Caveat: this post is based on good old-fashioned conjecture. I welcome your thoughts as well.
Disney is opening an entirely new section of Animal Kingdom on May 27. It’s called Pandora: The World of Avatar, and as the name suggests, it’s themed after the movie Avatar. Now that we have an official opening date, what about those guests who are visiting before Pandora official opens? Will they get a chance to experience this new attraction or will they have to wait until their next visit? The good news is, they probably will get a sneak peek. Historically, Disney has opened attractions and lands up to two months prior to the official opening. They call these previews “soft openings” and Disney understandably loves them. Here’s why:
It’s What Disney Does.
In recent years, individual rides such as Toy Story Midway Mania, have opened well in advance of the official opening date. For example, the new Fantasyland Expansion officially opened on December 6, 2012, but soft openings started on October 12. Seven Dwarfs Mine Train, the second part of the Fantasyland Expansion’s opening, officially opened on May 28, 2014, with soft openings starting on May 21. The shorter time frame of the latter was due to the many issues the ride experienced leading up to the opening, but we haven’t seen those issues cropping up in Pandora, at least not regarding the actual rides.
Soft Openings Make Sense.
Think of soft openings as a sort of dress rehearsal, a way to work out kinks before the big opening day. You’ll usually get a heads up a day or two prior to the first soft opening, but Disney can close it at any time if there are major issues that need to be addressed. Keep an eye on social media for updates of closures so you can save yourself the disappointment of going over specifically for that reason.
Because soft openings allow for closures at any time, they just make sense. You can’t exactly close an entire land after opening day, but it’s easy to close for a day or two during the soft opening phase. In fact, this happened a lot during the Fantasyland Expansion. One day you would go to the Magic Kingdom and the new section would be open. The next day, you’d see a cast member tasked with the unfortunate job of turning away forlorn guests. Keep in mind also that closures may occur any time during the day. Openings for that matter, as well. While I don’t recommend hanging around the gates of Pandora waiting for it to open, plenty of people did it for the new Fantasyland.
Keep in mind that Disney has a media event scheduled on May 25 (incidentally, the same day Universal opens Volcano Bay–pretty clever, right?). In fact, the actual media event already happened earlier this month, when the major ABC shows previewed the rides and attractions for their viewers. In the coming weeks, pictures will be leaked, tweets will be tweeted, and excitement will build as guests are gradually let in. There will be no actual surprises, as far as the actual attractions are concerned, on the day of the media event. Everything will be out by then. And that’s fine, because all this build up is good business.
Why it won’t be as early as The Fantasyland Expansion.
I’m torn on this one. As noted above, with the Fantasyland Expansion, soft openings started two months prior to the actual opening. This means that a soft opening could conceivably be as early as right now! When you add to that the fact that major media outlets have already been admitted into that section of the park, that means that the major attractions are ready to go, leaving one to presume that nothing remains but a few finishing touches. Here’s the problem with that line of reasoning however: Fantasyland soft openings happened during some of the slowest weeks of the year, excluding Thanksgiving. The weeks before and after Easter are one of Disney’s busiest travel periods. You don’t soft open a new attraction when the parks are at their most chaotic.
The folks over at Animal Kingdom took a major hit with its nighttime show, Rivers of Light, last year. You may recall that Disney scheduled a media preview for late April 2016 and ended up having very little to show guests during that event. In fact, the show just opened in February, although cast member previews started in December. These previews gave cast members a brief look at what to expect, but were plagued by mechanical failures. Sporadic soft openings are fine, we saw these during the Fantasyland Expansion, but not during busy periods when you can potentially fail in front of huge crowds. Rivers of Light was a hard lesson learned.
What makes more sense? Cast member previews starting after Easter. Disney Vacation Club (DVC) member previews and annual passholder previews starting after that. Right now, Disney is heavily pushing DVC ownership, not just because they’re continually adding to inventory, but also because it’s DVC’s 25th anniversary. By throwing DVC members the proverbial bone, they keep them happy and generate interest among non-owners who follow Disney-oriented social media outlets–non-owners who already love Disney but haven’t yet taken the plunge and bought into its timeshare.
So When Will It Happen?
If Disney follows their usual schedule of cast member, DVC, and passholder previews, where does that leave everyone else? I would imagine, and keep in mind that this is just conjecture, that you’ll see soft openings starting in early May. Crowds are low and more manageable during this time period, allowing Disney to fix any potential issues prior to the May 25 media event and subsequent formal opening. It also, as noted above, allows them to close the attraction down at will with minimal complaints from guests. A “soft opening” is just that: you shouldn’t expect it but it’s an awfully nice perk if it happens for you.
What do you think? Heard any good gossip about when Pandora might soft open?