The Disneyland of next decade is not going to look like this one. Disney California Adventure will be unrecognizable, nearly all Epcot rides will be tied to movies you’ve already seen, and some of your absolute favorite attractions may go away forever. (Deep breaths, please.)
If it feels like your Mad Tea Cup of nostalgia is spinning too quickly, I get it. The amount of change coming to Disney’s theme parks in the next five years is overwhelming, and not just because writing about it is my full-time job.
There are so many exciting new experiences — Riding a Tron Lightcycle coaster! Piloting the Millenium Falcon! Scurrying around on the Ratatouille ride! — all on their way, which sadly means others need to leave, too. Ellen’s Energy Adventure and The Great Movie Ride shuttered this month to make way for Epcot’s Guardians of the Galaxy-themed coaster and the first-ever Mickey Mouse ride, respectively. Some of Disneyland’s most charming areas were bulldozed for Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge, and the bulk of Disney’s Hollywood Studios has already been halved into a construction zone. When Disney California Adventure rethemes Paradise Pier as Pixar Pier, favorites like Mickey’s Fun Wheel are bound to change — and once that Marvel-themed expansion eventually does get announced? Well, A Bug’s Land is likely on the chopping block, too.
It’s easy to freak out when the fate of your favorite roller coaster or family lunch spot may imminently cease to exist, and throwing history in your face about how “Walt wanted the parks to be ever-evolving” won’t help that. But maybe this will: regardless of what change is on its way, I’m convinced Disney Parks are about to become the best they’ve ever been.
I’m convinced Disney Parks are about to become the best they’ve ever been.
When the Streets of America are removed at Walt Disney World or California Screamin’ likely changes forever at Disneyland Resort, it’s not our childhood memories being sent to a landfill. Large-scale changes like these are intended to only make Disney more, well, Disney. For visitors, especially young children, the ability to see beloved characters come to life in a technologically savvy way is key to the parks’ longevity. We’re beyond meeting Winnie the Pooh while eating a sausage link at a character breakfast constituting a mind-blowing interaction, and Disney’s in-park experiences need to reflect that. Instead of being confined to rewatching dusty VHS tapes of beloved classics and watching the zombie-like mannequins blink back at you from within Fantasyland dark rides, kids these days have conversations with animated Finding Nemo characters and text Mike Wazowski their favorite jokeswhile on vacation, mirroring the level of high-tech interactions they have in daily life.
Replacing an old favorite like Maelstrom with a Frozen-themed ride-through isn’t just for mass appeal, it’s for bringing the Disney experience guests have at home to life in as transportive a way as possible. I’d rather be lost at sea in the World Showcase lagoon than be forced to stand in line for Epcot’s Frozen Ever After attraction, but even I know that seeing Disney’s wildly advanced Anna and Elsa audio-animatronics before stepping outside to meet them IRL takes the movie’s essence further than the ride’s middling plot ever could, and that’s what it’s all about. These widespread changes are coming solely to appeal to us — our generation — so that we have a better experience with our future families on visits to the parks.
It’s not just the big public stuff either. Disney is trying desperately to eradicate the all-chicken-nugget-everything theme park lifestyle for our Instagram-savvy peers who want craft beer instead of Bud Light, gourmet desserts in place of grocery-store-quality cupcakes, and food that will photograph as well as it tastes. Gone are the crayon-colored ’90s hotel rooms in favor of sleek interior decor that feels like a clean Airbnb; food trends are being followed more quickly, merchandise is getting way cooler, and lodging is even becoming its own attraction.
All of those insane ticket price hikes are at least going toward something, with more attractions, updates, and enhancements like these announced weekly. It used to cost less to get through the Magic Kingdom’s gates, sure, but you’d spend your entire day standing in line because Fastpass+ didn’t exist and you couldn’t order souvenirs, tickets, and food from your phone.
I professionally critique Walt Disney World and Disneyland, but when Disney Parks reinvent something these days, they tend to go above and beyond. The transformation of Florida’s Downtown Disney to Disney Springs is both stunning and serene, with eateries like Morimoto Asia, D-Luxe Burger, The Polite Pig, and Amorette’s Patisserie stacking the deck with places I insist people dine at while visiting Walt Disney World. When refurbishments are unveiled, it’s clear that things haven’t just been replaced, they’ve been enhanced. Take Disneyland, for example. The new Fantasmic! updates are so unbelievable that nightly fireworks now take a back seat, the rock work on Disneyland Railroad’s rebuilt route is irrefutably gorgeous, and Maxpass makes skipping standby lines and enjoying the park to its full capacity easier than ever.
We locals (understandably) freaked when The Twilight Zone Tower of Terror closed at Disney California Adventure, but Guardians of the Galaxy — Mission: BREAKOUT is already the highest-rated attraction across both parks. Personally, I think the new ride is — don’t egg me please — better than its predecessor, but some change comes without silver linings. The Great Movie Ride’s removal makes the center of Disney’s Hollywood Studios somewhat of a ride graveyard, the backstory justification for Guardians of the Galaxy coming to Epcot being that Peter Quill “visited as a child” still makes me gag, and honestly, I don’t think seeing The Tivan Collection from the Monorail will ever feel quite right.
Still, there’s a reason I don’t let any of the park changes bother me on a personal level. Down in Florida, the reason Walt Disney World and Universal Orlando Resorts keep introducing new attractions, dining locations, lodging options, and immersive themed lands is to pull the tourism crowd flow toward themselves and away from the other. The speed with which rides and park lands are being greenlit is unprecedented; never before would we have seen E-Ticket attractions, full-fledged lands, and groundbreaking waterparks opening on the exact same day.
It’s an era of theme park revolution, and we’re the ones who will benefit from it. If a few favorite experiences have to go by the wayside to make living within our favorite movies, characters, and stories a reality, I’m all in.