Top 10 most popular Disney and theme park stories in 2011

in Disney, Entertainment, Theme Parks

Following a year filled with Harry Potter, it seemed like no story in 2011 could top the madness and excitement created within the Wizarding World in 2010. But theme park surprises, both good and bad, filled 2011, far exceeding the popularity of the previous year. With celebrity appearances, attraction openings, special events, announcements, and one terrible tragedy, 2011 saw an increase in the number of visitors to Inside the Magic by more than a third, literally reaching millions of theme park fans. It’s been a big year, worth looking back on.

The below list recounts the most popular stories throughout 2011, based on the number of views of each topic. Some are simple single stories that caught on while others were developing stories that required multiple articles to cover. But either way, these topics are what captured the most attention on our site throughout the year.

Top 10 Disney and Theme Park Stories for 2011

10. Jaws ride to close at Universal Studios Orlando

Despite the fact that Universal Orlando only announced the upcoming closing of their classic Jaws attraction a mere couple weeks ago, the story has rocketed to number ten on the most popular for 2011. Many are already lamenting the loss of this ride, which remains open until Monday. But mostly rumors of a Harry Potter expansion fueled the popularity of this story. Will we see London, Diagon Ally, the Leaky Cauldron, a Gringotts roller coaster, and a rideable Hogwarts Express come to Universal Studios Florida? Or is something else in store for the soon-to-be-former Amity area? We’ll likely find out in 2012.

9. Star Tours: The Adventures Continue opens

After years of rumors and waiting, the immensely popular Star Tours attraction finally received its long overdue update in 2011, reopening as Star Tours: The Adventures Continue, with numerous new destinations, characters, and 3D effects. It all began with the surprising revelation that the new version of the attraction would open first at Disney’s Hollywood Studios, then at Disneyland the following month. From there, an early soft opening yielded spoiler-free and spoiler-filled reviews of the ride before its official debut. Then George Lucas, Bob Iger, Anthony Daniels, and more celebrities and Star Wars characters took the stage at Disney’s Hollywood Studios for the official grand opening of the attraction, after which I had a chance to interview many of the Imagineers who developed it as well as C-3PO himself. And of course, we took you on a complete trip across the galaxy, through the ride’s updated queue and aboard the Starspeeder 1000. And finally, after all that excitement ended, Disneyland held its own Star Tours grand opening, albeit a far smaller one. It was a thrilling and long-anticipated time at Disney’s parks.

8. D23 Expo 2011

The second-ever D23 Expo was held in 2011 in Anaheim, Calif. No single story was popular enough to make this list, but the combination of everything that took place at the fan event easily brought it here. Unique sights and surprises included a tour of the Treasures of the Walt Disney Archives exhibit, talking Mickey Mouse in the Parks and Resorts pavilion, Disney Princess voices and Muppets singing at the Disney Legends ceremony, Voices of the Parks revealed on a first-time panel, a look at future theme park technology with The Amazing Destini, and vague hints at future experiences for Disneyland. Though no big announcements were made at the 2011 D23 Expo, the overall event was packed with entertainment, information, and many first-looks at evolving details of ongoing projects. It may not have been as headline-worthy as the 2009 event, but it was fun nonetheless.

7. LEGOLAND Florida opens

Central Florida welcomed a new theme park in 2011: LEGOLAND Florida. While we brought you to the park’s two-day grand opening celebration, the most popular story to come from LEGOLAND was the availability of free tickets, which are now long gone. The promise of anything free always draws a larger-than-usual crowd and combined with a look inside the new park, LEGOLAND Florida found its way to number seven on this list.

6. Nick Pitera’s “One Man Disney Movie”

A shocker at the sixth most popular topic on Inside the Magic in 2011, Pixar employee Nick Pitera’s “One Man Disney Movie” has been seen more than 5 million times on YouTube. While we had no hand in its creation, we did help tell the world about this impressive musical endeavor in which the talented Pitera sings and performs multiple parts from multiple Disney film songs, simultaneously in a Brady Bunch-style split screen. It’s a surprise to see it on this list. (I think we can thank Google for the traffic boost, ranking us very high in search results for “Nick Pitera”.)

5. Halloween Horror Nights 2011

Halloween is huge. As the fifth most popular topic on Inside the Magic in 2011, it’s clear that my own personal love of Halloween Horror Nights at Universal Orlando extends to our audience as well. It all began early this year, with a hint of a new ticket option way back in February. Then months of anticipation passed, with a gambling/luck theme teased for this 21st year of the event. Ultimately, all detailed were revealed over the summer and in September I finally experienced and reviewed all the haunted houses and scare zones. From there, I continued to frequent the event, updating everyone on subtle changes along the way, and adding countless videos and photos to the ever-evolving review as well. And now it’s all over… until 2012.

4. Haunted Mansion interactive queue and Hitchhiking Ghosts

The Haunted Mansion saw another big year in 2011. Following its upgrades in Orlando in 2007, unannounced construction materialized along the riverside, next to the attraction. It quickly began to look like a creepy new crypt from behind construction walls, and ultimately was unveiled to be a new interactive queue. Not all Mansion fans are excited about that somewhat noisy and possibly too playful addition to the attraction, but Imagineers had much more in store. For a short while, the ride’s iconic Hitchhiking Ghost animatronic figures were replaced by projections. But those were only temporary, as the animatronic figures returned looking better than ever. The most impressive and widely-praised addition to The Haunted Mansion in 2011 was the introduction of animated interactive ghosts in the mirrors at the end. Our first look at the impressive new finale effects made its way all around the Internet, making The Haunted Mansion updates the fourth most popular topic for 2011.

3. Disney announces James Cameron’s ‘Avatar’ themed land

The biggest surprise of 2011 was also one of the biggest stories, bringing more comments and opinions than any ever before. The world of “Avatar” was announced to be coming to Walt Disney World and no one saw it coming. I was tipped off about the announcement about 30 seconds before it took place, and I shrugged it off at first, thinking the tip was untrue. But as soon as the official announcement was made, I stayed on top of it throughout what became one of the most popular days ever on this site. Though no details have been released, as Imagineers are still coming up with the concepts, many are eager to see what Disney and James Cameron will dream up for Disney’s Animal Kingdom theme park.

2. New Fantasyland changes and updates

The Magic Kingdom’s biggest expansion ever was also the second most popular topic for 2011. While none of it is open yet, we did learn many new details about New Fantasyland throughout the year. It all started way back in January, when Disney revealed big changes to the plans they originally announced in 2009. Numerous Princess interactions would be replaced by a variety of experiences, including the Seven Dwarfs Mine Train roller coaster and Storybook Circus. More details about the Mine Train quickly emerged, as did the construction of Beast’s castle. But it was my interview with an Imagineer at the D23 Expo that brought the most attention to New Fantasyland, revealing a timeline of when attractions will open in the expansion throughout the next couple years. This article and interview alone was the second most popular topic on this site in 2011.

1. ‘Great’ earthquake strikes Tokyo Disneyland

Unfortunately, the single most popular topic for 2011 was not good news at all. In March, a massive earthquake and tsunami hit Japan and we watched it all unfold via Twitter, with a particular interest on the impact it had on Tokyo Disneyland. Pictures and reports began to surface, which we pulled together to keep all posted with the latest information and imagery. In Show 310, I spoke with someone who was at Tokyo Disneyland when the earthquake struck, who offered details on how everyone reacted during the tragic event. Fortunately, no one was injured in the parks, damage was a minimum, and everyone remained calm. In fact, as video showed up online, the world was amazed at just how calm and collected everyone was upon the announcement of the earthquake. While many were “stranded” in the parks overnight, all were safe. Tokyo Disneyland remained closed for several weeks, but has since reopened with new attractions and rebounding attendance. Though the theme parks are now fine, no one has certainly forgotten the devastation and loss that occurred throughout Japan.

Honorable Mentions

While the top 10 topics above brought hundreds of thousands of visitors to Inside the Magic, there were still many more stories that were almost as popular. Here are a few more worth mentioning:

Photo Archive: Annie Leibovitz Disney Dream Portrait series

Technically, our wrap-up of all of Annie Leibovitz’s stunning Disney Dream Portrait series of photos was the single most viewed article on Inside the Magic in 2011, continuing to draw attention today. But that’s not because it was a single event or story, but rather an ongoing archive of all the pictures she has produced thus far. I haven’t heard about any more additions to this series coming in the future, but if/when they do, this archive will continue to be updated and will surely remain popular for quite a while.

The Little Mermaid ~ Ariel’s Undersea Adventure opens

Disney’s newest dark ride opened at the Disney California Adventure theme park, finally featuring the characters and songs of The Little Mermaid. The Little Mermaid ~ Ariel’s Undersea Adventure debuted with a big splash featuring performances from the voices of Ariel and Ursula. Then we brought you under the sea on the ride, as well as on a popular (and exclusive) second ride-through interview with an Imagineer, detailing the technologies in the new attraction. Best of all, we can look forward to seeing a version of this ride coming to Orlando in 2012.

Lady Gaga visits Disney World

Celebrities always create big headlines and in 2011 there were no bigger stars than Lady Gaga, whose trip to Walt Disney World drew a large crowd of new visitors to this site. She posed with the Evil Queen, leaving many wondering whose outfit was more extreme, all the while becoming one of the most popular topics on this site in 2011.

Disney’s Art of Animation Resort concept art revealed

At Destination D: Walt Disney World, a special event put on by the Disney D23 official fan club, Imagineers unveiled a surprisingly large amount of details and artwork for Disney’s upcoming Art of Animation Resort. Until that moment, only a few piece of artwork had been released, so the room layouts, site plans, and elevations were a welcome surprise for those in attendance at the event. Of course, we captured it all to share here and while it didn’t make the top 10 topics, there is definitely much excitement building around it.


The openings of Star Tours: The Adventures Continue, The Little Mermaid ~ Ariel’s Undersea Adventure, and LEGOLAND Florida along with the Haunted Mansion upgrades were certainly big stories in 2011, but it’s the promise of the future that really grabbed the world’s attention this year, looking ahead to the New Fantasyland expansion, Avatar, Disney’s Art of Animation Resort, and whatever will replace Jaws. Stories were varied throughout 2011, from the terrible tragedy of an earthquake and tsunami overseas to the extreme excitement of the D23 Expo, and we look forward to seeing what surprises 2012 has in store for us.

This week, we’ll continue the look back at 2011 with our Top 10 most popular videos for the year, which don’t always line up with the most popular stories. Then on Sunday, January 1, be sure to come back for our annual “Ear” in Review podcast where I am joined once again by A Window to the Magic’s Paul Barrie as we spend a few hours discussing everything that happened in the world of Disney throughout the past year.

If you have a favorite story of 2011, post about it in the comments below!

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