2022 D23 Expo Parks Panel Post Mortem: Awesome or Awful Disney World News?

Judging by reader reactions, I was the only person here who was not totally disappointed by what was announced for Walt Disney World during the parks panel at the D23 Expo.

In fairness, my expectations were super low. My pre-Expo predictions for Walt Disney World consisted of entertainment that we already know is returning, new concept art for the Giant EPCOT Dirt Pit, Tiana’s Bayou Adventure details, an opening date for TRON Lightcycle Run, and a roller coaster replacing Dino-Rama. The last one would’ve been the biggest announcement, and even that I admitted “doesn’t do a ton for me” because Animal Kingdom has a more urgent need for family-friendly attractions.

So what Walt Disney World actually got, for the most part, exceeded my expectations. The one thing I will readily admit: the parks presentation was weird. Really weird. It defied expectations in some odd ways, and contained both good and bad surprises.

During his ~90 minute “A Boundless Future: Disney Parks, Experiences and Products” presentation, Disney Parks, Experiences and Consumer Products Chairman Josh D’Amaro bounced from topic to topic, covering a lot of ground. Much more than I expected, in fact.

The biggest surprise for me is how much was glossed over in the near-term at Walt Disney World.

Fantasmic returning to Disney’s Hollywood Studios was not mentioned. We know this is happening in the next 6-8 weeks, as Walt Disney World has confirmed rehearsals are underway. This time, there have not been any delays that would detail these plans. Fantasmic will be back before November 2022

Few new details were provided for the EPCOT overhaul. We know the concept art for the area behind Dreamers Point is incomplete, because Imagineering has said there are still some “surprises” in store for the plans. (Unless they meant Te Fiti?)

This is just a partial list of what seems like obvious slam-dunks for more details at the D23 Expo. Other projects underway include the Grand Floridian reimagining, BoardWalk reimagining, Polynesian Village Resort DVC Tower, Roundup Rodeo BBQ Restaurant in Toy Story Land, new restaurants being developed for Disney Springs, and probably more that I’m forgetting.

All of this is still happening. Details being omitted from the D23 Expo does not change that.

Then there are the question marks about which fans were understandably hoping to learn more. This list includes a lot at EPCOT: Cherry Tree Lane, Play Pavilion, DuckTales game, and Spaceship Earth reimagining. This caught me by surprise, too. I expected to hear announcements for two of these projects. (Others are probably permanently shelved.)

I’ve also heard from many Walt Disney World planners who were disappointed that the Disney Dining Plan’s return was not announced. Even if that were imminent, it would not have been revealed at the D23 Expo. It’s just not the kind of announcement made at a blockbuster presentation in Southern California. There are actually a couple reasons for that, one being the obvious matter of location.

The other is the message it sends. One thing we’ve touched upon elsewhere is the blurring of the lines in corporate communications. It used to be the case that analysts and investors listened to quarterly earnings calls and conference presentations, and events like the D23 Expo were for the fans.

Now, fans listen to everything for clues about what the future holds. Whether that be a D23 event or Bank of America roundtable with corporate CFOs does not matter. It’s all consumed and covered online. If that infamous “waistlines” comment were made a decade ago, you would’ve never known about it. Instead, you know exactly what I’m talking about via a one-word reference.

Turnabout is fair play, and investors are doing the same. CNBC and Bloomberg extensively covered the 2022 D23 Expo, and they probably weren’t the only ones in the financial press. They do so to see what can be gleaned about the company’s outlook for its parks (and other divisions) because what’s said on corporate earnings calls can differ from what’s actually being done.

Announcing the return of something like the Disney Dining Plan could be a reg flag for investors. It could signal that pent-up demand is starting to fizzle out and Disney needs to do something to lure visitors or sustain its per guest spending numbers.

It should go without saying, but what investors want to hear and what fans want to hear often doesn’t align. So we get some stuff for the geeks, like a Figment meet & greet at EPCOT and Hatbox Ghost coming to Haunted Mansion (two announcements nobody saw coming, I might add). We also hear about Cotino and other corporate “activations” about which no one cares. In short, it’s a presentation aimed at pleasing two dissimilar audiences.

There’s a colossal silver lining in this, though. Sometimes, what investors and fans want to hear does overlap.

In our pre-Expo predictions, one wildcard we presented was the resiliency of the company’s Florida theme parks. Walt Disney World continues to outperform, and investors have begun to take notice of its success. This coupled with Wall Street souring on streaming (at least a bit) means Disney may finally start to bet bigger on its theme park business. Given that, a big slate of announcements at the 2022 D23 Expo was a possibility.

From my perspective, that’s almost certainly why we saw the early expansion plans for Animal Kingdom and Magic Kingdom. A realization by the company that Wall Street is increasingly skeptical of the streaming business, but all-in on theme parks. Given that this is a relatively recent development, the company hasn’t had a chance to finalize plans. Still, they want us–and more importantly to them, Wall Street–to know that big investments are on the horizon.

Most Walt Disney World fans have viewed these Animal and Magic Kingdom expansion plans with a lot of skepticism, pessimism, and downright dismissiveness. As I’ve written elsewhere, I do not blame you. Current leadership has not exactly done right by Walt Disney World fans in the last few years. It’s been a rough era, and this feels at odds with that. It’s too big and, like other announcements, won’t happen.

Many fans feel this way, calling the ‘blue sky’ portion of the presentation smoke and mirrors or an attempt to distract from Epic Universe. Again, totally understandable. You have no reason to give them the benefit of the doubt. Especially given how many projects from the 2017 and 2019 D23 Expos have not come to fruition.

However, consider the audiences (plural) for this presentation. If Josh D’Amaro simply wanted to let Imagineers share their creativity, there were a dozen other small-scale panels over the course of the weekend where that could’ve been accomplished. Over the last decade, about half of the panels I’ve attended at the Expo have been about blue sky plans and what could’ve been (or what was). There was absolutely no reason for this to be part of the flagship parks presentation if there aren’t actual plans to expand Animal and Magic Kingdoms.

Moreover, what, exactly, does “distracting” from Epic Universe actually accomplish? Okay, Disney took attention away from Universal’s new park for one weekend a few years ahead of its opening. Now what? The presentation will not impact future bookings or business for Epic Universe, nor will it do anything for Disney. To the contrary, it’ll hurt the company’s credibility with both fans and investors if they continue announcing things but not building them.

This notion of messaging to two audiences, Wall Street and fans, should also dispense with the notion that Disney was scrambling to fill time or threw that ‘blue sky’ segment in at the last minute. This was not simply Josh D’Amaro riffing and randomly bringing Chris Beatty and Jennifer Lee to the stage.

These presentations are meticulously scripted and carefully crafted. What’s included and excluded is all purposeful. If I had to guess, this also explains why more time wasn’t spend on projects that were previously ‘paused indefinitely.’ The company doesn’t want to draw too much attention to past plans that have been delayed or shelved.

There is no doubt a lot of internal corporate politics at play, and debate about what gets revealed where, when, and by whom. That would explain why the biggest concrete announcement of the entire presentation–the Marvel Multiverse ‘King Thanos’ attraction–was first teased by CEO Bob Chapek during the Disney Legends presentation.

I also don’t doubt that Josh D’Amaro pushed for a presentation that effectively closed out the last chapter of parks & resorts under Chapek, and wanted to present forward-looking news that allowed him to make his own mark on the parks. Taking all of this into account, the D23 parks presentation makes a lot more sense and, I’d argue, offers more reason for optimism.

In the near-term, we got news of a lot more entertainment on the horizon for both coasts. None of this is any surprise for Disneyland, where new nighttime spectaculars are the rule rather than the exception. The story is very different at Walt Disney World.

Happily Ever After returning isn’t a huge surprise. We’ve said for the last year-plus that this would come down to guest satisfaction. Enhancing it will cost money, so this is “not nothing,” but fireworks shows in the castle parks are cheaper to change. It’s good news, but not a surprise and also not huge.

However, if you told me last September that Harmonious would be retired and replaced less than 2 years after its debut, I never would’ve believed you. This is even after seeing the hideous water tacos and Stargate in World Showcase Lagoon. That is simply not how Walt Disney World does things with entertainment investments. I thought we’d be stuck with those suckers for at least a decade.

Alone, this announcement reflects a meaningful change in thinking and willingness to be more nimble and responsive to guests. Even if you don’t care about nighttime spectaculars or thought Harmonious was okay, this is an important philosophical change for the Florida parks. It’s a big win.

With that said, if we’re going to take all of the announcements or ‘reveals’ at face value and view the investment they entail optimistically, it’s only fair to look at the downsides or negatives.

It’s fair to say that Coco, Moana, Encanto, Villains, and Zootopia are interesting thematic choices for Animal Kingdom and Magic Kingdom. There are arguably better locations for just about all of this, and even swapping some of the IP choices between the two kingdom parks could make sense.

It’s too bad there wasn’t some 10-year master plan with all of these ideas decided upon at once, rather than piecemeal.

Assuming all of these same IPs “need” to come to the parks, I feel like the best idea of all probably would’ve been Moana taking over Splash Mountain, Tiana getting a brand new ride in a New Orleans Square behind Big Thunder, a larger South America area (including Encanto) in Animal Kingdom, something else entirely at EPCOT behind Spaceship Earth, and Zootopia in Disney’s Hollywood Studios. Villains are malleable and could fit in DHS or beyond Big Thunder; Coco would likewise work in a few locations.

Then there’s the complaint about the IP-centric nature of the announcements. If you haven’t come to terms with this by now, there’s nothing I can write that’s going to change that. I will say that I agree with you in principle–most of my favorite attractions are non-IP–but this has been the direction of the domestic parks since Expedition Everest in 2006. There’s no reason to believe that’s going to change anytime soon, and holding out hope is about as foolish as continuing to think that Horizons might come back.

I can also understand Disney’s position as it attempts to meet (regular) guest expectations and add successful characters and films from the last decade. Walt Disney Animation Studios is in the midst of another renaissance, and visitors expect to see those movies in the parks. (Fewer IP attractions made sense during a time when Disney wasn’t consistently churning out hit movies, and when other theme parks couldn’t compete on non-IP attractions.)

We don’t have children, but even I know what a cultural phenomenon Encanto has been. I know this because there’s Nielsen streaming data showing the billions of minutes it racked atop while atop the streaming charts for months after its release. My surprise is not that Disney is betting big on these newer properties, it’s that they haven’t already. These are new classics for a generation, and fans who think otherwise are probably just biased towards the movies they grew up with.

This brings me to the biggest negative surprise during the parks presentation, and an area of ongoing disappointment: everything is taking too long. 

I get why the plans for Animal Kingdom and Magic Kingdom are so vague and laden with caveats. If the company has recently (within the last 6 months) pivoted to parks, it’s unsurprising that nothing has been greenlit and is ready to showcase in detail. It also makes sense not to overpromise and underdeliver–just look at the last couple of Expos for evidence as to why.

However, this is a symptom of a larger problem with Disney. The company is bloated and everything is done at a glacial pace. It’s one thing for large scale development to be slow and methodical, but nothing Disney does is nimble. It’s the antithesis of a lean and hungry organization. (When I discuss this with Disney employees, I’m told that I “just don’t understand how things work.” But in reality, I think they don’t understand how things can and do work elsewhere, because they’re mired in corporate bureaucracy.)

You will never convince me that it’s acceptable Walt Disney World still does not have actual Encanto entertainment or Bruno and Mirabel meet & greets. Or the EPCOT overhaul needed to be this drawn out. That delaying TRON Lightcycle Run until 2023 is the right move. There’s no good reason Figment’s meet & greet needs to debut by late 2023 instead of on October 1 for EPCOT’s 40th Anniversary. This is to say nothing of the lethargic phased reopening that is still underway two years later. The list goes on and on.

In fairness to Disney, there are practical realities and impediments to fast-tracking all of this. There are also solutions for every problem. It would be nice to see Disney be hungry and aggressive, instead of making excuses. If Josh D’Amaro really wants to make an impact, he could as the guy who gets stuff done at Walt Disney World. Because they might not have any sense of urgency, but Universal sure does.

Maybe that’s the reason some of you are unenthused about the Animal and Magic Kingdom expansion proposals. Even if they are 100% real and were greenlit tomorrow (and Magic Kingdom’s definitely will not be), they wouldn’t open until at least late 2025 or 2026. That’s a long time from now, and we’ve already learned once how economic uncertainty can derail plans.

Ultimately, those are my rambling thoughts with regard to the parks presentation and what was shown for Walt Disney World. For me, it’s a mixed bag–but mostly positive. The stuff that frustrates me is almost all in the near-term, with the company slow-rolling things that simply do not need to be delayed. I also would’ve liked to hear more about known projects, but their absence doesn’t change the fact that they’re happening.

Ironically enough, where I’m most optimistic is where so many of you seem to be pessimistic. Replacing Dino-Rama is good. Expanding Magic Kingdom is great. Setting aside specifics or where each IP goes, this is very positive news. These are two big signals that the company doesn’t now view Walt Disney World as a “mature business” following its recent CapEx cycle. That plus upgrades to current projects (Te Fiti), enhancements to existing attractions (Hatbox Ghost), and a willingness to replace nighttime spectaculars (Enchantment and Harmonious) leaves me feeling pretty good about the future of Walt Disney World.

None of this is a 5th gate or the stuff of my wildest dreams and imagination, but if you went into this D23 Expo–after seeing everything Disney has done in the last two years–expecting a 5th gate or anything hugely ambitious, you’re more foolish than me and my optimistic outlook! 😉

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What are your reactions to the various announcements for Walt Disney World at the 2022 D23 Expo? What has you most and least excited? Anything you’re hoping does not end up coming to fruition? Do you agree or disagree with our assessments? Any questions we can help you answer? Hearing your feedback–even when you disagree with us–is both interesting to us and helpful to other readers, so please share your thoughts below in the comments!