The big Parks & Resorts presentation by Chairman Josh D’Amaro at the 2023 Destination D23 is exactly one week away, with announcements expected for Walt Disney World and Disneyland. This post predicts what’ll be revealed–separating out our own wishful thinking with what’s actually likely in terms of new entertainment, attractions, overhauls and opening dates.
Before all of that, we’ll start with the arguments for and against a big slate of news at Destination D23. Fans are divided on this, and understandably so. Many have had their enthusiasm for all things Walt Disney World and Disneyland tempered over the course of the last few years due to cutbacks, price increases, project cancellations, and the generally slow pace of everything. Then there was last year’s D23 Expo, which featured several ‘announcements’ that were really more like blue sky brainstorming.
Usually, D23 Expo is the flagship event where all of the announcements are made, and Destination D23 is the more history-focused conference for diehard theme park fans where updates are offered on projects in progress. 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. It remains to be seen how that tension will be resolved when it comes to Destination D23 announcements, but let’s discuss reasons for an ambitious slates of announcements as well as more restraint…
A big slate of announcements at the 2023 Destination D23 would actually make some degree of sense. With the opening of TRON Lightcycle Run and the Giant EPCOT Dirt Pit being filled in, the last big development cycle has now more or less wrapped up and is no longer contributing to CapEx numbers for the most part. With no major construction currently happening in either coast for the first time in over a decade, it will soon be time to start the next development phase.
On top of that, the travel industry is proving surprisingly resilient. Even as pent-up demand is exhausting itself, Disney’s theme park business continues to outperform, and investors have begun to take notice of its success. This coupled with Wall Street souring on streaming means Disney may finally start to bet bigger on its theme parks. (All lessons learned back in 2009, proving yet again that history repeats itself!)
This is actually part of why that seemingly-random blue sky discussion occurred on stage at the last D23 Expo. Like a child with a short attention span, Wall Street had just started to lose interest in streaming prior to that, and begun asking more questions about the future of Disney’s theme parks. With nothing greenlit or funded, talking about possibilities was the best Disney could do. It’s been a year since then, so presumably, there’s been time to move projects through development, firm up specifics, and get board approval where necessary.
From the perspective of many Walt Disney World fans, there’s also the elephant in the room that creates a sense of urgency for announcements at Destination D23: Universal’s Epic Universe, the third theme park being built in Central Florida by Comcast.
At this point, it’s already clear that Disney won’t have any “answer” to Epic Universe when it opens in Summer 2025. They simply aren’t capable of building anything that quickly, so it’s already too late. About the best they can probably do is delay Tiana’s Bayou Adventure to 2025 or lean heavily on entertainment to attempt to counter Epic Universe.
Or perhaps Disney has concluded that the only way to “win” is to not play the game. No new ride or land is going to meaningfully compete with a brand-new theme park. Sitting out this round of the theme park wars, conceding the spotlight for a year, and claiming a rising tide lifts all boats might be the best hand that Disney can play. No Disney fan wants to hear this, but might be the smarter move than trying to steal Epic Universe’s thunder.
There’s a lot that could be written about Walt Disney World and Universal’s competition for Central Florida tourism dollars, most of which is beyond the scope of this Destination D23 predictions post. I’ll just say that claims that Universal is going to “eat Disney’s lunch” are ,not even remotely grounded in reality. Average guests (infrequent visitors or first-timers) don’t experience destinations on the sole basis of what’s brand new.
However, I’ll also add that it doesn’t much matter whether that claim is true or simply wishful schadenfreude. Universal has been quietly building out its resort complex over the last decade, turning it into a bona fide destination, rather than a diversion from Disney. Epic Universe is the last piece of that puzzle, and that third theme park will siphon away stays from Disney. As a hotel business that also operates theme parks, Walt Disney World cannot be comfortable losing overnight guests to Universal. Even a 10% reduction would be a big blow.
Will that have any bearing on announcements at Destination D23? Probably not. I’m just mentioning it because Universal vs. Disney comes up a lot, as does the “need” for an answer to Epic Universe. At this point, though, it’s already clear Disney won’t have an immediate or direct answer, so the question is what sense of urgency to create one down the road current exists within the company? (Probably not much, they’re cocky.)
If it’s simply about creating fan hype as an “answer” (which is fairly meaningless in the real world when people are planning trips), Disney could just as soon wait to make an announcement until the next D23 Expo. In fact, that might be the superior strategy, as the news would be ‘fresher’ than when people are making plans for 2025 and beyond.
Speaking of things that I actually don’t think have much of a bearing on Disney’s announcements at Destination D23, there’s also the standoff with the state. This is another thing that comes up a lot in fan circles, with the typical argument being that the company won’t announce anything for Walt Disney World until the feud with Governor DeSantis and the Central Florida Tourism Oversight District has ended.
I’m not convinced of this. I do think it’s true that earlier this year, when CEO Bob Iger announced the company’s plan to invest a staggering $17 billion on Walt Disney World over the next decade, he purposefully timed those words to sway public opinion in favor of Disney. I also believe that Disney was perfectly happy to let reporting about Disney cancelling the Lake Nona Imagineering Campus and Star Wars: Galactic Starcruiser Closure draw nonexistent connections to the standoff with the state.
However, that was months ago at a phase in this ‘battle’ that was largely playing out in the media and for the benefit of the public. It was the first real counteroffensive since Iger took the helm, and the hope was–presumably–to win over voters and cause the state to back down as a result. That phase has run its course.
Governor DeSantis has largely moved on to other ‘issues’ during his campaigning, and Iger hasn’t said anything noteworthy about the fight with Florida in months. Sure, there are still smaller players who are bitterly engaged in culture wars, but that’ll always be the case. Anyone who was ever going to have a strong opinion about this subject has already made up their mind, and isn’t going to be persuaded otherwise at this point. This matter has moved from the court of public opinion to courts of law.
In real courts, Disney investing or withholding investments in the state of Florida has zero bearing on their legal arguments. Public posturing and optics don’t much matter anymore. So unless you believe that Disney isn’t going to do anything in Florida until all the cases conclude–or that Disney will purposefully sabotage itself out of spite–there’s no longer any reason to postpone announcements on the basis of the feud.
With all of that said, I am not convinced that Josh D’Amaro will get up on stage at Destination D23 and lay out a 10-year plan that amounts to $17 billion of investment in Walt Disney World in the next decade. While I actually am bullish that will happen because of Wall Street’s newfound (more like rediscovered) enthusiasm for theme parks, it still seems premature.
The big reason is that Disney quite simply has too much debt and not enough liquidity to front-load spending. Although this is already starting to improve, streaming is still hemorrhaging money (no longer $1 billion per quarter–progress!), and the future of both Hulu and ESPN are still unknown. On top of that, there’s now the standoff with Spectrum and the Hollywood unions. I personally don’t believe either of those things have much bearing on theme park announcements, but the totality of all this does add up.
But that’s an argument against Disney sticking shovel in soil today, and immediately starting up significant CapEx at Walt Disney World. As we’ve seen many times, it doesn’t work that way. There’s no reason Disney’s Board of Directors can’t forecast out when Disney+ will attain profitability, how much Hulu will cost, how much they can make on an ESPN partnership, and then approve future spending on Parks & Resorts along that timeline.
Stated more bluntly, Josh D’Amaro can get up on stage at Destination D23 and announce a bunch of start that won’t commence construction until 2025. If that’s the case, why not simply wait until the 2024 D23 Expo to make a splashy announcement on the bigger stage? Well, that’s certainly a possibility. But so too is announcing now to show Wall Street some signs of life and perhaps reverse the slumping stock price.
In short, there’s a lot of uncertainty about what’ll be revealed at Destination D23, with reasons for more aggressive announcements and compelling counterpoints for the normal slate of updates. With all of that in mind, here are my actual predictions for what gets revealed at the event next weekend…
Don’t you just love the wonderful world of Disney acronyms?
The centerpiece exhibit at Destination D23 is “60 Years of Disney’s Audio-Animatronics Technology.” According to the description, this will showcase the evolution of the art and its related technology through a diverse showcase of rare figural assets, photography, and vintage ephemera and documentation all in the name of celebrating key moments from Walt’s earliest inspirations and development to modern-day marvels.
It’s a safe bet that this will feature Audio-Animatronics from Tiana’s Bayou Adventure. At least, I really hope that’s what happens. Thus far, I think Disney has done an atrocious job of generating enthusiasm for this upcoming attraction. The marketing, or whatever you want to call it, has felt unassured and defensive, focusing on things that aren’t even in the ride as if it’s necessary to justify its existence with things about which 99% of actual guests do not care.
Up until now, Disney has buried the lede when it comes to the Audio-Animatronics in Tiana’s Bayou Adventure. This would be a great opportunity to shift the focus and get fans actually excited for this E-Ticket attraction that is, supposedly, coming next year. Given Imagineering’s recent strides with AAs, this could be a really exciting exhibit, and one that kickstarts the hype cycle for TBA.
(It’s also possible/probable that we’ll see the impressive AAs for the upcoming additions in Hong Kong, Shanghai, and Tokyo. However, I wonder just how much Disney will want to highlight nextgen AA technology that 99% of U.S. fans will never see.)
Moana’s Journey of Water Opening Date & Details
Disney just announced that the Saturday evening event for Destination D23 attendees will be “An Evening at EPCOT with D23” at the conclusion of the day’s final presentation, “EPCOT: Always in a State of Becoming.”
Given that (wide) Cast Member previews just started in earnest in the last couple of days, with photos and videos flooding social media, I think it’s a pretty safe bet that the presentation reveals the opening date for Moana’s Journey of Water followed by a “but since we love our D23 members, we’re going to give our most loyal fans a private sneak peek tonight!!!” (Crowd goes wild.)
As for a prediction on the official opening date, I’ll go with the second half of October 2023. Cast Member previews are currently scheduled until the kickoff of Disney100, at which point Annual Passholder and Disney Vacation Club Member previews are likely in late September and parts of October 2023.
This attraction is ready to roll, and could have opened over the summer. Our guess is that the delay is largely a matter of crowd control at this point. There’s really nowhere for a standby line to go, so it’s possible/probable that Walt Disney World will wait until fall break is over before opening that attraction in order to avoid congestion in the walkway or being forced to use a virtual queue. Burning off some demand with affinity previews and then debuting it officially after Columbus Day makes sense from that perspective.
EPCOT Overhaul Updates
The overhaul of EPCOT will wrap up sometime this year or next. Given recent aerial construction photos, I’m skeptical that any surprises remain in the Giant EPCOT Dirt Pit™️. It’s mostly just trees, planters, and stuff about which we already know. If I were Disney, I’d probably be a bit apprehensive about hyping up all of that–for many fans, this is going to be the most anticlimactic 4-year project ever.
But they probably will hype it up, anyway. The company will play to the crowd and emphasize Dreamers Point and the statue of Walt Disney, naturally. We’ll probably get backstory about how this ties into his original vision for an Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow, or how there are nods to the history of EPCOT Center. Yawn.
The bigger wildcards here are whether he hear about the Play Pavilion, which has been paused, and other future additions around the front of EPCOT. Although it’s #1 on my wish list, I’m betting against another Journey into Imagination overhaul. I’d also bet against Play Pavilion or Mary Poppins. I think both of those things are dead.
Instead, I’ll go with updates and maybe a few minor details about CommuniCore Hall & Plaza, concept art for the Figment meet & greet (and an official opening date), and things of that nature. My bigger/bolder prediction is that a (new) reimagining of Spaceship Earth is revealed. That attraction needs an extensive refurbishment sooner or later; they might as well update the show scenes during the downtime.
It’s a certainty that there will be status reports and new concept art for projects at international parks that are already underway. These include the Walt Disney Studios Park expansion at Disneyland Paris, Arendelle at Hong Kong Disneyland, Zootopia at Shanghai Disneyland, and Fantasy Springs at Tokyo DisneySea.
Even though Disney usually glosses over the Japan parks since it doesn’t own them, it wouldn’t surprise me to see actual attention given to Fantasy Springs since it’s far and away the most ambitious project and it opens next year. The WDSP also should be highlighted given its long-term, transformational significance for Disneyland Paris.
If I were to ‘bet’ on anything, specifically, it’d be an opening date for the World of Frozen at Hong Kong Disneyland. We already know that’ll debut in November 2023, so the time is right for a specific date. Not only that, but Disney has been drawing more attention to HKDL lately, and it’s more likely that the partners in China and Japan will want to control the timing of their opening date announcements.
Disney Cruise Line is going to reveal its next ship, the Disney Treasure, on September 5, 2023. That’s really odd timing given that Destination D23 is only a few days later, but it’s likely that DCL wants its own spotlight. The whole cruise ecosystem is its own beast that’s different from theme parks, and Disney Cruise Line probably wants to generate actual bookings from the reveal.
Nevertheless, it’s possible that DCL will hold back a nugget or two in order to have a one-two hype punch next week. In this case, something that uniquely appeals to diehard Walt Disney World fans would make sense. It’s also possible that D’Amaro simply reiterates what was shared during the Treasure reveal or offers an update on Lighthouse Point.
One of the safer bets is that the D’Amaro panel will feature an emotional entertainment montage highlighting recent and returning nighttime spectaculars, parades, and so forth. Entertainment has truly been one of the biggest bright spots over the last year, and D’Amaro deserves to take a bit of a ‘victory lap’ with the reimagined Fantasmic, Wondrous Journeys, Magic Happens, Momentous, Rogers: The Musical, Happily Ever After, etc.
Frankly, I don’t think fans have appreciated just how good the recent run of entertainment has been, especially after the abysmal 50th Anniversary offerings. So celebrate that and draw attention to it. Remind fans that entertainment is a big part of the magic, etc. After that, look forward to what’s next in 2024.
In our previous Destination D23 Wish List, I already laid out the case for “Summer Nightastic 2.0.” While I don’t think it’ll be called that, the idea is turning 2024 into a summer/season of spectaculars, anchored around new and reimagined entertainment at both Walt Disney World and Disneyland. This isn’t just my wish–it’s what I really think is going to happen. With attendance starting to slow as revenge travel dies down, Disney will need a promotional push for the first half of 2024.
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 will probably arrive in 2024 if it’s going to anchor an entertainment-centric ‘event.’
David Duffy being promoted to VP of Live Entertainment at Walt Disney World likely did not happen by coincidence. After years of neglect and stagnation on the entertainment front, here’s hoping that Florida is finally ready to invest big in spectaculars. If Duffy can work the same magic he did for the 30th Anniversary of Disneyland Paris, entertainment could prove to be a big draw for Walt Disney World during a time between big development cycles.
Over at Disneyland, more details about the Downtown Disney expansion, Disneyland Hotel DVC, and Paradise/Pixar Pier Hotel seem likely. There’s also the Adventure Treehouse, which somehow still has not opened. When it comes to these things and Disneyland, it seems like there’s almost always a medium-tier announcement that comes out of left field. Obviously, I have no clue what that will be…or it wouldn’t be out of left field…but I’d expect that, too.
Although it made my wish list, I don’t expect to hear anything about the Avatar Experience. I also don’t expect to hear anything about the King Thanos Multiverse attraction in Avengers Campus. I hope to be wrong about both, but I’m guessing it’s still premature for the former and the latter is dead again.
I also do not expect to hear anything about DisneylandForward. Once again, I think many people have misread what that actually is. There is no there there–it’s essentially about zoning and land use. When fans say, “Disney will build X as part of DisneylandForward,” they are fundamentally misunderstanding the initiative. It’s not a project, it’s public approval to give Disney greater autonomy over what they can build…if they so choose.
Again, we already know that Chester and Hester’s Dino-Rama is going extinct soon(ish). 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.
Although my wish list implored Disney to give dinosaurs a second chance, I doubt that’ll happen. Aside from the incredible Dinosaurs and a bunch of flops, Disney doesn’t have any dino-centric intellectual property. And something tells me they’re not building a land around a satirical television show from the early 90s, even if it’s the distinctly patriotic thing to do.
The big question is whether one or both of the Moana and Zootopia lands have been greenlit yet. A lot has happened since the last D23 Expo, 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. My guess is that we’ll get official confirmation of 1 of the 2 concepts, with a tease that it’s just one component of the expansion plans for Animal Kingdom, and more will be revealed at a later date.
An addition to Animal Kingdom just makes sense. This is now the Walt Disney World park furthest removed from its last big expansion, it’s the park people spend the fewest hours in per day, and Disney already demolished Primeval Whirl. The picnic space that replaced it is an upgrade over the ride (addition by subtraction, baby!), but it won’t remain empty forever. Disney needs to improve the ride roster and drawing power of Animal Kingdom, and that needs to happen 4 years ago. We’ll have to settle for 4 years from now, I guess.
That’s probably the most ‘remote’ and biggest announcement we’ll hear at the 2023 Destination D23 event. While this may seem like a conservative slate as compared to our wish list and what you may also be hoping happens–and it arguably is after the blue sky hype of last year’s D23 Expo–a presentation on par with the above would still make this the splashiest Destination D/D23 ever. This is usually the update event, so the above predictions are pretty much the middle ground between optimism and pessimism.
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Care to make it interesting by placing your own predictions 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!