WDWorld Traveler – Disney World Summer 2017 Preview

The “floating mountains” of Animal Kingdom’s Pandora.

The summer season for Walt Disney World unofficially began in early May when southern schools began letting out for their summer break but the big summer crowds and season begin in earnest this weekend for Memorial Day.

So while perhaps you might be putting the finishing touches on planning your summer 2017 Walt Disney World vacations, or even thinking about something spare-of-the-moment, or just looking ahead on the calendar for a trip in the winter or beyond, there are a number of new additions and announcements/rumors for the future that you should be aware of.

ALREADY OPEN

Happily Ever After, a new fireworks show, ended the decade plus run of Magic Kingdom’s popular show Wishes. The show makes ample use of castle projections, wherein the castle is both used as a screen to display scenes from popular Disney films and also as a means to seemingly transform the castle into things like the bunch of balloons from Up or the lanterns from Tangled. The projections are excellent but are also such an integral part of the show that your enjoyment of it will vary greatly based on if you can see the castle straight on. It now makes much more sense why Disney seemingly tripled the sidewalk and grassy space around the central hub.

Rivers of Light, Animal Kingdom’s nighttime laser and water-projection extravaganza opened after considerable delay in the winter of 2016. Why the delay? Walt Disney Imagineering was unhappy with the show and was tweaking the production up until opening night. Unfortunately the show opened with most of the issues still a part of the show as Disney basically threw up their hands and said “we need a nighttime show at Animal Kingdom NOW and we’ll just run this thing until we come up with a brand new show in a few years.” So yeah, Rivers of Light is a show that exists. Reviews are meddling, as would be expected from a show the park was somewhat embarrassed to even be presenting, and my general advice would be to see the show if you plan on being at Animal Kingdom when it is running but by no means plan your night around it. If you have to choose between Rivers of Light and exploring Pandora at night, do Pandora. (More info on Pandora later in the article.)

Frozen Ever After opened last summer in Epcot’s Norway pavilion, replacing the Maelstrom boat ride. Actually it replaced all of the animatronic scenes in the boat ride as the actual flume remains the same (with one added scene in the room that formerly housed the unloading area for the post-ride film.) It is a basic Disney dark ride featuring all the big scenes from the movie like Elsa singing “Let It Go” and Olaf being goofy and not understanding how heat works. It is and will remain immensely popular with the under-12 set who have grown up obsessed with all things Frozen. Even though it opened last year, lines remain long and boring. Plan one of your booked-ahead Fastpass+ reservations for this ride, whenever you think you will hit Norway during a World Showcase tour (I would suggest a clockwise rotation beginning in Mexico around 2/3pm on a normal Epcot one-day tour, aiming for a 3:30-4:30 FP+ window for Frozen.)

COMING THIS WEEKEND

Pandora: The World of Avatar opens officially on May 27 as the first brand new land opened at a Disney park since Magic Kingdom’s Fantasyland expansion in 2012. The land, quite obviously, is based on the James Cameron film of a few years ago (and the franchise to follow) and will for the foreseeable future be immensely popular. Much like the film itself, Pandora the theme park land draws most of it’s appeal from it’s otherworldly aesthetics. The overgrown alien jungle entices guests to explore winding paths and see “native” fauna, all of which comes to life in glowing “bioluminescent” fashion after dark. The land’s two attractions are Flight of Passage and Na’vi River Journey.

Flight of Passage, an absolute e-ticket (big and popular) attraction, will be the main draw. It is a thrilling but not overly intense simulator attraction, described by those who ride it as “Soarin on steroids” or, more mockingly, “Soarin Over Pandora.” The premise sees guests riding through the Pandora landscape on one of those dragon creatures from the movie. This effect is achieved by a ride system where guests straddle a bike-like contraption and then raised in front of a giant screen where the ride is projected, like Soarin. Also like Soarin, wind and other effects (including the seat below you expanding and contracting with the dragon’s breaths) enhance the experience. Previews of the ride have unfortunately not been without incident. The mechanism used to secure riders to their seat is similar to the over-the-shoulder harnesses used on most “upside down” roller coasters (like Rockin Roller Coaster) however it locks in behind the rider’s back and legs. The issue seems to be that many riders with large calves can not be properly locked into the leg portion of the harness and need to be taken off the ride before it runs. This is effecting not necessarily overweight people but anyone with large muscular calves…bodybuilders, runners, and just plain oddly proportioned people have all reported being unable to ride. So bear this in mind if you plan to ride this summer. While Disney works the kinks out of this system, the large-calved among us may be unable to be a part of it.

Na’vi River Journey is the more mellow and family-friendly attraction in the land. Jokingly dubbed “Pirates of Pandora” by some, it is a slow moving boat ride past scenes depicting the bioluminescent nighttime environment of Pandora, including many glowing plans and encounters with some of the native creatures, culminating in an up-close visit with a Na’vi shaman (the Na’Vi, if you forget, are the blue cat-looking alien protagonists of the film.)

In addition to the rides and trails are a next generation counter service restaurant (similar to Magic Kingdom’s Be Our Guest) called Satu’li Canteen, featuring a menu of items designed to at least in some way resemble what alien food might look like including weird circular dessert orbs, steamed bun-things with stuff inside, and a “native brewed” green beer. It’s all so weird that it almost has to be worth visiting, despite the Animal Kingdom’s great reputation for dining. If nothing else, I need to try the green beer. Luckily, if you want to try the beer without eating an alien food pairing, there is a bar in the land called Pongu Pongu. It features two beers brewed exclusively for Pandora along with some other specialty cocktails and a very very light food menu. There is a store in the land as well (of course) where guests can buy a “baby banshee” (dragon) to take home…you know, as if your “magic” wand from Universal’s Wizarding World of Harry Potter isn’t enough.

COMING SOON

The Hall of Presidents will reopen for the 4th of July holiday, presumably featuring a new audio animatronic of President Donald Trump. Disney has not announced if Trump will have the traditional speaking role. This is a no-win situation for Disney. Trump is such a polarizing figure that they are damned if they do and damned if they don’t with including him in a prominent role in the attraction. I would assume that even if Trump is not given a long speaking part, they will still need to eliminate the Obama speech, perhaps elongating Abraham Lincoln’s role in place of the Trump speech. Or maybe they will just hope that the public accepts that the current president’s speaking part is a tradition for the show and make Trump a part of it. It is expected to reopen on July 1.

JUST ANNOUNCED

In a piece of news that I still can’t believe I am reporting as true, Walt Disney World is currently in development of a gondola transportation system to connect Epcot, Hollywood Studios, and some surrounding resorts, likely including Caribbean Beach and Art of Animation. Gondolas, which are apparently a thing at some ski resorts or something, are more enclosed versions of the “skyway” rides at a lot of parks (the kind where you hang in a basket from a wire and slowly glide around.) Unanswered questions include “what will they do during Florida’s plentiful storms?”

RUMORED

“Star Wars Land” and “Toy Story Land” are on the way to Hollywood Studios (a park that is also still rumored to get a name change.) The Star Wars area especially is expected to have a level of detail never before seen in a theme park. Including some rumored interactive elements that will “remember” guests from visit to visit, a hotel experience connected to the park, and a ride where guests pilot the Millennium Falcon. Nothing is confirmed other than that a Star Wars land is in development. But if even some of the wild internet rumors are close to true, it is going to be amazing.

Spain is rumored to be the newest country added to World Showcase, and first since Norway in 1988, based on the expected popularity of Disney’s in-production Jack & The Beanstalk film Gigantic, which is set in Spain.

Caribbean Beach Resort is being completely remodeled with the Custom House check-in area gone, the main food court building gutted, and a new “tower” building to be added, likely with either a Vacation Club or suite component (or both.) Coronado Springs, meanwhile, will see the addition of more suites and concierge-level rooms, probably also in a new tower, in an attempt to attract a broader range of conventions to the resort. Caribbean Beach and possibly Coronado Springs could also be a part of the gondola project.

OTHER CLOSINGS AND REFURBS

  • Splash Mountain will undergo a lengthy rehab starting around Labor Day and running until Thanksgiving.
  • Mission Space will be closed through most of June and July (6/5-7/29).
  • Wilderness Lodge, Old Key West, and Yacht & Beach Club resorts are all going through some refurbishment and construction work.

Author: Neil Trama