When's the perfect time to greenlight a new attraction?

June 20, 2016, 1:57 PM · NBCUniversal CEO Steve Burke has confirmed to investors that Universal is working on a new attraction based on its upcoming Illumination Entertainment film, The Secret Life of Pets. It might seem strange, maybe even a bit reckless, for a theme park company to begin work on an attraction based on a film that hasn't debuted yet, and Burke conceded, "if the film doesn't do as well as I think, it will be painful."

But waiting to see how a film does before committing to a theme park attraction carries an opportunity cost, as well. I remember how thrilled my then-seven-year-old son was when Disney announced that it would build a Cars Land at Disney California Adventure... and how indifferent he was by the time it opened, when he was nearly 13. How much money did Disney leave on the table by not having large-scale attractions based on Frozen ready to go in the two-plus years after that animated musical opened and became a massive hit?

Here's the tough choice that corporate managers get paid millions to make: Commit to an attraction early and run the risk that the movie's a flop, or wait and see, and run the risk of losing some fans and their money during the delay?

We're not talking about spitballing ideas for an upcoming film — companies have been doing that for years, and throwing around creative ideas for new films only costs the staff time that your designers could be working on creative ideas based on other properties, existing or original. The real test is committing capital to the next steps of developing a ride based on a property that hasn't earned its first dollar at the box office.

We don't know what Burke meant when he said Universal was "working on" a Secret Life of Pets ride. But chatter from inside Universal Creative suggests that the company's gone far beyond the "throw a spitball at the design team's wall and see if it sticks" stage. A design appears to have been approved and, at least in Hollywood, space might have been cleared for construction to start. But we don't know if film elements have been produced, animatronics crafted, or ride vehicles manufactured — all elements of attraction production that would happen off-site, away from fans and park employees who'd immediately post the news online. (Remember that Universal Studios Hollywood has announced that it will make a big announcement about future developments tomorrow morning.)

The more work that Universal does before the release date, the more risk the company assumes. But, as Burke noted, Illumination Entertainment has a pretty impressive track record. Its Despicable Me franchise, including the Minions, have been huge money-makers for Universal and its theme parks. The Pets trailer appears to have been playing well, and word of mouth inside the industry is optimistic about the film's box office future. So Universal's not taking as big a risk betting on Pets as it would be committing to develop an attraction based upon a completely unknown property.

Obviously, it doesn't take much time or money to slap together a meet-and-greet or even a relatively simple show to cash in on a hot new hit. But as Disney learned from Frozen, those low-cost, low-risk attractions don't come close to meeting the high level of demand for a hot property. The six-hour waits that some guests faced to meet the Anna and Elsa at the Magic Kingdom after that meet-and-greet opened left many fans angry and frustrated in online reviews, instead of recommending Disney World visits to their friends whose daughters loved Frozen, too.

But what if Frozen had been no more of a hit than Tangled, or Princess and the Frog? Not even Disney has enough real estate to commit a major new ride to every animated film it releases. At some point, management needs to make a call. And with hundreds of millions of dollars in development, construction, and promotional costs at stake, no one should blame those managers for wanting to get some feedback from the public, in the form of box office numbers for these properties. Even if that leaves money on the table when fans are left waiting years for the company to approve, design and build the attraction.

Yet managers who can anticipate public demand, and bet correctly, can deliver attractions for hot properties years before more timid managers can, allowing their parks to build attendance and guest spending faster than the more conservatively run parks can.

So here's the question: when's the perfect time to greenlight a new attraction?

Replies (20)

June 20, 2016 at 2:20 PM · "NBCUniversal CEO Steve Burke has confirmed to investors that Universal is working on a new attraction based on its upcoming Illumination Entertainment film, The Secret Life of Pets."

I just wish these idiots would build attractions that aren't directly tied to a movie or TV show. Perhaps they could attempt to develop something original.

June 20, 2016 at 2:37 PM · I heard Forbidden Journey was the ride idea for 2004 Van Helsing movie. When it didn't live up to it's potential the ride wasn't build but just like at Disney a good idea never dies. So sure let them blue sky the hell out of The Secret Life of Pets, the sooner they can start building the ride. If the movie is half as funny as the trailers they are in for a huge hit.

Looking at Disney Infinity I think producing and making the figurines before looking if the movie is a hit resulted in huge losts and the failure of the game. Sure Star Wars will be a hit but the second Alice into the lookingglass didn't fly and the 3 statues will stay on the shelf until Disney takes them back.

June 20, 2016 at 2:48 PM · Interesting. I doubt that SLOP (bad acronym, I know) will flop, but I also doubt it will reach the lofty heights of Frozen or Minions. Building an attraction based on this could be premature, but as you're suggesting it could allow them to cash in on a great franchise while the interest is still there.

I could see there being benefit in having an attraction with the design stage complete. Allocate room, design the ride and the technology and do all but start clearing land. There is still cost involved, but mostly at the imagination (or Universal equivalent) level. While some of these plans may never get acted on, and waste money, it allows the creative teams to exercise their minds so that the rides that do get made are even better thought out and planned. Unused ideas can potentially be modified to suit other IP and reused.

I do think that any attraction that depends on the momentum of a recent successful movie is one that has limited shelf life. I understand that the marketing helps the new ride, but rides based on a strong IP rather than flavour of the month last better. Jurassic Park and Indiana Jones weren't timed to coincide with movie release, but rather off the longevity of timeless IP and have both lasted eons. If you look at most of Disney and Universals top rides over 5 years old, they mostly fit that bill.

Even frozen, as part of the princesses franchise, is greater as a result of its association. My 3 year old daughter loves Cinderella and Tangled (LOVES), and can name all of the princesses, even if she hasn't seen the movies. So despite what some people may say, Frozen will be around for a long while, and while Disney may not have struck while the coals were hot, I think Frozen will have the longevity. I'm not sure this will be the case with SLOP, and therein lies the risk of building an attraction on a new IP before audience reaction.

June 20, 2016 at 3:04 PM · Of all properties, this one possibly have the ingredients to have a Disney-style movie IP. The animals are very cute. Toys already appeared on the shelves. The story is very much like Toy Story. Instead of imagining what a toy does when the owners are not around, we imagine what pets do when owners are not around. Still, it is very risky to do a movie so soon. The better approach is wait at least 1 year to green light a project. Wait for box office returns and the subsequent Blu-Ray/DVD sales to determine success. Imagine what happens when the Alice In Wonderland sequel tanks. I guess they opened the maze attraction in Shanghai where it doesn't matter.

Frozen is so big that a theme park attraction is necessary. Despite this, they went small in Orlando. A bare theming makeover of Maelstrom. The musical is big and a full hour of "Let It Go" madness. Still, we are 3 years out from the movie debut in 2013.

The Minions effort is a disappointment. They are merely replacing previous attractions at Orlando and Hollywood. It's not ambitious and not worthy of its huge following and big box office receipts. SLoP should be a truly good ride. Let's see how it goes, but they should wait one year.

June 20, 2016 at 4:41 PM · Disney is timeless while Universal is timely. This strategy makes perfect sense for the type of park Universal is. They can build it cheaply and uncreatively and then if the movie is not a huge success, animate something new for the screens a couple years down the road based on a different movie.
June 20, 2016 at 5:21 PM · The key here is that Pets will be a family movie/ride. There really isn't much to do at Universal for younger guests, so I'm guessing Comcast would rather get the ball moving on an attraction for a crowd that could use more catering to. And even if the movie does flop (unlikely), the ride will surely be better than nothing.

I'm just glad Burke didn't announce a Sing ride. Yikes.

June 20, 2016 at 5:45 PM · No 3D PLEASE!!!!!!!!!
June 20, 2016 at 6:07 PM · Disney has been doing this from the start. Sleeping Beauty's Castle opened four years before the movie. It's tough to be a bug opened a year before Bug's Life and Pirates of the Caribbean opened 35 years before the film.
June 20, 2016 at 6:27 PM · Realistically, what are the chances that Steve Burke could be convinced to return to Disney and champion rapid development and creation of attractions at Disney Theme Parks?
June 20, 2016 at 8:36 PM · Particularly with Disney and Universal, where there is a chain of potential IP that could translate to the theme park environment, the best course of action would likely be to fully design a template attraction that could work for several different IP concepts. Then, once a particular IP is selected, construction can begin quickly on the attraction while designers finalize the design of individual scenes and shape them to the track and building layout. For example, Universal could have a mechanical ride designed and a location selected, then just sit on it until the proper IP comes along. Secret Life of Pets flops? Just wait until Sing or Despicable Me 3 come out and try again. The goal should be to have the ride ready no more than 2 years after the film releases...any longer and you run a serious risk of the IP losing relevance.
June 20, 2016 at 8:46 PM · This Twitter tweet regarding the Fantastic Beasts movie might tell us what we'll hear tomorrow. We'll find out for sure though!


June 20, 2016 at 8:59 PM · Well, Disney did make Its Tough to be a Bug and Dinosaur/Countdown to Extinction before the movies came out. Both are still solid attractions at AK despite Dinosaur (the movie) not doing particularly stellar.
June 20, 2016 at 10:39 PM · If the ride is good, the IP won't matter that much. The bigger issue is that every new attraction is yet another 3D simulator. And of course, it's a safe bet that "Secret Life of Pets" will be more of the same.
June 21, 2016 at 1:25 AM · "I just wish these idiots would build attractions that aren't directly tied to a movie or TV show. Perhaps they could attempt to develop something original."

So the theme park that is built on the backlot of a famous film studio, whose tagline forever was "ride the movies", should create an attraction not based on a movie or tv show? How many attractions at Disney Hollywood Studios are original again?

"Disney is timeless while Universal is timely. This strategy makes perfect sense for the type of park Universal is. They can build it cheaply and uncreatively and then if the movie is not a huge success, animate something new for the screens a couple years down the road based on a different movie."

So in other words, exactly what Disney has been doing at Epcot for well over a decade? I swear some of you Disney zealots are so hypocritical it's borderline hilarious.

"The bigger issue is that every new attraction is yet another 3D simulator. And of course, it's a safe bet that "Secret Life of Pets" will be more of the same."

Actually, the Pets ride is going to be 95% animatronics and physical sets using a trackless vehicle. You know, just so all the screen babies can stop whining so incessantly.

I could take all the screen moaning more seriously if the majority of complainers weren't clearly cultists who sleep in Mickey Mouse ears. Where are these same issues when Disney cheaply swaps out the film for Screen the Ride, umm I mean Soarin'? Where are these same complaints when the highly lauded new Pirates ride in Shanghai is about 60% screens? Where are these same complaints when the main E-ticket ride in Avatarland, by the way disgustingly the first E-ticket attraction in WDW in over a decade, is also a screen simulator. Where are these same complaints when the two rides in the upcoming Star Wars Land are going to be a stationary screen simulator and a trackless Spiderman-clone that will also have heavy use of screens? Without consistency, all the criticism starts to come off as jealousy.

June 21, 2016 at 6:02 AM · Waterworld is a bad movie yet the show at Universal is highly praised. Tron wasn't great but the Tron ride in Shanghai is getting very good reviews.

Some movies actually work better as a theme park attraction than others. It really is about matching the right technology with the right movie. Sometimes it is about imagination and sometimes it is about luck.

June 21, 2016 at 7:41 AM · Steve Burke is making the right decision. The risk is minimal. The reward could be huge. Disney's main edge over Universal is merchandising. "Secret Life of Pets" could make Universal billions. If it fails, how much does Universal really lose?
June 21, 2016 at 10:09 AM · I just wish we had more evidence of Universal working on those Nintendo attractions! SLOP may or may not be a hit, but Nintendo has been popular for enough generations now that it's a sure thing.
June 21, 2016 at 10:11 AM · Let's not forget that just because a movie hasn't debuted to the public yet, does not mean that no one has seen it. Hundreds of people work on the film, producers screen it, test audiences screen it. SLOP (lol) is about to debut; at this stage in a production, tons of people will have given feedback about it. It sounds like Universal is confident that the movie will connect to people.
June 21, 2016 at 11:53 PM · Ah yes, the same anonymous hack up there (108.30) ranting that no one but a fanatical Disney cultist could possibly criticize Universal's overuse of screens. Once again, with feeling: most of us go to both company's parks, and we're fans of both -- which is why we know what we're talking about.

Since Forbidden Journey, Universal has given us NOTHING BUT screens. Yes, Disney has some screen-based rides, too. But they've been offering us much more variety in their new rides -- not to mention new parades and nightime spectacles.

You say that SLOP (the most unfortunate acronym of the year, but I digress) will be all AAs and sets? Not sure where you read that, but if so, I say it's about damn time. I was expecting King Kong to be a break from the same old, but no such luck.

June 25, 2016 at 7:52 AM · Lets all go not see SLOP!

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