Theme Park Insider

Does the value of giving parks distinct themes decline over time?

July 26, 2016, 4:18 PM · We have five major multi-gate theme park resorts in the world now: the Disneyland Resort in California, the Walt Disney World Resort and the Universal Orlando Resort in Florida, the Disneyland Paris Resort in France, and the Tokyo Disney Resort in Japan. Walt Disney World became the first multi-park resort when EPCOT Center opened in October 1982, giving us nearly 34 years of watching how these types of theme park resorts evolve over time.

Given the development of many of these parks, perhaps it is time to consider this theory — that the value of creating an independent theme for each park in a multi-park resort declines over time.

Let's look at the history. When Epcot opened, Disney needed to promote it as something new and different from what the Magic Kingdom had been offering for the past 11 years, or even from what Disneyland had been offering since 1955. Disney built Epcot to expand the market for Walt Disney World vacations and while an expansion of the Magic Kingdom — or a second MK-style park — might have helped to do that, offering a park with an entirely different, non-fictional theme allowed Disney to market to people who had not considered a vacation to the Walt Disney World Resort before. And the different theme for Epcot allowed Disney to go back and sell previous WDW visitors on the idea that they needed to come back again, to experience the completely new park.

My family visited Disney World for the first time in 1978. After my Boy Scout troop visited Disney in the fall of 1980 and I saw the Epcot Center preview there, I probably would have had a hard time convincing my parents to book a return trip to Orlando just to see more of the Magic Kingdom. But when I told them about this new Epcot thing Disney was building, getting them to agree to visit again, in the summer of 1982, was an easy sell.

Having a distinct theme for an additional gate helps reinforce the resort's marketing campaign to promote it. A distinct theme helps that extra park to stand out in people's minds, reinforcing the idea that there's a whole 'nother park at the resort now.

So when Disney opened the then-Disney-MGM Studios Theme Park in 1989, it offered yet another theme — a working film, TV, and animation studio where you could experience movie magic as it was being made. Disney's Animal Kingdom followed in 1998, with a theme celebrating the natural world and its animals, both live and extinct. Each opening allowed Disney to reach new audiences with different interests, to compete with other parks offer similar themes, and to encourage former visitors to come back again and again to see what was new at the Walt Disney World Resort.

Universal followed the script when it opened Islands of Adventure next to Universal Studios Florida in 1999. Rather than create more studio-themed attractions, Universal built a "Disney-style" park that attempted to reconstruct fantastic places rather than deconstruct them, as its studio-themed parks did with their many "behind the scenes" and "here's how it's done" attractions. Universal further sought to reinforce the different theme for Islands of Adventure by populating it with franchises that got their start in mythology and books rather than movies, including comic and children's books.

When Disneyland expanded to a second park in 2001, Disney elected not to revive the Epcot theme park for its second gate in Anaheim, opting for a less expensive California theme instead. The weakness of that theme in providing an attractive contrast to what was available already at Disneyland Park hurt Disney California Adventure at the gate, ultimately leading Disney to a billion-dollar-plus refurbishment of the park several years later.

When Tokyo Disney expanded with its second park later in 2001, it declined the studio-themed park option Disney initially proposed in favor of a "DisneySea"-themed design that Walt Disney Imagineering had created when the company was considering building Disneyland's second gate in Long Beach,(to feature the Queen Mary which Disney then owned). Tokyo Disney's owner, the Oriental Land Co., also reinforced its second park's contrast with Tokyo Disneyland by ordering attractions, restaurants and bars that appealed to an older audience than the more family-oriented Disneyland park did.

That proved to be a wise choice, as Tokyo DisneySea excelled in driving attendance to its resort, in contrast to Disneyland Paris, which opted for the studio-themed second park that Tokyo rejected. Walt Disney Studios Park premiered with a thud in 2002, and has continued to underperform relative to other Disney theme parks, with an environment that seems different from the neighboring Disneyland Paris only in that looks like it was built on the cheap.

But what happened in the years after those parks opened? While a distinct theme helps draw visitors to a new park in a multi-gate resort (and a poorly envisioned or executed theme doesn't), do parks need to preserve and expand those distinct themes as the years go by?

Recent developments suggest that they do not.

Epcot started weakening its distinct identity soon after its opening, as it added Disney walk-around characters to the park to satisfy guest demands. In 2006, Epcot revamped its Living Seas pavilion to retheme it to a Disney/Pixar Animation franchise, Finding Nemo. The next year, Disney IP came to World Showcase and Donald Duck and the Three Caballeros took over the boat ride in the Mexico pavilion. And this year, Frozen all but replaced the Norway pavilion with Frozen Ever After taking over Maelstrom's place and Disney building a new Anna & Elsa meet and greet location.

Did any of this hurt Epcot's attendance? Puh-leeze. Ask that of anyone racing to get into an hours-long queue for Frozen Ever After when the park opens each morning.

At Disney's Hollywood Studios, the former Disney-MGM park, MGM is long gone, as are all the production facilities. Animal Kingdom is expanding to feature Avatar, a completely fictional IP. Islands of Adventure is staying the course, but its distinctiveness from neighboring Universal Studios Florida took a hit when Universal added a second Wizarding World of Harry Potter land to that park... then connected them with a ride.

At Disneyland, California Adventure found its audience when Disney started populating it with animation properties such as Toy Story, The Little Mermaid, and most importantly, Cars, which have little or nothing to do with California.

In Paris, Disney ditched the studio theme to build an immersive miniland based on Ratatouille, and in Tokyo, DisneySea is adding Soarin' Over the World, which at least includes a couple shots of the ocean. But DisneySea's real break with its initial vision came when the park converted the majority of its major merchandise locations to hawking all things related to Duffy the Disney Bear.

With the exception of the studios park in Paris, all this weakening of parks' original themes paid off in growing attendance and income for Disney. (And, frankly, Ratatouille in Paris might have at least stanched the bleeding at that park a little bit.)

So when Disney announced that it is changing the Hollywood Tower Hotel at Disney California Adventure to Guardians of the Galaxy, that's just the latest example in a long-established pattern. Over time, as multi-gate theme parks mature, the marketing focus switches from the latest, new park to the resort itself. And when that happens, there's no longer as much promotional value in preserving each park's distinct identity as there is in making sure that there's something new, somewhere within any of the resort's parks, to pitch to would-be visitors.

Sure, if any of these or another theme park adds an additional gate, they might see the value in creating a coherent and unique theme for that new park, to set it apart from its neighbors. But after a few years, the need for that distinction will fade, as it has for all the other, now-mature parks at the existing five major multi-gate theme park resorts.

If we accept this proposition as Theme Park Insider's Law of Diminishing Themes — that the value of maintaining distinct identities for individual parks in multi-gate resorts declines over time — then fans should forget about Epcot returning to its strictly non-fiction roots, or Hollywood Studios and WDS Paris building soundstages and studio tours, or Animal Kingdom bulldozing Pandora to clear space for more live-animal exhibits.

If Disney or Universal feel the need to develop an attraction that fits cleanly in one of their parks' "old" themes, sure, they'll likely site them there. But a perceived need to protect the purity of those themes won't keep the companies from placing other new attractions there, too.

Replies (21)

July 26, 2016 at 5:14 PM · I understand you may have a much longer experience in the theme park industry than I do - a mere fan. To me a general theme and lands - with all of its place making and immersive design, differentiates your experience. Many may not notice the details but if not there folks would notice. Otherwise why not just put rides on top of a blacktop. While not explicitly connected there are some general ties for some attractions you mentioned - Cars was thought of experiencing the car culture of Cali and route 66, Mermaid was put in to soak up riders (which it doesn't do now) with a seaside tie in for Paradise Pier, and Toy Story uses the midway metaphor to connect with the rest of the Pier midway. The Tower change is one of the few that has completely dropped that connection entirely.

Theme matters - otherwise all u have is an expensive carnival.

July 26, 2016 at 5:21 PM · This is a distinct analysis of parks over time and in a way gives an exciting vision for continued change at Disney for the foreseeable future.

My family goes to WDW about once every four to five years so that there will be sufficient change to justify a five thousand dollar expenditure for a family of six. If the individual parks didn't change, we wouldn't go. We can debate what kind of change should happen, but change there must be.

July 26, 2016 at 5:56 PM · Disney's tried different concepts, not themes, but in the end, they are all theme parks. Epcot's failure is its World's Fair concept with Corporate Sponsorships. No one cares for other corporations or their boring sponsorships of educational rides, exhibits, attractions, and shows. Belatedly, the sponsorships declined and Disney picked up the slack with Frozen, but it had precedent when Nemo went into Living Seas. California Adventure had a little of Epcot and a little of Hollywood Studios and both failed spectacularly. Hollywood Studio failed because the working studio concept isn't that fascinating. Ultimately, it is always about Disney and its IP despite some Disney fans that want to hold on to the pure theme concept of distinct lands. The Disneyland theme park model doesn't really work consistently for Tomorrowland (shocking). Let's move on.
July 26, 2016 at 6:04 PM · The unique aspect of the World Showcase at EPCOT is what keeps me from only visiting Universal exclusively. Granted, I love Magic Kingdom, and the Haunted Mansion is and always will be my favorite attraction, the long lines and bone headed fast pass plus system keeps me away. We love staying on site at Universal, skipping the lines, and totally immersing ourselves in Potterville, but the World Showcase has no lines, the food is amazing, and it is usually not too crowded.
July 26, 2016 at 7:49 PM · Universal Hollywood should just ditch the movie studio and become entirely a theme park. Before you cry foul, I'm just kidding, but it is kind of heading in that direction. With movie production increasingly going out of state and theme parks in vogue, Universal can make more use of it's studio real estate to enlarge the park. It's already happening with the sound stage next to Transformers.

The major problem is the separation between the upper and lower lots, the Star Walk is nice, but it does take time to go between the lots. Maybe they should call the upper lot Universal Studios and the lower lot Islands of Adventure creating two separate parks, now you have a two park resort with Hogwarts Express going between them. But of course you have to add at least double the amount of attractions to both. You're welcome, Universal.

July 26, 2016 at 7:52 PM · I usually agree with Roberts’s analysis, but not with this one.

All Disney’s and Universal’s theme parks are becoming MK’s clones simply because there is a huge market for it. Adults from X and Y generation are more childish than the boomers, as you can see in the superhero movies packed with adults. The world is wealthier and traveling is cheaper, so more people can go to Orlando, or California, so it is easier to find more people looking for the same MK’s experience.

Also, the potential for cross selling between movies, theme park attractions, video games and toys is enormous, so theme park companies prefer to develop attractions based on famous IPs, to leverage this cross selling.

There are still a good market for a science park like Epcot or an animal park like AK, but if Disney can fill all their parks with just one type of client, why deal with the complexity of having clients with multiple interest?

The working studio concept has no mystery anymore, because everyone knows how movies are done; computers! They won't come back.

July 26, 2016 at 8:02 PM · Themes draw an audience. But if the theme stays completely static, its value depreciates over time. The entertainment and theme must continue to evolve to maintain interest. Epcot has been static for so long that any improvement would show success. Disney is finally evokving the theme, the story in the other parks.

Disney has numerous attractions that can be updated easily. Every movie is an easy update. Stage shows are easy updates. E tickets are much harder to update, but even peripheral updates add value. The long has the Ellen movie in UoE been there? Heck, you can even just update the pre-show just to change the feel while keeping true to the theme. The queue changes in places have been inexpensive but make the ride seem less old. Maybe imagineering should start designing in prepared update points in the rides. Not every update needs to be a $20-100M update.

July 26, 2016 at 11:05 PM · They're ditching the themes because they have a better reason for revisits with IPs, in my opinion. It's easier to sell people on a Star Wars ride than something they've never heard of. Kids love things they know, not the wonder of the future. As a whole we are a product based culture, art is secondary. People will still pack the parks in droves because Disney creates a good familiar product and spends a lot of money doing so. It's a lot like a reboot or 20 year late Hollywood sequel. You go knowing it's not gonna change your life, but it's fun and familiar and you'll enjoy yourself. It's a little sad for me, because I think Epcot did change my life as a child, in a really good way. I don't know if we'll see that kind of theming again, but I hope so.
July 26, 2016 at 11:59 PM · I think immersion for a themed are is what drives guests. Potter done that in perfection. It's not build with theme park logic but as a fan project. It didn't compromise on perfection and gave fans more then they could ever imagine.
Non of the Disney offerings bring that. The concept art of Frozen is amazing. Slapping Frozen on Norway is not. An originaly themed are could open more wallets.
July 27, 2016 at 3:47 AM · Themes matter. Otherwise, they risk turning a theme park into an amusement park!!
July 27, 2016 at 4:12 AM · I disagree with the reduction of theme.

Out of all your examples, the only two that show the decline is Frozen and Guardians of the Galaxy. All the others still fit within the themeing of the original park. The land that is now Avatar Land was originally the location of what we now know as the Lost Continent. It was always an area that was supposed to be imaginary animals. Notice that nobody really complained.

Cars Land still fits within the DCA theme of California since it is an idealized and fictionalized version of the Route 66. What Guardians of the Galaxy has to do with the Hollywood of Walt Disney is beyond me. They just spent a ton of money fixing that part of the park and the theme has already gone to crap.

Disney's "failures" in the parks have nothing to do with the subject matter, but rather that they tried to build something quick and on the cheap. AK opened to early, DCA opened too early, and Disney Studios opened WAY too early.

Finally, I do not understand the bashing on EPCOT for bringing characters to the park. EPCOT is all about education. What does it matter that Crush is teaching the kids real facts about sea turtles or Donald Duck is showing us the wonders of Mexico? Did you learn something?

Fantasyland, Harry Potter, Star Wars, and Avatar are/will be very detailed and themed areas.

July 27, 2016 at 5:20 AM · If you're writing about diminishing value, you need to clearly define how you measure it. Is it profit, return on investment, annual attendance, guest satisfaction, the ability to sell merchandise/food/beverage, or something else?

Each of those measures might provide drastically different answers to the question at hand. Additionally, who you ask might also change the answer.

July 27, 2016 at 8:33 AM · "Notice that nobody really complained."

Ha, you're wrong about that. Many felt Avatar belonged in DHS because it was a movie turned into an attraction and DHS is the best park to host such attractions. The irony is you turned such arguments against Guardians in California Adventure's Hollywood. People have short memories.

You also say Frozen and Guardians are less immersive than Harry Potter as if that's wrong and they shouldn't do it. The Hollywood Backlot falls short of immersion. It looks like a backlot, not the 1930's Hollywood. It was never completely updated after Carsland. It is overdue for an update. The future is Marvel Land and the street car is merely a transportation system taking you there.

July 27, 2016 at 6:00 AM · Theming parks as a whole is a heck of a lot less agile than theming "lands" within parks, which is why Disney/Universal will always migrate toward the latter. It's not that they're giving up theming (see: Star Wars land, Pandora), just that it makes no sense to force an entire park to remain under a single theme when fads come and go and missed opportunities can cost you a lot of money.
July 27, 2016 at 8:09 AM · I don't know if anyone will agree with me, but I have to say that my favorite decade to visit Universal and Disney was in the 90's. Universal is my favorite between Disney and Universal parks, and I am not saying I don't love the park now. I love going every year, however I feel like the parks had a certain charm to them back in the 90's.

Disney wasn't so blown out Disney as it is today. I feel like the park is geared heavily towards kids at Disney now, whereas back in the 90's it was virtually enjoyable to all ages. I understand that you have to improve otherwise it wont last. That is just my opinion.

On the Universal side, I simply miss Jaws and Kongfrontation ;). Scared me as a child but I loved it either way.

July 27, 2016 at 8:55 AM · A park's theme definitely gets diluted over time, in favor of IPs. It's really hard to fit every new attraction into a certain thematic box. To me, it's okay to dilute the theme as long as you're adding quality attractions.

Maybe any new gate should be more like Disneyland and Magic Kingdom: one park with multiple, differently themed lands. That model has definitely stood the test of time.

On a related note, rumor has had it for years that DHS and DCA will both get a new name, to reflect the shifting theme.

July 27, 2016 at 11:10 AM · As mentioned in the post a park almost certainly has to have a distinct theme at opening in order to offer a unique selling point to tourists who have increasing choices vying to part them from their hard-earned cash.

Over time it's fine, and probably best practice to move away from that theme.

In the case of Disney's California Adventure, you can be almost certain that a Guardians of the Galaxy rehash of Tower of Terror (however sacrilegious) will still drive attendance more so than even a new California themed E-Ticket.

There's a part of me that wishes not all rides at major parks had to be themed around some major IP, instead with a new story being created for a ride which then leads to the create of IP based content around it.

But theme park chains that are part of media companies pay a lot for their IP, and are willing to splash the cash for crowd drawing attractions themed with that IP - so if we want the best attractions, expect less tight overall park themes and more diversified mini-lands and attractions.

July 27, 2016 at 11:14 AM · The problem isn't whether or not to have a theme. It's that Disney keeps picking horrible themes. Hollywood Studios was just an attempt to clone Universal and copying never works as a business model. You need the magic of what made it work the first time and unless you're the one who originally came up with it, you won't. Movies as a theme park theme is dumb too, when you have multiple parks, because then how do you decide if an IP should be in that park or another? With everything apparently stemming from a movie these days, there's no logical means to differentiate. Animal Kingdom was troubled from the start because of its association with zoos and a weird alignment with a long history of the western world associating the natural world with non-whiteness. And California Adventure is just flat out a stupid idea. They should have realized that when nobody wanted Disney's America. "Magic Kingdom" as a theme works because it's built on multiple timeless themes that are meticulously crafted to flow together: past, future, and fantasy. They are not necessarily a cohesive theme, but they are the singular and organized vision of one man which gives the park its integrity and I would argue sets it up for success. "Themes" that are timeless, flexible, and built to last work. Epcot could have worked if Disney wasn't lazy and was willing to put in the work to be inventive and forward thinking in the worlds of education and theme park design.
July 27, 2016 at 12:36 PM · It's an interesting thought. Does it hold up outside of Disney and Universals? Europe's most visited non-Disney park is Europa Park which has stuck more of less rigidly to theming each new area to a European country (there have been a few exceptions along the way).

Knott's Berry Farm has generally stuck to an American theme. As has Dollywood. Other major parks that have tended to stick to strong themes include Parc Asterix and Efteling. The Busch Gardens parks might also be included in there.

I really like parks that have strong 'grand narratives'. One thing I've noticed is you don't want your theme to be too narrow. For example Europa Park has many areas that are all distinctive. Several other European parks that haven't succeeded had narrow themes where every area felt the same.

Sea World Orlando is perhaps an example of a park that until recently felt a bit samey (although that hasn't stopped Sea World from being successful). The Antartica area is one of the first times I was at Sea World and felt like I was stepping from one world into another.

July 27, 2016 at 1:08 PM · I commented in an earlier post that I fear USF becoming IOA 2.0 and DHS becoming MK 2.0. This post seems to be reaffirming those fears. Look, if you're not gonna give each park its own identity, then what's the point of having a multi-park resort in the first place? Why not just expand the already-existing park? If you want people to spend extra money on that second ticket or Park Hopper option, you have to make sure the other park (or parks) is different from the others so that it doesn't feel like the same thing. Ergo, your visitors don't feel like they're just wasting money going to two, three or even four parks when they could visit just one. More importantly, if you're going to have a theme park with many different themes, you have to find a way to tie them all together so that there's a reason why they're in the same park together. Like I said before, MK pulled this off by having the unifying theme of being the place where all the magic of Disney lives. So you could be cruising around on a riverboat through an exotic jungle in one section; racing around on a mine train in the Old West in another section; flying to Neverland with Peter Pan in another section; and blasting off through space in another section. The only other WDW park that I feel will still keep a unifying theme in the near future is DAK. Avatar is the perfect IP to put in that park. The movie takes place on a very jungle-esque planet and is all about environmental awareness. And as someone already said, that section of the park was originally supposed to have fictional animals anyway. Epcot and DHS are completely different stories. When Finding Nemo, Lion King and Donald Duck moved into Epcot, even though they've never been amongst the park's strongest attractions, (except for maybe Turtle Talk) they never felt out-of-place. Why? Because they all taught us something. Nemo taught us about the ocean's wildlife, Lion King taught us about agriculture, and Donald Duck showed us some really cool sights around Mexico. Not only does Frozen not teach us anything about Norway, but it doesn't even show us real Norway, just fictionalized fairy tale Norway. I still plan on riding it and I'm sure I'll like it, but it baffles me that they put a Fantasyland attraction in World Showcase. But the worst offender will be DHS. Let's look at the three different sections that park will have: a fictional sci-if galaxy complete with fantastical planets, weird aliens, futuristic spaceships, laser guns, laser swords, all that wonderful sci-fi jazz; someone's giant-sized backyard that's populated with sentient toys; and a recreation of the real-life city of Hollywood, including recreations of Mann's Chinese Theater and the Hollywood Tower Hotel. Um....I'm sorry, but what do these three things have in common? Why are they all in the same park together? And if they take the DCA route and give Tower of Terror a Gaurdians of the Galaxy makeover, not only would they have committed the sin of needlessly changing a perfect, timeless ride that is extremely popular and critically praised, but they'd also mess up the theming even more. You have a sci-fi-themed ride all the way across the park from a preexisting sci-if-themed land smooshed right between an Aerosmith-themed roller coaster and a Beauty and the Beast-themed stage show. Unless DHS comes up with a brilliant explanation as to why all these things can coexist the whole park will just be a jumbled mess of IPs that the park executives wanted to cash in on because they were so popular at the time. That's what USF seems to have been slowly devolving into for quite some time now. Don't get me wrong, USF is still one of the greatest parks out there and I love most of the new attractions that they've been putting out recently. But with the studio theme all but gone, I feel like it's becoming harder and harder to justify why all these extremely different themes and IPs can coexist. IOA of course doesn't have to worry about that since it's still got the whole islands and realm of adventure thing going on.But USF? No official explanation. I feel like Universal could easily fix this by saying that in USF you basically leap through the the screen right into the fictional world of movies, which feels like what they're going for based on some of their promotional material, and/or that it exists in that same realm that IOA is set in, which also feels like what they're going for with the addition of Hogwarts Express. But if that's the case, then again, what's the point of having a second gate in the first place?!


Just my two cents.

August 2, 2016 at 12:40 PM · According to Wikipedia, Theming refers to "the use of an overarching theme...to create a holistic and integrated spatial organization of a consumer venue."

Theming creates an expectation from visitors, whether it is a restaurant, park, store, or theater. As a consumer, you wouldn't expect to see a rocket ship in the old west or a sunny beach in the middle of a snowy mountain. It's jarring. It's upsetting. When the original concept of theme is discarded, the feel of an experience changes, and not for the better.

IPs can be integrated into an existing theme, as seen in Star Tours at Disneyland and Cars Land at DCA. Placing an IP just for the sake of placing it, however breaks the theme badly, as seen with Star Wars land at Disneyland and Frozen at Epcot.

Will it immediately hurt attendance? If Frozen is any indicator, then no, but what about the staying power of this broken theming? Will it draw people back year after year? I'd say no. Broken and jarring theming was DCA 1.0's problem. People went but they didn't come back.

Now that it's been fixed, people are making return visits, but if stuff that breaks and jars the theme, like a Guardians of the Galaxy Tower of Terror comes in, people will come see it, no doubt, but they will lose that connection and yearning to return, which creates the problem all over again.

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