Exterior of Space Mountain roller coaster in Magic Kingdom's Tomorrowland
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Credit: Walt Disney World

Theme Park News: What's next for Walt Disney World — and how to celebrate Christmas outside the parks

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Dec 15, 2020, 5:13 PM EST (Updated)

After the unbelievable drop of entertainment news last week, all eyes have been on The Walt Disney Company's content slate. Given the mind-boggling amount of Marvel and Star Wars shows that are on tap for the next couple of years, it's starting to look like just when we'll be able to leave the house and return to normal life, we won't want to, for fear of missing out on every new show and film currently in development.

However! This space is reserved for theme park conversations, so theme park conversations we will have. Let's put a pin in that Ahoska announcement and "significant expansion" of the Star Wars cinematic universe until those characters wind up in Galaxy's Edge and instead do our own version of it for the brick and mortar locations many of these franchises call home and discuss something similar: Our blueprint for all that's to come at Walt Disney World.

This isn't your typical "What's New In 2021" round-up because there's much more in the works than a couple of rides. (And, to be completely frank, we wouldn't dare pinpoint timelines while we're still suffering through a global pandemic that's more catastrophic and long-lasting than we could have anticipated.)

Though the content side of things may have held the big splashy announcement with not a peep about Orlando, theme parks' day is just around the bend. You see, Walt Disney World has been low-key operating some major builds and minor facelifts to everything from welcome gates to Guardians coasters in preparation for its 50th Anniversary next October.

There is much work underway to make things perfect for when the (likely) year-long anniversary celebration rolls around, so! If you haven't been in the parks this year — or even in the past few weeks — you might not be privy to all the change underfoot resort-wide. Put that countdown to WandaVision aside as we travel on a construction tour of sorts to discover everything that's currently being fixed up and what you can fixate on during your next Florida-bound trip:

Roll up to Disney's Magic Kingdom and you won't see a stream train pulling up to the park's elevated train station but a large-scale scrim covering the station entirely, as it undergoes refurbishment. Head to Fantasyland to see the final touches on It's a Small World, which just debuted a bold and colorful reimagining of its entryway, and keep walking toward Rivers of America for a sight you may very well not see again: the entire thing drained. Yep, that body of water that puts the island in Tom Sawyer Island is currently being repaired, allowing looky-loos to finally sneak a peek of the riverboat track that runs beneath the water.

(Cool, right?)

Make your way toward Tomorrowland next and you're bound to see cranes for an exciting reason: the impending arrival of TRON Lightcycle Power Run. The motorbike coaster, a duplicate of the highly praised Shanghai Disneyland attraction, is coming to fruition in real time as its outdoor canopy has begun to take form.

From there, you can take the monorail over to Epcot and see, well, plenty of work being done. There's often one park undergoing a major transformation at a time — until the debut of Mickey & Minnie's Runaway Railway this Spring, it was Disney's Hollywood Studios — and Epcot is currently getting the refurbishment treatment across all ends of the park. That translucent sculpture you pass by on your way in? It was just added, the first of many changes coming to the Future World section of the park. Hang a left through the walled-off walkways and you'll spot Guardians of the Galaxy: Cosmic Rewind coming together nicely, as well as the future location for Space 220 restaurant, which uses the same screen technology as the forthcoming Star Wars: Galactic Starcruiser hotel.

Changes are even on the way at World Showcase, where barges for Harmonious, the forthcoming new nighttime show replacing IllumiNation after its two-decade-long run, are beginning to be rolled out. The France pavilion's expansion is nearly done, too, as the signage for Remy's Ratatouille Adventure — the trackless ride themed to Pixar's beloved film — was illuminated for the very first time last night:

There are other small projects throughout the resort. These include the disappearance of the BoardWalk Inn clown, which is seemingly going to be replaced with something Mickey themed, as well as a new Walt Disney World entryway arch and gate — but there's a massive project underway at Disney's Polynesian Village Resort, which is revamping much of its main building, with light refurbishments within its rooms to provide a bit of Moana-themed inspiration. There's even more in store at Disney Springs, too, where Everglazed Donuts is preparing to open its doors and the much-anticipated Gideon's Bakehouse is set to open its doors any day now.

Bottom line: Just because the parks weren't mentioned in last week's massive news drop doesn't mean big things aren't headed to Disney World. (And, from the looks of these new attractions, once the pandemic ends you will too.)

GETTING IN THE FESTIVE SPIRIT BEYOND THE PARKS

While theme parks are famous for going big around the holidays, things aren't quite the same this year. COVID-19 positivity rates are skyrocketing nationwide, and as discussed last week, California has closed down onsite dining at Disney and Universal's "downtown" districts. This week, news came that Downtown Disney will not open on Christmas Day, marking the first time Disneyland Resort will be closed on the biggest holiday of the year.

Over at Walt Disney World, the holiday typically tends to be one of the busiest days of the year, but with COVID-19 travel restrictions varying by state, a general encouragement to not travel mid-pandemic, and parks operating at limited capacity, even those who want to spend the holidays in the parks may not be able to. Thankfully, there are a handful of ways to channel the Disney Christmastime spirit, both outside the parks and from anywhere in the country.

For those missing December-time Disney, the Florida parks will be live streaming Voices of Liberty tonight at 6:10 Eastern on their website, and for Candlelight Processional fans, there's an unexpected way to experience the famed festive show... outside the parks. Community Presbyterian Church in Celebration, Florida — just a few miles from the parks — will host a 12 Days of Christmas Celebration with a similar event nightly through Dec. 23, with proceeds supporting laid-off theme park employees.

It's not the only seasonal event that does some good. TwElf Days of Christmas, a free drive-through event, benefits local artists and performers in need, and Give Kids The World will live-stream its Night of a Million Lights event on Dec. 20, offering a bit of holiday magic that's somewhat powered by the parks, from wherever you may be.

TWEET OF THE WEEK

OK FINE, so we won't stick to just theme parks, but the point has been made! So many Star Wars announcements and... not a single Muppets situation?! Give me a Rizzo biopic! WandaVision but recreated with Kermit and Miss Piggy! Heck, we'd even rally behind a Minions-style film that's just Gonzo's chickens making pecking noises! C'mon Disney, give us more Muppets!

LINKS! LINKS! LINKS!

- This peek at Universal Beijing's Jurassic World ride is wild.

- Another RunDisney race is going digital.

- Planning a Disney World vacation soon? Don't miss this ticketing update.

- More details have been released about the Walt Disney World Swan Reserve luxury hotel tower.

- New Year's Eve is going to look a bit different at Disney this year.

- Help me, for I am in love with this edible elf!

- No more Magic Kingdom mailboxes?! Say it isn't so!