The D23 Expo, billed as “the ultimate Disney fan event,” is a three-day convention sprawling over a million square feet in the Anaheim Convention Center. It happens every other August, and last weekend, I attended its fourth iteration, along with more than 60,000 people hailing from all 50 states, and from 28 countries.
As I braved the happy hordes of Disnerds, Lucas devotees, Marvel fans, and cosplayers, my mission was to scout and report all things travel-related. Here’s what’s new and coming soon from the company that’s been cranking out hits since 1923.
Disney is making the most out of Bob Iger’s acquisitions tear, and the biggest news revealed at D23, which Iger himself announced to an audience of 7,500, is that two U.S. Disney parks—California’s Disneyland and Florida’s Hollywood Studios—are each getting a 14-acre Star Wars-themed land.
Though the news was met with some handwringing from purists who don’t agree that the galactic franchise belongs in the Disney portfolio, the response was overwhelmingly exuberant, including a torrent of social-media yayying.
In both states, the main attractions will include one that a press release calls “a thrilling battle experience,” and another that lets people “drive” the Millennium Falcon. There will also be exhibits about the beloved films, Jedi-centric entertainment, and, of course, lots of merchandise. In Florida, a new end-of-the-night fireworks show will be set to a Star Wars soundtrack.
In spring 2016, the Shanghai Disney Resort will open in China, complete with an Art Nouveau-style Disneyland Hotel as well as a more value-oriented Toy Story Hotel. The D23 Expo showroom floor included a large exhibit of the new park’s offerings, including Disney’s largest castle yet (with a ride running underneath it), a Tomorrowland big on Tron, a pirate-themed land called Treasure Cove, and a Fantasyland featuring a “Seven Dwarfs Mine Train,” a Winnie the Pooh ride, and an Alice in Wonderland maze.
Further south in China, Hong Kong Disneyland will be the company’s first park to take advantage of the Marvel connection: Next year, it’ll have a ride called Iron Man Experience, which a press release describes as being “an epic adventure over the streets and in the sky above Hong Kong.”
The California Parks
This summer being Disneyland’s 60th anniversary, there’s a lot to commemorate the occasion. Most notably, the park’s production people have outdone themselves with the spectacular Paint the Night parade, the immersive Disneyland Forever fireworks, and California Adventure’s revamped World of Color show, an impressive tribute to Walt Disney starring Neil Patrick Harris.
There’s also a more menacing Abominable Snowman to scare riders on the Matterhorn Bobsleds, a new ghost in the Haunted Mansion, and refreshed special effects in Peter Pan’s Flight. In California Adventure, the Mad T Party is back, complete with rotating deejays and a full bar catering to those seeking a nightclub atmosphere in the park.
Next year, California Adventure (Epcot in Florida, too) gets a new attraction: Soarin’ Around the World, which hovers riders above the places on every traveler’s bucket list, from Africa’s savannahs to America’s national parks to China’s Great Wall.
The Florida Parks
In Florida, Disney’s strategy appears to be to entice people to buy Park Hopper tickets and stay overnight rather than just visit the Magic Kingdom and call it a day.
Case in point: You’ll need admission to Hollywood Studios to see not only Star Wars Land, but also the new 11-acre Toy Story Land, built to look like Andy’s backyard and featuring plaything-themed attractions that include a Slinky Dog roller coaster, a flying-saucer ride, and midway games.
Over at Animal Kingdom, Imagineers are building Pandora, an Avatar-themed land that’ll include floating mountains, a bioluminescent forest, a flying ride, and mythical creatures spawned from James Cameron’s active imagination. Also at Animal Kingdom next spring: a new after-dark show called Rivers of Light involving live music, floating lanterns, and animal scenes projected onto water screens.
During a Disney Cruise Line panel at D23 Expo, executives announced the relaunch of the Disney Dream ship in October, with the youth clubs newly decked out in interactive Star Wars stuff, including a pretend cockpit of the Millennium Falcon. Also, eight sailings from January to April next year will include a “Star Wars Day at Sea”—so, one day of each itinerary will be devoted to the Lucasfilm trilogies, by way of screenings, trivia events, character meet-and-greets, and a “galactic dance party.”
This November, the Disney Magic liner will present a new “Tangled” show with elaborate sets and three new Alan Menken songs.
The panel also discussed DCL’s new Norway itineraries, which take families to see fjords, mountains towering over Disney’s huge ships, and quaint Scandinavian villages. Onboard, a Frozen-themed party is called “Freezing the Night Away.”
Plan a Trip
Ready to plan a trip to Anaheim to celebrate Disneyland’s 60th birthday? We recommend staying at a Disney hotel: The Grand Californian, an Ahwahnee-inspired lodge, has lovely details embedded throughout, plus a private entrance to (and an extra hour to enjoy) California Adventure.
If the parks’ hotels cost more than you want to spend, however, consider the Wyndham Anaheim Garden Grove, which offers wonderful service, lots of comfort, and a free, frequent shuttle to take you the three miles to the parks’ entrance.
More from SmarterTravel:
- Quiz: How Well Do You Know Walt Disney World?
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- Tips for Traveling with Kids
Avital Andrews also covers travel for the Los Angeles Times, Sierra, Outside, and the Huffington Post. Follow her on Twitter @avitalb.