Disney raised even more questions with the recent announcement of plans to temporarily close the Rivers of America, Tom Sawyer Island and the Disneyland Railroad to allow for construction of Star Wars Land.
Here’s what we know so far: The new 14-acre land will feature two attractions set in a remote frontier town on the outer rim of the “Star Wars” galaxy. While no opening date has been set, Disneyland will break ground in 2016 on the project in the Big Thunder Ranch area of the park. I addressed a set of 8 unanswered questions back in August about the initial announcement.
Now Disney has dropped another shocker tacked onto the end of the most recent announcement about the Season of the Force fan festival beginning Nov. 16 in Tomorrowland. Starting Jan. 10, Disney plans to halt river traffic on the looping waterway ringing Tom Sawyer Island, mothball the locomotive trains circling the park and suspend the “Fantasmic” nighttime spectacular for an undisclosed amount of time.
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Let’s take a closer look at what the closures could mean for the future layout of Disneyland and how the changes could affect capacity concerns at the often-crowded Anaheim theme park.
1. Where will Star Wars Land be built?
The Big Thunder Ranch area amounts to about three acres. That means Disneyland will need to carve another 11 acres out of the park. But where?
There are basically three options: north toward Ball Road in a backstage area of the park, east toward Toontown or west toward the Rivers of America.
Disneyland officials have been quick to tamp down rumors that Toontown is in danger of being scrapped to make room for Star Wars Land. And it’s unlikely Disney would want to push the park boundary too close to Ball Road.
With the most recent announcement, it appears Star Wars Land will stretch west toward the Rivers of America. But how far?
2. Will Tom Sawyer Island shrink?
The northern portion of Tom Sawyer Island has been off limits to visitors for more than a decade.
Fort Wilderness has stood on the northern point since Tom Sawyer Island opened in 1956. After years of deterioration, the wooden log fort closed to the public in 2003 but continued to serve as a costuming area for “Fantasmic” performers. The original fort has since been torn down and rebuilt, but continues to remain closed to visitors.
Which raises the obvious question: Could this relatively unused space be incorporated into Star Wars Land?
3. Will the Rivers of America get shorter?
With a smaller Tom Sawyer Island, Disney would be forced to shorten the looping Rivers of America.
Shortening the river would require the Mark Twain riverboat and Columbia sailing ship to be rerouted and retracked. With the river drained, Disney might also upgrade the underwater technical elements of “Fantasmic.”
Draining the river during California’s prolonged drought could prove a public relations nightmare for Disney. The 4- to 8-foot-deep man-made river held 6.16 million gallons of water when it was filled in 1955. Disneyland officials say the river will be partially drained during construction with the water diverted, treated, stored and ultimately reused in the Rivers of America.
4. Will Disneyland connect Critter Country to Star Wars Land?
Critter Country has always presented a circulation problem for Disneyland. The route to nowhere forces visitors to make a U-turn to escape a dead-end cul-de-sac.
Similarly, the Big Thunder Ranch area of the park has long been a no-man’s land with little to attract visitors in the way of rides or retail.
Creating a pathway along the back side of the newly-shortened Rivers of America would solve an age-old circulation problem and help ease traffic congestion to and from Star Wars Land when the sure-to-be-popular destination finally opens.
The new connection might require a significant remodeling of the Hungry Bear restaurant, which might not be a waterfront eatery after construction ends.
5. Are there riverboats in outer space?
While the Mark Twain riverboat, Columbia sailing ship and Davy Crockett’s Explorer canoes might fit in thematically with Frontierland, Adventureland and Critter Country, they likely won’t mesh very well with the storytelling planned for Star Wars Land.
Disney will have to do something to shield the new themed land from the bustling river traffic, which means a portion of the reconfigured waterway might be bounded by a faux rock wall similar to the Ornament Valley buttes in Cars Land. Concept art of Star Wars Land shows a Millennium Falcon docked in front of towering buildings built into sheer cliffs.
6. And what about locomotive trains?
The closure of the Disneyland Railroad will temporarily shutter Walt Disney’s passion project and one of his original motivations for creating a theme park.
Much like the river traffic, Disney Imagineers will have to come up with a creative way to shield the locomotive trains that constantly circle the park from intruding “in a galaxy far, far away.”
One solution would be a diorama tunnel similar to the Grand Canyon and Primeval World tableaus already in place along the circuitous train route.
7. How long will “Fantasmic” be down?
“Fantasmic” draws thousands of visitors nightly to the Rivers of America waterfront for a stage show featuring animated scenes projected on water screens, acrobatic stunts on the Columbia and a fireworks finale with Disney characters aboard the Mark Twain.
So where will all those people go? The temporary suspension of “Fantasmic” is bound to put crowd control pressures on the rest of the frequently-packed park. The congestion will likely impact the nightly fireworks show and nighttime parade, which will continue after the Diamond Days 60th anniversary celebration officially ends on Sept. 5.
Over the past decade, “Fantasmic” has gone down for extended periods as sound, lighting and projector upgrades have been added to the show along with a new animatronic dragon.
How long will construction close the Rivers of America? While no return date has been set for “Fantasmic,” Disneyland officials say the hiatus will last more than a year. It will be interesting to see if the show that debuted in 1992 returns in time for its 25th anniversary.
8. What happens to the employees?
Disney announced the upcoming closures now in part to notify its employees of the sweeping changes.
The temporary closures will likely affect hundreds of park employees, performers and support personnel who work on the railroad and nighttime show as well as the riverboat, sailing ship, canoes and rafts that ply the river.
Disneyland officials say the affected employees will be offered other positions in the park during the closures.
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