Disney parks have less Walt, more 'Star Wars,' 'Toy Story' and 'Avatar'

Walk the floor of the D23 Disney fan expo, which concluded Sunday evening in Anaheim, and the biggest storyline was clear. Two of the largest exhibits were dedicated to the Disney parks — one a look back at 60 years of Disney history and one a look forward, a preview of the Shanghai Disneyland in development and an "Avatar"-inspired land coming to the Animal Kingdom in Orlando, Fla.

But even more change is coming.

"Star Wars" and "Toy Story" will be heading to the Disney theme parks in a big way too. Themed lands that were once based around ideas of the frontier, the future or fantasy will share property with ones based entirely on "Star Wars" galaxies, "Toy Story" backyards or "Avatar" planets.

FULL COVERAGE: D23 EXPO

It's the trend in theme parks (see the Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal parks), and it's one already embraced by Disney with Cars Land in Anaheim. Yet for a company that still proclaims, "It was all started by a Mouse," the change represents a bold shift away from the characters and the hand-drawn animation that defined Disney in the Walt era.

Although the charm of the so-called happiest place on Earth may come from the dolls in It's a Small World or the singing parrots of Walt Disney's Enchanted Tiki Room, a Disneyland amid its 60th-anniversary celebration must think of how to stay relevant for another 60 years.

Enter the Millennium Falcon as well as the characters and story lines of the upcoming "Star Wars" trilogy, whose first film, "Star Wars: Episode VII — The Force Awakens," will be released in December.

Disney theme parks, of course, have always enjoyed a tight relationship with films and television. Before the Jungle Cruise became the pun-filled journey it is today, the once-serious ride took its inspirational cues from "True-Life Adventures," Disney's classic nature documentaries of the '40s and '50s.

Branding has also always been a heavy component of the Disney theme parks, be it the pirate-themed Chicken of the Sea Restaurant or a corporate-sponsored Tomorrowland exhibit dedicated to the wonders of aluminum (both lost to history).

Large-scale changes to Disney theme parks are relatively rare, and even small ones bring heightened concern from the dedicated fan base whose devotion is often tied up in childhood memories and nostalgia that play tricks with the mind, erasing the low points (see the aforementioned aluminum exhibit).

At a D23 panel discussion at the Anaheim Convention Center, Disney Imagineer Steve Davison remembered fans' fright when he wanted a holiday-themed makeover of It's A Small World for the 1997 season.

"People heard that we were doing this overlay for Christmas and we were getting, like, 'It's going to be horrible! What are they doing to our ride?' I was like, 'I'm just having a good time!'"

Now it's a staple of Disneyland's holiday season.

"The minute the lights turned on ... it was like Oz," Davison said. "You came around the corner and Small World was ablaze with 80,000 light bulbs."

Adults could relive the ride, he said, and children could experience it in a new way.

No doubt, the "Star Wars" addition to Disneyland announced Saturday will do the same for many. Ground won't be broken in Anaheim until the end of 2017 at the earliest, offering fans plenty of time to debate the challenge ahead: how to blend the new with what Walt built.

"You can't have precious ideas," said former Imagineer chief Marty Sklar when asked how he balanced Disney tradition with the need to keep the parks fresh. And, he added, you can't be afraid of failure.

"If you don't fail," he said, "you're probably doing nothing new."

Imagineering, the secretive department within Disney that builds attractions and experiences, provided an ever-so slight peek behind the curtain at D23. Current employees stressed that for every product that makes it into the Disney parks, dozens are left unbuilt.

Kevin Rafferty discussed an attraction tentatively dubbed the Creature's Choice Award Theater and destined for Disney's Hollywood Studios in Orlando. Frankenstein was to host a monster award show, Rafferty told the D23 audience Saturday, and Godzilla was also to make an appearance, but the project proved too expensive.

A monster-themed-award show sounds down-right weird compared to what Disney unveiled over the weekend.

The 14-acre "Star Wars"-themed lands coming to Disneyland and to Disney's Hollywood Studios in Orlando will be "the largest single land expansions either of those parks have ever had," said Scott Trowbridge, an Imagineering executive overseeing the project. By comparison, California Adventure's Cars Land stands at 12 acres. For Disneyland proper, it is arguably the biggest addition to the park since 1959, when Walt introduced the Disneyland-Alweg Monorail System, the Matterhorn Bobsleds and the Submarine Voyage.

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A company spokesperson confirmed that the "Star Wars" area would replace Disneyland's Big Thunder Ranch in Frontierland and nearby backstage areas currently off-limits to guests. It's possible that backstage areas for the "Star Wars" land will be located on 14.7 acres the company recently acquired near Disneyland and California Adventure.

When asked about plans for that land, a Disney spokesperson responded with a prepared statement: "With the resort's continued growth resulting in additional cast members and a record number of guests, this property will help to support additional infrastructure needs, including warehouse and office space and parking."

Disney's Bob Chapek, chairman of Walt Disney Parks and Resorts, has stated that the "Star Wars" galaxy will be set on "a getaway planet" and a "remote frontier town." Early concept art shows a land lush with greenery, the wild west of space butting up to Disneyland's long-standing Wild West town.

What stands out is just how closely this new land will serve as a sort of Frontierland in space. Pandora — the World of "Avatar," similarly will go for realism and complete immersion.

"We want you to think that it's real," Imagineer Joe Rohde said during a panel discussion. "We want you to feel that it's real. I don't just mean realistic detail. I mean that you walk away with a sense that this thing that happened to you was real, a transformational experience that you will remember for the rest of your life."

Visitors will not revisit the great moments of the film. Rather, he said, "the adventure is yours. It is yours to have on the planet. We are presenting to you a world in which you are going to have your own personal adventures."

Likewise, a "Toy Story"-themed land coming to Disney's Hollywood Studios in Orlando will include a family coaster inspired by Slinky Dog and spinning alien saucers. Imagineer Kathy Mangum said they will aim for a "level of immersion" so that "the claw" — the toy crane that took on ominous overtones in the films — will truly loom over saucer riders as they spin (and spin and spin).

D23 also offered a preview of Hong Kong Disneyland's forthcoming Iron Man Experience ride, made possible by Disney's acquisition of Marvel in 2009. Guests appear to enter a fully enclosed vehicle and journey with Iron Man around the streets of Hong Kong.

Such an approach started not too far, far away with "Star Wars."

In the mid-'80s, long before Disney's California Adventure in Anaheim added the successful Cars Land, Disneyland made an addition that was deemed revolutionary. A top Disney Imagineer at D23 described it as "breaking all the rules for Disney." The addition was Star Tours, and it sent an early signal that Disney theme parks could look beyond the Walt Disney berm. This was, of course, before the Burbank company acquired Lucasfilm in 2012.

The park was "bringing in some mythology that wasn't Walt Disney's mythology," Tony Baxter, the Imagineer who presided over the introduction of Star Tours, said on the D23 Expo floor.

Speaking later on a panel, Baxter addressed the company's challenge to stay current.

"Making it relevant for each generation and on and on means you have to keep fine-tuning it, so that it does have that emotional play for each person who comes in, whatever they like, 60 years from now," said Baxter, who in 2013 left his senior position at Imagineering for that of creative advisor.

The ride that Star Tours replaced, Adventure Thru Inner Space, had opened in 1967 and had grown a bit stale, its effects more of the local planetarium variety than that of a Disney park. The hunger for Star Tours was immediate. The attraction stayed open for 72 hours straight to handle the opening crowds, he said.

"We knew we were right. We did the right thing," he said. "Each time you face this, the dilemma is this: What comes in, you have to believe that it will be far better than what it replaces. "

Whenever a Disney park announces change is coming, executives like to cite Walt Disney's line that the park will never be finished. Former Imagineer chief Sklar remembered another lesson.

"Walt was always moving on," he said. "So he basically was saying to all of us, 'Whatever you did yesterday was never going to be good enough again.'"

todd.martens@latimes.com

MORE D23 Expo:

Disney offers early looks at 'Jungle Book,' 'Beauty and the Beast,' 'Pirates 5,' more

Disney reveals plans for 'Toy Story Land' and 'Avatar' and more 'Star Wars'

A 'jaw-dropping' new world of 'Star Wars' is heading to Disney parks

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