Three rumors about Disney theme parks have been attracting a lot of attention over the past couple of weeks. As some of you might have noticed, I haven't written about any of them. But that doesn't mean I have been ignoring the reports.
After talking with knowledgeable people I respect in the industry, I do not believe that any of these rumors are the "done deals" that some have portrayed them to be. (And to be fair here, as far as I can tell, the initial sources of these rumors did not portray them as 100% incontestable fact, either. That came as these rumors went viral and twisted in the inevitable game of telephone.) But I have found some interesting perspective in checking these rumors, which I now feel is worth sharing.
Some background: I never want to waste your time here on Theme Park Insider. Yes, it would be easier to play along with the crowd, join the echo chamber and throw up a bunch of clickbait. I'd probably have a lot more money in the bank if I did. But I'm a stubborn old idealist who can't bring himself to do that. So let's dive into some fact-based rumor analysis, instead.
1. "Spaceship Earth is closing for 2+ years"
There is no doubt inside the industry that Disney wants to do a substantial refurbishment on Spaceship Earth. The only questions are when it will start and how long it will last. Disney has ordered the installation of LED panels on the south face of Spaceship Earth, which will become part of the new World Showcase lagoon show, once IllumiNations closes after next summer. But beyond that, Disney has not ordered any additional work on Spaceship Earth... yet.
Sources within Walt Disney Imagineering are known for leaking proposals to test fan reaction. But asking people's opinions on a proposal doesn't elicit the same type of passionate response as telling them a proposal is settled and going to happen. (For what it's worth, I refuse to go along knowingly with misleading Theme Park Insider readers. So that makes this a poor forum for testing proposals in the way that these Disney sources want to test them. Others are happy to play along, though.)
Disney wants to know what fan reaction would be to an extended downtime for Epcot's signature attraction. It also wants to know the blowback if Spaceship Earth were closed for Walt Disney World's 50th anniversary in 2021 or Epcot's 40th in 2022. If I were running Disney, I would want to know these things, too!
Spaceship Earth needs a re-do. The "personalization" animation no longer impresses anyone. As the story takes us from ancient times to the modern day, it needs updating at the conclusion every decade or so. The ride system could run more reliably and with less costly maintenance, if it were improved, too. All other things off the table, I would urge Disney to just close the thing after Christmas and start work, if asked. But Disney is deeply concerned about attendance next summer, should fans choose to delay their visits awaiting the opening of Star Wars: Galaxy's Edge next fall. Disney is pushing to get Mickey & Minnie's Runaway Railway open for next summer to help draw crowds. It doesn't want to undercut effort that by taking another major attraction off the table during that time.
But pushing the start of Spaceship Earth's refurb beyond next fall puts a reopening by October 1, 2021 in jeopardy. So Disney wants to gauge the fan reaction to that. Should it reduce the scope and length of the refurb? Or would fans prefer that Disney get an earlier start, instead? Or are fans okay with missing the WDW 50th, so long as the refurb is done by Epcot's 40th? That's what Disney management is considering now. But I have found no indication that the decision has been made to the point of no return.
2. "The plans for DCA's Marvel Land have leaked"
Unlike the previous rumor, I think there's a possibility that this one is just someone's imagination at work. Why? Because Disney's options in getting this Super Hero-themed land open by its announced debut date are so limited that a knowledgeable observer could predict a lot of what is going to happen in this land. In other words, you could take a guess here and have a pretty good chance at being right.
With a 2020 opening announced, Disney simply does not have the time to build a new dark-ride show building for this land — not in California, with its stringent building regulations. So any new attractions here will have to be carnival-type rides that Disney can install outside, or an indoor attraction that it can install inside the former "It's Tough to Be a Bug" building. That means either a show or a screen-based ride. There's simply not enough room in there for anything else.
Disney also is building a Marvel-themed land at Hong Kong Disneyland, with plans to expand Marvel's presence at Walt Disney Studios in Paris. So keep those proposals in mind while thinking about the California Adventure land. The Marvel Super Heroes United live show didn't exactly wow audiences at WDS last summer, so I doubt that Disney would lean on it as the centerpiece of its California land.
That leaves a screen-based ride or show here. The two options are to install Hong Kong's Iron Man ride, which is another Star Tours-like motion simulator, or to put in a Midway Mania-like shooter, which could be a scaled version Hong Kong's Ant-Man ride (which is actually a Buzz Lightyear makeover). Both duplicate ride systems that Disney has already at the resort: one across the esplanade and one inside the same park. But the shooter ride would be easier (and cheaper) to install, so let's go with it. And Disney's key art for the new land features Spider-Man, so let's also assume that the ride will be themed to what is arguably Marvel's most popular character, instead of Ant-Man or Iron Man.
To fill out the land, there's the Stark Expo show from Disney in Paris, or the Doctor Strange bit from Disney World that got plussed for the Disney Cruise Line. Take your pick, or go for both. Long term, Disney has an available parking lot south of Mission Breakout that it is eying for phase two of the Marvel land. Slot 2023's Marvel track ride/coaster from Hong Kong Disneyland into that space.
But are a screen-based shooter and an outdoor show or two enough to anchor a new Disney theme park land, especially one themed to what is arguably the most popular current film franchise in the world? This is where the scenario of another WDI/Disney management trial balloon enters the picture. Star Wars: Galaxy's Edge will have opened at Disneyland the summer before. Surely that land will be popular enough to sustain increased attraction for a second summer, right? Does Disney really need a Marvel land at California Adventure to balance the crowds, or can it wait a season or two (or three) to open it as a completed land, instead of as the first of two parts?
The only potential competitive pressure for Disney in Southern California is Universal Studios Hollywood's Super Nintendo World, which certainly will not be ready by 2020, as construction hasn't gone vertical for it yet. Is Disney testing fan reaction to see if it can wait beyond 2020 for its DCA Marvel land, or to see if it needs to spice up the offering with additional or plussed attractions?
Your guess is as good as mine.
3. "Disney's Animal Kingdom is getting an Indiana Jones land"
It's Halloween season, so how appropriate that we would have a theme park rumor rise from the grave, like a zombie.
If you have read my 10-step process to help you better judge theme park rumors, mark this one as step-one spitballing. I am sure that at some point, Disney has spec'd out the potential for converting DAK's Dino land into an Indiana Jones theme. The Dinosaur ride uses the same ride system and track layout for Disneyland's Indiana Jones ride. The Boneyard excavation pit is an easy switch to an Indiana Jones theme — just bury fake artifacts instead of dino fossils. Replace the two flat rides few people will miss with just about anything (maybe the Indy coaster from TDS and DLP?), redecorate the rest of the land, and you're good to go. The proposal's relative ease make it alluring — to both Disney and rumormongers.
But Walt Disney World's construction dance card is filled through 2022, at the earliest, with Star Wars, the Magic Kingdom's Tron coaster, and the new Epcot rides. Now that would put Disney's Animal Kingdom at the top of the rotation among the four parks for something new. While an Indiana Jones makeover would provide a relatively cheap option, it would need to fit into Disney's broader strategy with the Indiana Jones franchise. If another Disney franchise blows up between now and 2022, Disney might well decide to go in that direction instead of returning to a character it's had in its parks for decades.
So enjoy kicking around this idea for the next few years, if you'd like. But at this point, it remains speculation. It's not yet news.
Update: A source reached out to say that the latest twist on the Indy rumor is that it would replace the stunt show at DHS, and not Dinoland USA. To me, that sounds even more implausible that the DAK rumor, given that Hollywood Studios already will have gotten Toy Story Land, Star Wars, and Runaway Railway, in short order.
If this is another trial balloon, it suggest to me that the question is whether the Indiana Jones theme or the stunt show format is more important to fans. If the reaction to the rumor seems to favor the replacement land, Disney can infer that the Indy theme matters more to fans. But if people seem to prefer the stunt show over something else Indy-themed in that space, Disney might infer that it's the stunt show itself that people care about more... and take that as a green light to consider switching the show to another theme.
Again, it's speculation.
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