The Force is Strong in Fantasy: Why Disney and Universal are Turning to Star Wars and Harry Potter

October 19, 2015, 6:45 PM · The changes happening this decade at the nation's top theme parks — including the ones run by Disney, Universal, and SeaWorld — reflect more than just ever-changing trends in entertainment. They reflect some profound cultural shifts in the United States — shifts that have been driven by major economic changes that started a generation ago and accelerated with the economic meltdown at the end of the previous decade.

In my Orange County Register column this week, I raise this issue as I answer the question why Star Wars Land is being added to Disneyland. We have written much here on Theme Park Insider about the difference between non-fiction and fictional themes in parks. My take has been that the non-fictional themes that were popular during the modernist era have fallen out of favor in today's post-modern era, when people have lost their optimism about the future thanks to the dreary economic outlook many families face today.

Consumers today want escapism in their entertainment: superheroes, wizards, and rebels fighting dystopian regimes. So Disney and Universal have reacted, forcing non-fiction-driven attractions from their parks in favor of ones that appeal to our desire to fantasize and escape our reality. That's why we are getting Frozen's Arendelle in World Showcase at Epcot, and why Disneyland is trimming its Rivers of America to make way for Star Wars Land.

Among the major theme park companies, SeaWorld has been caught flat-footed, spending its time and resources defending its record against animal "rights" activists who probably won't be satisfied until private ownership of animals is banned, instead of developing the fantasy IP the public actually now wants instead.

You can read more in my OC Register column, or follow our stories from the Theme Park Insider archive, below.

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Replies (18)

October 19, 2015 at 7:08 PM · So true for SeaWorld. So sad to see that happen. I can't wait until Universal Studios Harry Potter opens Harry Pottter, and Disneyland opens Star Wars which, by the concept art, looks amazing
October 19, 2015 at 8:50 PM · "Get me out of here" is right! Beam me up, Scotty, this planet stinks! ;)

It is definitely in the best interests of entertainment companies to give people what they want - and for Disney to remain stagnant would be suicide.

BTW, I got my opening night Force Awakens tickets tonight...anyone else? Rumor has it that opening weekend capacity is already nearing "sold out" status. Analysts are now saying the film could make over $600M domestic by Jan 1. Crazy numbers for a December release - just crazy. I think we may have underestimated the Star Wars franchise just a bit.

Disneyland is not going to be able to handle the crowds that come calling if WDI builds Star Wars right.

October 19, 2015 at 10:35 PM · "thanks to the dreary economic outlook many families face today."

This contradicts people's willingness to pay more for fantasy. Disney is charging ever more while SeaWorld lost customers while changing less.

It seems like the market for fantasy is the driver. The underlying economic depression will not discourage a sufficient number to avoid Disney. Many are willing to part with their money for quality entertainment.

October 20, 2015 at 4:06 AM · Yeah. Unfortunately many people find Epcot to be a bit boring due to it's multitude of educational themes, even though some people (me!) loved that whole aspect since it made learning fun.

On the subject of Harry Potter; all you people on the West Coast are gonna love it. I've been to our version on the East Coast countless times and it still astonishes me. You guys have much to look forward to. :)

On the subject of Star Wars, I really hope that Force Awakens does well both critically and financially, because that's what the new Star Wars Land is gonna be mostly based around and to finally silence all the annoying people who think that the prequels ruined the franchise forever and that Disney will only make it worse.

On the subject of SeaWorld, I advise to anyone reading not to listen to those hippies at PETA, who have fooled themselves into thinking they're the saviors of the Animal World when they probably can't even tell the difference between a chimpanzee and a bonobo.

October 20, 2015 at 4:17 AM · All the more reason for Epcot to adhere to its original mandate. That would make it offer something different.

Old topic, but instead of trying to fantasy-ize (couldn't use "fantasize", as it has the wrong connotations) the lands and rides of Epcot, Disney should be doubling-down on human optimism and strive to better become "THE BEST WORLD'S FAIR EVER", to offer something different to the onslaught of fantasy coming at us.

Which is completely in theme for parks like Universal, Magic Kingdoms, and Disney Studios. Nobody's looking forward to the new Star Wars land more than me.

But I think there is still a market for a theme park based on nothing more than human optimism - on our possibilities, diversity, and humanity. And that's what Epcot should be.

Again, old topic, but I thought relevant to the subject matter being discussed.

October 20, 2015 at 5:23 AM · The parks are charging more because they can. We keep paying it, although a larger segment of the population is being shut out. Eventually there will be a breaking point......hopefully a long way off.
October 20, 2015 at 9:55 AM · My son and I ALWAYS skirt around the Star Wars section of DHS when we're there. Neither of us has any interest in Star Wars. We are NOT happy that Disney is increasing the amount of space dedicated to Star Wars.
October 20, 2015 at 10:01 AM · @Denise Rambo I think Disney is just trying to appease the millions of Star Wars fanboys. You and your son may not like it, but there are some people who would be willing to a galaxy far far away for a chance to ride the Millenium Falcon.
October 20, 2015 at 10:38 AM · Denise, I have heard of several people who refuse to visit the Harry Potter stuff at Universal for various reasons - there are always the outliers (no offense intended). But do you really think Universal is sad they made the choice to add said expansion to almost ALL of their theme parks? I'll wager the answer is an emphatic "no"!
October 20, 2015 at 11:12 AM · Thanks for the great article(s) - here and at the OC Register! And while I hope for the 2.0 version of Rivers of America as you mentioned prior, Robert: shorter but not lesser (in fact I am hoping for shorter but plussed), I will patiently await to see how it all turns out. And while I appreciate the capacity to see Disneyland (and Universal and Sea World) as changing due to the postmodern era in which we live, Disney's hyper-real simulacrum epitomizes postmodernity and therefore it must change accordingly. If Sea World can figure out its next game plan, awesome! Until then, I will stick to Universal and Disney, albeit less than I did years ago, before the crowds were year-round, the quiet corners harder to come by, and the price tags for magic and fantasy became "out of this world."
October 20, 2015 at 11:26 AM · Regardless of how someone feels about Star Wars (or Harry Potter), why skip an area with good rides? I know plenty of people who have zero interest in Potter, but still queue up for Forbidden Journey and Escape from Gringotts.
October 20, 2015 at 12:42 PM · There is a place for some "non-fiction" in theme parks. But, for the most part, theme parks are about escapism and fantasy.
October 21, 2015 at 5:44 AM · Ms Rambo writes: "We are NOT happy that Disney is increasing the amount of space dedicated to Star Wars."

I Reply: I'll take "People who embrace an opinion shared by a teeny, tiny minority of theme park fans" for $1000, Alex.

October 21, 2015 at 10:56 PM · Denise Rambo,

When movies become billion dollar blockbusters or when Disney pays billions to buy Pixar, Marvel & Lucafilm, it's not a question of if but when those properties become theme park attractions whether some people like it or not.

October 22, 2015 at 8:26 AM · I think it is not only that "optimism" is lost but also we have so much access to information nowadays that there is no need for a park to show us how the world works or how animals behave... We can find almost anything online so the interest diminishes...
October 22, 2015 at 8:29 AM · I also agree with James, I have zero interest in Transformers, Star Wars or Terminator (I don't like action movies for the most part) but I LOVE theme parks and rides so I ride them anyway... (only problem is simulators make me sick so I only ride them once in a while LOL!)
October 22, 2015 at 12:20 PM · The best Disney attractions are still the classics: Haunted Mansion, Pirates of the Caribbean, Space Mountain, Splash Mountain, etc. The new Star Wars and Avatar attractions will go down in history as major disappointments.

The corporate jackals who run Disney today are glorified accountants. These goons perverted and destroyed Walt's vision long ago.

October 23, 2015 at 5:43 AM · Star Wars has deserved a true theme park experience for a long time, not just a single ride. We might have had one a long time ago if a certain CEO hadn't messed up relationships with the deciding person. They could build a whole park for Star Wars and it would be packed out. I cant think of one IP that has had as many books written about it as SW: extended universe. Yes they are not canon anymore but that just means we get a whole new set of stories about our favorite subject.

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