What Disney parks could build with billions in new investment

ORLANDO, FL - MAY 31: Fireworks light up the sky above Cinderella's Castle during the daily Happily Ever After light and fireworks show at the Magic Kingdom Park at Walt Disney World on May 31, 2024, in Orlando, Florida. (Photo by Gary Hershorn/Getty Images)

Put some mouse ears on the construction helmet: Mickey is gearing up for a slate of major construction projects.

On both coasts of the United States, Disney has gotten green lights from local authorities to move forward with billions of dollars in investment at theme parks over the next decade-plus. That means new rides, fresh lands, more hotels and massive renovations are on the horizon - though limited details have been released and no timeline is confirmed.

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Anticipation is building after city officials in Anaheim, Calif., last month approved the DisneylandForward project, which will see the company invest at least $1.9 billion in theme parks and lodging over 10 years. The new development approvals - which came despite some local controversy - give Disney flexibility to build more attractions, dining, retail and hotel space in areas on its property that were previously off-limits.

The board of the Central Florida Tourism Oversight District, appointed by Gov. Ron DeSantis (R), gave final approval Wednesday night to a development agreement that could see the company spend as much as $17 billion on the Walt Disney World Resort in the next 10 to 20 years.

Disney executives said in September that the company was making plans to nearly double its capital spending in the division that includes theme parks and cruise ships over roughly 10 years to $60 billion. Disney parks have more than 1,000 acres to devote to future expansions, the company said last year.

U.S. fans who have watched Disney parks around the world unveil major new expansions - Zootopia in Shanghai, World of Frozen in Hong Kong and a trio of Frozen, Tangled and Peter Pan attractions in Tokyo - are watching eagerly for details about growth at home. They are scouring speeches, public appearances, earnings calls and Instagram accounts for any morsels of information.

“We always, as fans, have our ears open and look around for any hints or tidbits,” said Jessica Sanders, writer of the Happiest Blog on Earth.

More news is expected at the D23 convention, dubbed “the ultimate Disney fan event,” in August.

“I want in my little fanboy heart of hearts there to be an unprecedented, unexpected announcement from Disney,” Lou Mongello, host of the WDW Radio podcast, told The Washington Post.

Disney’s investments are coming as competitor Universal prepares to open a highly anticipated park in Orlando next year called Epic Universe. It will feature worlds dedicated to Harry Potter, Super Nintendo, the How to Train Your Dragon franchise and more.

“As someone who looks at the entire industry, this is a very exciting time to be a theme park fan,” said Carissa Baker, an assistant professor of theme park and attraction management at the University of Central Florida.

Over the past few years, Disney has announced some plans, hinted at others and teased possibilities.

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Avatar adventures at Disneyland

CEO Bob Iger has been talking about the possibility of an experience based on the Avatar films in California since last year, and he unveiled “creative inspiration for this possible new destination” at the company’s shareholder meeting in April. Disney’s Animal Kingdom in Florida already has a land modeled after Pandora, the world depicted in the franchise, with mountains that appear to float, a ride simulating flight and a gentle boat ride.

“We’re thrilled about many potential new stories that our guests could experience at Walt’s original theme park, including the opportunity to embark on all-new Avatar adventures with a visit to the world of Pandora,” Iger said. “You’ve heard me mention before our intention of bringing Avatar to Disneyland, and our Imagineers have been hard at work dreaming up what guests might expect.”

Beyond Avatar, Disneyland has not said what it will bring to the expanded park. But in a section titled “possibilities” on the development project website, it says the resort could take “cues from these exciting lands and attractions around the globe for inspiration,” noting World of Frozen in Hong Kong, Zootopia in Shanghai, Toy Story Land in Florida and the Tron roller coaster in Shanghai and Florida. It also says new Tangled and Peter Pan areas in Tokyo “could be the perfect inspiration for the future of Disneyland Resort.”

“Seeing Tokyo, who just debuted their Frozen area, it has been such a tease for us,” said Sanders, who lives in Utah and visits Disneyland about once a month. “When are we going to get our Frozen or our Tangled area?”

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Latin American makeover in Florida

Last year, the company said a dinosaur-themed area at Disney’s Animal Kingdom would be reimagined as a land inspired by parts of South and Central America - what they are referring to as “tropical Americas.”

Under consideration for the new area: an experience built around Indiana Jones and attractions inspired by the film “Encanto.” A conceptual rendering of the area shows the magical “casita” from the movie as part of the land.

Ride and experience designers known as “imagineers” released a video on Instagram in April showing a trip to the Yucatán Peninsula as part of research for the project.

Len Testa, president of the planning site Touring Plans and co-author of the Unofficial Guides to Walt Disney World and Disneyland, said in an email that the existing Dinosaur ride there now shares many ride mechanics with an Indiana Jones ride at Disneyland. He described that particular update as more of a “re-theme” than new ride altogether.

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