Ever since The Walt Disney Company acquired Lucasfilm back in October of last year for $4 billion, theme park fans have been chomping at the bit for news of new Star War-themed rides, shows and attractions.
And while there's been plenty of info released over the past 10 months in regards to Episode VII (i.e., the first film of this new trilogy will hit theaters during the Summer of 2015. This motion picture will be shot in London and feature a screenplay by Academy Award-winner Michael Arndt. J.J. Abrams is attached to direct and "Star Wars" vets Carrie Fisher, Harrison Ford and Mark Hamill have been signed to appear in this movie) as well as the new animated series ("Star Wars Rebels" will debut on the Disney Channel in the Fall of 2014 and will mirror the "used future" look that legendary concept artist Ralph McQuarrie created for "Star Wars VI: A New Hope"), on the theme park side of things, the news has been rather thin.
Until earlier this month, that is. This is when Walt Disney Imagineering -- as part of the 60th anniversary celebration at 2013 D23 EXPO -- put a mysterious set of yet-to-be-unpacked shipping crates on display in its “Journey into Imagineering” pavilion.
And given the labels on some of these boxes (EX: "Contents: Bantha milk - 12 bottles." And given that the outside of this particular shipping crate was covered with some mysterious blue fluid, it would appear that at least one of these bottles of Bantha milk had broke and/or spilled in transit. Or -- better yet -- that box with the "Contents Highly Combustible" warning stamped on the outside. Which was perfectly understandable, given that there were supposedly 24 Class-A Thermal Detonators inside…) Well, Star Wars fans as well as theme park enthusiasts around the world all lost their minds at these none-too-subtle hints of Star Wars-themed rides, shows and attractions yet to come.
Mind you, there were those who groused that -- instead of just teasing the fans with boxes that were labeled "Rancor Food" or "Protocol Droid" -- Disney should have just acted like a rebel spy and actually handed over the plans for the new Star Wars Land that's supposed to be built at Disney's Hollywood Studios in the not-so-distant future. But to hear Dave Fisher (i.e. the senior show writer who helped drive the development of the "Journey into Imagineering" pavilion) talk, it really wasn't what WDI was looking to do at this year's D23 EXPO.
"We're kind of in a tweener year here at Imagineering. We've just opened a lot of new projects. We opened Cars Land at DCA. We opened New Fantasyland at the Magic Kingdom. Plus two new lands at Hong Kong Disneyland," Fisher explained. "And while we're right on the cusp, we're still not quite ready to talk about Shanghai, Avatar, whatever we're doing with Star Wars and all that."
"So rather than talk about projects that we're not quite ready to talk about yet, we thought ... Well, 2013 is the 60th anniversary of the birth of Walt Disney Imagineering. And one of the things that D23 members have told us in the past is that they loved getting the chance to meet the Imagineers," Dave continued. "So that's what we decided to do with this year's 'Journey in Imagineering' pavilion. We created a space that looks back over the 60 year history of this arm of The Walt Disney Company that would also give D23 members a chance to meet with and talk with some Imagineers. And in amongst all of these booths and displays, if you're really paying attention, you'll then find some hints of all the stuff that we're working on next."
Mind you, some of these hints were pretty broad. Take -- for example -- that faux cubicle that had been set up on this pavilion's floor. Based on that piece of Unobtainium which was floating above its sample case to all of the sketches & photographs of Pandora that were pinned up on the walls inside of this cubicle, it was clear that whichever Imagineer had been assigned to this workspace was part of the "James Cameron's World of Avatar" team.
One of the more interesting examples of these hidden-in-plain-sight items was Symphony, that musical plant which WDI would periodically put on display outside of its R & D booth. This actual, living, breathing plant would audibly play musical notes when you touched its leaves and stems. And when I noted that Symphony would be an interesting addition to "James Cameron's World of Avatar" (which is supposed to begin construction next year at Disney's Animal Kingdom theme park), the Imagineer nearby heard and cryptically remarked that " ... Pandora is noted for its foliage" before he then whisked this musical plant backstage.
Of course, the only problem of working with James Cameron on a theme park-related project is that this cinematic auteur is infamous for his glacially-paced creative process. In the past, Cameron has sometimes gone seven years to a decade between projects before he then decides that the time is exactly right to begin production. So taking that into account ... It could be as long as 2017 before the very first DAK visitors get to enter (and we're only talking Phase One of this new "land," mind you) "James Cameron's World of Avatar."
On the upside ... Star Wars Land for DHS seems to be on a somewhat speedier development track. Disney Company insiders are suggesting that the construction fences for this ambitious project could go up as early as January of next year at the studio theme park with construction going vertical in late 2014 / early 2015.
And what sort of Star Wars-themed rides, shows and attractions can we expect as part of this rumored-to-be-a-half-billion-dollar expansion of Disney's Hollywood Studios? Again, all of the Imagineers that I spoke with at this year' D23 EXPO were mum. Though -- that said -- they were quick to point at some of the labels on those shipping crates found in the "Orange Harvest" display, which supposedly included things like "620C Racing Engines" and "Hyperdrive Motivators." It suggested that whatever WDI plans on building will be able to go very fast and/or carry WDW Guests out into deep space.
But for now ... Well, as Bob Iger said back in May during Disney's quarterly earnings teleconference ...
"In addition to the Star Wars feature films that we’ve already talked about, we’re also working on opportunities for television and our parks. It’s still very early in the process. We’ll announce details as these developments evolve."
The current scuttlebutt is that Disney Parks & Resorts is planning a big Star Wars-related announcement for the tail end of October, which -- not-so-co-incidentally -- would mark the one year anniversary of The Walt Disney Company's acquisition of Lucasfilm.
So all I can suggest to Star Wars & Avatar fans is to that they hang in there a little while longer. While Walt Disney Imagineering wasn't quite ready to talk about these proposed additions to WDW's theme parks earlier this month, they will be shortly. And that's when things will really get interesting in the current battle between Disney & Universal over who's got the very best rides, shows and attractions at their theme parks.
By: Jim Hill
Orlando, FL – 08/19/13