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Disney World News: Project Kiwi, Cancellation Change, Skyliner Status, Iconic Ride Returns!

It’s time for another Walt Disney World news roundup. This one covers expanded hours for July 4 and beyond, Imagineering’s Project Kiwi, the anxiously-awaited return of an iconic Magic Kingdom ride, another Skyliner incident & its current status, cancellation changes, and much more.

Let’s start with an update on new and extended park hours as Walt Disney World approaches what’s likely to be a busy summer travel season. All four theme parks, Disney Springs, and Blizzard Beach have had hours for another week added to the DisneyWorld.com park hours calendar. Added dates are the week of July 4 to July 10, 2021. Here are that week’s hours:

  • Magic Kingdom: 9 am to 9 pm
  • EPCOT: 11 am to 10 pm
  • Hollywood Studios: 9 am to 7 pm
  • Animal Kingdom: 8 am to 6 pm
  • Blizzard Beach: 11 am to 6 pm
  • Disney Springs: 10 am to 10 pm (11 pm on weekends)

Park Hopping times for those and all dates remain from 2 pm until park close. We have yet to encounter any issues with or restrictions on Park Hopping. Even during the peak of spring break, we were able to park hop to Magic Kingdom without issue. As usual, there are also extensions to hours for select dates at specific parks…

The only extension this time is for EPCOT, which had its closure pushed from 9 pm to 10 pm for May 9, 2021 through the end of the calendar. That’s also EPCOT’s current closing time, so this really just establishes continuity with the entirety of the calendar.

It’s worth noting that the last big Walt Disney World park hours extension for Summer 2021 is still fresh. That deviated from Walt Disney World’s normal practice of releasing boilerplate hours before extending those based on attendance and hotel occupancy projections.

This continues that trend, meaning this initial release could very well be the final hours–even for the Fourth of July. We are not expecting the normal big fireworks productions for Independence Day. At best, we’ll get Epcot Forever, and even that is starting to feel like a long shot.

In any case, these are definitely not the initial placeholder or “lorem ipsum” Walt Disney World park hours. We would recommend planning around this schedule as if it will not change. It’s still possible that an hour or two could be added here or there (especially at Magic Kingdom and Hollywood Studios), but don’t expect anything dramatic.

Since reopening, Walt Disney World has been touting its relaxed “book with confidence” cancellation policy. For extra peace of mind, Walt Disney World waived all of its change and cancellation fees up to the date of check-in for reservations with arrivals through April 30, 2021.

This is ending and the regular 30 day cancellation policy is returning. When the last round of discounts were released through July 2021 and the “book with confidence” cancellation policy wasn’t extended along with them, we figured this was the case, but now Walt Disney World has confirmed as much. We’re fans of flexibility, but as more returns to normal, it’s probably not necessary to incentivize bookings.

Speaking of discounts and cancellation polices, there’s a reasonable probability that Walt Disney World will release new discounts this coming week for late summer and early fall travel dates. This is not a rumor; it’s based solely on past precedent–my trusty spreadsheet that tracks release dates.

As Walt Disney World continues scrambling to recall and hire new Cast Members, it’s also entirely possible that the release will be a couple of weeks “late” as compared to the historical norm. Either way, I already have 4 am alarms set for this coming week. As always, sign up for our free email newsletter if you want an early-morning heads up if/when deals drop.

Walt Disney World President Jeff Vahle announced that the Tomorrowland PeopleMover will reopen this weekend at Magic Kingdom! (Hopefully it’s already be open by the time you read this.) This comes around 14 months after it first went down for a “brief” closure, which was before and unrelated to the closure of Walt Disney World.

The thing we love to see here is that the president of Walt Disney World directly addressed this refurbishment and reopening, which speaks to the popularity of the TTA PeopleMover. You didn’t see him pouring one out over in DinoRama for Primeval Whirl, or addressing any other non-reimagining refurbishment project. Anyone familiar with the unfortunate story of what happened with the PeopleMover at Disneyland will tell you that it’s good Disney now recognizes the importance of this ride to its fanbase.

As for what has happened during the closure, that’s still unknown. Early on, and we’re talking like the beginning of last March, it sounded like Disney was awaiting new motors or parts of some sort, and the reason for the delay was a supply chain issue or factory closure.

In more recent months, there have been reports that a new automated ride control system was being installed. Hopefully, that’ll help with collisions of the ride vehicles, which resulted in both frequent downtime and delays, but also lawsuits. The cars “bumping” one another is one reason lines for the PeopleMover ballooned in the last couple of years, and we’re hopeful that has been remedied. The PeopleMover has been testing every single day we’ve visited Magic Kingdom recently, and everything has been smooth in our observations. We hope to check it out later today and have a firsthand report on Monday!

Speaking of vehicles bumping, that’s exactly what happened a couple of nights ago with the Disney Skyliner at Hollywood Studios. The gondolas only remained down for a couple of hours before resuming service shortly before 9 pm. We were not there, but a regular reader who was alerted us to this on social media–perhaps he can weigh in via the comments with more details if there are any.

Walt Disney World reported no injuries as a result, and Reedy Creek Fire Department did not receive any calls for help. Honestly, we debated whether to even report on this. It seems like a total non-incident, and we see broken down buses with regularity and have not once covered that. This blog also does not cover deaths or disturbances in, but unrelated to, the parks.

There are some topics that feel like improper rubbernecking, wholly irrelevant to anyone who wasn’t in specific locations within Walt Disney World at certain moments in time. However, here we’re balancing that against the reality that we’ve been fierce and vocal champions of the Skyliner, so we don’t want you to think we’re part of some vast, conspiratorial cover-up. We’ll be riding the Skyliner again today!  

Finally, something really cool. Walt Disney Imagineering’s newest industry-changing technology: Project Kiwi. In a new TechCrunch article, Matthew Panzarino offers a thorough look at both the technical innovation and emotive quality of the research and development studio’s latest robotics milestone.

Project Kiwi is a small-scale, free-roaming Audio Animatronics figure, in this case taking the form of Groot from Guardians of the Galaxy. The goal of Project Kiwi has been to develop a biped battery-powered robot able to freely roam and interact with guests autonomously.

Project Kiwi is a bipedal platform–this one skinned and dressed to look like a child-sized Groot–developed completely in house over the past three years by WDI researchers and roboticists. This is essentially a test or proof of concept, with Groot being the target character during development to ensure that Imagineering is hitting the right marks in terms of emotional believability.

As the TechCrunch article stresses, the platform is still very much a work in progress. There’s still a lot of work to be done on the way that Project Kiwi works and interacts with people, and WDI does not have immediate plans to put it in the parks. Yet, even at this stage, Groot is incredibly lifelike and believable, with Panzarino noting that the character radiates presence and that “Groot locking eyes with me, smiling and waving was just incredibly transportive. Multiple times throughout my interaction I completely forgot that it was a robot at all.”

Eventually, Imagineering says the intent is to use Project Kiwi characters for stage performances, photo ops, and free-roaming deployment in the parks. The goal is to elevate the entirety of the park to a live transportive experience, rather than a single ride or dark room.

Here’s a video of the evolution of Project Kiwi, plus Baby Groot in action:

The whole article is great, and a highly recommended read. Much of the technical side is over my head, but it’s still fascinating. With that said, I am slightly skeptical of its real world applications. As undeniably impressive as Project Kiwi is, Imagineering has been working on things like the Living Character Initiative for over a decade, and many of the in-park appearances have been short-lived.

Moreover, we’ve seen play-test videos of droids intended for Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge. The abuse those more robust creations took from kids made it seem unlikely anything like this could ever make autonomous in-park appearances. So while I absolutely believe Project Kiwi has a future in the parks, that idealistic vision for the “entirety of the park [being] a live transportive experience” is going to run into the hard reality of guest behavior. (This is why we can’t have nice things!)

Nevertheless, this is the kind of thing that makes me proud to be a Disney fan. The work of Walt Disney Imagineering is endlessly inspiring, and innovations like this are proof that they’re good stewards of Walt Disney’s creative legacy. It’s easy to be cynical about how or when this come to fruition in the parks due to budgetary or (guest) behavioral limitations, but the fact that WDI is on the bleeding edge of these developments is, in and of itself, pretty cool. And the fact is that someday, we will see this technology at Walt Disney World and Disneyland. It may be adapted or modified significantly as past robotics have been as compared to their R&D counterparts, but it’ll still be mind-blowing. Personally, I’m optimistic about the next generation of additions!

Planning a Walt Disney World trip? Learn about hotels on our Walt Disney World Hotels Reviews page. For where to eat, read our Walt Disney World Restaurant Reviews. To save money on tickets or determine which type to buy, read our Tips for Saving Money on Walt Disney World Tickets post. Our What to Pack for Disney Trips post takes a unique look at clever items to take. For what to do and when to do it, our Walt Disney World Ride Guides will help. For comprehensive advice, the best place to start is our Walt Disney World Trip Planning Guide for everything you need to know!

YOUR THOUGHTS

What do you think of this Walt Disney World news? Thoughts on Project Kiwi? Expect to see Baby Groot dancing his way through the parks someday? Excited for the Tomorrowland Transit Authority PeopleMover’s return? Were you impacted by the Skyliner downtime? Do you agree or disagree with our assessments? Any questions we can help you answer? Hearing your feedback—even when you disagree with us—is both interesting to us and helpful to other readers, so please share your thoughts below in the comments!

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