CEO Bob Iger and Parks Chairman Josh D’Amaro have teased expansion possibilities for Magic Kingdom in the last few months, from ‘Beyond Big Thunder’ to development in the footprint of the park and plans outside the berm. This post discusses possibilities, including New Orleans Not-So-Square alongside Tiana’s Bayou Adventure as well as Coco, Encanto, and Villains lands in the longer-term.
Earlier this week, D’Amaro was interviewed during the JPMorgan Global Technology, Media & Communications Conference. (The same event where he indicated Disney would take a $300 million loss on Star Wars: Galactic Starcruiser.) Among other things, he was asked about expansion plans for Magic Kingdom and how Walt Disney World could grow capacity. D’Amaro said that management and Imagineers are already at work on improving the guest experience at Walt Disney World and adding capacity in several ways.
In particular, D’Amaro mentioned castle park expansion plans on both coasts: “We have plenty of opportunity within these existing footprints to optimize–to find ways to increase capacity of existing attractions within what we call the ‘berm.’ TRON is a good example of building additional capacity. With that said, and this is sometimes a misconception, but we have plenty of opportunity outside of the berms of those theme parks to continue to grow pretty aggressively at Walt Disney World, at the Magic Kingdom.”
After a discussion of DisneylandForward, D’Amaro circled back to expansion of the castle parks: “We have both internal opportunities to grow capacity and create new experiences, and opportunities outside of the berm to essentially expand the size of these theme parks.”
It’s not really clear from his quote, but TRON Lightcycle Run is actually added capacity that’s mostly outside of the ‘berm’ or existing boundary of Magic Kingdom. Part of why that project was more complex than it otherwise might’ve been was the series of flyover walkways to facilitate crowdflow and take guests over the Walt Disney World Railroad. Unlike a reimagined ride or redeveloped area, TRON was actual expansion.
It’s the same idea with ‘Beyond Big Thunder.’ Our expectation is that most Magic Kingdom plans in the medium-term will actually expand the physical footprint of the park and increase capacity. Unlike the other parks, Magic Kingdom needs more physical space in order to meaningfully increase attendance. That’s precisely why Beyond Big Thunder was/is plausible in the first place.
In the near term, it’s likely that we’ll see reimaginings and redevelopment at Magic Kingdom, or what D’Amaro called optimizing existing footprints to increase capacity. This is already happening with Tiana’s Bayou Adventure, which replaces Splash Mountain, albeit not in the way that D’Amaro characterized it. We aren’t going to rehash the well-documented details about Tiana’s Bayou Adventure, and this is not intended to ‘relitigate’ that reimagining.
Setting all of that aside, that “optimization” probably won’t actually increase Magic Kingdom capacity in a meaningful way. Splash Mountain did not have underutilized capacity, so it’ll go from being a popular ride to being a popular ride–a lateral move from a capacity and crowd-absorbing perspective.
If anything, Tiana’s Bayou Adventure will induce new attendance, adding to demand and potentially worsening crowd levels. That’s typical of marketable additions, and is also or would also be the case with Guardians of the Galaxy: Cosmic Rewind and TRON Lightcycle Run absent externalities (e.g. pent-up demand, broader economy, etc). The difference with EPCOT additions is that park, as a whole, has plenty of underutilized capacity–inducing more demand isn’t an issue whatsoever at EPCOT.
One thing that has not been officially announced by Walt Disney World is further area redevelopment for Tiana’s Bayou Adventure. This is something that could optimize or expand park capacity, depending upon how it’s executed. Imagineers have already hinted that this is on the horizon during the last D23 Expo when they let slip that they were working on Tiana’s Palace Restaurant for both coasts.
Tiana’s Palace Restaurant has since been officially announced for Disneyland (that’s California concept art above), with work underway to convert French Market into it. It’s possible that the Walt Disney World version of Tiana’s Palace Restaurant wasn’t announced at the same time because it wasn’t actually greenlit, and won’t be happening. However, there are a lot of reasons why this still makes sense–and we’re betting it’ll happen.
I’ve heard absolutely nothing about a miniland for Tiana’s Bayou Adventure and am not aware of any credible rumors that it’s happening. Nevertheless, it seems like a no-brainer to convert Pecos Bill Tall Tale Inn & Cafe to Tiana’s Palace Restaurant. If Tiana’s Palace is coming to Walt Disney World, that’s pretty much the most logical option. An expansion adjacent to the mountain itself isn’t workable, and putting Tiana’s Palace at a resort isn’t as practical. (Even if it would be perfect at Port Orleans French Quarter!)
It’s not like Pecos Bill needs more to make it a draw (its location alone makes it one of the busiest restaurants in all of Walt Disney World), but there’s also minimal downside and decent upside to the change. Pecos Bill is also one of the highest-capacity restaurants in all of Magic Kingdom, and giving it a princess connection–as opposed to a character virtually no one recognizes–could help sell cupcakes, sipper cups, and other novelty items. In other words, Disney could increase the coveted per guest spending metric with Tiana’s Palace Restaurant.
Outside of that obvious reimagining, I hesitate to speculate about what else is possible. It’s probably safe to say that if Walt Disney World opts to reimagine Pecos Bill Tall Tale Inn & Cafe into Tiana’s Palace Restaurant, that won’t be the only thing they do. They’ll flesh out the area with retail and a character spot, at the very least.
As much as I hate to admit this, Country Bear Jamboree is on borrowed time. There are a number of reasons why Walt Disney World might want to do something with the beloved bear band. I love Country Bear Jamboree and will defend it until the end (if anything, I sincerely believe it has gained appreciation in the last few years, too!). But I’m also a realist.
Country Bear Jamboree is not going to exist in its current form forever. A decade from now, I’ll be satisfied if the Audio Animatronics bears simply still exist…but are singing different songs. That’s probably the best case and most realistic scenario, barring a catastrophe for the company, economy, or tourism tanking in a way that essentially causes the parks to freeze in time. (No damage inflicted, but also no development done–we call that the “Disneyland Paris Effect.”)
Annexing part of Frontierland for a new area would be savvy for a number of reasons. For one thing, common refrains from Walt Disney World fans have been “Princess and the Frog is not set in the frontier” and “there are no mountains in Louisiana.” Imagineering already “fixed” the second complaint by rounding off the top of Chickapin Hill to make it look odd and disguise its mountainous-ness, I guess. (Bang up job with the complaints everyone, definitely the outcome we wanted to see there!)
The next step is reimagining the area around the ride in Frontierland to make Tiana’s Bayou Adventure fit more seamlessly, and create a miniland. This is entirely speculative on my part, but I think an announcement of this area between now and Destination D23 in Fall 2023 is an inevitability. (Probably sooner, as work will need to start soon if it’s going to happen.)
With that said, a new Magic Kingdom miniland is not strictly necessary. Contrary to those common refrains, there is no “need” to add a bayou, New Orleans Not-So-Square, Louisianaland, or whatever it might be called so that Tiana’s Bayou Adventure “makes sense” in Frontierland. Walt Disney World plays fast and loose with thematic integrity, and has demonstrated a willingness to explain away inconsistencies with backstory and narrative frameworks.
Look no further than Tomorrowland in Magic Kingdom for evidence of this. What do monsters and comedy have to do with the future? What about family-loving aliens? There’s a lot that fans now accept because it’s established, but those additions were met with similar resistance in the aughts.
There are plenty more examples in EPCOT and Animal Kingdom, some of which actually ended up working surprisingly well. The point is that The Princess and the Frog‘s setting in 1920s New Orleans hardly precludes its presence in Frontierland. At least some of the complaints now are piling on from people who are against the Splash Mountain reimagining. Other quibbles are similar to past skepticism fans expressed that didn’t end up mattering in the end.
Personally, I don’t disagree with that latter and am a moderate stickler for thematic integrity. Nevertheless, Tiana’s Bayou Adventure would be accepted over time by the vast majority of Magic Kingdom guests. Past precedent indicates that there’s no “need” for a bayou or New Orleans Not-So-Square to make it work. (At least, from Disney’s perspective.)
In that case, there’s probably a good business justification for annexing part of Frontierland and turning it into a bayou or New Orleans area. For one thing, Tiana’s Bayou Adventure may not be a needle-moving addition on its own. Walt Disney World is marketing it as a new attraction and will continue to do so, but all third party coverage is going to include the words “Splash Mountain” and “replacement” or “reimaging.”
Marketing an all-new land makes it sound more impressive, and will likely move the needle more in capturing new bookings. The attraction plus Tiana’s Palace Restaurant, new retail, a meet & greet location, and whatever else could incentivize more people to take trips to Walt Disney World in late 2024 or 2025. That’s valuable, especially at a time when there isn’t much else to advertise as being new. (Doubly true if the country is still in the midst of an economic slowdown or recession.)
Beyond that, visitors from Louisiana are a huge demographic for Walt Disney World. In past winters, we’ve noted the prevalence of LSU and Saints shirts, with Mardi Gras in particular seeing a huge influx of Louisiana locals. People love seeing themselves reflected and represented in the parks, and a New Orleans Not-So-Square would likely fuel more trips and foster more affinity among the Louisiana delegation.
Depending upon your perspective, that might sound obvious or untrue. After all, how many Jerseyans complained about the inauthentic menu at BoardWalk Deli? True…but also a bad example since that deli is an abomination. Another example would be the Brazil pavilion in World Showcase being aimed at the growing number of Brazilian guests. (That also might seem like a bad example since it’s unbuilt, but only because that government made it untenable!)
So I guess you’ll just have to trust me on this one (or not). Even when they nitpick the accuracy, people embrace theme park representations of the places they call home. It’s a matter of regional pride.
Magic Kingdom adding New Orleans Not-So-Square is also about the only way to make sense of Imagineering’s many research trips to New Orleans. The Princess and the Frog already exists, and the Walt Disney Animation Studios team did research over a decade ago to ensure cultural authenticity. That work is done, and there’s a whole book about it. Tiana’s Bayou Adventure is based on the animated movie, and arguably doesn’t necessitate the degree of additional research being done.
The ride’s presence in New Orleans Square at Disneyland doesn’t account for a bunch of research trips, either. That land already exists, and is incredibly well done. All Imagineering needs to do there is incorporate the (existing) characters and details from the movie in tasteful ways that don’t disrupt the authenticity and charm of the land.
That really just leaves Walt Disney World and redeveloping some of the existing area of Frontierland into an area based on Louisiana. When it comes to that, a lot of research could be done. Presumably, the goal would be transitioning from an animated attraction to a depiction of the American frontier by way of early 20th century Louisiana. That would require not just details from the movie, but also the rich culture and history of New Orleans and beyond.
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.
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, 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. Even with the constant refrain about $17 billion worth of investment at Walt Disney World, that still seems too tenuous.
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.
Ultimately, my guess is that we get news later this summer about New Orleans Not-So-Square or whatever else is accompanying Tiana’s Bayou Adventure at Magic Kingdom in 2024-2025. The bigger wildcard is what, if anything, is revealed for Magic Kingdom at Destination D23 this fall.
We had been expecting Destination D23 to be a big event–and are still hoping that’s the case, but what the company is comfortable announcing could depend on where things stand in the Disney vs. DeSantis battle. Then again, both Iger and D’Amaro have had no hesitations in trumpeting the $17 billion investment and their excitement for the future in Florida, so maybe that’s not a big factor in the announcement calculus.
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 Josh D’Amaro discussing park expansion in the existing footprint of the park and beyond the berm at Magic Kingdom? Think this means New Orleans Not-So-Square in 2024? What about other redevelopments of existing areas? (Not discussed here, but there is definitely underutilized space in Tomorrowland!) 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!