansion at DHS and Zootopia: Hot Pursuit is taken off the table!)
4. Pirates of the Caribbean Tavern – This is another piece of news along those same lines. Although our post about this Pirates of the Caribbean lounge likened it to Oga’s Cantina, there’s one critical distinction: demographics. The “Star Wars Bar” appeals to a huge segment of the general public–pretty much anyone who has ever dreamed of visiting Mos Eisley Cantina (a lot of people).
A lounge based on Pirates of the Caribbean is much more niche, aimed squarely at diehard Walt Disney World fans. This is Disney showing once again that it views the theme parks as their own intellectual property, and views Walt Disney World fans as a distinct demo to whom it’s worth catering. If this were just about that sweet, sweet food & beverage revenue, Disney could’ve announced a bar themed to Kingdom of Planet of the Apes as a tie-in to next year’s sure-to-be-awesome movie.
3. Country Bear Musical Jamboree Reimagining – Yes, that’s right, this ranks #3 for me–and comes very close to claiming #2. I know a lot of Country Bear Jamboree fans are big mad about this, and I can empathize to a degree with that snap emotional response. If that continues to be the perspective after further consideration, they’re missing the forest for the trees.
This is already becoming a long post, so I should probably circle back to this topic with another editorial, as more background about this reimagining is starting to trickle out. (I suspect there’s more to come, too!) The bottom line is that this new is also similar to the Soarin’ and Pirates of the Caribbean lounge announcements, even if it feels like a gut punch at first.
Suffice to say, this was the best outcome of the actual possible plans for CBJ and by a wide margin. Not your or my wish list, but what the Walt Disney Company actually would have spent money to do with this space in the year 2023. I could rant for thousands of words about this–and probably will–but for now, I’ll just say that some CBJ fans are a bit out of touch. It is more than a small miracle that the Country Bears are sticking around at all. I’m not saying you have to like it, but you do have to inhabit reality.
2. Test Track 3.0 – I loved Test Track 2.0 when it debuted, and thought it was a significant update and improvement to the original Test Track. But time has done it no favors. Not only has it aged poorly and now draws unfavorable comparisons to TRON Lightcycle Run, but there’s absolutely nothing memorable about the attraction. Even I have to admit that the original Test Track had much more nostalgic appeal!
From that perspective, Test Track 3.0 is probably the news with the least downside and most upside. To the extent that an update to an exciting E-Ticket can be, it’s probably the sleeper hit of the entire Destination D23. Pretty much everything that anyone loves about Test Track (the thrills) will be staying, so there’s very little risk of this reimagining “messing up” what people like about the current ride.
Not only that, but Test Track gets an update inspired by World of Motion! That’s exciting news that is, once again, aimed squarely at longtime Walt Disney World fans. While it remains to be seen exactly what that means, it’s cause for optimism. Test Track 3.0 is a low-floor, high-ceiling kind of project…and one being paid for by someone else, so it’s not even coming at the expense of another (higher priority) Walt Disney World project! Win-win!
1. Tropical Americas at Animal Kingdom – This is what Disney listening to you looks like! After last year’s tease of Moana and Zootopia, there was a lot of negative feedback. If I didn’t know any better, I’d think that maybe that was purposeful, with Parks & Resorts and Imagineering wanting or needing some “ammunition” to nix the Zootopia land plans.
This is another one that’s probably deserving of its own post. In part because I “missed” the conversation that happened in the comments and I think there’s a lot that is deserving of rebuttal, clarification, or just further discussion. In part because I’ve heard more since the announcement, and it bodes well for the Encanto and Indiana Jones concepts that are supposedly just “under consideration.”
In the meantime, I’ll say that just like Country Bear ‘Musical’ Jamboree, the Tropical Americas is the best outcome of the actual possible plans for Dino-Rama. It’s not what I would’ve greenlit if I were in charge (that’d be an actually awesome dinosaur land), but it’s the best case scenario of the plausible pitches. (I would’ve been down with an Oceania area centered around Moana, but not in addition to Journey of Water. They should’ve master planned that better from the beginning.)
I don’t know how anyone can listen to all of the above announcements and come away disappointed. Any single piece of news from the top 4 alone would’ve been the top story–far and away–at any past Destination D23. I’ve been attending or covering the Florida-based D23 event since Walt Disney World’s 40th Anniversary in 2011, and I think the argument could be made that the news from this one Destination D23 surpasses all of the previous ones combined.
My biggest complaint with Destination D23 is that they did not focus more on Tiana’s Bayou Adventure, or actually show us Audio Animatronics in person. In the grand scheme of things, that’s a pretty minor quibble given all of the ground that was covered (and it’s really just more about getting their priorities back on track with TBA).
It’s not just the substance of the announcements–although that is pretty strong. It’s what was said and unsaid, how it was approached, and the subtext of the news. For me, all of that is even more significant. Possibly bigger than it should be, but I have good reason for this perspective.
I’ll admit that I’m still bitter about Walt Disney World’s 50th Anniversary. That once in a lifetime milestone should have been a celebration of the Vacation Kingdom of the World, but felt more like a marketing campaign for the Disney+ streaming service. For a lifelong fan, the lack of emphasis on history and the rich legacy of Walt Disney World was incredibly disappointing.
The last year-plus has felt like Disney recognizing and tacitly admitting that they messed up. Not just that, but undertaking measures to fix those mistakes. They added the Walt Disney pre-show to Enchantment towards the end of its run, scrapped Harmonious, brought back Happily Ever After, introduced Hatbox Ghost, and reintroduced Figment.
All of those announcements were made at last year’s D23 Expo, and reflected meaningful change in thinking and willingness to be more responsive to guests. As we pointed out at the time, it was an important philosophical change for the Florida parks–a big win that probably went unnoticed by many of the same fans who also complained about the underwhelming 50th.
The 2023 Destination D23 announcements further reinforced that there’s an internal drive to be responsive to Walt Disney World fans. Think about how many of these announcements wouldn’t even register with a casual audience if they were shared on Good Morning America or whatever. A redone ride based on World of Motion? A Barker Bird? “Beloved” bear Audio Animatronics who sing? Bringing back an old version of a ride…based on California…to Florida?! A gigantic purple dragon returning as the grand finale!!!
The whole presentation might be borderline incoherent if you’re just a regular consumer of mainstream pop culture–and Disney Parks are increasingly covered in that fashion. But if you’re a diehard fan? The substance of this Destination D23 presentation was absolutely tailor made for you. Both in substance and style.
To that point, the topics that weren’t covered or that were given minimal attention was fascinating. Very little about Tiana’s Bayou Adventure, CommuniCore Hall, Luminous: Symphony of Us, etc., doesn’t mean that those things aren’t going to happen–they very much are! It just means there was a calculated design not to make them the emphasis, and probably for good reason. Same goes with very little of substance for Disneyland–it doesn’t mean that a summer of entertainment won’t be announced, it just means this wasn’t the venue or audience for it.
Ultimately, I left Destination D23 feeling much the same way that I did after last year’s D23 Expo: with a renewed sense of optimism about the future of Walt Disney World. It’s seemingly an unpopular opinion at this point, but I still feel that Josh D’Amaro listens, cares, and gets fans–and what makes us love Walt Disney World. I think this slate of announcements vindicates that viewpoint, as this was a lot of “we’re listening” fan-centric news.
With that said, I can also appreciate the frustrations that exist. Many of you want to turn back the clock to 2019, undoing all of the damage of the Chapek era. Or you want to see Disney come out swinging, with a blockbuster response to Universal’s Epic Universe. To a certain extent, I agree with that sentiment. The company knows that major investment in Walt Disney World is good business and something that needs to be done, yet they’re still slow-rolling it. But I also get that Parks & Resorts doesn’t exist in a vacuum, and there are (unfortunately) other reasons why all of that $17 billion of investment in Walt Disney World can’t and won’t be announced all at once.
Regardless, I feel good about both the near-term and long-term future. There’s still a ton left on my wish list, but the announcements that were made were all at least positive or neutral news, and when is the last time that has happened at one of these events?! My overall grade for the D’Amaro presentation would be an A- or B+ for Walt Disney World news, with it varying depending upon how you construe the Encanto and Indiana Jones component of the Tropical Americas announcements–as concrete or still being under consideration.
What are your reactions to the various announcements for Walt Disney World at the 2023 Destination D23? What has you most and least excited? Were any of these announcements downright bad or negative news, in your view? 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!