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Would Disney ever close or debrand a theme park?

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Published: September 30, 2013 at 2:10 PM

Theme Park Insider reader Annette asked an interesting question in response to our post on planned improvements at the Disneyland Paris resort: "Would a Disney park ever close or be unbranded?"

She cited examples of hotels changing hands or brands, and wondered if the same ever could occur for a Disney theme park, particularly Disneyland Paris, which many fans have criticized for poor maintenance and a lack of new attractions. (See link above.)

Walt Disney Studios Park in Paris
Fix. Sell. Kill — Which will be Disney's choice?

Would Disney ever close a park? Sure. It already has.

Disney closed its original Walt Disney World water park, River Country, in 2001. Would that happen again? Barring a major disaster that rendered a park unrepairable, one would have to doubt it. Disney's recent track record suggested that it would rather "turn on the money hose" and clean up its problem parks than to close or sell them away. Look at what Disney's done to rebuild and revamp Disney California Adventure and Hong Kong Disneyland, and what it's about to do to rebuild Florida's Downtown Disney as Disney Springs.

At this point, Disney has abundant income that allows it the freedom to fix its past mistakes. So long as Disney continues to bring in that level of money, Disney's not conceding defeat in the theme park business. Parks that fail to attract the level of customer adoration the company wants will get improvements until customers start throwing money at them again.

(And here's a note to Walt Disney World fans. If you want Disney to spend more money on these parks, the best thing you can do to help make that happen is for you to spend less money on them. Nothing gets a project green-lighted faster at Disney theme parks than revenue failing to meet projections. So long as customers keep spending at a resort, it's easy for managers to assume all's well and to send new spending elsewhere. Want to improve the Walt Disney World Resort? Forget about petitions or discussion board rants. Just go to Disneyland or Tokyo Disneyland, instead. Heck, you could go to Universal Orlando, too, though if enough people spent their money with other companies that Disney's income suffered, that could impair the company's ability to power up that money hose.)

Let's flip the question, too. Would Disney ever buy and rebrand another company's park? Again, it's considered that in the past, "kicking the tires" on a deal to purchase Knott's Berry Farm before the Knott family sold it to Cedar Fair in the late 1990s. According to some Imagineers, Disney played with the idea of buying and upgrading Knott's as Disneyland's "second gate," employing some of the designs from the abandoned Disney's America project. However, the desire to have the parks located next to one another that led the company to abandon plans for Long Beach DisneySea earlier in the decade dissuaded Disney managers, and the Knott family found a deal more to its liking from Cedar Fair.

So what about Disneyland Paris? Resort managers last week detailed their refurbishment plan for the resort, including its hotels, though they announced no new attractions for either theme park. The situation at Disneyland Paris is complicated by the fact that Disney only owns a portion of the resort instead of owning it outright, as it does at Disneyland and Walt Disney World, or licensing the resort to another owner, as it does in Tokyo. Disneyland Paris also has carried a huge, profit-draining debt burden for much of its existence, due to a flawed business plan at launch.

Disneyland Paris was, at its birth, a real estate scheme. Its business plan relied on the sale and development of commercial (including hotel) and residential property surrounding the core theme park. But when those plans didn't come through, the park was left with immense debt, requiring multiple bailouts from additional investors. That has left the Disneyland Paris theme park with a popular reputation as a financial failure, which is ironic because the theme park might have been the only element of the whole resort that actually succeeded beyond expectations.

Still, the resort's a package deal. Disney appears ready to invest the cash it needs to ensure the continued success of the Disneyland park and its hotels. But will Disney commit the additional money needed to upgrade Walt Disney Studios Paris to the same standards of the other 10 theme parks in the chain? Disney did the same for the other two underfunded parks it opened in the first decade of the 21st century: California Adventure and Hong Kong Disneyland. That history suggests Disney is more likely to do the same for the Paris Studios, rather than selling or closing the park.

Readers' Opinions

From 24.127.233.152 on September 30, 2013 at 3:20 PM
Want WDW to update? Lets see... New Fantasyland, Avatar Land, Star Wars Land, Disney Springs and Magic bands... yeah why doesn't disney world ever get updated? I still don't get why so many people here consider Universal better than Disney. I can easily complete Islands of Adventure in one morning easy and ride every ride. Where as Magic Kingdom takes me all day and I never get bored.I do agree however that Disneyland is way ahead of Magic Kingdom. But sheesh, so much negativity towards WDW!
From Bryce McGibeny on September 30, 2013 at 4:39 PM
I don't think that there's any hate towards WDW. I agree that Magic Kingdom is definitely a full day park, and it's hard to do everything in a day. But, it is always crowded. If you went during a day when it wasn't insane (hard to find these days), then you may be able to get everything you want to do done in a day.

But then you look at DHS and DAK, and it becomes obvious that these parks need help. Both of these parks have 5 to 6 actual rides. That always astonishes me. And not all of the rides in each park are even that great, such as Backlot Tour and Kali River Rapids. Yes, DAK has the animals, but when it advertises itself as "Natazuu" or whatever it was called, it should have more actual rides. I hope Avatar helps this. I do think that DAK has more going for it than DHS. It's a very well themed park, minus DinoRama.

And I find Islands of Adventure to be a full day park. At least for me. I enjoy a lot of the "little" things in the park, such as all of the Seuss Landing rides, Jurassic Park Discovery Center, Camp Jurassic, Poseidon's Fury, etc. And I love to re-ride my favorites, such as Spider-Man, Hulk, Jurassic Park River Adventure and Forbidden Journey. Magic Kingdom is definitely the park that is hardest to complete in a single day, won't argue that. But I can argue this for WDW's 3rd and 4th gates.

Back to the article, I don't see Disney closing or selling these parks. I can see them just sitting stagnant for forever. Hopefully the new Ratatouille ride will help the Walt Disney Studios Park's attendance.

From Anthony Murphy on September 30, 2013 at 4:46 PM
Maybe I am in the minority, but when I went to Disneyland Paris in 2007, I thought it was doing ok. I would even argue that DLP is the best Magic Kingdom style park. Disney Studios was ok too, but could have used some work.

From my experience, Disney Studios is not going anywhere. Sure, the park needs some work, but it has some of the better Disney attractions and shows of the past 10 years.

I think Disney seperates each resort by its target audience. I think DCA had some trouble because for the most part, the guests are local. WDW and DLPR is a destination resort meaning that people are actually saving up and going on a longer trip to those parks.

So to make a long story short. They would never close any of the parks. I also don't consider River Country a park. It ran into problems because Disney built two other water parks. Water parks are pretty much all the same.

From Stevo B on September 30, 2013 at 5:21 PM
Disney Studios Paris will never thrive, but it will survive. Its soul purpose is to extend guest stay enough to fill hotel rooms. And I agree, River Country was never a park, it was a glorified pool to give Fort Wilderness guests something extra to do, and when water parks became "parks" there wasn't the room or desire to upgrade it because of its off beat location (sadly - better to let it sit there and rot?). I would imagine if Disney ever decided to walk away from one of their parks they would sell off their ownership interest in the form of a licensing agreement unless it's one of those easily shuttered experiments like Disney Quest was in Chicago.
From Anon Mouse on September 30, 2013 at 5:53 PM
Disney has closed its nightclubs at Downtown Disney despite many fans that loved the Adventurer's Club. Disney has closed many Fantasyland dark ride attractions despite fans that love them. Therefore, fan reaction will not stop Disney from following its own self interest. They would close or debrand a theme park like DL Paris especially precisely because it is overseas or maybe not. It is largely insulated from its decisions. There's a story about the former Disney executive who saved DL Paris was involved in a sexual scandal himself (after he left Disney). Interesting story if you happen upon it.

Since these projects are few and far between, there is little risk for a collapse of a Disney theme park. Each project is different from the rest. DL Paris has an unique financial structure that disguises its financial distress. It makes plenty of money. It just owes more back. Thankfully, the banks gave up a little, new investors were brought in, Disney gave up some royalties, and the park was saved.

From O T on September 30, 2013 at 6:12 PM
As long as Disney fans go banana's when the DHS put some underplayed workers on a stage with evil character costumes on and dance to some lame music while finishing of with a firework and raking in the cash from some made in China special event souvenirs while the park is at capacity, they are not in a hurry to do something more then the horrible Captain Jack projection thingemedo there.

For the money pit that is DLP, it'll never ever recoup it's money and will never bring in the revenue close to any of the other Disney Parks. Most of Europe just doesn't care for theme parks as a destination. They rather go somewhere where the weather is nice and visit a beautiful city like Venice or Barcelona while there. And when we want to see a nice castle we hop in the car and visit the local ones like these:
http://www.kasteeldehaar.nl/
http://www.museumwijchen.nl/website/alg_geschie.php

From 209.44.133.160 on September 30, 2013 at 6:40 PM
Hi Robert,

I'm new to your site. Thanks for all the great articles, especially the ones that explore the history and business of theme parks.

Do you have any idea how much it would cost to build each of the Disney parks in 2013 dollars? It would be interesting to see a side by side comparison for each park.

I wonder what percentage of the cost went into the land and what percentage went into the attractions.

Jeremy

From Robert Niles on September 30, 2013 at 6:58 PM
FWIW, I analyzed the problems with Walt Disney Studios Paris last year. It's in the worst shape of all the Disney parks, and would require not just a substantial investment in capital, but quite a bit of creativity, to bring up to Disney standards.

But creativity and capital are two things Disney has in abundance. It's a matter of the will to deploy them in service of this particular park that's in question.

From 98.85.95.126 on September 30, 2013 at 8:17 PM
If they do you will see it fall apart in front of your own eyes because they are so cheap. The worst thing about Disney is that when they close a ride or an area they just let it rot and fall apart for years or decades. I can't think of anything like that at Universal. At Disney World the list is long; Image Works, Odyssey, Wonders of Life, River Country, Sounds Dangerous, Adventureland Veranda, Discovery Island plus a few more. Even places they cleaned up sat rotting for years like the Sky way stations, the Sub lagoon, and the unfinished part of Pop that became Art of Animation. I think that Disney has been getting the pass, their show is not up to their old standards.
From Annette Forrest on September 30, 2013 at 9:03 PM
I can't believe I got quoted in an actual Robert Niles article. I had to print it out and show my husband! My sister will be jealous because nothing exciting ever happens to her (which is fine by me).

Thanks for the great article. You make so many great points. Disneyland Paris has so much potential to be so elegant and gorgeous and to have a more fantasy feel to it than any other Disney park. I really hope the money hose is aimed at it once Shanghai is done.

From 173.66.184.216 on October 1, 2013 at 10:36 AM
"If you want Disney to spend more money on these parks, the best thing you can do to help make that happen is for you to spend less money on them. Nothing gets a project green-lighted faster at Disney theme parks than revenue failing to meet projections."

True. Except Disney's solutions recently has been to just keep raising prices. What I hope is the combination of people's disgust with lack of new projects, coupled with the outrageous price tag to go to a Disney resort will result in the culmination of Robert's statement.

From 70.56.18.177 on October 1, 2013 at 11:55 AM
This seems to be misunderstood by many Disney die-hards: the company is not trying to please them but please the crowd. And as long as the crowds still come, there is really no incentive for improvement. Epcot, for example, is lamented by fans online. Nothing new, especially in World Showcase. And yet, it is the 3rd most popular theme park in the world. This is why DLR, which strives really hard to please locals, gets more updates relative to its size than WDW.
From Bryce McGibeny on October 1, 2013 at 12:51 PM
Hopefully it will be Paris' "Mystic Manor" and not "Antartica".

I really would love to see this ride system to be brought to Walt Disney World, specifically Animal Kingdom.

From 208.38.46.15 on October 2, 2013 at 12:17 PM
I hope that they tread very carefully when changing things in Disneyland Paris. My fiancée and I were there in May 2013 (in fact, that's where we got engaged!) and in our 1.5 days in the park, we fell in love with it. I would consider it my second favourite Disney park after Disneyland in Anaheim and before Tokyo Disneysea.

What impressed me the most about it was the cohesion of design. Its spaciousness, landscaping and the number of walkthrough attractions are assets. It shouldn't try to live up to the American trend of just cramming thrill rides in anywhere there is room. DLP is a different experience: a leisurely day in a lovely park.

I also love the fact that time has forgotten many parts of it. Being a Jules Verne fan, I regret having missed Space Mountain's "Mission 1" and Le Visionarium. However, I LOVED that Pirates of the Caribbean was intact, without any of that nonsense from the movies in it. Pirates, the Nautilus, Adventure Isle, the Castle, Alice's Curious Labyrinth, and Le Pays de Contes de Fées are some of my favourite Disney attractions as well.

Some things do need to be fixed (I noticed a lot of dry places that used to have running water during my first, brief trip there in 2008), but I hope none of those come at the expense of maintaining the amazing things that do work.

Oh yeah, we didn't bother going over to Hollywood Studios though. If they want to stick random Marvel and Pixar rides over there, that's fine by me.

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