Disney World is ramping up for summer by introducing new attractions and shows across all four of its theme parks and capping off a multiyear expansion of its dining and entertainment district. It’s throwing in some money-saving deals, too.
Beginning Memorial Day weekend, for the first time since it opened in 1998, Animal Kingdom will stay open after dusk. Discovery Island and the Village of Harambe, with its eateries and shops, will become venues for carnivale-like street parties with exotic food and beverages, African bongo bands, stilt walkers and dancers.
The iconic Tree of Life will undergo several “awakenings” throughout the evening, with music, swirling fireflies and high-tech multicolor vignettes of nature and wildlife projected onto its side.
There will be two new nighttime shows, the more impressive of which is “Rivers of Light,” a musical spectacle set in a natural amphitheater along Discovery River. Featuring entertainers, floating lanterns and animal images projected across the sky, the show will bring ancient stories from the animal world to life. In the summer, there will be a limited-engagement musical show inspired by “The Jungle Book.”
Many of the Animal Kingdom’s rides will remain open at night, including the Expedition Everest roller coaster, Kali River Rapids raft ride and a night version of Kilimanjaro Safaris, where the park’s vast savannah will be bathed in special mock-sunset lighting and guests can see nocturnal species such as African wild dogs and hyenas.
Big changes are afoot at Disney Springs, the dining-and-entertainment district formerly known as Downtown Disney.
As part of the park’s major expansion, last year’s rollout of The Landing neighborhood introduced 13 new high-end shops and restaurants, including Morimoto Asia, from Japanese Iron Chef Masaharu Morimoto. “[M]any of these venues have quickly become the top-selling locations in their franchises,” said Jim MacPhee, senior vice president at Walt Disney Parks.
Disney Springs’ fourth and final neighborhood, Town Center, will open next month and introduce 30 new venues, including two restaurants from James Beard Award-winning chefs:
--Art Smith’s Homecoming: Florida Kitchen and Southern Shine, a farm-to-fork restaurant. Smith has appeared on “Top Chef Masters” and “BBQ Masters” and has restaurants in Chicago, Atlanta and Washington, DC.
--Rick Bayless’ Frontera Fresco, featuring Mexican specialties such as hand-crafted tortas, tacos, salads, fresh-made guacamole and classic Mexican braised meat entrees. Bayless is known for his victory on “Top Chef Masters.”
Fans of Disney’s blockbuster film “Frozen” will be making a beeline this summer to Epcot’s Norway Pavilion, which is getting a grand makeover. A new indoor boat adventure called “Frozen Ever After” will set sail from Arendelle and take guests up to the North Mountain to visit Elsa’s ice palace, where they will hear songs from the film.
“With this project, we had the opportunity to extend the architectural story of the Norway Pavilion,” said Lauren Niederhiser, Assistant Project Manager at Walt Disney Imagineering, who was part of a creative team that traveled to Norway to find inspiration for authentic architectural styles they would bring back to Epcot. A new rural courtyard has been created at the Royal Sommerhaus, featuring the summer cabin where Anna and Elsa spent their childhood. Young fans can meet the royal Arendelle sisters in the reception hall.
Some new experiences are on tap for Star Wars devotees. At Star Wars Launch Bay, guests can browse special exhibits and meet characters such as Chewbacca, Kylo Ren and Darth Vader. A new daytime stage show called “Star Wars: A Galaxy Far, Far Away” relives iconic moments from the Star Wars saga.
Beginning this June, Cinderella Castle will become the backdrop for an all-new stage show called “Mickey’s Royal Friendship Faire,” featuring characters from Disney films such as “The Princess and the Frog,” “Tangled” and “Frozen.”
Disney World has put some good deals on the table for the summer, as long as you book by June 10. A family of four can snag a four-day vacation for $1,880, including park tickets and accommodations in one of Disney’s value All-Star resorts. Alternatively, the “Awaken Summer” offer lets guests save up to 30 percent on a hotel room between June 12 and Aug. 25.
Suzanne Rowan Kelleher is the family vacations expert at About.com.