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D23 brings big news for Walt Disney World, while Universal’s new projects are coming fast and furious



I've been so busy enjoying Orlando's vibrant performing arts scene that it's been two months since I covered the attractions, so let's catch up on recent updates from Orlando's theme parks.

First, big news for Walt Disney World came from Disneyland, where long-anticipated projects were finally confirmed during August's D23 fan convention. A major Star Wars expansion is officially coming to Disney's Hollywood Studios, based largely on the upcoming sequels. Two headliner attractions – an interactive Millennium Falcon simulator inside a full-size replica of Han Solo's signature ship, and a First Order versus the Resistance dark ride that could be Disney's answer to Spider-Man and Gringotts – will be supported by the requisite shops and restaurants, including an alien-filled cantina.

One twist is that the area won't re-create any existing location from the saga, but instead will be a new Imagineer-invented planet evoking a mashup of Star Wars styles. Big questions remain: Will guests be as gung-ho about going to a generic spaceport (rather than Tatooine or Endor) as they are about Hogsmeade and Diagon Alley? Where exactly will the land be located? (Indiana Jones' stunt show and the parking lot behind Star Tours seem to be goners, but intel conflicts over whether Echo Lake or MuppetVision will survive.) Who wants to drink blue milk in Orlando's heat? And most importantly, when will it open?

Disney is conspicuously silent on that last point, not even announcing a ground-breaking date for Florida, while Anaheim's version (which will evict my beloved goat petting farm) won't get started until 2017. I wouldn't count on going to that galaxy far, far away until Episode IX is in theaters, but a "Season of the Force" event starting early next year (aka Star Wars Weekends Strikes Back: The Search for More Money) will try to tide Jedi junkies over until then.

Before Star Wars Land debuts, the other side of DHS will be transformed into Toy Story Land, which (I'm happily surprised to say) looks better than the similarly named areas found in Hong Kong and Paris. With an oversized backyard theme, this partial replacement for the old Studio Backlot Tour will feature a Slinky the Dog family coaster (between Seven Dwarfs and Space Mountain on the thrill meter) and a Little Green Men spinning ride based on California's marvelous Mater's Junkyard Jamboree.

The good news is that the project's first phase – a third track from the popular Toy Story Midway Mania ride – has already been installed. The bad news is that even after its upgrade the attraction will be lucky to serve 1,600 guests per hour, an inadequate capacity for the park's only all-ages E-ticket.

Most of the D23 buzz was about Hollywood Studios' future, with good reason; as I wrote in July, the park is currently a shell of its already-slender self, with only Frozen festivities to distract from boarded-up buildings. Pandora, the Avatar expansion inching toward a 2017 opening at Animal Kingdom, was promoted with some vague updates, as was Epcot's Frozen-ification of Norway; both were mostly met with yawns from the fan community. It seems like Disney's best stuff is being saved for Shanghai Disneyland, whose Tron lightcycle coaster and reimagined Pirates ride look like fanboy fantasies. I'm heading there next year, provided I can save up enough for airfare and oxygen tanks.

Universal, on the other hand, doesn't hold a huge convention to announce attractions, but their projects are still coming fast and furious – literally: The Vin Diesel car franchise is coming to Universal Studios Florida in 2017, replacing the Disaster ride and Beetlejuice show. The new ride will (hopefully) be an improved version of the 3-D simulation that's gotten mixed reviews at Universal Hollywood's tram tour.

While Toretto tears up San Francisco, Twister will also close soon (demolition permits were already filed), with wooden Bill Paxton being replaced by Jimmy Fallon. And in case you missed it, the Lucille Ball memorabilia museum – one of the park's last original attractions – was evicted for a Hello Kitty store, while the serene Garden of Allah is now an NBC preview center where you can earn cash by watching TV (beware the Clockwork Orange-esque biometric sensors).

Elsewhere at the Universal Resort, construction on King Kong's Skull Island (including the massive ape-shaped entry arch), the Sapphire Falls hotel and the Volcano Bay water park are all full steam ahead, and rumors of future projects – additional hotel towers for Cabana Bay and the current Wet 'n Wild land; Nintendo replacing USF's KidZone; a major revamp of Islands of Adventure's Marvel Super Hero Island (which will remain themed to the Disney-owned characters) – are heating up. At this rate, by next month Universal will probably have built three more things I haven't even heard of yet.

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