2017 offers the promise of amazing changes at Walt Disney World and Disneyland. No, they aren’t quite as exciting as the ones expected to arrive in 2018, but don’t let your excitement over Star Wars Land cause you to sell Disney short this year. They’ve got some rare and exciting stuff planned. Here are all the new attractions, restaurants, and events that you can expect to arrive in 2017!
A new nightly show at Animal Kingdom
The Parks and Resorts Division of The Walt Disney Company planned to introduce Rivers of Light in 2016. Their expectation was for the new show to anchor the new and improved version of Animal Kingdom, the one open after dark. Their plan never came to fruition, as the company unexpectedly announced a delay for the nightly exhibition.
In place of Rivers of Light, Animal Kingdom offered a much different show, The Jungle Book: Alive with Magic. Planned as a tie-in to the blockbuster live action 2016 film that earned $966 million worldwide, this particular show wasn’t especially popular. Almost as suddenly as they announced its arrival, Disney canceled The Jungle Book: Alive with Magic, ending it on Labor Day, barely three months after its debut.
In the interim, plenty of speculation has occurred about the status of Rivers of Light. Finally, Animal Kingdom offered a cast member preview of its highly anticipated nightly exhibition in late November. Now, Disney feels confident enough to introduce Rivers of Light to the public. It is by all accounts a visually stimulating production employing wondrous lights displays. Some questions exist about the underlying quality of the story told, but Disney is presumably using the feedback from the cast member preview to tighten the show.
Disney planned Rivers of Light to become a nighttime staple of Animal Kingdom after dark. So, they have a lot riding on this one. Thankfully, Disney rarely makes missteps with their closing shows. And they can’t afford a mistake here since Animal Kingdom is where the action will be in 2017. You know why, but we’ll save that discussion for last.
New and Improved Disney Springs Restaurants
Two major updates and a pair of huge additions will upgrade the already-spectacular dining options at Disney Springs. The most stubbornly commercial restaurant chain in the world, Planet Hollywood, was struggling to stand out against a sea of competition in the former Downtown Disney. So, they closed to remodel, and their upgrade is truly spectacular. Planet Hollywood has added an observatory that single-handedly alters the entire perception of the restaurant. The pictures of their new milkshakes are also a foodie’s dream.
From a historical perspective, the more significant update at Disney Springs is Paddlefish. Many long-time vacationers are familiar with the legacy of this riverboat. Named after Walt Disney’s wife, the Empress Lilly originally included three different restaurants back in the 1970s. It was an anchor piece in the shopping district we now know as Disney Springs.
In 1995, almost exactly 18 years after its beginning, the ship closed for renovations. When it opened again, the name had changed to Fulton’s Crab House, thereby negating its lineage as a tribute to the Disney family. Twenty years later, history repeated itself as Fulton’s Crab House vanished. Disney announced that Paddlefish would replace it as the third iteration of the restaurant. They’ve championed the new version as having a more modern, sustainable menu. Given the legacy of this establishment, it’s safe to expect that Paddlefish will become a huge hit. Otherwise, Disney’s done a disservice to their own heritage.
Describing the two new restaurants is easy and hard. The easy portion is The Polite Pig, whose cuisine you can easily guess. A sibling to the already-popular The Ravenous Pig in Winter Park, Florida, this restaurant represents a smart marriage of the Disney brand with popular local chefs. And who doesn’t love barbecue done right?
The hard restaurant to describe is The Edison, the most novel Disney Springs entertainment establishment since The Adventurers Club. Stylish to a point of fault, The Edison is a steampunk celebration with a bar, a restaurant, and a dance club…plus a lot of other crazy stuff. It’s already a popular club in Los Angeles, and Disney has transferred it to Disney Springs, where it will finally debut a year later than expected. As a fan of steampunk, I’ve had this place on my radar since the day it was announced and cannot wait to try it in 2017.
These additions and updates to Disney Springs are especially great news to guests and Disney Vacation Club Members staying at Saratoga Springs in 2017, as they will have easy access to experience it all.
Miss Adventure Falls
Disney’s passion for theming comes across yet again in their latest water park adventure. Miss Adventure Falls at Typhoon Lagoon is a “family-friendly raft ride” that will re-tell the story of troubled adventurer Captain Mary Oceaneer. Disney’s always so subtle with their naming conventions, aren’t they? Anyway, the Captain is a daring heroine who stumbles into some misfortune during a tumultuous weather event. She winds up trapped on the shores of Typhoon Lagoon, where riders can drive past the many treasures she collected prior to the shipwreck. It’s a two-minute raft ride with artifacts galore on display, making it the perfect combination of fun rafting excursion and silly Disney theming as a backdrop.
Disney Vacation Club Excitement
The huge news this year is that the Disney’s Wilderness Lodge will finally introduce its expansion. The region formerly known as The Villas at Wilderness Lodge has already changed names. These DVC offerings are now known as Boulder Ridge Villas at Disney’s Wilderness Lodge. As is the case with Miss Fortune Falls, theming is critical to the changes.
Similar to Big Thunder Mountain Railroad, the newly renovated portion of Disney’s Wilderness Lodge celebrates the post-railroad era of the mid-20th century. It was a time when all the old train tracks, tunnels, and quarries were repurposed into other, more sustainable structures.
The themed items at Boulder Ridge Villas all hearken back to this time of change, when abandoned mine carts were an ordinary part of the landscape in struggling towns. The most dazzling part of the new façade is the Boulder Ridge Railway and Mining Co. Water Tower, a fitting sight as a highlight of a pool area. As DVC members anxiously await announcements about the next new resort participant in the membership program, the update to Disney’s Wilderness Lodge provides the first new villa accommodations since Disney’s Polynesian Village Resort became a participant in 2015.
Guardians of the Galaxy – Mission: Breakout!
On May 5, 2017, the sequel to the wildly successful Marvel comic book adaptation of Guardians of the Galaxy will enter North American movie theaters. A few weeks later, the controversial movie attraction featuring the same group of misfits/intergalactic heroes will arrive. How happy you are about this decision depends on how you feel about Guardians of the Galaxy and how attached you were to The Twilight Zone Tower of Terror.
Yes, Guardians of the Galaxy — Mission: Breakout! replaces one of the most beloved dark rides of all-time, at least at Disney California Adventure. The Walt Disney World version of Tower of Terror will remain intact, at least that’s what Disney execs are saying at the moment. Rumors abound that an entirely different implementation of Guardians of the Galaxy will head to Epcot at some point in the future.
For now, Mission: Breakout! is the headline enhancement for Disneyland in 2017. How big a change it actually is remains to be seen. After all, Tower of Terror was still open at DCA as recently as January 3, 2017. It’s difficult to imagine a dramatic departure from the current ride architecture after only a few months of turnaround time. Imagineers are amazing, but even they have their limits. Then again, Walt Disney built the original Disneyland in almost exactly one calendar year, so maybe the company will pleasantly surprise us once again. The early imagery for Mission: Breakout! is vibrant and eye-grabbing, perfectly exemplifying the style and tone of comic books as a medium.
Pandora – The World of Avatar
Look, everything else on this list sounds terrific, and I’m confident that many people reading this article will try some if not most of it, possibly even all if you’re a completionist and Disney fanatic. No matter how passionate you are about any of the new stuff above – and I’m so excited about The Edison that my hands shake while I write about it – all of these improvements and additions are a drop in the bucket compared to Pandora—The World of Avatar.
Officially announced in 2011, this implementation of the world originally envisioned by James Cameron in Avatar has received so many delays that skeptics wondered if it would ever arrive. Others question the validity of the concept, openly wondering about the lingering cultural footprint of Avatar. Wherever you stand on the subject of Avatar as a movie and of 10-feet-tall blue aliens in general, you understand what a huge deal this new themed land is.
The Walt Disney World complex adds its share of attractions each year, but an entire themed land occurs much less often. The redesigned and reimagined Fantasyland at Magic Kingdom was the most recent such update prior to Pandora, and its evolution occurred from 2010 to 2014 rather than all at once. While that update was significant, the expectation for Pandora is grander in scale.
The primary purpose of the new themed land is to draw renewed attention to Animal Kingdom, which is renowned for its habitat more than its attractions. The World of Avatar is the replacement for the greatest themed land Disney never built, Beastly Kingdom. For six years now, Imagineers have trumpeted its rich feature set as even the most fanatical of Disney visitors have wondered what’s taking so long. Finally, we’re all about to learn whether Pandora lives up to the hype.
What’s the selling point of Pandora? When James Cameron first conceptualized the visuals for what would later become the most successful worldwide box office performer of all-time, he settled on a distinct look. Bioluminescence is one of nature’s most beautiful achievements. Every time you see a firefly, you’re witnessing bioluminescence. Some biological creatures like fireflies are capable of producing their own light. When humans are in the presence of an entire community of such illumination, the beauty can feel overwhelming. Cameron utilized this idea as well as 3D imagery to bring the world of Pandora to life onscreen.
Imagineers seek to accomplish the same feat, only in a permanent state at Animal Kingdom. Pandora was a fiction in the cinematic world of Avatar. At Walt Disney World, it’s a reality in 2017. You’ll enter a realm where bioluminescent plants cover the ground and trees while screeching Banshees stalk the skies, constantly studying the ground below for potential prey. If you look high enough, you’ll even see the legendary floating islands of Pandora lording high above the ground.
As a guest of this exotic world, you’ll dine with aliens (well, technically, YOU are the aliens) at Satu’li Canteen, and you’ll drink with your gigantic blue drinking buddies at Pongu Pongu. You can even take key pieces of Na’vi history home with you thanks to the merchandising shop known as Windtraders. You may be in the themed land of Pandora, but you’re still at Walt Disney World, where food, drink, and authentic branded merchandise are always up for grabs.
Of course, walking through Pandora is only a part of the experience. To embrace your inner 10-feet-tall blue alien, you’ll need to step in the gigantic footsteps of the Na’vi. Disney will offer two attractions to make you feel like you’re a citizen of Pandora. The more famous of them thus far is AVATAR Flight of Passage, which Disney is proudly describing as an E Ticket attraction, their highest stamp of approval. This simulator will recreate the unforgettable scene from Avatar when Jake Sully (eventually) persuades a flying creature to become his noble aerial steed.
Oddly, the attraction that received less fanfare in the years prior to the opening of The World of Avatar may be the better ride. The Na’vi River Journey once sounded like a family friendly journey down the colorful rivers of Pandora, a combination of Kilimanjaro Safaris and Kali River Rapid set in an alien world. Recently, Disney execs have changed their tunes, describing it as the North American equivalent of the spectacular Pirates of the Caribbean – Battle for the Sunken Treasure at Shanghai Disneyland.
That’s a head-turning description, as Disney marketers historically undersell and then over-deliver their attractions. The fact that they’re demonstrating this much confidence about The Na’vi River Journey is indicative of the company’s belief that the entirety of Pandora is a grand slam. If you weren’t planning on visiting Walt Disney World this year, you should reconsider. The World of Avatar is reason enough for a quick Disney getaway.