This Week in Theme Park News: Disney Genie+, Splash Mountain's Retheme, Tragedy at SeaWorld, and More

Travel Features theme parks
Share Tweet Submit Pin
This Week in Theme Park News: Disney Genie+, Splash Mountain's Retheme, Tragedy at SeaWorld, and More

Earlier today Disney revealed more about the upcoming Princess and the Frog attraction, which will be replacing the current Splash Mountain at both Disneyland and the Magic Kingdom. This is both one of the most anticipated projects in the pipeline at Disney, as well as one of the most controversial among certain theme park fans, and it’s great to finally get more information about it.

In a new video released by Disney Parks today, some of the chief creative officers at Disney discuss the new attraction and more. ABC News’ Kenneth Moton leads a roundtable discussion about the impact of the movie, its enduring popularity, and its future at the theme parks and on Disney Cruise Lines, with a focus on the future retheme coming to Splash Mountain. Moton is joined by Charita Carter, a Senior Creative Producer with Walt Disney Imagineering who is the producer and team leader on the new attraction; Marlon West, a VFX Supervisor at Walt Disney Animation Studios, who worked on the Princess and the Frog film; Carmen Smith, Vice President of Creative Development and Inclusive Strategies at Imagineering, and the creative executive producer on the Splash Mountain retheme; and Stella Chase Reese, the owner of Dooky Chase’s Restaurant in New Orleans, and the daughter of Leah Chase, the famed New Orleans chef who was the real-life inspiration for Disney’s Princess Tiana. The video also includes concept art for the ride from Walt Disney Imagineering, as well as an original artwork by New Orleans artist and art instructor Sharika Mahdi, who was commissioned to create four paintings to inspire the artists working on Disney’s new attraction.

As Carter reveals in the video, the new attraction will be “an adventure through the bayou” with characters from the movie and ones created just for the ride. It’ll end with what Carter calls “the ultimate Mardi Gras party,” which makes me think they’re aiming to replace that amazing final scene of the current Splash Mountain with something just as jubilant. Currently, after your 49 foot drop out of Splash Mountain and into the briar patch, you return home to find a riverboat full of chickens, pigs, gators, and other critters joyfully celebrating your safe arrival. It’s one of the most triumphant and fist-pumping moments on any Disney ride, and hopefully the new-look Mountain will be able to retain some of its power.

One of the many questions about the Splash Mountain retheme is what will happen with the copious audio-animatronics currently found in the ride. There’s no news about that in the video, but Carter does mention how they’re looking at ways to use audio-animatronics on the attraction to advance their storytelling techniques. That should offer some relief to anybody worried that Disney would focus on screens, projections, or other visual effects in place of audio-animatronics in the new attraction.

As I’ve written before, it’s well past time for Disney to sunset the original theme for Splash Mountain. Although controversial with some, the idea to turn a ride based on a deeply problematic 75-year-old movie that hasn’t been officially available in America for over 35 years into a ride starring one of Disney’s most popular princesses is a pretty obvious no-brainer. Splash Mountain’s characters barely exist outside of the parks these days, but the ride isn’t like Pirates of the Caribbean or The Haunted Mansion—an original idea created specifically for the theme parks. It’s based on the animated portions of 1946’s Song of the South, which adapted Joel Chandler Harris’ “Uncle Remus” stories from the late 19th century, which were themselves commercial adaptations of African-American folklore and oral storytelling that Harris grew familiar with while growing up in Georgia. Although set after the Civil War, the movie feels like it’s set in antebellum times, with an idyllic depiction of what is essentially plantation life and characters that often reflect racist stereotypes that used to be very common in pop culture. The animated sections that the ride is based on aren’t as troublesome as the live action portions, but if you’ve ever seen the movie, or understand that it’s based on a white man selling Black stories to a white audience, you’ll understand why the biggest media company in the world wouldn’t want to be associated with it in the year 2021.

We still know very little about what Imagineering is cooking up, but some of the details in this video, like the artwork and Carter’s hint of a big show-closing spectacular, make me cautiously optimistic. There’s no timeline yet for the Princess and the Frog attraction, but rumors peg its opening to 2023. That should be enough time for fans of the original Splash Mountain to get at least one more trip to the Laughing Place under their belts.

Last week Disney announced another change coming to Disneyland and Disney World, and it’s one that will noticeably impact how you plan your park trips. Say goodbye to FastPass+ and MaxPass, the programs that let guests reserve times for certain rides in advance, and say hello to their replacement: Disney Genie+. The pay service gets you access to rides through the Lightning Lane, which will be replacing the old FastPass entrances. For $15 a day per ticket Genie+ will let you reserve times for various attractions throughout the parks. The Disney Parks blog announcement mentions Haunted Mansion, Big Thunder Mountain Railroad, and Millennium Falcon: Smugglers Run as examples of some of the attractions you’ll be able to get reservations for through Genie+. So it sounds like the old FastPass system, only no longer free, with potentially more FastPasses per day than the three you used to be capped to, and without having to plan everything 60 days in advance. You can only have one reservation at a time, and the blog post notes that reservations have limited availability, so you’re still not guaranteed a trip down the Lightning Lane for your favorite ride. $15 on top of the already high ticket prices means Genie+ will be a luxury for the wealthy, but as disappointing as it might be to see Disney move in this direction, selling a separate pass to skip some lines is something Universal has been doing for years—and at a much higher price, to boot. Also it’s reasonable to expect Genie+ to have less users than FastPass did, since it’s not free, and that might improve standby waits, thus benefiting guests who don’t even pay for the new thing.

There’s another hangup to Genie+, though. If you want Lightning Lane access to the most popular attractions at a park—Disney’s examples include Seven Dwarfs Mine Train at Magic Kingdom and Radiator Springs Racers at Disney California Adventure—you’ll have to pay an extra fee per ride, per ticket, on top of that $15. That pricing hasn’t been announced, but the blog post notes it will “vary by date, attraction and park,” so it’ll be subject to the same form of seasonal surge pricing that now guides the theme parks’ ticket prices. Again, the potential upside to this is greatly reducing the number of guests in the former FastPass line, hopefully making the standby line move faster as a result. Still, it’s disappointing to see Disney monetize another perk that used to be free. Families and diehard Disney fans will no doubt still find ways to afford a trip to Disney theme parks, but it gets more expensive and more exclusive every year—even during a pandemic. These places should be attainable for people who aren’t rich, for people who hope to go more than once in their lifetime, but decisions like this make it harder and harder for the middle or working class to afford a day at the Happiest Place on Earth.

The pay-to-ride aspect of Genie+ also totally overshadows what could be a pretty cool new scheduling tool. The pay service is part of a free tool called Disney Genie that will be launching this fall inside the existing Disneyland and Disney World apps. Genie doesn’t just keep track of your schedule for you; it’ll suggest an itinerary for your day at the theme park based on your own interests and on the traffic flow and wait times throughout the park. That itinerary will automatically change itself throughout the day, based on fluctuations in attraction wait times and the general behavior of the crowd. Personally I wouldn’t leave my park schedule entirely in the hands of an algorithm, but Genie seems like a useful tool for knowing which attractions or restaurants have shorter-than-usual wait times. And although some might find this a little dystopian, it could also make it a lot easier for Disney to control crowds and make sure they’re spaced out fairly equally throughout the parks. If guests actually use Genie and follow the itineraries it puts together, Disney could potentially use it to prevent bottlenecks and control traffic, which is something the parks could use on their busier days. Disney Genie and its Genie+ paid upgrade will be available at some point this fall, Disney says; here’s their video explaining the whole thing.

Remember when Disney announced that all of its salaried and non-union workers would have to get the Covid vaccine, or lose their job? Well, Orlando’s WESH 2 reported today that Disney has reached an agreement with Local 362 of the Service Trades Council Union where all union employees would have to show proof of vaccination by Oct. 22. There will be medical exemptions, which makes sense, and something that WESH calls a “sincerely held” religious belief exemption, which could potentially be exploited by those who just don’t want to get vaxxed. Hopefully that doesn’t happen. Assuming exemptions are kept to a minimum, and the vast majority of union employees are vaxxed by the deadline, this is reassuring news to anybody (uh, like me) afraid to travel to Disney World during the current variant surge. Now if only every employer—or, better yet, state—mandated the same thing for everybody…

A few upcoming rides had opening dates announced this week, or at least opening windows. Iron Gwazi, the long-awaited hypercoaster at Busch Gardens Tampa, is now expected to open in March 2022; expect a 206 foot plummet and all kinds of airtime and inversions in this one, which tops out at over 75 miles per hour. They don’t get any taller, steeper, or faster than Iron Gwazi— “they” meaning what is known as a hybrid coaster, one made out of both steel and wood. SeaWorld, Busch Gardens’ sister park, also announced major new thrill rides coming to its San Antonio and Orlando locations in 2022.

SeaWorld made the news for a different reason this week, though—a tragic and far too familiar one. Amaya, one of the orcas at SeaWorld San Diego—and, at six years of age, the youngest—died unexpectedly last week, within a day of first showing signs of sickness. No cause of death has been announced, and it will be weeks before one is found through a post-mortem exam. SeaWorld announced it would be ending its killer whale shows and breeding program in 2016, after the documentary Blackfish exposed the conditions in which the company’s orcas lived. Amaya was born the year before that announcement, making her one of the last orcas to be born in captivity at a SeaWorld. SeaWorld’s current generation of orcas will thankfully be its last, but since it’d be irresponsible to release animals who have spent most or all of their lives in captivity, the parks will be responsible for their care for many years to come. Hopefully this is the last we’ll hear of an orca so young dying so suddenly and so mysteriously, but orcas suffer in captivity, mentally, emotionally, and physically. Their average lifespan is significantly longer in the wild than in captivity, and the oldest captive-born orca in history was only 30 when she died (at a SeaWorld, of course). There’s no easy solution to this, unfortunately—the orcas currently in captivity most likely can’t be safely released into the wild, but then captivity is inherently unsafe for orcas. As National Geographic points out in the article linked above, the Whale Sanctuary Project envisions a network of sanctuaries where large sea mammals like orcas can live in conditions that resemble the wild, in significantly larger areas than the enclosures they live in at amusement parks. Just having more space to move in could immediately help the well-being of these animals. Aquariums and parks like SeaWorld have so far refused to cooperate with programs like the Whale Sanctuary Project, but given the very cursory amount of research I’ve done into this issue today, that project seems far better for the orcas in question than living out their lives in small tanks in amusement parks. Hopefully the days of orca captivity at SeaWorld will end sooner rather than later.

And that’s it for another week. If you work at a theme or amusement park and want to keep me and our readers updated on your latest news, feel free to reach out to me via email or on Twitter. And if you’re headed to any amusement parks this week, stay safe and have fun! And don’t forget your mask(s)—this stuff is far from over.

Senior editor Garrett Martin writes about videogames, comedy, travel, theme parks, wrestling, and anything else that gets in his way. He’s also on Twitter @grmartin.

More from theme parks