As you read this, a long line of trucks are unloading exhibits and merchandise and archival treasures at the loading docks of the mammoth Anaheim Convention Center as the Walt Disney Company prepares to put on its bi-annual D23 Expo extravaganza. This is the fifth Expo that Disney has hosted since launching the concept back in 2009. And while the various Expos have varied over the years in their excitement and the importance of their splashy announcements, the 2017 Expo is shaping up to be a very informative and revealing one for Disney theme park fans. In this pre-Expo update we’ll fill you in on the late breaking rumors of what may be announced this weekend, what may wait a week until Comic-Con, and what may get shelved at the last minute like some planned announcements did back in 2015.
While planned D23 Expo announcements can be cancelled by shifting Burbank politics, one of the worst kept secrets that we first broke here two years ago is the plan for DCA to grow via a big-budget Marvel Land expansion. We’ve been following the evolving WDI plans to build a large indoor roller coaster with all the techo bells and whistles the Imagineers can throw at it (high speed launches, onboard audio, 3D visuals, animatronics and endless special effects).
That tech-heavy coaster plan is still moving forward, and Disney’s flat-footed marketing team got in on the act this past May with a clumsy attempt at “viral marketing” during the Guardians of the Galaxy media party by staging a fake Avengers themed hazmat cleanup scene that refused to go viral. The marketing team then left an Avengers logo prop in the planter where their fake hazmat scene had been, and for several days it was ignored by DCA’s visitors and Cast Members. Only after the ride opened and the Operations team just happened to put a temporary switchback of queue alongside that staged prop did the failed marketing attempt finally get some traction. But if TDA was trying to hint that an Avengers E Ticket will be coming next to DCA, that cheesy stunt only proved that big bureaucratic companies like Disney don’t understand what “viral” means.
While the coaster project south of Guardians of the Galaxy will take three years to complete, WDI continues to refine its Halloween overlay for Guardians coming this fall. That’s another unknown for D23 Expo, whether they waste time announcing a locally produced Halloween overlay for some of DCA’s attractions, or save that announcement for later this summer via a regular Disney Parks Blog PR blurb. If Bob Chapek needs a time filler on Saturday afternoon, Halloween at DCA is waiting in the wings.
A D23 announcement that may leapfrog the big roller coaster south of Guardians of the Galaxy however is a late-developing plan to redo the entirety of A Bug’s Land as part of the Marvel expansion in DCA. A Bug’s Land, which was rushed into DCA in a panic in 2002 and based on Pixar’s least successful movie, would be swept away in a frenzied combination of re-theming and re-construction. Gone would be the It’s Tough To Be A Bug 3D show, even though TDA had spent considerable funds in recent years to upgrade it to digital projection and spiff up the animatronics and special effects beyond the original analog and creaky version still out in WDW. In its place, a D-Ticket family dark ride would use the space and the below grade excavation of the Bugs theater facility.
You can already see proof that TDA has now thrown in the towel on the Bugs theater, as they refuse to fix the peeling mural on the side of the building, and recently the sharp pencil boys convinced the TDA suits to save a few pennies by getting rid of the themed “bug eye” 3D glasses in favor of generic yellow glasses used by Midway Mania. TDA knows the bug’s days are numbered, and the accountineers have wasted no time in abandoning the facility before it’s officially closed later this year and WDI takes over.
Tuck N’ Roll’s Drive ‘Em Buggies, perhaps the slowest and dullest bumper car ride in theme park history, would also go off to Yesterland as part of the entry portal into the Marvel area that contains the E Ticket coaster to the south. The rest of Flik’s Fun Fair, home to simple B-Ticket rides that thrill only kindergartners, is more up in the air. WDI has proposed keeping the three different rides and re-theming them to Marvel. While TDA has offered to kill them off entirely to allow WDI to expand the dark ride concept and add a retail and dining location into the mix as well. You can imagine which version is the favorite for TDA and likely guests as well; the one with new retail and dining options for DCA.
The wild card here is that Disney would like to be able to make a splash with Marvel announcements later this month at Comic-Con down in San Diego. They got a big bang for their buck by announcing the Guardians of the Galaxy – Mission: BREAKOUT! plans at last year’s Comic-Con, even though they’d already leaked online weeks earlier, and Burbank wants plenty of Marvel buzz at that important industry venue again this year.
What Burbank execs likely don’t know is that the Guardians ride is having major reliability issues with its three elevator shafts. TDA’s industrial engineers have been horrified to see hourly ridership counts in the 500 to 900 riders per hour range for hours and days at a time, as the new Guardians show puts all sorts of new stresses on the ride vehicles and 14 year old ride system. Instead of a modest 1,500 riders per hour, Guardians has been averaging half that for many hours of every day, and the ride is often overwhelmed with long lines and few Fastpasses available.
All of these Marvel plans could be announced at D23 Expo, with a recap and minor details fleshed out at Comic-Con. Or, only half of the Marvel Land plans could be announced at D23 (dark ride, dining), with the other half revealed a week later down the freeway at Comic-Con (coaster, shopping). Perhaps the Halloween overlay for Guardians will also be saved for Comic-Con? Or, like 2015, Burbank may get cold feet within days of the Expo and decide to hold off on showing their full hand at D23 and just throw the fans a few bones. Burbank execs really can be that fickle with what they announce at D23, which makes you wonder how they ever get anything done.
That indecisive and nervous corporate culture also explains why a series of Disneyland Resort Presidents were all able to delay building the 8,000 space parking structure on the Pumbaa parking lot for nearly a decade. The other factor at play here is Disney’s current cold war with the Anaheim City Council over the stalled Eastern Gateway parking and transportation plan. Disney could go big at the D23 Expo in an attempt to impress Anaheim and bombard the media with detailed information on the luxury hotel (including a high-end and hyper-themed Star Wars wing) slated for the Downtown Disney parking lots, plus all the Marvel plans for DCA and new entertainment coming to Disneyland in 2018. Or they could be coy and keep their plans close to their vest to put more pressure on Anaheim politicians to get a deal done.
Paint the Night to the Rescue
Another potential announcement for D23 is the firming decision to move Paint The Night over to DCA by this Thanksgiving, removing the fake overhead trolley wires in the process. The Festival of Holidays would need to be re-thought and re-configured to work with the parade, but since the winter food festival wasn’t as successful as the spring festival, TDA is willing to rethink Festival of Holidays for Paint The Night’s record high crowd approval ratings.
The proposal to move Paint The Night over to DCA has gained traction because TDA is now very confident the new Fantasmic! will be a huge draw for years to come. And by the time a Paint The Night announcement happens or doesn’t happen at D23 Expo, many fans will already be able to judge the new Fantasmic! for themselves as nightly soft openings of the lavish new show are now scheduled to begin on Saturday, July 15th and continue on Sunday, July 16th. D23 Expo attendees will want to run, not walk, directly over to the Rivers of America after the Expo ends on both days to try and secure a viewing space for the 9:00pm show. A limited version of Fastpass viewing for Fantasmic! is not set to go live until the official start date on Monday, July 17th, and the show will open with three performances per night that week.
What won’t be mentioned at D23 Expo is the teething pains that Disneyland’s new digital Fastpass system has been experiencing. It’s been a messy roll out as the summer AP blockouts kick in and the parks are filled with a majority of tourists. Unknown to most TDA suits, but clearly obvious to any front line CM for the last decade, is the dirty little secret that many tourists still don’t understand how Fastpass works and how to get it. Since TDA abandoned nearly all Fastpass marketing and consumer communication over a decade ago, it’s very confusing for infrequent visitors or first-time tourists to understand how the system works and how much it costs (Surprise! It’s free!). Layer on the new digital Fastpass rules and format, and mass confusion has reigned each morning inside the parks.
The confusion is set to get worse as the Maxpass system finally goes live next week, adding an extra cost component onto the system. Although, since so many tourists don’t use Fastpass because they just assume it’s an extra cost option, maybe the upcharge Maxpass system will finally make sense to them.
The current crop of TDA execs are salivating at the idea of one million Annual Passholders upgrading to Maxpass each visit to get access to the most popular rides, as the Maxpass price rises through 2018. The Maxpass technology platform will be used in early 2019 to ensure that Fastpasses to the two Star Wars E Tickets, both with low hourly capacity in the 1500 to 1800 per hour range, will be distributed only to those who have paid an upcharge. And, just like Guardians of the Galaxy and the new Fantasmic!, Cast Member previews are no longer planned for Star Wars, and any AP preview will be part of an upcharge event a few days before the grand opening. TDA simply realizes there is no need to offer Cast Members free previews of Star Wars Land where they will blab all the details on Social Media, and that local AP’s and fans from around the world will gobble up extra cost tickets at $150 or more per head to be the first to experience Star Wars Land.
And that brings us right back to D23 Expo. While a range of percolating projects may get announced for either coast this weekend, the undisputed star of the show will be the sprawling Star Wars themed Parks & Resorts Pavilion hosted by Walt Disney Imagineering. The giant detailed model of Star Wars Land and all the new artwork and details released will awe fans and have everyone talking.
But will WDI finally announce the actual name of this new land? Will they announce the names of the two E Tickets, code named Alcatraz and Big Bird? Will they admit that traditional theme park rules won’t apply in the new hyper-themed land and that without normal signage and labels guests will be expected to navigate the land using an App? Will WDI admit to their new rules for Star Wars like having rides with no entry marquees and wait time signs, or forbidding park sponsors like Coke and Visa to display their logos since they don’t exist in a galaxy far away, or not allowing any manager in “business casual” attire to walk through the land and ruin the scene?
It will be interesting to see what WDI fesses up to, and what they keep under wraps for now. This D23 Expo weekend will be quite revealing, regardless of what projects Bob Chapek announces or ignores on Saturday afternoon.
Well folks, that wraps up this look at the big reveals (or not) for the Disneyland Resort at the D23 Expo this weekend. Are you ready to camp out all night for your favorite panel? What about for Fantasmic? Is a new Marvel Land a good trade for Bugs? Will you be paying for Maxpass our using the free Fastpass?
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