The cold, hard facts behind theme parks' decisions

June 3, 2016, 5:58 PM · One of the "insider" facts about theme parks that people with experience know is that wait times are as much a function of attractions' capacities as they are their popularity. Rides that can't handle very many people per hour will have long waits, even if relatively few people line up to go on them. And rides with massive hourly capacities might not have much wait at all, even though as thousands of guests walk into their queues.

That's why insiders don't make judgments on a ride's popularity solely by its wait time. You need to know its capacity in order to make a true, "apples to apples" comparison with other rides and shows.

The issue of capacity lies at the heart of my Orange County Register column this week, Why Disney created 'Frozen – Live at the Hyperion'. With 2,000 people packing every performance and Fastpasses for the shows disappearing early in the day, Disney's new Frozen show in California Adventure looks like a hit. As it should be. It's a fun show, filled with visual delights.

But from an operational perspective, big theater shows that only play a few times a day aren't the crowd-soaking workhorses that theme park need to keep lines from backing up all over the park. As popular as the new Frozen show appears to be, it will accommodate only the equivalent of about 667 visitors per hour of park operation — not much better than some carnival spinner rides. Ultimately, that 2,000-guest show capacity is done in by the fact that the production won't play more than five times a day.

For truly high hourly capacities, cycle time is everything. The more units you move in an hour (whether they be roller coaster trains, boats, or shows), the more people you put through. Ultimately, the number of people per unit isn't as important as the number of units you move. That's a lesson I learned driving Tom Sawyer Island rafts at Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom, as I explained in my blog post, Drowning under short-term thinking. (Which, BTW, is one of the many stories about working at Walt Disney World that are included in my book, Stories from a Theme Park Insider. /plug )

So, to answer the question implicitly asked in the headline of my Register column... why did Disney create 'Frozen – Live at the Hyperion', if it wasn't to draw in massive numbers of visitors every hour?

Franchise protection.

Disney needed a Frozen-themed attraction that drew more people per hour than the Anna and Elsa meet-and-greet and that also would draw more people to the resort than the sing-along show it pulled together quickly in the old Muppets theater. Switching from Aladdin to Frozen allowed Disney to better justify staging that big, expensive musical show, as it would support a franchise that's still selling tons of merchandise and building anticipation for a sequel. And Disney still could do it for less than the price of building a new, higher-capacity Frozen-themed attraction from scratch.

Either way you get to the end result, every decision in theme park business pretty much comes down to the math.

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Replies (14)

June 3, 2016 at 10:38 PM · Every new attraction draws big the beginning. It's the continued popularity and staying power that should be the true indication of a successful attraction. IMO this Frozen show will not continue to draw crowds like Aladdin did.

You said that every decision in theme park business comes down to the math, but you also said that the reason Disney decided on a Frozen show was to protect the franchise. Disneyland Resort was already getting Frozen overload with the show in the Princess Fantasy Faire and the sing along in DCA. Maybe you can tell me if the sing along was still drawing big crowds, my feeling was that it wasn't after a while. To me this Frozen musical isn't THAT big an improvement over the other shows, (except Elsa is really singing this time, vs. the two guys in Fantasy Faire).

If they really wanted to keep people excited, they should have built the Frozen ride in the Motor Boat Cruise area. But make it an E ticket, not a D ticket like the Little Mermaid ride. But I guess they can only do one big thing at a time, maybe after Star Wars Land.

June 4, 2016 at 1:33 AM · Frozen is packing them in right now because it's a new show but I don't think this show will have legs. In a few months after all the APs have seen it, then the lines for FP will die down and there will start to be a few empty seats in the theater. By late 2017, the theater will be only half to 2/3 full for most performances. The show is way too long for a theme park, the projection effects are fine once but don't reward repeat viewings, Frozen hasn't become a time-honored classic that fans will want to experience over and over again, and there is Frozen-fatigue among a good portion of Disney fandom.

We'll see and check back next fall to see whether I got it right.

June 4, 2016 at 2:18 AM · Tony: The low capacity and less showings per day means repeat viewings isn't needed to pack the theater. Unique viewing will be hard enough. Fastpasses run out within the first hour of DCA's opening. People can't get enough of Frozen. The more the better. "Nobody will see Frozen because everyone has seen it."
June 4, 2016 at 5:09 AM · Tony: Last time I checked they were still making little girls aged five go ten ... The princess target demographic will be around at the end of 2017 ... And beyond.
June 4, 2016 at 9:17 AM · Frozen wil absolutely not have the staying power that Aladdin did. Aladdin was popular among seniors, adults, young adults, teens, and children. The same can't be said about Frozen... The only demographic group that I can see Frozen appealing to is Tweens and children. Just give it about a year and the hype around the show will significantly die down.
June 4, 2016 at 10:18 AM · I was very surprised that Disney decided to open Frozen at only three shows per day given the demand for the attraction. Usually, you start a brand new attraction off at maximum capacity and then scale it back as demand tapers, not start at medium capacity and increase it later. At best, the show's daily capacity is going to be roughly equivalent to that of the Fantasyland dark rides, but with only three shows it is closer to the daily capacity of the Astro Orbitor.

The long term popularity of this show is a big unknown right now, and when crowds begin to taper off I hope they are more due to everyone having seen it and less due to many people giving up after being unable to see it on several consecutive visits. I also hope Disney has a backup plan in case the show fails, as it would be a shame to leave that theater empty. To be honest, I wouldn't be surprised if it's pre-planned as a 5 year show, with some type of Marvel show moving in once the area around the theater becomes Marvel Land and the Frozen ride opens in Fantasyland, but we'll have to wait and see on that one.

June 4, 2016 at 10:50 PM · Aladdin lasted fourteen years, and was still packing in enthusiastic crowds. Ditching that wonderful show just to support a franchise is a disservice to the fans. I mean the Disney parks fans, not the relatively small demographic of Frozen-obssessed young girls (who are notorious for losing interest and quickly jumping on the next bandwagon).
June 5, 2016 at 5:28 AM · I get it that Disney wants to cash in on it's success on the movie . And I'm sure sales expect merchandise to continue to sell because of it. I understand they are pushing "experiences" out into the park for the short term to still the hunger of the guests. But what for it's future? In the past it took years, even decades so build rides on movies and the renewed love for a then clasic movie could be refound trough merchandising in the parks and re-releases of the movies in cinema or on blue-ray.
Will we still get a big ride from an ip after many years if sales is not able to support it with numbers?
June 5, 2016 at 6:04 AM · Personally, I don't think Frozen's gonna become irrelevant anytime soon. Rather, I think it's going to age like fine wine. Lion King was just as overexposed as Frozen was when it first came out. And just like Frozen, we were getting really sick of it. But now, not only is Lion King still extremely popular, but it's considered by almost everyone to be one of the greatest Disney films of all time; some even go as far as to call it one of the greatest animated films of all time in general. Disney has a natural talent for keeping their animated movies relevant. Look at Smow White, for example! That movie came out in 1937 and is still relevant today (Hell, Disney just made a new roller coaster based on it which ended up drawing huge crowds). The only other movies that came out in the 30s that are still relevant today, which can still be instantly recognized by anyone no matter how old or how young they are, are Wizard of Oz, King Kong and the classic Universal monster movies (namely Frankenstein and Dracula). And the only reason why Snow White is held in such high regard is because it was the first animated movie. Other than that, it was pretty average. I've yet to see a Top 10 Greatest Disney Films list that includes Snow White.

And, while I'm sure that the Aladdin show was just as good as everyone says it is, I'm sure all this criticism of this new Frozen show is really just because everyone is wearing their nostalgia goggles too tightly. If the Frozen show was really bad, than people would have a good reason to be as upset as they are. But I've honestly heard nothing but good stuff from the people who have actually, physically seen it. With that in mind, shouldn't we be applauding Disney instead of chastizing them? This feels like something we've been asking from them for a while; a new attraction that's not just some small time-killer but something spectacular, with groundbreaking special effects. Are we really just so fed up with Iger at this point that we're even gonna criticize him for turning out a good product? I think we just need to take off our nostalgia goggles for a little bit and judge this show as it's own thing, and not just as an attempt to replace Aladdin with something more fresh.

Finally, I'd like to confess something. This isn't so much as me trying to convince anyone of anything and more along the lines of me just getting something off my chest. I would kinda prefer to see a Frozen show over an Aladdin show. And I know I'm about to put my credibility as a Disney fan into question but....I think Frozen is a better movie than Aladdin (queue fanboy rage). Don't get me wrong, Aladdin is an amazing movie. I still enjoy it just as much now as I did as a kid! But Frozen just completely blew me away when I saw it in theaters. I even went as far as to buy it on Blu-Ray! The only thing I feel Aladdin does better than Frozen is it's comedy, but that's because Aladdin had the advantage of Robin Williams. But everything else I think Frozen did better. Exhibit A: the animation. I do miss the traditional hand-drawn animation and still hope it'll make a spectacular comeback, but as much as I don't like to admit it I do think CG animation looks a lot better. The attention-to-detail in Frozen is amazing! Next time you watch it, pay attention to some of the details on the human characters in terms of how they move and react to certain things.Exhibit B: the songs. Aladdin's soundtrack is certainly hard to beat; especially considering it has some true Disney classics like Friend Like Me and A Whole New World. But Frozen managed to pull it off pretty well. There is maybe one or two songs I don't particularly care for, but for the most part they all hit bullseye. When I got home from the theater, I almost immediately went onto YouTube and played Let It Go over and over. Exhibit C: the story. Now, Aladdin managed to pack in a lot of action, romance, drama and comedy. Something very hard to do in a kid's movie that's not even two hours long. And it told a pretty good message as well! But when you get down to it, it was really just another story about a poor boy and a rich girl falling in love despite being from completely different backgrounds, which is something we've seen plenty of times. Nothing wrong with that, it's just not very original. Frozen, on the other hand, told a completely new story that went in lots of different directions that I don't think any Disney film prior to this has went before. Although admittedly it's not perfect by any means (the King and Queen of Arendelle are probably some of the worst parents I've ever seen). But it's got great action, drama and comedy, and it's nice to see a traditional Disney Princess film where the main relationship isn't a romance between a boy and a girl (although they still have that) but rather it's the love of two sisters (although it seems that some fanfiction writers and fan artists have interpreted that "sisterly love" in a completely different way). And the message is a lot stronger. The story gets very deep and intriguing with many hidden themes, for example Elsa's powers and her psychological need to be isolated from the rest of the world could be a metaphor for anyone who's ever hidden from society because they feel different. Such as, say, someone with Autism or a homosexual (which would probably explain all the fanfiction and fanart).

Yes, it is pretty annoying how Disney feels the need to slap Frozen on everything they possibly can. But I feel we get so caught up in being annoyed by it that we often forget what a masterpiece it truly is.

June 5, 2016 at 7:09 AM · Sylvain: Much as the 'Disney Park fans' like to think that they are a major demographic I suspect they are quite a small part of the overall marketing mix at Disneyland. Theme parks can't make decisions based on their 'fans' but on the wider demographic of all their visitors. At the moment Frozen is big. Whether it will last 14 years is anybody's guess but anyone who votes against one of the biggest grossing franchises of recent years is going somewhat out on a limb in my opinion.
June 5, 2016 at 10:29 AM · Only having three shows per day will certainly help to keep the theater full. I don't think the demographic of 5-10 year old girls is large enough to keep the theater full over the long term. Aladdin packed them in because it appealed to every demographic.

Disneyland is a special case as it is a fandom park with over 1 million annual passholders. DL needs to cater to the fans, while WDW with its primarily tourist clientele doesn't. If DL is not paying to the rabid SoCal Disney fandom base then they're just doing bad business.

June 5, 2016 at 7:39 PM · There will always be little girls but they'll be primarily interested in whatever is the latest Disney princess. The Frozen meet and greet is already much less popular nowadays and often has no wait later in the day.
June 6, 2016 at 11:09 AM · Don't forget GONE WITH THE WIND. But the theme park potential for that property may be limited to a "Escape The Burning Of Atlanta" attraction. Maybe guests could exit through a shop selling Scarlett O'Hara dresses and Rhett Butler suits and uniforms...
June 8, 2016 at 3:05 PM · The thing about Disneyland or Disneyworld is that it's never finished, it's always moving forward, changing to support new adventures and theming. The Aladdin show was fantastically executed. A Broadway style show within a theme park that actually gave life to an ACTUAL Broadway show under the same name.

But every little girl loves Frozen, in many ways this film will ring true with generation after generation of little girls who love Disney, the same way most boys fall in love with Star Wars. As a father of a 5 year old girl myself, I love how my daughter identifies with this film, and sings the songs lyric for lyric every day. To create a show at Disneyland that celebrates this fantastic film for all it's fans, young and old (myself included) is just a natural progression and as many have said, just good business.

The Tarzan musical show at Disney's Animal Kingdom was spectacular, as was the Hunchback of Notre Dame musical at MGM Studios many years ago, and they played to packed stadiums most showings. But time moves on, and Disney has to change with the times according to what's popular now, and what properties are timeless enough to devote millions of dollars in production and development costs.

Unless Frozen 2 is an absolute BOMB at the box office (and who in their right minds would figure that?) then I think Frozen themed attractions at DL/DCA and WDW are well worth Disney throwing their eggs into that basket for many years to come.

Many questioned Disney buying Lucasfilm and Marvel in the beginning and we all know how that's turning out year after year.

There may have been times during the Michael Eisner years where you could question Disney business decisions in film and at the parks, but with people like John Lasseter heading up Disney Animation, Kathleen Kennedy at Lucasfilm and Bob Iger heading the whole show, the best bet you have is to buy Disney stock now, because the next few years are going to be dandy for all concerned.

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