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Keeping Up with Disney!

What’s New and Different for Families?

Disney fanatics like me are having a difficult time keeping up with all the new attractions, restaurants, and changes at Walt Disney World Resort. Mind you, it’s exciting, but there is a lot to take in. And, it’s just the beginning. In a few years, the resort will be a whole new world – shout-out to Aladdin – with more immersive lands to explore that will delight fans of Avatar, Star Wars, and Toy Story. Pandora: the World of Avatar is scheduled to open next year, but the Star Wars and Toy Story additions are still a couple of years out.

So let’s talk about what’s new this year.

1609_Disney_2Disney is lighting up the night at Animal Kingdom. Ever since it opened in 1998, Animal Kingdom has had the shortest hours of any of the parks, closing anywhere between five and seven in the evening. But those days are gone. Now nightfall at the park will be filled with not only the sights and sounds of the savannah, but also a variety of new experiences under the stars. Hours will fluctuate seasonally, but in the summer, you can party till that respectable family curfew hour of eleven at night, if you so desire.

You’ll have the chance to ride Kilimanjaro Safaris at sunset, test out the Kali River Rapids at twilight, and dance under the stars alongside the African performers in Harambe. On a recent visit to the park, my daughter, Angela, her fiancé, Andy, and I had the chance to test out the night version of Kilimanjaro Safaris. The after-dark ride simulates an African sunset.

The darkness camouflages the boundaries between you and the wildlife you’re watching, making the ride more suspenseful. The park brought in animals that are active at night, such as the African spotted hyenas and African wild dogs, to supplement the experience beyond the existing animal species.

Trying to spot animals far away from the vehicle is a bit more difficult at night, but when you come upon one nearby, it’s a pleasant surprise. Anyone who likes to take photos of the animals – that would be my daughter – may have a bit more trouble doing so during the sunset safari. It definitely takes a keen eye to capture the moment.

Disney wants to create a realistic nighttime experience, so keep in mind the paths in the park are softly lit to highlight the natural ambiance. Just be sure to watch where you and your children are walking so there are no bumps, trips, or falls.

Most attractions in the park do remain open at nightfall. One of the new nighttime shows is “The Jungle Book: Alive with Magic.” Playing off the popularity of Disney’s computer-generated remake of the classic, the limited-engagement extravaganza – they have not released an end-date as of this writing – takes you into the world of the young man cub, Mowgli, and the jungle animals who protect and threaten him. The show’s opening number features everything from an ethereal Indian chant to a dance of candles. And yes, all of your favorite songs from the movie, like “The Bare Necessities,” are in this 25-minute production, along with traditional Indian music.

1609_Disney_3Special effects include fire and massive water-screen projections – think elephant herd. A number of barges and boats become additional sets sizzling with dozens of performers, scenic backdrops, and light-and-fire effects. During the show’s finale, you’ll have the chance to party with the performers as they spread throughout the aisles.

“We’ve been fortunate to work with an amazing team of collaborators from around the world, from the filmmakers behind the blockbuster movie to a creative team of artists who helped to infuse our show with authentic aspects of the culture of India,” says Michael Jung, executive creative director, Walt Disney Imagineering, who spoke to a gathering of us Disney groupies (also known as members of the media) a few months ago.

One of my favorite new treats at the park is the Tree of Life’s spontaneous awakenings. At various times during the night when you walk by, the tree will suddenly awaken with magical fireflies and lots of pixie dust, bringing different animals spirits in the tree alive. There are 356 of these carved into the bark. These pop-up shows feature high-tech projections of nature scenes that are so real they look as if the animal spirit is emerging from the tree. This is not to be missed.

Don’t leave the park before you take part in the Discovery Island Carnivale. The party has everything from food and music, to dancing, and my favorite – wait for it! – stilt walkers.

Animal Kingdom isn’t the only park adding new adventures. If you always carry the force in your heart, head to Disney’s Hollywood Studios and wait until darkness falls to witness Star Wars: A Galactic Spectacular. The fun takes place on and around the Chinese Theatre in the heart of the park. The show features Star Wars-themed fireworks, lasers, projections, and special effects paired with Star Wars-themed music and iconic characters, plus scenes from the seven Star Wars films.

“It is a Disney sky show like none other,” says the show’s director, Michael Roddy of Disney Creative Entertainment. “We are actually able to cast fireworks to tell different parts of the Star Wars story, in colors identifiable with the film, whether it’s green for Yoda, or creating a star field up in the sky.”

Projection mapping technology “allows us to dramatically overtake the buildings with images from the Star Wars saga,” he says. “Custom animation delivers motion picture moments and perspectives never before experienced. And surround-sound makes it seem like a TIE fighter just flew past and exploded next to you.”

The excitement of the show is heightened by a tower of flames that shoot up to 140 feet in the air above the Chinese Theatre.

1609_Disney_4The big news over at Epcot is the new Soarin’ Around the World attraction that replaces the highly popular Soarin’ Over California. This new version takes you to six continents, complete with sights, sounds, and subtle scents of each locale. It took the folks at Disney three years to compile and design. During that time, they also pioneered new camera technology.

If you haven’t ridden the attraction (and I can’t believe there is anyone who’s been to Disney World who hasn’t), the ride lifts you forty feet in the air into an 80-foot projection screen dome. It relies on an ultra high-resolution camera and laser projection system to help you soar around the globe. I always loved the original, but this version is even sharper and clearer. New sights include The Great Wall of China, the Great Pyramids of Egypt and the Eiffel Tower in Paris. You’ll also fly by Africa and get to smell the ocean breeze over the South Pacific.

Always one of the most popular rides in the park, the original Soarin’ could be a bear when it comes to long lines. Even darting through the crowd when the park first opens doesn’t ensure that you won’t have to stand in line. I know because we’ve tried that trick a multitude of times. The good news? Because of those congested lines, the folks at Disney decided to add a third screen and a third theater to the new ride.

Another newbie in the park is Frozen Ever After at Epcot’s Norway Pavilion where you can explore the kingdom of Arendelle. At the new attraction, you will take a boat up to North Mountain to visit Anna and Kristoff at the palace. When the doors open leading to the Ice Palace Great Room, you will be encouraged to sing along to – you guessed it! –  the family favorite, “Let It Go,” as the Queen’s ice magic surrounds you.

The ride features the most advanced audio-animatronic figures to date. They are the first to be all-electric and that gives Walt Disney Imagineering the ability to animate in new ways. While you’re in the kingdom, make your way to Royal Sommerhus – think country cottage in Trondheim, Norway –  to meet Elsa and Anna, and hopefully score an autograph.

If you’ve been to Walt Disney World Resort in the last year, you know that Disney Springs (the former Downtown Disney and Westside complex) is bringing in new shops, opening new restaurants, and expanding its entertainment options. The newest neighborhood to open is Town Center. It joins The Marketplace, Westside, and The Landing neighborhoods.

All of the neighborhoods are inspired by the old grandeur of Florida with promenades, flowing streams, and lots of waterfront charm. Retail stores in Town Center include everything from Vince Camuto, Anthropologie, and Zara, to Lilly Pulitzer, Under Armour, and Kate Spade New York.

James Beard award-winning chefs are developing many of the restaurants in Town Center. Frontera Cocina, for example, serves gourmet Mexican cuisine from the menu developed by celebrity chef Rick Bayless, a six-time James Beard Foundation winner. Chef Art Smith, two-time winner of the James Beard Award, brings in gourmet southern cuisine and Florida agriculture at Homecoming Florida Kitchen and Southern Shine.

1609_Disney_5If it’s a good burger you want, head to Disney’s D-Luxe Burger, featuring gourmet burgers made from a signature blend of beef, plus all-natural chicken and vegetarian burgers, hand-cut fries, and gelato shakes.

Other great restaurants in Disney Springs include The Boathouse, where you’ll find great seafood and nostalgic dream boats from the mid-twentieth century, and Morimoto Asia, featuring Pan-Asian cuisine from celebrity Iron Chef Masaharu Morimoto.

If you’re like me, you always have a sweet tooth that needs to be pampered. To indulge, head to The Ganachery for custom-made ganache from Disney’s proprietary recipe, or Sprinkles, which serves handcrafted cupcakes along with slow-churned ice cream and homemade cookies. The shop even has a Cupcake ATM where you can satisfy that sweet tooth 24/7.

Also planned for Disney Springs is Amorette’s Patisserie, which will feature classic and contemporary pastries by the Disney chefs with custom cakes that are works of art.

While visiting this family wonderland, you’d be remiss if you didn’t stop by The West Side and visit La Nouba by Cirque du Soleil. The awe-inspiring show has introduced two new acts: B-Boy, performing what can best be described as hip-hop breakdancing, and Aerial Bamboo, a technique mastered by only a handful of performers worldwide.

We had the opportunity to see both acts, and boy did they live up to Cirque’s reputation! We were told that the La Nouba artistic staff searched the globe to find the three B-Boys who flip and spin to the music. Two hail from the U.S. – the Bronx and Boston areas – and one is from Ukraine. Russian couple Alexander and Ekaterina Abramov bring the rare performance of the Chinese art form Aerial Bamboo to La Nouba. It’s quite evident that Ekaterina trusts her husband because he holds her by his arms, his feet, and even his teeth – as he himself hangs by his feet or arms high above the stage from a pole. Very exciting.

As I said earlier, Walt Disney World is a happening place right now. With a little luck and good timing, next year I will get to pop into Pandora for a preview. Stay tuned.

Photos: Matt Stroshane, David Roark, Todd Anderson, Preston Mack

An award-winning writer based in Richmond, Joan Tupponce is a parent, grandparent, and self-admitted Disney freak. She writes about anything and everything and enjoys meeting inspiring people and telling their stories. Joan’s work has appeared in RFM since the magazine’s first issue in October 2009. Look for original and exclusive online articles about Richmond-area people, places, and ideas at Just Joan: RVA Storyteller.
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