Disney Year in Review for 2016

Filed in Disney Vacation Club, Disneyland, DVC, Epcot, Studios, Walt Disney World, Wilderness Lodge

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Castle at Disney's Magic Kingdom

Now is almost the time when you must pretend like you know the lyrics to Auld Lang Syne. 2016 is coming to a close, and another historic year at Disney theme parks is almost over. Plenty of changes occurred across the parks, and lots happened with the Disney Vacation Club as well. Let’s take this opportunity to reflect on the major Disney events of 2016.

Winds of Change for DVC

For members of the Disney Vacation Club, 2016 was a year of upheaval. Without a new resort added, the focus was on membership privileges. The year started with Disney announcing the new Membership Card, ostensibly as part of the celebration of 25 years of DVC.

What Disney failed to mention was that they were about to change incidental benefits for anyone who chose to save money by purchasing membership via resales. For only the second time since its inception, the rules of DVC ownership rights changed. Nick Cotton wrote an exceptional piece of how little the changes impact resales owners, and a recent article by DVC expert Tim Krasniewski at DVCNews  reinforces that evaluation.  Other than that bit of unpleasantness, the 25th anniversary of DVC has been wonderful on the whole.

With no new resorts opening, the biggest news about DVC facilities involved a pair of hotels that are already open. The first topic is a rumor, so don’t treat it as gospel just yet. WDW News Today reported that Caribbean Beach would become the first Moderate Resort to participate in the DVC program. With occupancy rates so strong at Disney’s finest hotels, expanding the program to middle-tier options is a logical step. But this is all speculation for now.

Disney's Caribbean Beach Resort

The confirmed DVC resort news involves Wilderness Lodge. This hotel has had ongoing construction for a while now, and the perception was that a name change was inevitable. Disney then surprised everyone by offering two. The new facilities that the company’s readying for 2017 will be known as Copper Creek Villas & Cabins at Disney’s Wilderness Lodge. The current ones are now called Boulder Ridge Villas at Disney’s Wilderness Lodge.

Disney's Wilderness Lodge

While this strategy might seem confusing at first blush, Disney’s taking this opportunity to add distinct theming to the old and new parts of Wilderness Lodge. The Boulder Ridge Villas will overlook Boulder Ridge Cove, a zero-entry pool that mimics an abandoned rock quarry in design. A mysterious business known as Boulder Ridge Railway and Mining Co. has left the area for dead, leaving behind mine carts and other meticulously themed construction elements. They’re even adding a restaurant named Geyser Point Bar & Grill to complete the effect. Wilderness Lodge was always one of the most unique and engaging DVC resorts, but it’s poised to level up over the next couple of years.

Soarin’ and Midway Mania Expand As Shanghai Arrives

The biggest news at an American theme park this year involved Epcot and Walt Disney World and, to a lesser extent, Disney California Adventure (DCA). These two parks share a pair of rides: Toy Story: Midway Mania! and Soarin’. Over the past few months, Imagineers improved the Toy Story attraction at Disney’s Hollywood Studios by opening a long overdue third track. DCA didn’t get this update since their wait-times are nowhere near as worrisome to Disney. Prior to the expansion, a park visitor felt lucky if the wait-time was less than 120 minutes. The third track seems to have solved the issue, as Midway Mania is now in line with the E Ticket rides at Walt Disney’s World third gate.

Disney's Toy Story Midway Mania

In the case of Soarin’, the changes directly impacted both parks as well as another we’ll discuss later. Soarin’ Over California debuted in 2001, and it was the one original attraction at DCA that critics didn’t attack with torches and pitchforks. Over time, it degraded in quality through no fault of its own. IMAX became a larger presence in society, allowing them to afford technical innovations that went hand in hand with the ascension of HDTV and now UHDTV. Also, 2001 was just before the digital revolution wherein physical prints of movies fell out of favor. Soarin’ became notoriously sketchy in sections due to the wear and tear on the prints.

Disney Imagineers grew bold as they planned for a new park. That new construction, Shanghai Disneyland, became a critical part of Disney’s 2016. They directed a lot of resources toward the project, arguably the first full-blown Disney park development since Disneyland Paris (Hong Kong Disneyland cut so many corners that it doesn’t belong in the conversation). Shanghai Disneyland is worthy of a detailed discussion of its own, but since it’s not a Disney Vacation Club participant at the moment, all we can do is watch from afar. Let’s all take this moment to dream about Disney transferring Pirates of the Caribbean – Battle for the Sunken Treasure and TRON Lightcycle Power Run to one of the American parks. Okay, that’s long enough. Let’s get back to Soarin’.

While plotting strategies for the historic Shanghai campus, Imagineers decided to reinvent Soarin’ as a global affair. Soarin’ Over California was no more. Replacing it was Soaring Over the Horizon or, as everyone outside of Shanghai calls it, Soarin’ Around the World. The new version visits 13 panoramic locations across the globe, and, in a lovely touch, each iteration ends with an arrival at the Disney theme park where the guest is visiting. At Epcot, Disney didn’t stop there. They also added a third theater, Concourse C, reducing the wait-time of another of their most popular Walt Disney World attractions.

Disney Stubbornly Refuses to Let It Go

Speaking of the most popular Walt Disney World attractions, the back of Epcot no longer takes a backseat to anything in Orlando, Florida. In 2014, Disney announced their plans to repurpose the Norway Pavilion’s beloved but unpopular Maelstrom ride as one with a Frozen theme. Since seemingly every girl still young enough to trick or treat wore an Elsa costume that year, the decision made perfect sense.

Fast forwarding to 2016, Disney unveiled Frozen Ever After, a ride that highlights critical elements of both Frozen and Frozen Fever, presumably because the adorable sneezles basically sell themselves in the adjoining gift shop. While Maelstrom was a glorious celebration of Viking folklore, Frozen’s the butter on Disney’s bread. It needed a park presence, and Imagineers stepped up to the challenge of crafting a ride worthy of the brand.

Opening day of Frozen Ever After was so overwhelmingly popular that many guests without FastPasses waited for many hours to ride. The unlucky ones didn’t even get to do that, as early mechanical issues have caused the attraction to shut down on a frequent basis. Even when it’s operational all day, the wait-times for Frozen are rarely less than two hours. Frozen Ever After is currently the hottest ticket at Walt Disney World, and it should stay that way until Avatarland finally arrives in 2017.

Other New Disney Additions

Smaller things happened at Disney theme parks, too. Personalization became a thing thanks to the technological wizardry of Magic Bands. Since the RFID chips contain personal information, Disney can send specific messages to guests as they enjoy theme park attractions. The most famous example is personal goodbye as a person enters the final room of “it’s a small world”. My favorite, however, is at Haunted Mansion. The Hitchhiking Ghosts now offer you a personalized message, fittingly presented on a tombstone. This actually freaked out some Ohioans riding beside us, but it’s the sort of forward-thinking technology that should become a staple of Disney theme parks.

Another weird turn of events occurred at Disney’s Animal Kingdom. The long-rumored Rivers of Light nighttime exhibition failed to meet its target launch date of this past summer. In its place, Disney threw together a Jungle Book show subtitled Alive with Magic. Frankly, it wasn’t well received and closed fairly quickly. The event was clearly a stopgap measure while Imagineers bought more time to field test Rivers of Light, which recently went through a cast showing and seems ready for 2017.

Star Wars was also all the rage at Hollywood Studios. A Kylo Ren character meeting popped up right after Star Wars: The Force Awakens became the most popular domestic movie title ever. And kids ate up the ability to interact with the 21st century’s answer to Darth Vader. Meanwhile, Season of the Force at Disneyland ran substantially longer than intended due to its sustained traffic. Star Wars was so popular that Star Wars Launch Bay, a hastily thrown together exhibit with a quick movie and some character meetings, oftentimes had wait-times in excess of 20 minutes. If you haven’t mentally prepared yourself yet, accept that the first year of Star Wars Land is going to be CRAZY.

Star Wars at Disney's Hollywood Studios

The other huge addition on the Walt Disney World campus didn’t involve a park. Instead, Disney Springs was the source of attention with the opening of the Town Center expansion, the third major area of the shopping district. When this section opened in May, 23 merchants joined the tourism mecca of Orlando. Many of them were high-end retailers like Kate Spade New York, Vera Bradley, and Alex & Ani. Food fans were in heaven thanks to the welcome additions of D-Luxe Burger, Sprinkles, and The Daily Poutine. Of course, the most important aspect of Town Center’s opening was that the Lime Garage alleviated some of the horrendous parking woes at Disney Springs.

Disney Springs

Photo Courtesy of The BucketList Narratives

Some Sad Closings

As Disney works to alter the perception of its various parks, change is inevitable. Plus the company sometimes decides that it needs to shake things up. That explains a lot of the popular attractions and events that went away in 2016.

The most controversial of the losses was The Osborne Family Spectacle of Dancing Lights. 2015 was technically its final year, but the passion guests felt for the event spilled over into early 2016. In fact, the final display was so popular that Disney’s Hollywood Studios claimed huge traffic during the festival of lights. The park did so well during this event that Disney chose to extend the lifespan of the event for three extra days.

Disney's The Osborne Family of Lights

Hollywood Studios struggled through a harsh year, as we’re about to discuss, and park planners weren’t about to turn away heavy traffic thanks to the emotional departure of The Osborne Family Spectacle of Dancing Lights. Hope still exists that Disney will listen to reason and bring it back at some point, but as 2016 winds down, the pride of Jennings Osborne has no home at Walt Disney World for the first time since 1995. Truly, it was the end of an era.

A lot of other Hollywood Studios features and attractions also closed this year. That’s because Disney needs the room for its major expansions, Pixar Place and Star Wars Land. Areas such as the Honey I Shrunk the Kids play area and the Monsters, Inc. character meeting, all of Streets of America, and several restaurants and merchandise stores vanished in a cloud of dust. Basically since its inception, critics have derided Hollywood Studios as a half-day park, but it’s more fairly described as a half dozen attraction park at the moment.

Similar change is in store for Epcot, something Disney has clearly spelled out in recent days. The first indicator of this change occurred when Innoventions West closed in 2015. Disney has since recycled the region as a character meeting spot, but that’s clearly a short-term usage of the space. That became clear in 2016 when Disney pulled the plug on Sum of All Thrills and StormStruck, effectively killing Innoventions as a concept. The belief is that several grand announcements are in the offing for the upcoming 35th anniversary of Epcot, so we might wind up viewing this change as a positive. It still feels like a small part of the original vision for Epcot just died, though.

Perhaps the least expected shutdowns were of parades. Paint the Night was an integral part of the celebration of Disneyland’s 60th anniversary. Only 15 months after its introduction, cast members performed the final show. Disney’s bringing back the Main Street Electrical Parade in 2017. And that caused some problems at Magic Kingdom, which had hosted the parade since the summer of 2010. In October, Disney killed it in order to make the Disneyland version the only one in America. While bringing Paint the Night to Magic Kingdom would seem like a fitting trade, Disney appears to have other plans. Involving drones.

2016 was undoubtedly an amazing year for Disney theme parks, and it was particularly noteworthy for DVC members. The 25th anniversary festivities were amazing to those who participated. Disney also did a great job of offering merchandise for members who couldn’t make it to the parks this year. The fact that they offered so much during a year of transition is all the more impressive. Disney theme parks are poised for much greater highlights in 2017 when the company’s vision for Avatar finally comes to fruition. And we all know that Star Wars Land is just around the corner after that…

Disney Vacation Club Member David Mumpower’s favorite resort is Disney’s Polynesian Village, his favorite WDW restaurant is Sci-Fi Dine-In Theater, and his favorite attraction is Spaceship Earth. He is also the author of the Disney Demystified book series, which you can buy here.

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