June 25, 2024

Disney Files New Permit for Animal Kingdom’s Tropical Americas Expansion

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A new permit filed by Imagineering indicates that the Tropical Americas expansion of Animal Kingdom is greenlit and ready to start construction soon at Walt Disney world. This post covers details about the potential Indiana

A new permit filed by Imagineering indicates that the Tropical Americas expansion of Animal Kingdom is greenlit and ready to start construction soon at Walt Disney world. This post covers details about the potential Indiana Jones, Encanto, and Coco land slated to replace Dino-Rama and the latest development.

Let’s start by clarifying what this expansion is and isn’t, since the blue sky daydreaming sessions have confused many Walt Disney World fans. To quickly recap, two years ago at the D23 Expo in California, Parks Chairman Josh D’Amaro talked about the “what if” possibilities for Animal Kingdom, and showed off concept art for a Moana area to replace Dino-Rama and a Zootopia land beyond that.

Between the specificity in the art (it was not ‘impressionistic’ like a lot of Disney concept art where final details haven’t firmed up) and rumors at the time, a lot of fans believed this was very close to receiving the greenlight–including us! Then former Disney CEO and umbrella enthusiast Bob Chapek was fired and Bob Iger brought back.

Fast forward one year, and both Disney and Imagineering are ‘Under New Management.’ D’Amaro again takes the stage at Destination D23 in Florida, but this time under Iger and alongside newly-returned head Imagineer Bruce Vaughn. Here is where things get a little confusing, as they engaged in another blue sky session, but also made official announcements.

Let’s start with what’s really-for-real happening in Animal Kingdom. A new show based on Zootopia is being created for the Tree of Life theater. There’s been some confusion about whether this is a projection show on the outside of the Tree of Life, but it’s not–it’s a replacement for the “It’s Tough to Be a Bug” 3D show inside. The concept art should make that clear:

The concept for the new “Zootopia” experience has guests visiting the different biomes you only glimpse in the film, traveling along with Judy Hopps, Nick Wilde and other characters.

I hesitate to read too much into the concept art, but it appears that a Officer Clawhauser Audio Animatronics figure will replace Hopper. This would made complete sense given both the concept art and that Imagineering already created an (adorable) Clawhauser AA for Shanghai Disneyland. There’s a good chance they made more than one.

Disney has not provided a date for when “It’s Tough to Be a Bug” will close or when the untitled Zootopia show will open. In fact, they haven’t said anything about this show since Destination D23. Our guess is that the current show will close late this year or early 2025, with the Zootopia show debuting in Summer 2025.

Bottom line: Zootopia show happening inside Tree of Life, all other specifics are speculative.

Then there’s the Dino-Rama replacement and expansion. On the officially announced side of the ledger, Disney has confirmed that Imagineering will transform this into a new land inspired by a region sometimes referred to as “Tropical Americas.”

As part of their research, Imagineers are looking at some of the most biodiverse areas on the planet in the regions just north and south of the equator in the Western Hemisphere–the northern part of South America, stretching up into Central America.

Now the unofficial part: under consideration for the Tropical Americas area are new experiences inspired by Encanto and the fan-favorite adventurer Indiana Jones. It also looks like the entrance and restaurant might be inspired by Coco, but that IP was not mentioned by name.

While on stage, Bruce Vaughn said the Tropical Americas land would feature “authentic experiences” from this area of the world, with placemaking and storytelling you’d expect from Animal Kingdom. “It’s a beautiful region to explore and has been the inspiration for so many magical stories over the years,” added Vaughn.

He also indicated that Imagineering had considered several options for Dino-Rama and Tropical Americas, but that Encanto and Indiana Jones “rose to the top” because they give Imagineering “so much to play with.” Vaughn also indicated that there’s “a long way to go and a lot more to discover, but our team in Florida is all over it.” All of that suggests Tropical Americas featuring Encanto and Indiana Jones is the plan for Dino-Rama.

At the time of Destination D23, we also advised that this is what’s happening. That it’s pretty much a done deal, but Disney just isn’t ready to confirm for a variety of reasons. With that said, even some official announcements from the 2017 and 2019 D23 Expos didn’t come to fruition, so nothing is truly a “done deal” until it opens. Bottom line: Tropical Americas has been officially announced for Animal Kingdom, mostly likely with Encanto and Indiana Jones–but those two IPs are not fully finalized. Coco seems to be in the mix, too.

This brings us to the latest development as of March 2024, which is that Walt Disney Imagineering has filed a new permit with the South Florida Water Management District for Animal Kingdom, suggesting that major expansion is slated to start soon.

In essence, the permit outlines a plan to create a Walt Disney Imagineering staging area behind Kali River Rapids. This is NOT where construction will occur. Rather, it’s essentially a trailer park for on-site Imagineers that will include 5 temporary office buildings, plus 363 parking spaces and a new sidewalk with crosswalks down the entire stretch of roadway from the WDI trailer park to behind Dino-Rama.

The permit lists this as being for “Project RO” and the proposal itself for the “Project RO Trailer Compound” (or ROTC). It does not mention Tropical Americas or Dino-Rama, but between the sidewalk leading to the project site and prior announcements, the permit’s purpose is patently obvious. You can download the full 25-page permit file from the SFWMD government site here (warning: it’s 40MB and there’s nothing interesting beyond the images already posted here).

As a bit of color commentary and context, this type of trailer park and staging area is not uncommon for large-scale construction projects at Walt Disney World where Imagineering doesn’t already have backstage offices. Just going from memory, there were similar compounds created for New Fantasyland at Magic Kingdom, Hyperion Wharf/Disney Springs, and Pandora – World of Avatar at Animal Kingdom.

It’s the type of thing created when there’s a massive project, and not just a reimagining or even a single new attraction. The presence of this trailer compound is, itself, a good signal about the scale and scope of the Tropical Americas project. (And perhaps more that has yet to be announced…)

Equally as significant, it’s a possible signal that this is being led in-house by a Florida-based team of Imagineers. It caught my attention that Bruce Vaughn said this was being led by a team in Florida last year at Destination D23, but I wrote it off as something that could change or might just be a throwaway line for an audience in Florida.

However, a Florida-based team for this project makes sense. For one thing, even though the Lake Nona project was cancelled, some Imagineers had already relocated to Central Florida. They sold homes and upended their lives in California–and are still in Florida. For another thing, a lot of this type of work is project-based.

Universal Creative still has other projects up its sleeve after Epic Universe, but they’re nevertheless likely looking to downsize after that new park. Meanwhile, Imagineering needs to staff back up. So history will repeat itself and employees will bounce between the two creative organizations, yet again.

From my perspective, having more Florida-based projects for Walt Disney World is a great thing. While I love the history that Imagineering has in Glendale and it was heartbreaking to see that all unfold, the problem was the “how” of that. It was callous and cold, intended (at least in part) as a layoff in disguise. By contrast, Imagineering having strong presences in both California and Florida is a great thing.

This is an underappreciated win, and one I hope continues with all of the other expansion planned for Walt Disney World. Projects like this should be led by people who live in Florida, who can give it their undivided attention and aren’t just flying in from LAX every other week. Among other things, I’m looking forward to design by people who have firsthand experience with a thing known as “rain.”

I’m not going to rehash my commentary from the original announcement at last year’s Destination D23, much of which focused on why Animal Kingdom is Disney’s top priority right now. That’s worth reading if you question the decision to move forward with expansion at Animal Kingdom as opposed to Beyond Big Thunder at Magic Kingdom or potential projects at Disney’s Hollywood Studios and EPCOT.

As also mentioned there, I love the idea of reimagining DINOSAUR into Indiana Jones Adventure. For those who are unaware, Dinosaur and Indiana Jones Adventure at Disneyland use the exact same ride system and even a very similar track layout. Despite this, Indiana Jones Adventure is substantially superior. It’s not even close. There’s also a version of Indiana Jones Adventure at Tokyo DisneySea, which iterated on issues with the original and streamlined the ride. Each have their own unique twists, and I’d expect that to continue with Indiana Jones Adventure at Animal Kingdom.

Honestly, this is one scenario where my dream approach involves Disney going the “fast and cheap” route and merging the worlds of dinosaurs and Indiana Jones–a best of both worlds attraction that could also be accomplished with a smaller budget and quicker turnaround time. While I’d still like to see this happen, I now have reason to believe it will not occur–that the changes from DINOSAUR to Indiana Jones Adventure are actually pretty significant.

Regardless, it’s safe to expect that the Tropical Americas project will open in phases, with the Indiana Jones side debuting before the Encanto side. I’d expect these to be the 2026 and 2027 tentpole additions at Walt Disney World. Hopefully those timelines are on the conservative side, and both projects are done faster. As demonstrated by Tiana’s Bayou Adventure, Disney can build quickly when there’s a sense of urgency. Perhaps they finally have that.

When it comes to urgency, a positive here is the timing of this permit’s filing. This starting now suggests that Disney is ready to actually get to work. That could mean that, instead of announcing at the D23 Expo in August and then waiting another 6 months to actually put shovel-to-soil, Disney might start before actually announcing. Go the Universal route, for once. (Well, so long as you ignore the blue sky sessions from the last two years.)

It’s possible that the announcement will occur at Disney’s Annual Meeting of Shareholders on April 3, 2024. This is what I’d love to see happen. Animal Kingdom expansion has been the talk of two consecutive D23 events, and doing the same at a third–even if it’s finally for real and much more detailed–might be a bit much. However, I only think an announcement only happens at the shareholder meeting if Disney already has a sufficiently solid slate for the D23 Expo and wants to shift some of that earlier. (Basically, this being announced earlier would be a bullish sign for D23 Expo.)

For reference, I dug through the DTB archives to find the water permit dates for Guardians of the Galaxy: Cosmic Rewind and Remy’s Ratatouille Adventure at EPCOT. Those were filed in mid-May 2017, with the D23 Expo being about 2 months later, in July 2017. Perhaps most critically, those permits opened the floodgates on the rumor mill, and both attractions were an open secret long before Disney officially announced them.

The gap between today and the 2024 D23 Expo is even longer, and it’s possible that Disney has learned from its mistake and will want to get out ahead of this news. Or perhaps not. Cosmic Rewind and Remy’s Ratatouille Adventure were first unveiled at the 2017 D23 Expo, and not teased for 2 years prior. The cat is already mostly outta the bag on Tropical Americas. It’s the specifics we don’t yet know.

However, the rumor mill is already kicking into overdrive, so I’d imagine a lot more becomes an open secret if an announcement isn’t made before the 2024 D23 Expo. (Seriously. If certain rumblings prove to be accurate, this trailer park will outlast the Tropical Americas project, as there are multiphase plans in motion for Animal Kingdom expansion.) It’ll be an interesting saga to watch unfold–we’ll keep you posted!

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Your Thoughts

Excited that Imagineering has already filed permits for a trailer park behind DAK? Are you optimistic that this will usher in an era of expansion at Walt Disney World? What do you think of the Tropical Americas expansion announced for Animal Kingdom? What about the potential of Indiana Jones and Encanto in DAK? Excited or underwhelmed by the (possible) plan? Or, are you in wait and see mode with this? Do you agree or disagree with our assessment? 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!

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