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Robert Niles
Editor

PEP TALK: Why it's like Christmas Eve for Disney theme park fans

Published: August 5, 2014 at 2:23 PM

Back in college, whenever my classmates and I would get down about the avalanche of work we'd be facing, our professor would see the resigned looks on our faces at the start of class, walk to the whiteboard, write "PEP TALK" in huge letters and then spend the bulk of the class period trying to entertain us with examples of the neat stuff we'd be able to do one day with all the math we were learning. (Almost none of which I actually remember today, but still....)

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!"

Christmas Mickey Mouse

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.

Replies (28)

Rob McCullough

Published: August 5, 2014 at 2:47 PM

Well done Robert.
Chin up everyone, chin up!
Excitement is just around the river's bend.
50.47.36.26

Published: August 5, 2014 at 3:00 PM

Very interesting.

Personally, I think some of the frustration isn't with quantity, but rather velocity. Universal has rolled out Diagon Alley in two and a half years. There's also the issue of perception ...

We know we'll get some amazing experiences from Disney, but while Universal rolled out Diagon Alley in what feels like overnight, Disney gave us ... wristbands. Again, not the truth of the matter, but perception. Universal is giving people more of what they want, Harry Potter, Transformers, Despicable Me ... while Disney is giving us an Avatar-land no one but James Cameron was clammoring for. Will Disney make it amazing? I'm sure, but these are all of the perception challenges they're dealing with.

Quite frankly, I'm all for giving Disney time if it means getting experiences like Cars Land, which is a phenomenal achievement. I have high hopes for what they'll do with Frozen which seems eminently bankable. It's just tough to know that there are so many other great attractions down the road, while I don't have much new to experience at WDW since my trip three years ago.

Anon Mouse

Published: August 5, 2014 at 3:15 PM

It's not Christmas Eve. It's the first day of Christmas. People are demanding the twelfth day of Christmas.

I hate the comparison to Universal as if Disney must catch up with them. Certainly, I have complained that Disney hasn't caught up with the Spider-man attraction, which is an entirely different thing. Disney does not need to catch-up with Harry Potter since it owns Star Wars, which is comparable to Harry Potter in whatever metric that needs comparison (rabid fan base, engrossing storyline, merchandising opportunity, box office powerhouse, immersive environments). We haven't given Disney the chance to exploit Star Wars since ownership.

It is funny how the fans have demanded Disney license Harry Potter and admit that if it had it, the results would not be so good with the cost cutting that they do in Disney World property. Disney should not license Avatar, yet should license Harry Potter. How contradictory.

Then again, they already fear Avatar will be in two phases, or just cut back to one phase with the anticipated cost cutting. Thus you still get a half-baked result. This lessening of ambition will likely happen to Star Wars Land and probably Cars Land in DHS. So Disney is unlikely to match The Wizarding World of Harry Potter plus Diagon Alley although the fans will get some new attractions to visit. Yet Disney won't disappoint where merchandising occurs. The stores and restaurants might actually be more interesting.

Disney has a long term plan. In the meantime, you can enjoy Universal. This competition forces Disney to execute better. It seems foolhardly to expect Disney to match Universal one-on-one when the dust hasn't settled. Universal still lags Disney in serving kids under 9 years old.

Jack Curley

Published: August 5, 2014 at 5:14 PM

@Anon Mouse

I get what you're trying to say, but the first day of Christmas is Christmas Day and the 12th day of Christmas is January 6. I promise you that no one on Christmas is impatient for January 6.

98.252.238.167

Published: August 5, 2014 at 5:47 PM

Great article Robert and just to prove your point - just this afternoon CEO Bob Iger confirmed Disney is "developing designs for a far greater Star Wars presence in the parks" with announcements to be made next year.
Can't wait!
108.18.239.72

Published: August 5, 2014 at 6:43 PM

Wow. I know we always anticipate our favorite parks will add something new. I am just glad I live in a time when I have to decide how many days I split between Disney, Universal and BGT. Heck I was just there in the spring and now I have to return because I was too early for any of the new attractions to open. At any of the the three multi-parks. People soak it all in. Enjoy it.
72.204.131.120

Published: August 5, 2014 at 6:48 PM

I do not see it happening. In 5 years we will get avatar with likely cost cutting and a new soarin movie. Universal kong, more potter and a whole lot more is guaranteed. I know everyone likes to point out huge attendance numbers keeps the parks profitable, but I know several groups that stop going annually to wdw. Our family stopped going annually about 4 years ago along with 10k we used to spend.
Anthony Murphy
Writer

Published: August 5, 2014 at 6:57 PM

Good article. Honestly, I think new Fantasyland has been a good addition to the Magic Kingdom. I just think it went after the only niche that doesn't have their own money: Kids.


In all honesty, Universal had alot of ground to make up. Remember, it wasn't until 2001 that Universal "put their back into it" and built something remotely denting.

Personally, I agree that what is good for Universal Orlando is good for Disney World. It keeps everybody on their toes.

I think the problem with WDW is the Cali execs are looking at it and saying "if it ain't broke, why fix it". WDW makes money hand over fist.

I went to both Universal and Disney last year and actually enjoyed both for completely different reasons.

108.0.202.66

Published: August 5, 2014 at 7:53 PM

My frustration with Disney isn't about the (supposed) lack of new attractions. Carsland is an excellent addition to the Disney family and DCA 2.0 is now a respectable Disney park.

My frustration with Disney is how they are treating everything else. Mediocre food, mediocre service, insane crowds, insane strollers, dirty bathrooms, limited seating, and chopping up anything that's left over for DVC.

If I just wanted the latest and greatest attractions, I'd go to Six Flags. They add more rides more often and are a lot cheaper. But you couldn't pay me to go to Six Flags because of the horrible food, horrible service, insane crowds, etc.

I hope Avatarland is a great new addition. I still have confidence in Imagineering's ability to product amazing things. However, if the rest of Disney is left to deteriorate because of it, my interaction with Disney is becoming similar to my interaction with Six Flags. Wait a few years until they add some new "must ride" attraction, ride it, and then get the heck away from the park as soon as possible because there are much better things to do elsewhere.

Jack Hammond

Published: August 5, 2014 at 8:08 PM

Thank you Robert! I posted on the discussion board how I felt that Disney is in preparation stage for some big things, and your post is perfectly worded.

I feel that Walt Disney World is about to experience a renaissance. With infrastructure improvements, hotels, Magic Bands, and Disney Springs, all being things to prepare for the mass of crowds, and excitement to come when Disney brings in the big guns.

A cast member at Animal Kingdom said that the park has a lot of, "exciting, yet to be announced, groundbreaking attractions coming along with Avatar."
After Avatar comes, along with the nighttime spectacular and any of the additional things referenced by the cast member, Animal Kingdom will easily be one of the most beautiful parks in the world.

Epcot will likely be getting a completely renovated Soarin', and at least one "mystery attractions" (most likely Frozen) is in the works. Epcot is already a unique experience with World Showcase, but with these two updates, the park will be one step closer to being complete with attractions. (an area the park lacks)

If Hollywood Studios gets Star Wars, it will be the big competitor with Universal (the parks appeal to similar demographics). And in my opinion, it would likely surpass Universal parks individually. With TOT, RR, and Toy Story Mania already being some of my favorite rides anywhere.

A magical family park (Magic Kingdom), a unique educational park unlike anything else (Epcot), a thrill park that attracts teens and young adults (Hollywood Studios), and a beautiful emotional park that will stun people before getting on a ride (Animal Kingdom), these when completed, will give Disney a dream team of parks. All accomplishing different purposes.

James Rao
Writer

Published: August 5, 2014 at 8:10 PM

Hear, hear, Robert. Excellent pep talk.

And yes, Guardians of the Galaxy must make it to the theme parks. It is this generation's Star Wars. Simply a terrific film, and yet another money making powerhouse for Disney.

98.85.96.96

Published: August 5, 2014 at 8:48 PM

To celebrate Christmas morning at Disney you have to book a year or more in advance and if you want to open presents you have to pay the extra $300 for the gift package or you can only open three; one big gift if you can find one and two small ones that really don't even count as gifts.

And if you don't wear your magic band pink bunny costume you cannot even see the gifts and you will be stuck at a lame 24 hour dance party.

Universal is festivious, the theme park for the rest of us.

68.7.200.203

Published: August 5, 2014 at 10:07 PM

Its more like Christmas eve and I don't believe in Santa Claus anymore.
O T

Published: August 6, 2014 at 1:39 AM

My disappointment with Disney goes further then the fact they hardly build rides anymore. Please Disney, don't build new rides, not when so many parks have horrible outdated rides in them that need to be replaced or refreshed. Yes I look at Epcot and DHS and the short rides at AK.

It's a bright future because Disney has ip's they can capitalize on. Sure but how long did they had the theme park rights for Star Wars, forever. It took a takeover of Lucas Studios for them to finaly update that tired old Star Tours (a ride type you could find in many theme park bust most of them scrapped them). They didn't want to put the money in it for what the maker believed was necessary to make it great for the fans. That is the exact same reason why they didn't got Potter. They wanted shops as big as a Wallmart and cheap out on other things. Not to build it for the fans but for their investors. Would the 3 broomsticks had a butterbeer collectible mug or one with the face of Potter on it? Look at new Fantasyland for you answer.

Then lets look at Disney history of rides. From a disappointing (but very nice looking although horrible themed mess) new fantasyland, the Nemo update for the Living Seas, Mission Space, the update for the Immagination Pavilion, Yeti and most rides at AK including Funspot USA, The Jack Sparrow Experience and even the techdemo that is Soarin or the Wii game Toy Story Mania. All rides that disappoint me and don't have a place in a world class destination. Hell even the outside of the Star Tours shop looks awful!

Then look what Disney is doing for their guests experience to reduce their construction efforts. New Fantasyland had a building pit in their for many, many years, Pleasure Island was a gost town for many year and now the whole of Downtown Disney is a building site. Even the parking garages take forever to build. And AK is one wall of many projects going on at the same time. And how long is that castle hub parkinglot going to take? They could focus on just a few projects and put more people on there until it was finished and then start a new one, they could pay crews to work 24/7 to speed things up but Disney wants to save money and don't care about the guest experience because they keep coming anyway. Or take rides like It's Though to be a bug. Need that ride to be closed during peak season in a park that already is lacking rides or could a 3th shift service that theatre at least until low season.

Again it's not that I'm worried Disney isn't building new rides it's that they lost what they where about, what Walt was about. But thankfully there is a new Walt and a new Disney World, it's called Universal Resort Orlando and it's a place where people get tears in their eyes when they step into a new world, where people cheer when the dragon breeds fire and where people are in awe after they road a new ride that is beyond what they think they could experience.

Nick McKaig

Published: August 6, 2014 at 6:26 AM

This article reads a lot like a CEO's report. Look at all the things we are working on! That's great, but I want to see the results, not hear about them.
Rob Pastor

Published: August 6, 2014 at 6:58 AM

Pixie dust sleight of hand. It's magic. Believe. The new credo.Next gen.....How about bottom line attraction results?
James Rao
Writer

Published: August 6, 2014 at 6:37 AM

Bottom line results are that Disney parks are more attended than ever and Disney profits are off the charts amazing. We actually need Disney to stop looking at the bottom line and start building for the fans and the future.
S G

Published: August 6, 2014 at 1:01 PM

I agree with pp's whom say it's not so much the projects as it is the timing. Star Wars was hinted at in 2013, Robert's insiders have told him no announcements until at least 2015. Recent history suggests another 5+ years before the project is complete...so hinting in 2013 on something fans won't see complete until at least 2020 isn't getting me pep'd up too much.

For reference the Fantasyland expansion was announced in 2009...the mine train opened in 2014.

Does anyone else think that staggering the opening of New Fantasyland may have hurt Disney? I can only imagine that if the complete expansion opened all at once that it would have been met with more excitement. If you think in terms of the project as a whole it is quite impressive, but opening the mine train years after the rest of the land seemed a bit anticlimactic.

2.221.30.123

Published: August 6, 2014 at 3:31 PM

I feel that disney doesn't care. People do keep going, and it would seem profits are way up so the thinking would seem to be " you keep coming and spending money anyway, so why do we need to invest more in the parks". There can only be so many 1st time visitors and eventually people will get tired of not seeing anything different on repeat visits and simply wont come back and will then take their money elsewhere. Whatever else Eisner did wrong at least he gave people a kick up the backside to actually get on and DO something. It doesn't have to take forever Disney - you designed and built Its a small world in 11 months for the worlds fair so get your act together sooner rather than later!
204.99.250.45

Published: August 7, 2014 at 10:20 AM

It's a great, big beautiful tomorrow! Unfortunately most of us will be too old to enjoy it.
Kevin C

Published: August 7, 2014 at 10:23 AM

WDW needs a Burbank-level intervention for any of the needed changes at the World to come to pass.

The issue is not their intellectual property; it's the best in the business.

It's not the level of creativity; Imagineers rival Universal Creative as the best in the business.

It's the willingness of TDO to prioritize customer service and organic growth at the parks. Until that changes, it will forever be December 24 in Orlando.

Tim Hillman

Published: August 8, 2014 at 5:21 AM

Disney's had the rights to Star Wars for how long? And we've seen what? Oh yeah, one outdated simulator.

Disney's had the rights to Pixar intellectual properties for how long? And we've seen what? Oh yeah, a great land that rescued a DOA park, one good shooter ride, a lame movie attraction, an overlay on an existing attraction, and a cute interactive show? (OK - good work on the West Coast; not so good on the East Coast)

Disney has had the worldwide rights to Marvel intellectual properties except for North America between the Mississippi and the Atlantic Ocean for how long? And we've seen what? Oh yeah, nothing.

Pandora has been promised to be added to DAK for how long? And we've seen what? Oh yeah, Diagon Alley added to Universal Studios Florida.

I'm 53, and I hope that Social Security will still be fully funded (Get to work you young people; my retirement depends on you!) because at the rate Disney is moving on adding rides and attractions to their parks, I may be halfway into senility before I see any of these rumors come true.

Hey, maybe the Oriental Land Company will add a third gate to the Tokyo resort, and I can go there to see all of the great things the Imagineers can do!

Mike Rhodes

Published: August 9, 2014 at 2:47 AM

Thank you Robert, that's a very interesting article. I have just one question. How come Disney does take so long building new rides/attractions? As someone pointed out IASW was done in 11 months, and wasn't Disneyland built within a year or just over! Universal seems to be able to create major rides/attractions/lands within 12-18 months. How come it takes Disney much longer these days?
Kerry Mayo

Published: August 9, 2014 at 5:29 AM

Hey everyone! This is my very first post on this great site! Glad to meet all of you :)

I live in Tampa, and as a result of our close proximity to Orlando, our family holds annual passes to WDW and Universal. Both parks have specific strengths they play to, and do it quite well. But I have to say that while I adore Disney World, I have become increasingly frustrated at the lack of urgency on display by the corporate managers, and the amount of time it seems to take for them to get something built!

I believe poster Tim Hillman expressed my very feelings about this extremely well (thanks for reading my mind, lol) so I won't belabor those points specifically.

We visited Diagon Alley yesterday for the first time, and for a second, it literally took my breath away. It's that stunning. The size and scope of it in pictures do not do it justice. The attention to detail EVERYWHERE is even better (dare I say it) than anything I have seen Disney do. And from concept to actual opening date, they did it in less time than Disney managed to roll out the Fantasyland expansion. That is insane. And yet, Universal proved it can be done!

I believe Disney has it in them to make attractions and experiences just as amazing in their own parks. But don't give me a clamshell ride and a rocking mine train over the course of two freaking years (really? Why not suck it up and build it all together, for bigger impact) and then try to tell me I should be thankful for it when 15 minutes away I can be on state of the art attractions. Both the Little Mermaid and Mine Train are fun additions, don't get me wrong- but they aren't exactly ground breaking. THAT is the kind of complacency I am talking about in terms of the management making the decisions to build things.

I am a HUGE Star Wars fans and while I'm excited for the expansion in the Studios, I'm not holding my breath for anything tangible until at least 5 years from now. And that is ridiculous.

Ok, rant over. Look forward to discussing all the fun with you!

Kerry Mayo

Published: August 9, 2014 at 5:31 AM

Hey everyone! This is my very first post on this great site! Glad to meet all of you :)

I live in Tampa, and as a result of our close proximity to Orlando, our family holds annual passes to WDW and Universal. Both parks have specific strengths they play to, and do it quite well. But I have to say that while I adore Disney World, I have become increasingly frustrated at the lack of urgency on display by the corporate managers, and the amount of time it seems to take for them to get something built!

I believe poster Tim Hillman expressed my very feelings about this extremely well (thanks for reading my mind, lol) so I won't belabor those points specifically.

We visited Diagon Alley yesterday for the first time, and for a second, it literally took my breath away. It's that stunning. The size and scope of it in pictures do not do it justice. The attention to detail EVERYWHERE is even better (dare I say it) than anything I have seen Disney do. And from concept to actual opening date, they did it in less time than Disney managed to roll out the Fantasyland expansion. That is insane. And yet, Universal proved it can be done!

I believe Disney has it in them to make attractions and experiences just as amazing in their own parks. But don't give me a clamshell ride and a rocking mine train over the course of two freaking years (really? Why not suck it up and build it all together, for bigger impact) and then try to tell me I should be thankful for it when 15 minutes away I can be on state of the art attractions. Both the Little Mermaid and Mine Train are fun additions, don't get me wrong- but they aren't exactly ground breaking. THAT is the kind of complacency I am talking about in terms of the management making the decisions to build things.

I am a HUGE Star Wars fans and while I'm excited for the expansion in the Studios, I'm not holding my breath for anything tangible until at least 5 years from now. And that is ridiculous.

Ok, rant over. Look forward to discussing all the fun with you!

Mark Hollamon

Published: August 9, 2014 at 6:44 AM

I feel the biggest disappointment is everything is so darn overrated and by the time you actually experience it you are left with that "meh" feeling.

A great example of this is the SDMT. Highly anticipated, much talked about, and in this person's opinion falls way short of these expectations.

I know every ride cannot be an E ticket like Splash Mountain, but this was the centerpiece of the new expansion.

One positive out of this is it is an excellent first coaster for kids. It definitely won't scare them. My biggest fear was a hard stop at the end because it might have broken my kneecaps as there is precious little leg room in the ride vehicle.

We've lived in Orlando for 11 years now and I feel Universal has really done some creative improvements to earn my entertainment dollar while in the same time Disney has just introduced more ways to spend it. There is a difference.

Tim Hillman

Published: August 10, 2014 at 6:12 AM

Mark nails the issue with the last paragraph of his post!!!!!
64.126.99.5

Published: August 11, 2014 at 2:47 PM

My biggest complaint about Disney is that a lot of the changes they are making in Florida seem to be aimed at excluding visitors who aren't staying on-site. Or ... if not outright excluding them ... making things more inconvenient for them. I've been going to WDW for years (several times a year) and I don't stay on-property because it is cost-prohibitive. This last trip I took was with some friends and we did stay one of the Disney hotels and I kept thinking that if they keep heading in the direction they are, I won't be purchasing anymore 10 Day Park Hoppers that never expire, like I've been doing for years. My WDW days will pretty much be over.

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