Three Disney attractions reach the end of the line

ORLANDO -- Within five weeks of each other, three attractions closed at Walt Disney World: Maelstrom at Epcot, and the Studio Backlot Tour and American Idol Experience at Hollywood Studios.

While it’s not uncommon for theme parks to shut down attractions and replace them with new ones tied to current movies and characters, closing three within such a short span is unusual.

American Idol, which opened in 2009, closed Aug. 30. The Backlot Tour, one of the original attractions when Hollywood Studios opened in 1989, closed at the end of September. The Maelstrom ships, which debuted at Epcot’s Norway Pavilion in 1988, made their last run on Oct. 5.

A ride based on the movie Frozen will replace Maelstrom, and it will happen relatively quickly — Disney says it will open in early 2016 — making it likely that the Frozen ride will be built on Maelstrom’s track with new scenery and theming.

Disney won’t say what will replace the Hollywood Studios attractions, and the closings have sparked plenty of speculation among fans: Will Disney take advantage of its acquisition of Lucasfilm and build a whole Star Wars land? Will it bring Radiator Springs Racers from Cars Land at California Adventure Park to Orlando? Expand the popular but bottlenecked Toy Story Midway Mania?

Bob Iger, CEO of Walt Disney Co., told Bloomberg TV last year that “there is a fair amount of development going on at Disney Imagineering right now to expand the Star Wars presence in California and in Orlando.” He wouldn’t give any details, but it’s noteworthy that Hollywood Studios is home of the Star Tours ride, Jedi Training Academy and annual Star Wars weekends.

Disney also won’t talk about the thinking behind the decisions to close the three attractions. A statement about the Maelstrom closure was typical: “We regularly find ourselves balancing the things that guests have always loved about Disney parks with continuing to provide new experiences. We are always focused on making the guest experience the best it can possibly be.”

But guests are often sentimental about attractions and protest closures, whether it be Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride or 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea at Magic Kingdom, or Kongfrontation at Universal Studios. Universal Orlando closed attractions to make room for two Harry Potter areas — part of the Lost Continent area for Hogsmeade at Islands of Adventure, and Jaws for Diagon Alley, which opened this year at Universal Studios.

“Theme parks are smart. They do a lot of research. They know what’s popular and what’s not popular,” said Robert Niles, editor of Theme Park Insider. “Sure, Jaws had fans, but no one is going to argue ‘No, we shouldn’t have done Diagon Alley and kept Jaws.’”

Most of the protests over Disney’s most recent closures were about Maelstrom, a slow boat tour through Norway and its polar bears, trolls, fjords and waterfalls. Maelstrom, located in World Showcase, a part of Epcot devoted to learning about countries around the world, will be replaced with a ride set in the fictional village of Arendelle.

“In this particular instance, the objection is that they are taking what corresponds with real life in Norway and are replacing it with fiction,” said Len Testa, co-author of The Unofficial Guide to Walt Disney World. “So it doesn’t really fit into the World Showcase. Arendelle is not a place.”

“We’re very sad about it. We’ve been on it a million times,” said Janice Goeppner of Chicago, who rode Maelstrom a few days before it closed.

“We think [Frozen] should be built somewhere else,” Kevin Goeppner said.

World Showcase “is a place about real countries,” Janice Goeppner added.

Disney has seized on the popularity of Frozen, the highest-grossing animated film ever made. Magic Kingdom’s Festival of Fantasy parade made its debut in March with a Frozen float. The Norway Pavilion at Epcot has an exhibit of artifacts of Norwegian culture that “inspired the world of Frozen.” At Princess Fairytale Hall at Magic Kingdom, the posted wait time to see Anna and Elsa has run as long as five hours.

Disney also added some short-term Frozen activities. A Frozen sing-along that was originally planned to end in September has been extended at least through the end of the year. After the Backlot Tour ended, Wandering Oaken’s Trading Post, a temporary Frozen-themed shop, moved into space by the tour’s exit.

“They’re trying to do what they can to keep the interest [in Frozen] going until the ride is ready,” Niles said. “And it’s entirely possible that [the ride] is a stopgap until they can do some kind of Frozen land. It depends on the demand.”