When you are the world's most-visited theme park, people expect a lot. And with crowds breaking records every year, Walt Disney World seems to spend its time trying to get you to plan for Fast Passes and luring you out of the Magic Kingdom and into its three other theme parks. You don't have to go to a theme park to check out Disney Springs, the shopping and dining destination formerly called Downtown Disney, which has doubled in size.
Here's what to look for in House of the Mouse this summer:
Among all the real countries in Epcot's World Showcase, you can now visit fictional Arendelle. Opening June 21, Anna and Elsa are taking up residence in their summer home at Epcot following the events of the hit film Frozen. The expansion of the World Showcase's Norway pavilion includes a village with the Frozen princesses' Royal Sommerhus, modeled after a traditional Norwegian cabin in Trondheim. The Sommerhus becomes Elsa's and Anna's permanent character greeting place with some good Norwegian air-conditioning to cool off young guests. The former Maelstrom ride, meanwhile, is being transformed into Frozen Ever After, the first Frozen-themed attraction at the parks. The movie's performers and songwriters were enlisted to add dialogue and songs to the attraction.
We asked Melissa Valiquette, Epcot's vice president, about the traditionalists who miss the Maelstrom ride.
"It was important for us to balance the characters with the history and traditions of Norway," Valiquette said. But with Frozen's popularity, "it would have been silly to overlook that connection." We were told to keep an eye out for subtle signs of Maelstrom in the set design.
Epcot's most popular attraction is about to return June 17. Soarin' becomes Soarin' Around the World, below, with high-definition, laser-projected footage lifting visitors into an 80-foot projection screen dome. It's designed to give the sensation of flying over the globe's great landmarks, from the Great Wall of China to the Sydney Opera House in Australia.
The park is full of construction walls, with the future opening of Star Wars Land and Toy Story Land not expected for at least another year or two. Memorial Day weekend brings the expansion of Toy Story Mania, which now has a third track, increased capacity and likely shorter waits. But until it gets the big upgrades, Disney's least-visited park is already becoming Star Wars central, with a daily live Star Wars show of favorite characters, including C-3P0, R2-D2 and Darth Vader. The new Star Wars: Launch Bay features movie memorabilia, Disney Infinity games, a short film and meet-and-greets with characters, including Chewbacca and Kylo Ren. While its current Star Wars-themed fireworks show is pretty good with lasers and John Williams' music, Star Wars: A Galactic Spectacular fireworks show opens on June 17. It will include special effects, surround sound and video projections. Characters and scenes from the Star Wars movies will be projected on the facade of the Chinese Theater, home to the Great Movie Ride. It's a nice bit of the synergy as the original Star Wars premiered at the real Chinese Theater in Los Angeles in 1977.
For the first time in its 18-year history, Disney's Animal Kingdom is embracing the, ahem, dark side. It turns out, the cover of darkness flatters Animal Kingdom. The Expedition Everest ride is more thrilling and the Yeti more menacing at night. Kilimanjaro Safaris is also an entirely different experience at night. The African wild dogs, an addition, like to huddle (cuddle?) together at bed time. In a recent press tour, Disney previewed a snippet of its delayed Rivers of Light multimedia show that visitors can view from a new amphitheater on the banks of Discovery River. The highly technical show was supposed to have premiered in April, but no new opening date has been announced. We saw giant lotus flowers light up and fountains spring up, projections showing a tiger leaping from one flower to the next. A limited-run the Jungle Book: Alive With Magic premieres this Memorial Day weekend, as does a new nighttime "awakening" of the park's iconic Tree of Life. Each night, the tree will awaken using the same projection technology seen in other Disney attractions, making fireflies turn into woodland creatures that scamper around the tree. Also premiering this weekend, the Village of Harambe's new Harambe Wildlife Parti, which features dancers and street musicians performing African music. Over on Discovery Island, there's a nighttime party of vivid costumes, stilt walkers, music and exotic food called the Discovery Island Carnivale.
So why did the former Downtown Disney shopping and entertainment district get renamed Disney Springs? They built an actual spring that mimics the look of the water you'd find in Blue Spring State Park, north of Orlando. Disney construction creative director David Hoffman fashioned an Old Florida narrative of a community grown up around the spring. Hoffman picked Mediterranean Revival architecture for the neighborhood — think St. Augustine or Coral Cables in 1920s. The look then transitions into American Craftsman of the '30s as you enter the Marketplace area.
"Like all things Disney, it starts with a story," Hoffman said, "and we imagined how this town grew up over a 150-year period."
The final expansion, doubling the shopping area in size, opened May 15, but some restaurants and stores will open later this summer. It's free to park and there's smart technology that tells you how many parking spaces are available and where to find them. Retailers include Kate Spade New York, Sephora and Sprinkles, the bakery with a cupcake ATM that dispenses treats at all hours. More restaurants are coming to Disney Springs this summer, too. Check Laura Reiley's Dining Planner for more details.
Disney Springs highlights that have opened include Super Hero Headquarters (a store full of Marvel goodies), Star Wars Galactic Outpost and the Ganachery chocolate shop. Jock Lindsey's Hangar Bar is built like a 1940s airplane hangar turned dive bar for Indiana Jones' sidekick and pilot. Morimoto Asia, from Iron Chef Masaharu Morimoto, added an Asia Street Food walk-up window.
Walt Disney World's most popular park has a new seasonal pricing plan, adding $10 to $20 to admission during peak travel days, which include spring break, much of summer and late December. While there aren't any major attractions opening at Magic Kingdom this summer, a new stage show, Mickey's Royal Friendship Faire, is coming in June. Disney's first Latina princess will make her parks debut in August. Look out for Princesa Elena from the Disney Channel animated show Elena of Avalor, which premieres this summer.
Times staff writer Peter Couture contributed to this report.