Does the value of giving parks distinct themes decline over time?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
I usually agree with Roberts’s analysis, but not with this one.
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.
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.
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.
Themes matter. Otherwise, they risk turning a theme park into an amusement park!!
I disagree with the reduction of theme.
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?
"Notice that nobody really complained."
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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?!
According to Wikipedia, Theming refers to "the use of an overarching theme...to create a holistic and integrated spatial organization of a consumer venue."
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