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click to enlarge Epcot’s International Festival of the Holidays

Photo by Seth Kubersky

Epcot’s International Festival of the Holidays

Some Disney gifts I’m looking forward to in 2022: Guardians of the Galaxy: Cosmic Rewind, Star Wars: Galactic Starcruiser + more 

As 2021 comes to a close, it's clear that a year that should have marked the beginning of a banner 50th anniversary celebration for the Walt Disney World Resort turned out to be a bit of a bust.

While its competitor up I-4 fast-tracked the debut of a new roller coaster to much acclaim, the best new ride Disney's parks could muster in 2021 was Remy's Ratatouille Adventure, a clone of a decade-old dark ride that requires guests to navigate a byzantine Virtual Queue just to experience it. Mickey's makeover of the popular free FastPass service into a pay-per-use Lightning Lane option angered many longtime visitors, and even well-intended efforts (like the addition of "Inclusion" to the company's key values and the removal of culturally outdated attraction elements) provoked outrage among some self-proclaimed Disney fans.

If there's any consolation for us in Orlando, it's that folks had it even rougher out in Anaheim, where Disneyland's long-awaited reopening was marred by the extinction of their old annual pass system and the lackluster reception to the Avengers Campus superhero expansion.

It would be easy to fill this space by detailing why Disney CEO Bob Chapek deserves lumps of coal in his Christmas stocking. But in the spirit of the holiday season, I'm instead going to stay focused on the future and share some upcoming gifts I'm eagerly anticipating opening at Walt Disney World throughout 2022.

By the time you read this, Disney should have answered my No. 1 holiday wish and finally resumed parking lot tram service at the Transportation and Ticket Center, making the long slog into the Magic Kingdom marginally less miserable. I'm looking forward to the rest of the parks restoring their trams soon, because every step counts at the end of a long day. But I'm even more excited to board a different form of transportation when the Walt Disney World Railroad returns to service ahead of the still-unannounced opening of Tomorrowland's Tron coaster. The opening-day attraction hasn't operated since December 2018, and it doesn't seem right allowing the park's 50th anniversary to pass without hearing the steam locomotive making its "grand circle tour."

A train sitting idle for years is a shame, but hundreds of talented performers doing the same has been a tragedy, so I was thrilled when Disney announced the return of more live entertainment to Orlando's theme parks. The long-running Indiana Jones Epic Stunt Spectacular was scheduled to reopen right in time for the holiday crowds at Disney's Hollywood Studios, where an updated version of Fantasmic! featuring new segments from Aladdin, Moana and Frozen II will premiere later in 2022. At Disney's Animal Kingdom, the Finding Nemo musical is being reimagined as The Big Blue ... and Beyond!, which will incorporate some of the old show's songs and puppets with a new Finding Dory–inspired framing story. And the Festival of Fantasy parade will return to the Magic Kingdom, hopefully with its steampunk dragon float in full fire-breathing form.

Beyond the regularly scheduled performances, I'm also looking forward to a resurgence of seasonal live entertainment. After a year and a half of pared-down "Taste of" festivals, Epcot's events are again offering a full slate of offerings, starting with the revival of the Candlelight Processional and cultural storytellers during the current International Festival of the Holidays. Look for Broadway singing stars to grace the American Gardens stage during January and February's Festival of the Arts. And the Garden Rocks concert series is set to bloom again at the Flower & Garden Festival from early March until July.

Of course, although live entertainment and sample-sized libations are lovely, some of us visit theme parks for the rides. Luckily, Disney has a long-awaited E-Ticket lined up for some time next summer, when Guardians of the Galaxy: Cosmic Rewind launches at Epcot's former Universe of Energy pavilion. I was a bit let down to learn that, while the film franchise's stars recorded new footage for the attraction, we won't get to see an animatronic Groot or Rocket Raccoon. Even so, the innovative spinning vehicles — which were surprisingly comfy when I tested one out at the Destination D23 convention — combined with one of the world's longest indoor coaster tracks should make for an out-of-this-world adventure.

Speaking of out-of-this-world, the social media backlash against Disney's marketing campaign for Star Wars: Galactic Starcruiser has generated G-forces strong enough to launch the upcoming ultra-exclusive hotel into actual orbit. While a cringeworthy promotional video featuring Goldbergs actor Sean Giambrone was rightly laughed off the internet, I have faith in the folks I know who are working on this ambitious endeavor's entertainment, and I'll be cheering them on from afar when it takes off on March 1. Even though I'm usually averse to enforced audience participation, the eternal 10-year-old Star Wars superfan inside me would jump at the chance to LARP as a Jedi for 48 hours, if only I could afford the hefty $5K-plus bounty to board.

Last, but certainly not least in terms of lasting impact, I'm excited to see how much of Disney's California operations — including the legendary Imagineering department — handles their relocating to Lake Nona in east Orlando. This radical move will cause major disruption for cast members with roots on the West Coast, but could also open up big new opportunities for a new generation of theme park designers. If nothing else, if the ride developers are living in tropical Central Florida instead of temperate SoCal, perhaps they'll finally learn to install some shade.

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