Everything Destination D23 2023 Revealed About The Future Of Disney Theme Parks

When it comes to the future of Disney theme parks, one moment each year matters more than all the rest: when the world discovers what Disney is busy working on behind closed doors. The occasion usually manifests as a presentation emceed by the parks' executive leadership and Imagineers (Disney-speak for theme park designers), at a D23 convention. Destination D23 2023 was no different, with Josh D'Amaro — chairman of Disney Parks, Experiences, and Products — hosting a presentation jam-packed with surprises on September 9, 2023.

From the family Madrigal to Earth's mightiest heroes, from the pirate town of Tortuga to a galaxy far, far away, the characters and settings of D'Amaro's announcements will sweep guests into imaginative stories within breathtaking worlds. But what does it all mean? When can we expect these projects to open? What do they tell us about Disney's current priorities? Perhaps just as importantly, what did Disney not mention at Destination D23 2023?

Before we dive in, some clarity on confusing vocabulary: D23 is the official Disney fan club. Every two years, D23 hosts Destination D23, a convention at Walt Disney World in Florida. In the alternating years, D23 hosts D23 Expo, a much larger event at Anaheim Convention Center in California. Destination D23 is the event that we're focusing on today. While Destination D23 is typically more history-focused than forward-facing, in 2023 — from the parks panel, at least — Disney opted for a showcase of the future. Spoiler alert: There's a lot of magic on the horizon.

Encanto and Indiana Jones being considered for Animal Kingdom

Imagineers may or may not completely overhaul a huge chunk of Disney's Animal Kingdom at Walt Disney World into a land inspired by "Encanto" and "Indiana Jones." Maybe. Probably. But also, they might change their minds.

D'Amaro invited Bruce Vaughn, chief creative officer of Walt Disney Imagineering, to the stage. Vaughn shared concept artwork (pictured above) for a proposed "tropical Americas" project that may replace DinoLand U.S.A., complete with "Encanto" and "Indiana Jones" experiences. Strangely, though, Vaughn and D'Amaro emphasized these ideas are still theoretical. Official Disney literature following the panel stressed the team "is planning on" revamping DinoLand, and the specific ideas "are being considered." These pseudo-announcements confuse consumers, and often lead to incorrect or hyperbolized news coverage. (This time last year, D'Amaro similarly teased potential "Zootopia" and "Moana" attractions for this same exact space. Those ideas seem to no longer be the front-running choices.)

Vaughn stopped short of formally announcing attraction names, or even what kind of rides the team has in mind. However, if Imagineers follow through with the concept artwork presented at Destination D23, the casita from "Encanto" will reside on the former spot of the Primeval Whirl roller coaster, while a temple housing an "Indiana Jones" attraction will replace Dinosaur. Whatever will replace DinoLand, it won't open anytime soon; construction has yet to commence. The land as it stands is still fully operational if you want to get one last ride in on Dinosaur.

Imagineers will expand Magic Kingdom beyond Big Thunder

At D23 Expo 2022, D'Amaro said Imagineers had their sights on expanding "beyond Big Thunder" at Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom, referring to undeveloped land north of Big Thunder Mountain Railroad. At the time, D'Amaro hinted that attractions based on "Coco," "Encanto," and Disney villains were on the drawing board for this expansion. D'Amaro presented this information — along with concept art — as possibilities rather than promises. (If the crowd's reaction in the room is any indicator of consumer interest, Disney would be wise to go with villains, met with thunderous applause.)

At Destination D23 2023, D'Amaro and Vaughn mentioned the Magic Kingdom expansion, again using the "beyond Big Thunder" language. The pair remained mum on specific stories in mind for the project and didn't present any updated concept art. With "Encanto" now seemingly a priority for Disney's Animal Kingdom, we might infer that Bruno won't be talked about "beyond Big Thunder."

However, Vaughn mentioned "the possibility of adding attractions, restaurants, shows; you dream it, we're thinking about it." The Disney Parks Blog, an official, company-operated resource, later mentioned the Imagineers' ambition for the project is to build a land on the scale of Star Wars: Galaxy's Edge and Pandora: The World of Avatar (meaning, massive). With construction not yet begun, these "beyond Big Thunder" experiences are still multiple years away from welcoming guests.

The Country Bear Jamboree's new lease on life

The Country Bear Jamboree will be completely updated sometime in 2024. The original show, performed by a troupe of Audio-Animatronics bears, has been a staple of Magic Kingdom since the park opened in 1971. At Destination D23, Chris Beatty, creative portfolio executive at Walt Disney Imagineering, revealed the revue will become The Country Bear Musical Jamboree (poster artwork above). The new production will feature the same critters, but they'll sing familiar Disney songs rather than '70s-era country hits. For example, Beatty shared a clip of Nashville musicians recording a country version of "The Bear Necessities" from "The Jungle Book."

The change makes sense. (In the current version, one bear sings, "Mama, don't whip little Buford. I think you should shoot him instead.") Still, classic segments of the 50-year-old pageant — such as Big Al woefully crooning "Blood on the Saddle" — will be sad for some guests to part ways with, even if the bears themselves aren't going anywhere.

This won't be the first time the bears have performed a new program. In earlier decades, Imagineers swapped out the regular show in favor of The Country Bear Vacation Hoedown in the summertime and The Country Bear Christmas Special during the holidays. Both retained the same spirit as the original, lending likelihood to the overhaul doing the same. The main difference, of course, is the new version being a permanent replacement rather than a temporary overlay as part of Disney's seasonal holiday events.

Zootopia replacing the Bug's Life 3-D show at Animal Kingdom

When Judy Hopps said "Anyone can be anything," we didn't realize "anyone" was the Tree of Life and "anything" was an eviction notice for Flik the ant. D'Amaro and Vaughn shared that a "Zootopia" show will open at Disney's Animal Kingdom inside the Tree of Life. Yes, this means that It's Tough To Be A Bug!, the 3-D show starring characters from Pixar's "A Bug's Life," will close. The show is one of the park's opening-day attractions from 1998.

Again, D'Amaro and Vaughn used vague language in discussing the "Zootopia" attraction and revealing a preliminary piece of concept artwork (above). While the show itself seems to be confirmed, Disney later said "Imagineers are currently finalizing the concept" for what exactly guests will experience inside. For now, the team's "current concept" involves "visiting the different biomes you only glimpse in the film." D'Amaro and Vaughn did not provide a timetable for the new "Zootopia" show. It's Tough To Be A Bug! is still fully operational, with no closing date announced.

New characters at EPCOT

If no Disney trip is complete for you without meeting characters, there are a few new — and old — friends to add to your list. At D23 Expo 2022, D'Amaro revealed that Figment, the purple dragon from EPCOT's Journey Into Imagination ride, would begin meeting guests sometime in the coming year, after over a decade of absence. At Destination D23 2023, Figment surprised attendees with a personal appearance as D'Amaro announced the dragon would debut in EPCOT with a completely new look the very next day, September 10, 2023. You can find Figment daily in ImageWorks, inside the Imagination! pavilion. (On his first day back, guests waited up to five hours to meet him!)

D'Amaro also announced Moana will arrive at EPCOT on October 16, 2023. She will greet guests near Journey of Water, a permanent attraction opening on the same day (more on that later). D'Amaro didn't mention if Moana's new location will be in replacement of, or in addition to, her existing meet and greet at Disney's Animal Kingdom.

On November 22, 2023, Walt Disney Animation Studios will debut "Wish" in theaters. During the parks panel, D'Amaro shared that guests will be able to meet the film's protagonist, Asha, "soon" at EPCOT, Disneyland, and Disneyland Paris. The next day during a studio panel, Asha made a surprise appearance in person for Destination D23 attendees.

Avengers ride still on track for California Adventure

If you're a Marvel fan who's visited Disney California Adventure recently, you probably had the time of your life at Avengers Campus, the park's superhero land. Adding to its roster of "Guardians of the Galaxy" and "Spider-Man" rides, Avengers Campus will expand with a third attraction sometime in the future. As previously announced, the multiverse-themed attraction will star an ensemble of Avengers teaming up to fight King Thanos, a version of the villain who won the infamous battle in "Avengers: Endgame."

At Destination D23 2023, Brent Strong, executive creative director at Walt Disney Imagineering, offered a few more breadcrumbs about the upcoming attraction in the form of new concept art (above). Strong said the ride vehicle will combine "elements of Tony Stark's time-suits with Xandarian jump points [from 'Guardians of the Galaxy] and Wakandan technology [from 'Black Panther']." Disney hasn't outright stated what kind of ride this experience will be. That being said, later on Instagram, Walt Disney Imagineering shared the ride will feature "physical worlds" and "a blend of large-scale built environments and immersive media." Reading between the lines, they're telling us this won't just be a simulator with a screen, but a more fully built-out attraction.

The concept artwork, which was first shared in 2022, was re-shared by Imagineering on Instagram after Destination D23 (implying it's still current). The artwork depicts Captain Marvel, Captain America, Daredevil, Thor, She-Hulk, Moon Knight, Spider-Man, and Captain Carter among the many heroes teaming up for the adventure.

Ahsoka will join Star Tours

As new "Star Wars" adventures take flight in film and television, Imagineers routinely update the Star Tours simulator attraction with new characters and destinations. Over the years, the artists have added friends like BB-8 and locales like Batuu into the Star Tours fold, playfully not adhering to any specific timeline or canon.

One character, in particular, is currently at the forefront of many fans' minds: Ahsoka Tano. Following the debut of the epic "Star Wars: Ahsoka" series on Disney+ and the arrival of Ahsoka herself as a meetable character at Disneyland (above), fans will soon be able to have even more adventures with the Jedi. D'Amaro announced Ahsoka will be part of Star Tours beginning in the spring of 2024 at Disneyland, Disney's Hollywood Studios, and Disneyland Paris. Ahsoka's Star Tours debut is one of several new characters and locations Imagineers are adding to the attraction, the rest of which remain under wraps.

A lounge themed to Pirates of the Caribbean will open at Magic Kingdom

"Lounge" might not be the first word that pops into your mind when thinking of a theme park. Nonetheless, in recent years, Disney has opened several lounges/bars — from Nomad Lounge at Disney's Animal Kingdom to Lamplight Lounge at Disney California Adventure — that offer a more relaxing alternative to the hustle and bustle of a hectic dining hall.

At Destination D23, Beatty announced a new venue of this variety for Magic Kingdom's Adventureland. Beatty referred to the project as a "tavern," while Disney's press literature referred to it as a "lounge." In any case, Disney said the "first of its kind" establishment will "extend the story of Pirates of the Caribbean." The pub (concept art above) will include an appearance by the talking parrot Audio-Animatronics figure that previously stood at the entrance to the Pirates ride.

The project is still in early development; Beatty did not announce a name, timeframe, or specific location within Adventureland. The surrounding area near Pirates of the Caribbean is already home to Tortuga Tavern, a quick-service restaurant (read: not an actual tavern). It remains to be seen if the new lounge will take up quarters there, or somewhere else nearby.

EPCOT is nearing the finish line of its transformation

Since 2019, EPCOT has been in a state of massive construction (while remaining open). At Destination D23's parks panel, EPCOT's leadership — Kartika Rodriguez, vice president of EPCOT; Scott Mallwitz, executive creative director at Walt Disney Imagineering; and Jeff Vahle, president of Walt Disney World — provided a timeframe for previously announced additions in the park's transformation.

The trio shared the opening date for Journey of Water (above), an interactive trail inspired by "Moana": October 16, 2023, the official 100th anniversary of the Walt Disney Company. They also revealed the name of EPCOT's upcoming fireworks spectacular — Luminous — and its opening date: December 5, 2023, Walt Disney's birthday. The executives excitedly announced that sometime in December, Imagineers will, at last, unveil the makeover of EPCOT's central plaza, called World Celebration, complete with a statue of Walt Disney and a permanent event venue for the park's seasonal festivals (a must for adult trips to Disney).

In a separate presentation, Rodriguez later revealed Soarin', the park's hang-gliding simulator, will return to its roots for a limited time. Beginning September 22, 2023, guests can experience the original California version of the EPCOT attraction instead of the international flight the ride has presented since 2016.

Test Track 3.0

In a surprise, Rodriguez, Mallwitz, and Vahle exclusively announced a reimagining of Test Track, the guest-favorite EPCOT thrill ride. Imagineers will infuse the new version with the "spirit of optimism" embodied by the ride's predecessor, World of Motion, which taught the history of transportation through Audio-Animatronics figures and music. (If you visited EPCOT during the park's early years, you may remember World of Motion from its theme song, "It's Fun to Be Free.") The tonal change for this new generation of Test Track (concept art above) seems significantly different from the current attraction's poised, polished, professional feel.

This will mark the third iteration of Test Track since the ride opened in 1999. The original, sponsored by General Motors, focused on car safety tests. A 2012 reboot, created in collaboration with Chevrolet, shifted gears toward car design and aesthetic testing. Chevrolet will remain a sponsor of the forthcoming overhaul. The revision's timeframe is TBA; the existing Test Track remains operational at the time of this writing.

The name of the seventh Disney Cruise Line ship

Beyond the theme parks, intriguing new journeys await future travelers through Disney Signature Experiences. This includes vacations with Disney Cruise Line, which will expand its fleet with multiple new ships in the coming years. Days prior to Destination D23 2023, Disney revealed a sweep of details about the Disney Treasure, Disney Cruise Line's new cruise ship launching in 2024. The ship will feature exclusives like a "Coco" dinner show, a lounge taking place inside the Nautilus submarine from "20,000 Leagues Under the Sea," and more.

Another ship, the seventh Disney Cruise Line vessel, will set sail after the Treasure. At Destination D23, Thomas Mazloum, president of Disney Signature Experiences, announced the ship's name: the Disney Adventure (concept art above). Mazloum also shared that voyages onboard the Adventure will be the first Disney cruises departing from Singapore and visiting Southeast Asia. The ship is currently under construction in Germany.

Updates on previously announced projects: Arendelle, Never Land, and more

A number of large-scale expansions are under construction at Disney parks worldwide. During the week leading up to and following Destination D23, the company revealed new details about these additions and even announced a few opening dates. World of Frozen, a land within Hong Kong Disneyland, will open on November 20. Meanwhile, at Shanghai Disneyland, a "Zootopia" land will open in late 2023. Its just-announced centerpiece attraction will be Zootopia: Hot Pursuit, a trackless dark ride. While in the neighborhood, chow down on a "pawpcicle!" (No, really, you'll be able to purchase and consume a "pawpcicle," just like in the movie.)

Over at Tokyo DisneySea, a new port called Fantasy Springs races toward its spring 2024 opening. Here, guests will step into iconic locations from "Peter Pan" (pictured above), "Tangled," and "Frozen." At Destination D23, D'Amaro shared footage of the construction progress of Fantasy Springs, as well as Paris Imagineers' further-out "Frozen" expansion at Walt Disney Studios Park.

Stateside, fans await the arrival of the Hatbox Ghost into Magic Kingdom's Haunted Mansion. Imagineer Daniel Joseph took the stage at Destination D23 to announce the Audio-Animatronics figure — which Imagineers famously built for and later removed from the original Disneyland ride when the figure's special effects failed — will materialize in Florida beginning in late November. D'Amaro also shared a sneak peek at another Audio-Animatronics addition to Magic Kingdom, Louis the Alligator, who will be part of Tiana's Bayou Adventure, when it opens in late 2024.

What wasn't mentioned at Destination D23 2023?

Imagineers and executives at Destination D23 2023 revealed a flurry of in-progress magic. Guests at every Disney destination around the planet have a lot to look forward to in the coming years. Nonetheless, a few elephants in the room remained unacknowledged.

In 2019, Disney announced the PLAY! pavilion — a hub of high-tech, interactive exhibits — for EPCOT. The building that Disney intended to house the pavilion — next door to Guardians of the Galaxy: Cosmic Rewind (one of Disney World's best roller coasters) — remains unopened. EPCOT's leadership at Destination D23 acknowledged the park's "transformation" being nearly complete, but didn't mention the PLAY! pavilion as part of that overhaul. In 2020, Disney shared plans for a major renovation of Spaceship Earth, EPCOT's centerpiece attraction inside the park's geodesic sphere. The pandemic derailed the re-do, but Disney never reignited the project.

In 2022, the Star Wars: Galactic Starcruiser overnight experience (lobby pictured above) opened at Walt Disney World, seemingly a game-changer for immersive storytelling. At the end of September 2023, the Starcruiser (pictured above) will permanently close, a rare admission of a failed, short-lived major Disney resort project. The future of the building — equipped and show-ready with highly themed "Star Wars" restaurants and hotel accommodations — remains uncertain. D'Amaro and the company didn't mention the status of these experiences at Destination D23. That being said, their omissions don't lessen the excitement toward everything else on deck in the coming years.