The American theme park landscape has changed drastically over the last decade. An era of brand licensing and acquisitions, ushered in more than a decade ago when Universal first created a “Harry Potter”-themed land in its Florida park, has transformed our vacation destinations into places filled with large-scale, movie-based enclaves.
This weekend, Disney’s biennial fan convention, the D23 Expo — a sort of state of the union for all things branded Disney — previewed some changes that might define the decade to come, including still more movie branding. Leaders provided updates on Disney California Adventure’s Avengers Campus as well as “Frozen”-themed areas coming to three of Disney’s international resorts. The makeover of a dining-focused area of Disney California Adventure into “Big Hero 6″ was also unveiled, and new details were provided on a rethink of Disneyland’s popular Splash Mountain into a “Princess and the Frog”-focused attraction.
The D23 Expo also introduced a new phrase into the theme park lexicon: “thought starters.”
Josh D’Amaro, chairperson of Walt Disney Parks and Resorts, pivoted from past D23 Expos to showcase potential projects in early development. No promises were made, but early concept art showed how parts of Florida’s Magic Kingdom and Animal Kingdom might one day be re-envisioned. Walt Disney Imagineering, the division of the company responsible for theme park design, revealed that it was thinking of adding animated films such as “Zootopia” and “Moana” to Animal Kingdom, as well as bringing “Encanto,” “Coco” and a Disney villains area to the Magic Kingdom.
“I can’t wait to talk more about these ideas and start locking some of this in,” D’Amaro said, indicating that nothing had been green lighted just yet. While meant to inspire optimism among fans, it also struck a cautious note for the Expo. This year’s fan event often looked inward by celebrating anniversaries — the 70th of Walt Disney Imagineering, the 30th of “The Muppets Christmas Carol” — and set a nostalgic tone even in looking ahead to the company’s 2023 centennial celebration. When it came to theme parks, D’Amaro spoke openly of the COVID-19 pandemic having changed, postponed or altered plans.
Over three days at the Anaheim Convention Center, Disney’s legacy and its near-future were twin focal points.
“We don’t know yet where some of these concepts may take us,” D’Amaro said of theme park pitches. “Because there are absolutely no boundaries when you’re dreaming of a big future like this. We’ve been like a train just barreling down the tracks for more than six decades since we opened Disneyland Park. Then COVID brought that train to a stop. But it also allowed us to spend some time tinkering around, and it was a rare opportunity to stop and think about where we wanted to go.”
Still, the company’s first theme park will be receiving some not insignificant changes in the next two years, projects that will add an attraction — Mickey & Minnie’s Runaway Railway, already open in Walt Disney World, will launch early next year in a remodeled Toontown — as well as increase the diversity of the park’s offerings. A theme park pavilion on the D23 Expo floor addressed the latter initiative: Details were revealed for Tiana’s Bayou Adventure, which is replacing Splash Mountain, a ride whose imagery is rooted in the dated and racist 1946 film “Song of the South.”
Tiana’s Bayou Adventure will be set following the events of “Princess and the Frog,” with the film’s lead, Princess Tiana, now a popular entrepreneur, taking guests on a journey through the bayou to find a missing ingredient needed to throw a Mardi Gras-level feast. In the process, Splash Mountain will be reworked to evoke multiple Louisiana locations. The emphasis will be on making guests fall in love with the city of New Orleans.
More important for the park, though, is that Tiana’s Bayou Adventure will turn a guest favorite attraction over to the company’s first Black princess. It’s a significant evolution for Disneyland, says Imagineering’s Carmen Smith, one of the creatives overseeing the ride.
“As we look at who’s in our parks,” says Smith, the question the company is asking is “how do we make sure that we’re telling stories where if you’re a little girl who happens to be of African descent, or Indigenous, or Latino or Asian,” you can see yourself in one of Disneyland’s attractions.
She adds, “I think that this is a character that so many young girls — and boys — feel like they can identify with. This is an opportunity to expand our reach and showcase that all stories matter — everyone’s stories matter. I look at this as just the beginning of more stories we’ll tell that represent the world we live in. This is so important.”
Longtime Splash Mountain fans shouldn’t be worried. The ride will still feature a large drop that will soak guests, and Imagineering promises there will be 16 re-imagined critters for guests to encounter. Only one was shown at D23 Expo: an otter that’s fashioned a musical instrument out of found objects like typewriter keys and a fishing line. Concept art also hinted that the ride would have a bit of a magical, otherworldly feel, as parts glowed purple and fauna in the water had a brilliant, pink luminescence.
The largest surprise related to Disneyland was revealed early at the D23 Expo, when company Chief Executive Bob Chapek announced Friday that a ride featuring the Avengers would indeed be making its way to the Avengers Campus in Disney California Adventure. A project was initially announced in 2019, but put on hold because of the pandemic. Not many details were revealed Sunday, but the addition to the park looks to be significantly altered from what was originally pitched as a journey into Wakanda. The ride will now focus on bringing guests in contact with an assortment of characters from the Marvel multiverse.
D’Amaro said a third attraction for the land, currently home to Web Slingers: A Spider-Man Adventure and Guardians of the Galaxy: Mission Breakout!, was always planned. Imagineering, however, “went back to the drawing board,” he said, when Marvel announced plans to focus on multiple realities.
“In this new attraction, you’re going to be able to battle alongside all the Avengers against all the foes from anywhere … that you can possibly imagine,” said Marvel Studios President Kevin Feige. But no timetable was given for launching the attraction.
Other D23 Expo announcements centered on additions and tweaks outside the parks, such as SoCal mainstay Porto’s Bakery making its way to the Downtown Disney district — guests were sent home with free pastries — and a Pixar retheme of Paradise Pier Hotel. The immediate future also promises a whole lot of something Disney fans know well: nostalgia. New nighttime shows at the resort, including an update to California Adventure’s World of Color, will focus on the Walt Disney Co.’s 100-year anniversary.
It’s an earned celebration, as Walt Disney narratives have helped define the last century of American pop culture. And with some of those tales, such as “Princess and the Frog,” just now making it into its parks, we’ll give the company a break for revealing that its most ambitious new theme park ideas are still in the thought-starting phase. For now.