Glendale, California (CNN) — Big Thunder Mountain Railroad, the “wildest ride in the wilderness,” sits at one edge of Disney World’s Magic Kingdom park, the most visited theme park in the world.

But park visitors can one day expect to see much more beyond that wilderness at the iconic park in Central Florida – something more ambitious than just a ride overhaul or a retheming.

“It’s probably the largest expansion ever at Magic Kingdom,” Michael Hundgen, Walt Disney World site portfolio executive, said Tuesday during a rare media event previewing new Disney attraction designs and technology at its Walt Disney Imagineering facility in California.

He said the expansion will be about the size of Star Wars Galaxy’s Edge, which occupies about 14 acres. A Disney team is currently on research trips and going through concept design for this expansion area.

Hundgen did not say what themes or stories would exist there – or when this project would be completed.

Disney’s 10-year investment plan

The Magic Kingdom expansion is one part of a $60 billion investment Disney has said it’s planning for its parks, cruises and experiences over the next decade.

To show how the investment could be used, Disney invited CNN, along with a group of about a dozen other media outlets, on Tuesday to see projects in the works at Walt Disney Imagineering, including new technology in the research and development phase.

Disney CEO Bob Iger, who returned to his role in November 2022 only two and a half years after leaving the company, said Tuesday: “As I looked at the returns on the invested capital that we made in this business over the 15 years prior to my coming back, it was extraordinarily compelling. We should allocate in a direction where we had great returns.”

While Iger said the company has a fairly good idea of what’s being built in the near future, he said “it’s actually silly” to allocate every dollar of that $60 billion right now, given that they do not know what content might become a huge hit in the coming years.

They do not know what their next “Frozen” will be, for example, so Iger said the company should remain flexible with what they choose to build in later years.

‘Why hasn’t Disney prepared anything?’

As Universal Orlando Resort prepares to open a third theme park, Epic Universe, in 2025, the lack of information about what might come in later years at Disney has been a subject of criticism.

At a virtual Disney shareholder meeting on Wednesday, a preselected question was asked: “Why hasn’t Disney prepared anything, or placed more than just a handful of attractions to be ready for this in 2025 at Walt Disney World?”

Iger responded, “That just couldn’t be further from the truth.” He said Disney has been aware of Universal’s plans for more than a decade, and that Disney has a method of analyzing all its needs to strategically deploy its capital.

After naming new lands and attractions that were developed at Disney’s Florida resort over the past decade, Iger said, “By staggering these major launches, we have been able to commercially and operationally optimize our new offerings over time, rather than having to do it all at once.”

However, these projects, including the newest announcement of what Disney calls Magic Kingdom’s “Beyond Big Thunder” project, are expansions of existing theme parks at best; the project from Universal, which is owned by Comcast, will be a brand-new theme park.

Iger said a legal settlement reached last week between Disney and the state of Florida “will actually enable us to pursue the kind of significant investment in our Florida parks that you’re talking about,” calling it a “win-win.”

Possible new destination at Disneyland

During the same shareholder’s meeting, Iger showed a new sketch of an area based on the “Avatar” movies that he called a “possible new destination” for the original Disneyland resort in California.

But any plans for expanding the theme park footprint at the Disneyland resort would need Anaheim city approval because of zoning issues.

The decision to rezone existing Disney property into more theme park space, a project dubbed “Disneyland Forward,” will come before the Anaheim City Council in coming weeks.

Creating the Force

Iger said 70% of the $60 billion investment will be focused on new attractions that expand the capacity of Disney’s theme parks and cruise ships. The remaining 30%, he said, is focused on the technology and maintenance to make that expansion happen.

One of those patented technologies, called “HoloTile,” was shown to reporters on Tuesday. While this hasn’t been designated for any particular theme park project yet, Imagineers demonstrated how one could move a box or a chair, just like Darth Vader using the Force, with the wave of a hand.

Invented by Imagineer Lanny Smoot, who was recently inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame, HoloTile allows multiple, small tiles to be pushed together to make a floor that can allow people to walk in any direction or any distance, without actually ever stepping off the tiled area.

“There are rays of light or pools of light that bounce off my legs … to tell the floor where I am,” Smoot said.

Smoot said multiple people can walk on it in any direction without bumping into each other. And if someone were to run at full speed on this floor, they would never run off the tiles. The HoloTile could be put to use in a virtual reality environment, for instance, to allow movement – click here to check out a demonstration.

Smoot said this took years of work: “As one of my friends says, ‘long fuse, big bang.’”

‘Star Wars’ BD-X droids

Research and development teams also demonstrated “Star Wars” BD-X droids, which are “puppeted” by engineers using what look like video game controllers.

The droids, which were tested at Disneyland’s Star Wars Galaxy’s Edge last October, will be reappearing there for a couple of months, beginning April 5.

Way beyond your average robot, “reinforcement learning” helps the droids give an incredible illusion of “communicating” with humans, using highly advanced movements and are even able to balance themselves when running into unstable surfaces or objects.

Figures for Tiana’s Bayou Adventure

Along one cubicle wall in its Imagineering machine shop, this quote was seen written on a white board: “Progress has little to do with speed, but more to do with direction” – unknown

What started as rudimentary robots with pre-recorded speech and sounds, as seen in Walt Disney’s Enchanted Tiki Room in 1963, Disney’s Audio-Animatronics have become advanced with fluid movements and human expressions.

On the media tour, Disney showed its completed figures for Tiana’s Bayou Adventure – a new ride coming to both the California and Florida resorts – to replace Splash Mountain. An opening date for that has not been announced.

Based on the movie “The Princess and the Frog,” the characters wave, talk and sing to guests as they ride along a log flume.

This level of advanced Audio-Animatronics has thus far only been seen in Disney’s international theme parks.

Stella Reese Chase, whose mother Leah Chase was a renowned New Orleans chef and TV personality, was invited to California to see these figures after a Disney team had visited her hometown to research how to create this attraction with authenticity.

As Chase watched Princess Tiana wave and talk for the first time in 3D, she said, “I’m just amazed, you know. What can I say? I’ve never seen anything like it. This is really a wild experience.”

Charita Carter, executive creative producer at Walt Disney Imagineering, worked on the project from its inception about four years ago.

It takes Disney up to six years to go from a new concept to a finished attraction. Carter recently got to experience the ride she had worked on from the ground up.

Asked whether it was what she expected, Carter said, “Yes, it is really coming together. There are so many beautiful things that are happening, so I was really pleased.”

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