It's official. The Mouse is scared.
Even as the tube is blanketed with commercials that trumpet the arrival of Disney World's "100 Years of Magic" celebration, Disney officials are conceding that this fall and winter may be particularly brutal times for their destination resort. With bookings down for all of WDW's on-property hotels, some even suggest the woes could carry into next summer.
Publicly, Mouse House officials blame the uncertain economy, which is causing many an Orlando trip to be put on hold. But privately, senior staffers place blame closer to home. They insist that management made a mistake in not adding any significant new attractions since 1999, when Epcot's "Test Track," Animal Kingdom's "Kali River Rapids," Disney/MGM's "Rock & Roller Coaster" and the Magic Kingdom's "Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh" all opened within six months of one another.
Still, determined to turn "100 Years" into a success, the Mouse is mounting the largest marketing blitz ever for its Central Florida resort. Counting the cross-promotional dollars that Disney's partners -- Hallmark, McDonald's, Coca-Cola et al -- are kicking in, $250 million will be spent in an effort to lure visitors back to Orlando.
Yet, the message that it's rides -- not marketing -- that move people appears to be sinking in. Which is why the Mouse's moratorium on building big new attractions in Orlando may be near an end. New rides and shows announced in the weeks and months ahead could include:
- "Mickey's Philharmagic," a 3D extravaganza in the Magic Kingdom's Fantasyland Theater, home since July 1994 to the "Legend of the Lion King" puppet show. With cutting-edge computer animation and special effects technology, this new attraction was originally developed for Hong Kong Disneyland, and could be up and running by the fall of 2003 -- just in time to kick off Mickey's 75th birthday bash.
- The "Reign of Fire" roller coaster. Here, finally, is that big thrill ride for Animal Kingdom that Disney Parks and Resorts chief Paul Pressler has been hinting about for months. Imagineers hope to use this proposed attraction to resurrect an idea that has long been in development -- a whole new land for the park, Beastly Kingdom, themed around creatures that never existed. The coaster's theme likely will be tied to the storyline of a forthcoming Touchstone Pictures/Spyglass Entertainment release, a film not-so-co-incidentally called "Reign of Fire." This action adventure film, which stars Matthew McConaughey and Christian Bale, isn't due in theaters until June 2002. But it's set in a post apocalyptic future, where a legion of dragons has suddenly awakened and systematically begun burning our world to the ground. The coaster is supposed to recreate the climax of that film, with riders zooming on a suspended track through the burned-out ruins of London in search of the dragon brood's queen. Provided that Mickey doesn't cut the budget, "Reign" the ride could feature the largest audio-animatronic figure the company has ever built: a 30-foot-tall robotic version of the queen that will snap its jaws, scratch its claws, flap its wings, and belch smoke and fire as guests fly by at 50 miles per hour.
- Those who prefer their dragons non-smoking should know that Future World favorite -- Figment -- definitely will make a comeback. Tired of the endless complaints from Epcot guests about how Disney ruined the original "Journey into Imagination" ride during its 1999 redo, the Imagineers finally are doing something about it. Their first smart move was to assign veteran Imagineer Tony Baxter to undo the damage. Baxter helped create the original version of the Kodak Pavilion ride, and this month he will be honored with a lifetime achievement award from the Themed Entertainment Association in recognition of all the rides, shows and attractions he's dreamed up for Disney over the years. Though Baxter's crew hasn't officially finalized plans, the proposed name for the redo of the redo -- "Figment's Journey into Imagination" -- leaves no doubt about who will be front and center again once the revamped pavilion reopens in the fall of 2003. It's said that Epcot visitors now be will invited into WDW's Imagination Institute to view a most amazing discovery. It seems the Institute has managed to capture a really for-real figment of imagination. But just as guests enter, Figment breaks loose. Their mission is to help recapture the little purple dragon.
This revamped ride -- plus Future World's high tech "Mission: Space" and a new 360-degree Canada film that's supposedly in the works -- could make Epcot a destination again come 2003.
Whether that extends to the rest of the resort -- well, the uncertainty creates something of an up-and-down ride itself, now, doesn't it?