PEP TALK: Why it's like Christmas Eve for Disney theme park fans
Published: August 5, 2014 at 2:23 PM
Today, when I read my Twitter and Facebook feeds, and the comments on Theme Park Insider, I feel much of the same sense of frustration and hopelessness among Disney theme park fans that our math professor must have seen when we walked into our classrooms on days like the one I just described. Many Disney fans have grown frustrated that their favorite theme parks aren't doing more to distinguish themselves from a resurgent Universal. They are upset with changes in reservation systems that are forcing long-time visitors to change the ways that they manage their vacations. They're worried that Disney's not doing enough to maintain its long-standing position as the runaway leader in the theme park industry.
So it's time for a Theme Park Insider "PEP TALK."
This pep talk isn't just for Disney fans — it's for anyone who loves theme parks. Just as Disney theme park fans should be happy when Universal raises the bar and creates great new attractions, fans of other companies' park should welcome great new attractions from Disney, too. That means more for all theme park fans to enjoy, plus more competition to encourage other parks to offer new and better attractions, as well. If you can't wait for what Disney's offering, now's a great time to go enjoy Universal Orlando. Or, if international travel is within your reach, it's a perfect time to experience Tokyo Disney or Universal Studios Japan.
"But Disney's not doing anything here," I can imagine frustrated fans whining. Au contraire, friends. Disney holds an enormous line-up of intellectual property [IP] that it will develop into theme park attractions over the next decade. At the same time, Walt Disney Imagineering is experimenting with new forms of attractions that offer the potential to redefine the theme park experience. As I told one industry insider recently, "it's like Christmas Eve for Disney fans. We know the presents are coming, but Santa's not here yet, and we want to open our all cool new stuff right now!"
So what's in Santa's bag? The big present is, of course, Star Wars. With at least three new movies in the works, Star Wars might be the world's most valuable entertainment franchise, and it's already a proven hit in the Disney theme parks with multiple Star Tours rides and the ever-popular Star Wars Weekends at Disney's Hollywood Studios. A Star Wars Land has been green-lit for that Florida park, though development stalled (so I've been told) when J.J. Abrams and the film team decided that it would not be including Imagineering in the loop as they developed the script and locations for the new Star Wars films, which Disney wants to have represented in the new land. Abrams' approach to secrecy on this project is perhaps best illustrated by actor Domhnall Gleeson's dismissal of a question about Star Wars during the media day for the Diagon Alley — "There's nothing I can tell you without getting shot." [Gleeson plays Bill Weasley in the Harry Potter films as well as an as-yet unrevealed character in the new Star Wars film.]
Star Wars: Episode VII (or whatever it ends up being called) is set to premiere Dec. 18, 2015. Disney teased Star Wars Land at the last D23 Expo, in 2013 [Project Orange Harvest]. There's another D23 Expo next year, and Disney won't fail to make that announcement by the time 2015 is gone. Star Wars Land is happening, and it will include fresh scenes and characters with the intention of creating a land that will engage and endure for generations.
Many Disney fans love to dismiss Avatar, but no one can dismiss that James Cameron knows how to create properties that make fans want to line up and spend money. Moviegoers made Avatar the highest-grossing film of all time not because they loved the plot or dialogue, but because they wanted to spend time in this visually stunning environment. Cameron and WDI will create a real-world version of that, and only a fool should bet against a creative team with this kind of track record.
How many times have you heard "Let It Go" over the past nine months? Frozen seems like it's been around forever, but it really has been less than a year since Disney's biggest-ever animated hit debuted. Whether a Frozen-themed ride goes into Epcot or someplace else, one is coming, and fans will drive its queue to insane lengths.
Speaking of film franchises that blew up suddenly, how about Guardians of the Galaxy? And Disney has the rights to use it in the Orlando theme parks, unlike every other Marvel property. What could WDI do with this emerging franchise?
And, oh yeah, we haven't talked about any Pixar properties yet!
But the approaching "Disney Decade 2.0" isn't just about IP. "Legends of Frontierland" might not appeal to many Disneyland visitors, but it represents something potentially revolutionary in theme park entertainment — the application of a massive, multi-player, role-playing game to a theme park. Those Disney MagicBands might ease Walt Disney World visitors' way through Fastpass+ return queues and make for faster purchases in Disney stores and restaurants. But they also allow Imagineers to create interactive environments that respond to visitors on a custom, individual basis.
Together, projects such as these reposition the theme park from being a collection of distinct rides, shops, and shows to become a platform for highly customized entertainment that reacts not just to the tastes and desires of individual visitors, but to the interplay of those visitors throughout the day. Like to play with your friends in a fantastic environment online? Try playing with them in a fantastic environment that's actually, physically real. Disney is doing more than any other theme park company to make this happen, and fans should be thrilled by the possibilities.
Okay, okay, but what is Disney prepared to give its fans right now? Again, back to the Christmas analogy. Did your parents ever allow you to open a present on Christmas Eve? You might have loved the chance to rip into something on that final day of waiting, but chances are that your parents didn't let you open The Big Present this night before. Instead, you got some sort-of-lame consolation prize that you probably would have overlooked quickly if you'd opened it with everything else the next day.
Thus it is with what Disney will present its American fans over the next two years: Disney Springs and a new Soarin' movie and theater for 2016 at Walt Disney World. There likely will be a new parade at Disneyland next year. These are our "Christmas Eve" presents before the big stuff starts to roll out.
But as far away as it might seem right now, Christmas is coming for Disney theme park fans. And when it arrives, we will think it worth the wait.