Top 10 Disney Theme Park Highlights from 2018
The year 2018 is over, but Disney fans won’t forget it for a long time. The Walt Disney Company had a historic year, with record-setting profits and some of their most popular movies ever. What were the highlights? Oh, there’s almost too many to count. So, we’ll narrow the focus to theme parks. Here are the top 10 Disney theme park highlights from 2018!
10) New Wide World of Sports Stadium Opens
Let’s start with a few ground rules. First of all, we won’t include news about anything that happened yet. Yes, Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge is the most tantalizing part of Disney fandom right now. The reveals about ride and restaurant names are more about the future than the now, though. We want to focus on what Disney did masterfully at their parks in 2018.
One of the biggest stories of Walt Disney World’s year happened early in the year. The Arena debuted at the ESPN Wide World of Sports. This state-of-the-art facility is a stadium 300,000-square-foot large! The moment it opened, Disney could accommodate 8,000 more people at an event.
While The Arena hosts many sports competition, its primary purpose is holding cheerleading and dancing competitions. It’s one of the most extensive facilities ever designed specifically for these events. It’s also the reason why many teenagers and their families will make their first trips to Walt Disney World in coming years.
9) Old Port Royale Introduces New Restaurants
Disney’s Caribbean Beach Resort has undergone massive renovations over the last couple of years. In the fall of 2018, Disney finally revealed their new lobby to the public. As part of its enhancements, the Old Port Royale area added a pair of new restaurants, each of which has garnered immediate acclaim.
Centertown Market is the new food court at Old Port Royale. The flavors here are thematic with the Caribbean Beach concept. You’ll find plenty of Latin fusion foods here, many of which are traditional Caribbean dishes like jerk chicken and Cuban sandwiches.
The more headline-grabbing restaurant is Sebastian’s Bistro, which is themed to The Little Mermaid. Sebastian the crab is your host for this seafood meal…which does sell crab cakes as an entrée. Disney got a little dark this year. Still, guests staying at Caribbean Beach now claim some of the finest restaurant options at Walt Disney World, and it will become a destination location for foodies when the Disney Skyliner comes online in the fall.
8) Animal Kingdom Gets New Character Meetings and Shows
With Pandora – The World of Avatar driving historic attendance at Disney’s Animal Kingdom, park officials took steps to make other themed lands more attractive, too. Their goal was to balance traffic throughout Animal Kingdom, especially at DinoLand, U.S.A.
Disney introduced Donald’s Dino-Bash!, a dinosaur party with Donald as the host. Rare characters like Scrooge McDuck and Launchpad McQuack also appear. It’s a massive addition to this themed land that immediately became wildly popular with kids.
Disney added a couple of other unique attractions at different parts of Animal Kingdom. UP! A Great Bird Adventure Show replaced Flights of Wonder. It’s a similar show, only with Russell and Dug from Up as the hosts. And they weren’t even the most unique show hosts. The Pandora Utility Suit, a robotic mech, entertains guests at Pandora, teaching them about the alien planet’s eco-friendly quirks and how they could be used on Earth, too.
7) Disney Gets (Even More) Socially Responsible
Disney is one of the most powerful corporations in the world. As a global leader, they have an ethical responsibility to the people as well as the environment. Walt Disney, the creator of the company, felt strongly about this, and the executives who run the business today honor his wishes. In 2018, they stepped up in epic fashion.
For starters, Disney signed off on a new solar farm that’s 10 times larger than the previous one that they’d built. With 50 Megawatt potential, it’s one of the largest solar farms in North America. It’s theoretically capable of powering a full Walt Disney World theme park without any reliance on electricity!
Amazingly, Disney did even more to reduce the company’s environmental footprint. They introduced a plastic reduction initiative in their parks and resorts. Those tiny shampoo bottles are a thing of the past now. In their place, Disney has introduced refillable shampoo bottles and the like in hotel rooms. At the parks, straws are currently available only by request, and Disney has eliminated plastic bags for merchandise purchases.
Somehow, Disney did something else that made those two steps seem like child’s play. In fact, they improved child’s play for sick children everywhere. Disney will spend more than $100 million to upgrade children’s hospitals with better technology and Disney stories/characters/games. It’s a heroic display of corporate leadership and commitment to the community.
6) Storybook Dining at Artist Point Debuts
So many foodies view Artist Point at Disney’s Wilderness Lodge as one of the greatest Signature Dining experiences at Walt Disney World. To the frustration of the people running Wilderness Lodge, however, it frequently had tables available during the heart of the dinner rush.
In early December, Disney plussed the meal experience. They introduced Storybook Dining at Artist Point, a character meal starring Disney’s first animated princess, Snow White! She even brings along a couple of her dwarfs, Dopey and Grumpy. Unfortunately, she can’t stop the Evil Queen from showing up as well.
The genius of Storybook Dining is its style. Artist Point presents a gothic meal complete with foods that smoke and glow. You can even eat a “poisoned apple,” although it’s not actually poisonous for legal and ethical reasons. Disney has created the most realistic Snow White experience possible, and Artist Point has become the hottest dinner ticket at Disney…and for good reason!
5) Disney Increases Cast Member Pay
One of the most divisive topics in recent Disney history is cast member pay. A few stories came out that questioned whether or not Disney paid its workers a decent living wage. In 2018, labor disputes on both coasts thankfully came to a close when the company agreed to long-term contracts with employees at Disneyland and Walt Disney World alike. Everyone at both parks will earn at least $15 an hour by the start of 2021! This is the rare business agreement that seems to have satisfied virtually everyone.
4) Club 33 Opens at WDW
For me personally, Club 33 has become the most amusing story of the year. I’ve watched as “insiders” at Walt Disney World project opening dates for the new program, the Orlando equivalent of the storied private club at Disneyland. It’s been funny to me since I’ve known for a while that Club 33 at Walt Disney World opened long before anybody reported it.
Club 33 is like Fight Club, and everyone knows the first rule of Fight Club. At Walt Disney World’s version of the restaurant, no one can take pictures or videos and certainly cannot livestream. So, the debut of Club 33 proved as mysterious and exclusive as the restaurant itself.
But make no mistake! Club 33 has arrived at WDW, with a restaurant at every theme park! You’ll have to pay close attention to notice where each one is, though. My traveling party was recently standing right by the door to one, and I had to point it out to them.
3) Out with Jack Sparrow, in with the Redhead
Pirates of the Caribbean at Disneyland infamously changed one of its set pieces this past year, removing the pirate auction scene. While historically accurate and overtly comedic in tone, the scene wasn’t exactly female-friendly in tone. More importantly, it set in motion a series of events that are the next steps for the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise.
The character of Captain Jack Sparrow is oversaturated at this point. While many Disney fans like me will never get tired of him, casual fans believe that the character is tired and stale. Johnny Depp’s personal struggles have made a lot of headlines, too, causing Disney to reassess the feasibility of anchoring a multi-billion franchise on a mercurial personality.
Disney cultivated a new direction from these two awkward situations. They chose to remove the character of Jack Sparrow from future films. Simultaneously, Jack Sparrow character meetings and tutorials at the parks ended, too.
In their place, Disney has elevated the character of Redd. She has a presence in the attraction and her own character meeting at Disneyland. Disney has since confirmed that she’ll be the central figure in the next phase of the Pirates of the Caribbean movie franchise. Let’s hear it for female empowerment at Disney!
2) Pixar Pier
Pixar Pier isn’t so much a new themed land as it is a plussing of a previous one. Sensitive to the criticisms regarding Disney California Adventure, park officials at the Happiest Place on Earth went all-in on theming. They took the most beloved of all movie libraries, Pixar, and built an entire themed land around the premise.
Starting in the summer of 2018, guests could walk through four “neighborhoods” at Pixar Pier, each of which had a specific concept. The Incredibles, Toy Story, and Inside Out all claim neighborhoods of their own, while Pixar Promenade, the fourth neighborhood, is a collective of all other Pixar characters.
At the start, Pixar Pier had two new rides, each of which re-skinned an existing attraction. The Pixar Pal-a-Round took the former Mickey’s Fun Wheel and added your Pixar favorites to each gondola cab. The star of the new land is the Incredicoaster, a marvelous combination of the original California Screamin’ with a new Incredibles 2 theme. Guests whiz down the track, trying to save escaped super-baby Jack-Jack from hurting himself or, more likely, others with many, many superpowers.
Perhaps the best part of Pixar Pier is its restaurants and stores. Disney really jazzed up the area with restaurants like Abominable Adorable Snowman Frosted Treats and Angry Dogs, the latter of which is hot dogs made by Anger from Inside Out. When you eat and shop here, you’re experiencing extended theming of your favorite Pixar characters. Pixar Pier is a gloriously immersive place to spend your day.
1) Toy Story Land Finally Opens
The other additions on this list are all huge highlights, but nothing can compare to Toy Story Land. The Pixar movie, Toy Story, is the crown jewel of the Pixar library. Disney’s used characters for several previous attractions around the world. This themed land represented the first chance for them to have a place to call their own, though.
At Toy Story Land, guests shrink down to the size of toys and wander through Andy’s play area. The immaculate theming is on display everywhere, as items that would seem tiny and insignificant are swollen disproportionately due to your current toy size.
A single sheet of notebook paper is large enough to cover an entire wall at the E-ticket attraction, Slinky Dog Dash. The roller coaster highlights Toy Story Land, although I’m a bigger fan of Alien Swirling Saucers, which has a brilliant ride-tilting mechanic. And the food at Woody’s Lunch Box is mouth-wateringly delicious.
Here’s the most emphatic compliment that I can give Disney theme parks. Toy Story Land is a perfect addition to the park lineup. It comes barely a year after Pandora – The World of Avatar redefined people’s expectations for what a themed land could be.
Given the consecutive years of themed land triumphs, close your eyes for a moment and imagine just how great Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge could be! Folks, you need to make a call to your friendly MickeyTravels agent to get a reservation booked for its arrival this fall!