July 22, 2024

Wish List of Announcements at 2023 Destination D23 for Disney World, Disneyland & Beyond!

Destination D23 is under 2 weeks away, with Walt Disney World and Disneyland fans anxiously awaiting announcements for the parks’ next phases of growth. There are a lot of predictions and wishful thinking about what new attractions are on the horizon, with speculation about overhauls and expansion various lands and parks.

While there’s also been a lot of skepticism (and for good reason), there’s been renewed hope in the last few days. For one thing, D23 released the full schedule of panels, and the feature presentation from Parks & Resorts Chairman Josh D’Amaro has a new and more exciting description. It’s now called “A Celebration of Disney Parks, Experiences and Products: Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow,” and indicates that D’Amaro and “special guests” will be “looking to the future of Disney parks, featuring updates from around the world and some fun surprises along the way.”

This is as contrasted with the previous presentation description, which indicated that D’Amaro would “host a fun and entertaining presentation about what makes a Disney experience so magical and memorable for guests and fans around the world.” The distinction should be obvious, but in case not, the prior description suggested fluff, whereas the new one is forward-looking and suggests announcements. This follows a few other recent developments…

Earlier this month, Walt Disney Imagineering senior leadership was spotted touring Animal Kingdom. Unsurprisingly, they were seen scouting the Dinoland/Dino-Rama areas, and the Imagineers on the visit included Chris Beatty–who previously discussed the “possibility” of Moana and Zootopia as expansion for Animal Kingdom at last year’s D23 Expo.

In addition to that confirmed sighting, we’ve heard less credible rumblings that high-level leadership at the Walt Disney Company has made site visits to Animal Kingdom and Magic Kingdom in anticipation of the board greenlighting these expansions. If true, that would mean that the specifics of these proposals have firmed up, and the people in control of the purse strings are preparing to sign off on these announcements–or already have. (That’s much more significant than Imagineers touring the parks–WDI doesn’t dictate funding or what gets built.)

While those two things are potentially connected, there’s another recent change that’s more of a wildcard. Just last week, David Duffy was named to the role of Vice President, Live Entertainment at Walt Disney World. Normally, this would be considered a promotion, as Duffy served in what’s essentially that same role at Disneyland Paris prior to this, and Walt Disney World is the flagship vacation destination with 4 parks instead of 2.

Given the circumstances, this might be like being traded from the Orioles to the Mets. For those who don’t follow baseball, that would have been an exciting move before the season started–an “upgrade” to the team trying to buy itself a World Series berth from the one doing pretty much the exact opposite. However, the Orioles currently find themselves as contenders in first place and the Mets are languishing in the cellar.

Duffy might find himself in a similar position. He’s responsible for the spectacular 30th Anniversary program at Disneyland Paris, along with a number of other shows, celebrations, and entertainment enhancements at Disneyland Paris. Somehow, the smaller market team has managed to run circles around the flagship resort when it comes to entertainment in recent years. Maybe Duffy will be denied the tools needed to make a similar impact at Walt Disney World, and this amounts to being traded from a scrappy contender to a big budget bust.

More optimistically, it’s possible that Duffy is being promoted to Walt Disney World precisely because of his success at Disneyland Paris, and there’s an internal desire to replicate those results in Florida. That management in Burbank sees the difference in quality, and is bringing Duffy aboard to ‘rebuild’ the live entertainment roster at Walt Disney World. That’s our hope and expectation–but just like baseball, this is a team game. If Team Disney Orlando’s attitude towards entertainment remains the same and Duffy isn’t empowered to make a difference, nothing will change.

Before we dig into the specifics of what we want announced at Destination D23, it’s important to offer the caveat that this is a wish list. This is what we hope will be announced given what’s realistically on the table, not what we actually think will be revealed. This is overtly optimistic–if even 25% of this ends up coming to fruition, I’ll be very happy. Despite the disappointments and hard lessons of the last couple years, I think there’s a compelling case for optimism for the long-term future of both Walt Disney World and Disneyland.

However, there is also a compelling case for pessimism in the near-term. There’s also ample reason to believe that the Walt Disney Company is still about a year away from even making any major announcements for Walt Disney World and Disneyland, setting the stage for a bigger and bolder D23 Expo in 2024, and a more muted presentation this year.

We’ll be the ‘debbie downers’ in another post with actual predictions very soon. For now, let’s stick to optimism and share our wish list for the 2023 Destination D23 announcements…

Fantasy Springs Opening Date

Just last week, new restaurant & ride names and details were announced for Fantasy Springs, the eighth port at Tokyo DisneySea that’s themed to Frozen, Tangled, and Peter Pan. This is the biggest expansion to any existing Disney theme park anywhere ever, with an approximate budget of $2.2 billion. It’s also far and away the current project about which we’re more excited. We offer full details and commentary in Everything You Need to Know About Fantasy Springs at Tokyo DisneySea.

Previously scheduled to open this year, Oriental Land Company (which owns and operates Tokyo Disney Resort) delayed the debut until Spring 2024–sometime within OLC’s first quarter of the fiscal year. Narrowing that down, Fantasy Springs will open sometime between April 1, 2024 and June 30, 2024. Our expectation is that Fantasy Springs will officially debut on April 15, 2024.

Announcing an opening date at Destination D23 might seem obvious, but it probably won’t occur. OLC will want to dictate the timeline for that, and Americans aren’t exactly the target audience for the theme parks in Japan. Selfishly, we really hope it happens–but it’s more likely that Audio Animatronics from Fantasy Springs are featured at the event. (Also selfishly, we’re more mixed on that. While it’s great to expose domestic audiences to what the international parks are getting, we want to go into Fantasy Springs as ‘blind’ and spoiler-free as possible!)

World of Frozen Opening Date

Disney has already announced that World of Frozen at Hong Kong Disneyland is opening in November 2023. As we’ve discussed in Arendelle Is Going to Be Awesome, we’re really excited for this land and think it’ll be a huge addition for HKDL.

Unless the timeline is tight, announcing the specific date at Destination D23 just makes sense. Less selfishly, we really want to see Hong Kong Disneyland get as much love and exposure, and on the biggest stage as possible. That “little park” is quietly excellent, and could use more fans and visitors!

Summer Nightastic 2.0

If you’ve read our recent posts about Fantasmic at Disneyland or Disney100 at EPCOT, you already know we won’t shut up about this one. In a nutshell, we hope that Disney pulls out the whole Summer Nightastic playbook, and makes 2024 a summer of spectaculars, anchored around new and reimagined entertainment on both coasts.

With attendance starting to slow as revenge travel dies down, Disney will need a promotional push for the first half of 2024. Almost by default, the solution will likely be entertainment–it’s the only thing that can conceivably happen on this tight of a timeline. After years of rumors and wishful thinking, perhaps 2024 will finally be the year that both Paint the Night and Main Street Electrical Parade return (one for each coast). It’s been a while, but they’re both sitting in storage in Southern California, and Paint the Night has a still relatively new float.

At Walt Disney World, it’s conceivable that as-yet unannounced entertainment comes to Disney’s Hollywood Studios and/or Magic Kingdom. That could mean a parade, parades (plural), or a parade and a projections/fireworks show. Then there’s the new nighttime spectacular at EPCOT, which is supposed to debut this year…but could slip into 2024 if it’s going to anchor an entertainment-centric ‘event.’

David Duffy being promoted to VP of Live Entertainment at Walt Disney World suddenly makes much more sense!

Avatar Experience Elaboration

On multiple earnings calls and interviews, Disney CEO Bob Iger has enthusiastically touted an Avatar Experience coming to Disneyland Resort. The only problem is that he’s provided zero details about what this “experience” will entail (is it a clone of the Pandora land, ride, restaurant, walk-through, VR game, etc?), where it’ll be located (DCA, Disneyland, Downtown Disney, the lobby of Pixar Place Hotel?!) or when it’ll open (2025 to 2028 seem most likely).

Iger has just said that an “Avatar experience” is happening sometime down the road at Disneyland Resort. Even though this sounds to me like a classic Iger pet project, I don’t want to get my hopes up about this, as the scale is almost certainly not on par with Pandora. Still, it’d be nice to get some specifics!

Digging in Dinoland

It’s an open secret that something is going to replace Chester and Hester’s Dino-Rama. The unanswered questions are what it’ll be, when it’ll happen, and whether be a bona fide park expansion or a straightforward replacement of Dino-Rama. The rumors have swirled for years–even before last year’s D23 Expo–and have included everything from Indiana Jones to revisiting the Excavator roller coaster.

Then came that infamous blue sky daydreaming session on stage at the D23 Expo that discussed “potential expansion” opportunities and “early concept exploration” for Dinoland USA. One of those included detailed concept art for a Moana Mini-Land at Animal Kingdom that would replace Dino-Rama; another was for Zootopia Expansion at Animal Kingdom that would be built beyond Dino-Rama for the most part.

At the time, it was our understanding that neither proposal had been greenlit–but that expansion for Animal Kingdom, generally, was close. A lot has happened since then, with the most notable difference being that Josh D’Amaro has a new boss–Bob Iger (again). Imagineering has also seen changes at the top, and the power structure among those empowered to make Animal Kingdom expansion a reality has changed. What’s unknown is whether preferences and priorities have shifted.

Regardless, our “wish” here is for this replacement and expansion to be, quite simply, more dinosaurs. Dino-Rama didn’t fail because it lacks recognizable animated characters or synergy. It failed because it sucks. Normal guests don’t care about backstory, and all that lipstick couldn’t save the pig that is Dino-Rama. The land being unpopular and bad has nothing to do with dinosaurs and everything to do with its original budget being, like, twenty-five bucks. Fix the funding and you fix the problem.

Dinosaurs are also basically the ultimate intellectual property, and it’s almost criminal that Disney hasn’t released a great movie featuring them. It would be even more (almost) criminal to remove the one theme park land devoted to these magnificent creatures, rather than doubling down on them.

There is so much unrealized potential with a land devoted to dinosaurs, and if given a big budget, Imagineering could create something truly magical and awe-inspiring that would have tremendous guest drawing power. Even IP integration could come over time once the studios finally come to their senses, stop the gratuitous remakes, and start making movies about dinosaurs. Heck, that’s already happened once in Dinoland!

In the end, we’ll be on board with pretty much whatever expansion happens at Animal Kingdom. It’s badly needed. But this is a wish list, and our hope is that the expansion occurs via dinosaurs. Dinosaurs should not go extinct at Walt Disney World, and replacing the one land devoted to them is just so incredibly short-sighted. Not only that, but Animal Kingdom is the one park at Walt Disney World that’s still thematically “pure,” and doubling down on dinosaurs would serve to strengthen that, rather than diminishing it. Give us more dinosaurs, Disney!

Beyond Big Thunder

For the last year, CEO Bob Iger and Parks Chairman Josh D’Amaro have teased expansion possibilities for Magic Kingdom, from blue sky pitches ‘Beyond Big Thunder’ and ‘Beyond the Berm‘ (basically the same thing) to development in the footprint of the park. We’ve already heard proposals for Coco, Encanto, and Villains lands, and even more has been considered for Magic Kingdom.

This is an interesting approach, indicating that Disney wants to increase the drawing power of its most popular park rather than normalizing attendance among all four. Most Magic Kingdom plans in the medium and long-term will actually both expand the physical footprint of the park and increase capacity/utilization of existing areas. Unlike the other parks, Magic Kingdom needs more physical space in order to meaningfully increase attendance. That’s precisely why ‘Beyond Big Thunder’ is plausible in the first place.

In the near-term, it’s hard to know what’s next for Magic Kingdom and when it’ll be announced. We’ve heard rumblings that plans have started to firm up, but it’s still possible that we’re a year away (2024 D23 Expo) from hearing official announcements. We’re hoping it comes at Destination D23–there would be something fitting about Magic Kingdom kicking off Walt Disney World’s next development cycle, just as New Fantasyland did over a decade ago!

EPCOT Overhaul – Phase 2

The EPCOT overhaul is bound to be discussed at the 2023 Destination D23 event. It’s the next “thing” coming to Walt Disney World, and is (allegedly) going to be finished in Late 2023. So we’ll almost certainly hear about Moana’s Journey of Water, CommuniCore Hall, Walt’s Sitting Statue, etc.

From my perspective, the problem with this is that it’s 4 years later and the only things of substance to show for the EPCOT central spine redesign are Moana’s Journey of Water and additional trees. CommuniCore Hall replaces what was already there, minus the symmetry. The plaza swaps out a fountain for a planter. “More trees!” is not exactly marketable, and many fans are bound to wonder what happened and why it took so long.

The only real “answer” to that is discussing a second phase to the EPCOT overhaul that will address elements cut from the first phase (Spaceship Earth reimagining, Play Pavilion, Mary Poppins flat ride) or unannounced in the first place (new World Showcase country, other reimaginings, etc). My guess is that Disney is ready to move on from EPCOT, but I want to maintain optimism that this isn’t the finished product.

Tomorrowland Transformation

It’s been roughly 4 years since Disney announced “A Great, Big, Beautiful Tomorrowland Entrance Coming Soon to Disneyland.” That entrance, depicted in the concept art above, still has not come to fruition. The walls are still up and have been for a few years. (I honestly can’t believe they’ve left the concept art up on them.)

Prior to last year’s D23 Expo, rumors about a reimagined Tomorrowland at Disneyland hit a fever pitch. It’s our understanding that these were credible, with big ambitions for the future of Tomorrowland. But nothing was announced, and all has been quiet about Tomorrowland since. The latest round of rumors were wrong, just like the last dozen-plus.

The thing is, sooner or later, this is going to happen. It’s an overdue inevitability. It seems logical that the next “new” Tomorrowland will revisit the 1967 ideas of Walt Disney and his Imagineers that envisioned it as a “world on the move,” featuring Googie architecture, Space Age designs, and mid-century modern stylization. Today’s Imagineers have been leaning into these looks more and more, and for good reason: they stand the test of time.

On a substantive level, there are a ton of possibilities. Star Tours and Buzz Lightyear’s Astro Blasters seem like obvious candidates for updates. As Hyperspace Mountain has proven, Space Mountain could become an entirely “new” ride via the strategic use of screens. Something more permanent could be a big draw and done without significant investment or downtime.

Then there’s the old Innoventions building, which is long overdue for something new. Of course, the fan favorite wish fulfillment calls for the restoration of the PeopleMover, so we might as well throw that in there–after all, this is a wish list, not predictions of what’ll actually happen.

To that point, we would bet against this announcement even if it’s in development. This is the kind of news you save for the home crowd in Anaheim–although the fan reaction to this news there would likely cause seismic activity that would put a Taylor Swift concert to shame. So there is that “risk” to waiting for the 2024 D23 Expo!

Fantasyland Expansion

Pretty much the same story here. Fantasyland expansion at Disneyland rumors are a tale as old as time. Most versions of this involve replacing Fantasyland Theatre and taking up some of the space between Toontown and Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge or some portion of the lagoons and Autopia area on the opposite side.

The more recent credible versions of this rumor revolved around Arendelle, but are now several years old. Personally, I still think that is likely–Imagineering is building two somewhat similar versions of Arendelle in Hong Kong and Paris, and another area in Tokyo. They’ve honed the idea to the point that a clone would be inexpensive (by Disney standards–but still very, very expensive relative to anything else). The amount of domestic coverage the international Arendelle lands are receiving is also curious, almost as if Disney is gauging the reception among American fans.

Moving forward on this soon makes sense. Fantasyland is cramped, and opening up more walkways would ease the strain of crowds and help with capacity. But it’s also hard to imagine Disney stealing the thunder from Hong Kong or making this announcement at Walt Disney World. It’s another one that’ll play better to the home crowd at the 2024 D23 Expo.

Journey into Imagination with Figment & Dreamfinder

It wouldn’t be one of our D23 event wish lists without Figment and Dreamfinder! For like the tenth straight event, this tops the list. Despite endless disappointment, I refuse to give up hope for a proper Journey into Imagination reimagining. And it sure seems like we’re getting closer.

Figment is coming back in meet & greet form, and the character is more popular than ever. For me, it just makes sense that a substantive addition would be announced featuring Figment and (hopefully) Dreamfinder at a presentation we already know discuss EPCOT’s reimagining. Given that much of what’s going to be revealed when the walls come down after 4 years will be a disappointment, it might make sense to have another phase that actually generates excitement.

An overhaul of Journey into Imagination would be both a legacy project and something that would define the EPCOT transformation, tying it together into a more cohesive project. Figment would become the face and mascot of the new-look EPCOT, elevating the otherwise underwhelming central spine in the process.

Bringing back Figment and Dreamfinder is a surefire way of undoing a lot of the outrage and brand damage from the last few years. I can’t think of any other single positive announcement that would outweigh so many prior negatives ones. A lot would be forgiven by fans in the blink of an eye.

Announcing Journey into Imagination 3.0 is one surefire way to get massive applause from the Destination D23 audience (in this case, the home crowd!), restore some goodwill that has been eroded the last few years, and guarantee visits from loyal fans. About the only ways to achieve that are the return of Figment and Dreamfinder. If Disney executives are truly concerned about all of these things (and maybe they aren’t!), it’s the logical time to do something that should’ve been done a decade ago.

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Your Thoughts

Care to make it interesting by placing your own “bets” about what will be announced at the 2023 Destination D23? Do you think it will be a time for big attraction announcements, or will mostly focus on details about projects that are already underway or that have happened already? Any surprise announcements you think might be possible? Obviously, none of us know what the future holds (unless you’re a Disney executive or Imagineer…in which case, please let us know what’s going to happen! 😉 ), but I think it’s fun to take some guesses and see who ‘wins’ just the same. We’ll revisit this post in a couple weeks and whoever got the most right will win…bragging rights!