Fix this theme park: Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom
Written by Robert Niles
I hadn't intended to include Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom in this series. Hey, the park's about to debut a multi-year expansion and renovation to its Fantasyland. Disney's obviously putting a lot of money into fixing this park - what more is there for us to say? But after your reaction to Disney's announcement last week that it would start selling alcohol in the park, I realized that Disney's not doing enough to convince its fans that Disney really has the right plan in place for what's long been its most popular theme park. So let's talk about that.Tweet
Let me back up before we go forward. One of my favorite vignettes in Stories from a Theme Park Insider, our book about working at Walt Disney World, was What time is the 3:00 parade?, where I learned that sometimes you have to listen not to what people say, but what they mean when they say something.
I tried to apply that lesson when reading the criticism and opposition many of you wrote in response to Disney's decision to sell beer and wine in the new Be Our Guest restaurant in the Magic Kingdom. For some readers, I'm certain that their opposition really is just about the alcohol. Hey, I get that. As someone who's endured the pain of dealing with alcoholics in my life, I understand the desire for an alcohol-free refuge. But I also suspect that many of the people complaining about this decision have had wonderful times visiting Epcot, Animal Kingdom, and other theme parks that serve alcohol. If you can deal with alcohol being served in those parks, you can deal with alcohol service in the Magic Kingdom, too.
But what about Walt? What about him, I say? Allowing Walt to dictate every decision at the company that bears his name is to ossify the Walt Disney Company forever in the mid-1960s, trapping the company in a modernist worldview that doesn't resonate widely in our post-modern world. It's great to be inspired by Walt's vision and to try to live up to the standards of quality he set. But you're never going to create the great entertainment Walt wanted from his company if you let a guy who's been dead for nearly 50 years micromanage every decision you make.
So what it is then? What's setting off the many people who feel disappointment or even anger at this decision? To me, this is like the whole "what time is the 3:00 parade?" issue. There's something else lurking beneath the surface here.
The Magic Kingdom theme parks, except for the one in France, are the only major theme parks in the world that don't serve alcohol. That no-alcohol policy is one of the elements that have made the Magic Kingdom distinct. Without it, there's one less thing distinguishing the Magic Kingdom from every other major theme park out there. Plus, there's the fear among some fans that Disney will use the inevitable profits they'll make off alcohol at Be Our Guest to justify expanding alcohol sales throughout the park, making the Magic Kingdom less and less unique among theme parks, and looking more and more like the parks at Universal, SeaWorld and, gulp, even Six Flags.
Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom might be the world's most visited theme park, but it's far from the world's best. Of the four "Magic Kingdom" theme parks I've visited - Orlando, Anaheim, Tokyo and Paris - I think Orlando's is the weakest in overall quality of attractions, entertainment, food, maintenance, and service. And that's before we look at the competition. Universal Orlando's Wizarding World of Harry Potter meets and exceeds Disney's standards for immersive theming using high-quality construction materials. Universal's keeping the pressure on, too, with a new high-quality Spongebob Squarepants store, a new parade and nighttime show, a new Harry Potter land under construction, and rumors of an expansion of The Simpsons.
With what does Disney respond? A new Fantasyland that's mostly more of the same:
Sure, there will be a new Snow White family coaster, but that won't debut until 2014, by which time Universal will have opened its new Transformers ride and might be close to opening the second Harry Potter land. That leaves the Be Our Guest restaurant as the only unique element of the new Fantasyland that will be open anytime soon. And that's coming at the cost of the Magic Kingdom's no-alcohol policy. Add something. Lose something. Ultimately, what is gained?
I think that is what is driving the frustration of so many Disney fans. They look up Interstate 4 and see Universal moving forward with new world-class attractions, shows and shops. And they're waiting for Disney to respond with something typically, uniquely Disney.
And they're not seeing that yet. That is why Disney needs to fix this park.
Yes, Disney's trying. It's dumping hundreds of millions of dollars into creating a "NextGen" experience, but up until now all the public has seen of that have been incremental improvements - room key cards, advance ride reservations, interactive card games, sounds tricks in queues - nice new amenities, sure, but not the radical change in theme park storytelling that would define a new generation of entertainment. In geekspeak, Disney's giving us 1.1 or 1.2 - not 2.0.
That's what Disney's fans long to see. Ultimately, I think almost all Disney fans really don't care as much about alcohol in table-service restaurants in the park as much as they care about seeing the Walt Disney Company maintaining Walt's commitment to building and running the world's most unique and captivating theme parks.
So what can Disney's managers and designers do to convince you that they still share that commitment? How can Disney fix this park? Please tell us your thoughts, in the comments.
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