Making plans to visit Walt Disney World or Orlando this summer? You’ve come to the right place! I just got back from a whirlwind trip around the “World” and got a sneak preview of everything Disney is rolling out as part of its “Awaken Summer” roster of new entertainment, rides, shows, and attractions. From Frozen fun to Star Wars Stormtroopers, Animal Kingdom sunset safaris to private Magic Kingdom tours with an Imagineers, I’ve got all your insider summer planning details here.
Have a Frozen fan in the family? Then you’ll want to put the Norway pavilion in the World Showcase at the top of your family planning calendar. When the new “Royal Summerhaus” is complete, Norway will have a new meet-and-greet area for Anna and Elsa encounters that will replicate their “summer palace,” plus a cool new “Frozen Ever After” water ride (the reimagined Maelstrom). I got a glance behind the construction wall, and while it’s not ready for even photos yet, it should be up and running by mid-summer.
Another hotly anticipated Epcot ride, Soarin’, has been under construction since February when I visited last. It will now feature locations around the world (think, Great Wall of China and Sydney Harbor), instead of simply California as in the past. It opens June 17.
May the Force be With You! Hollywood Studios is all about Star Wars, with Kylo Ren and Chewbacca photo encounters at Star Wars Launch Bay; a stage show, “In a Galaxy Far, Far Away,” featuring live droid and storm troopers along with clips of top movie scenes; and coming this summer, a new evening fireworks show (Star Wars: A Galactic Spectacular) that will combine Star Wars video projections with special effects to make Hollywood Studios’ Chinese Theater and other buildings transform into another galaxy. Look for it after Memorial Day.
(And mark your calendars for 2018, when two new lands will open here: Star Wars and Toy Story).
Are you afraid of things that go bump in the dark? You shouldn’t be. Animal Kingdom is adding evening hours, and the bumps are what make things here truly exciting, including nighttime Kilimanjaro Safaris with nocturnal animals such as wild dogs and hyenas (not to mention the lions, who were especially frisky when I visited) and a chance to ride the massive Expedition Everest roller-coaster in the dark (first riders called it A MA ZING).
Fabulous new nighttime entertainment include laser images that light up the tree of life (check out the official Disney video, above) and a “coming soon” water spectacular, Rivers of Light. This last one is still being worked on, but I saw a quick 10-minute preview and it was a dazzling combination of lights, imagery, water, and music. It should hopefully be up and running by mid-summer, but in the meantime, a Jungle Book-themed show will entertain evening visitors starting Memorial Day weekend.
Haven’t been to Orlando in a while? Then you may have missed Downtown Disney’s name change to Disney Springs (and, if you have an extended memory, originally from Pleasure Island, which has been pretty much completely erased from Disney memory now). There are dozens of new stores and restaurants opening, a highlight of which is Morimoto Asia, a sophisticated pan-Asian spot that has sushi, dumplings, and addictive ribs created by Iron Chef Morimoto. Disney Springs is opening in phases, with a big “reveal” planned for the summer.
And if you’re looking for entertainment that doesn’t involve park tickets (a great idea for first or last day of vacation), check out the Cirque du Soleil show, La Nouba, which plays in a permanent tent here, and has a brand-new intro with new acts.
Tip: Do yourself a favor and take Disney transportation if you’re staying on property, since parking here is tough (it took my family almost an hour to find far-far-away parking and walk to Morimoto when we visited in February). Or splurge for the Valet at the Orange Parking Deck.
Adventures by Disney
Want VIP access at Disney? Lunch with an Imagineer and Fast Pass skip-the-line access to Disney’s most popular rides? Disney’s got an answer for that as well. Adventures by Disney filled-to-the-brim itinerary for Walt Disney World and Central Orlando crams in as much fun as you can possibly have in the Orlando area (including all four parks plus NASA and outdoor activities as well), and all you have to do is make one call.
My preview of the amazing itinerary was a highlight of my trip to Orlando — I learned more insider info in one morning with long-time Imagineer Gary than in 15 years writing about Disney (for example, see how the crown lines up on young Cinderella’s head in this statue outside the castle? You can only see it if you’re the same height as a child). It’s pricey, but easily a once-in-a-lifetime chance to experience Disney like an insider and pretty much priceless if you’re a true Disney fan.