When Disney's blessing of space meets the challenges of design

April 25, 2019, 3:26 PM · Time to dive into a little theme park irony. The big reason why Walt Disney bought all that land in Central Florida for what become the Walt Disney World Resort is so that the company would have the space it needed to develop all the ideas Walt and his team had — space that they did not have at the original Disneyland park in Anaheim.

Now, more than 50 years after Walt's passing, the Walt Disney World Resort has become the world's leading theme park destination, welcoming tens of millions of guests each year to dozens of hotels, four theme parks, and two water parks. Back in California, Disneyland has done well, too, with The Walt Disney Company buying land around the park and designing efficiently in order to recreate that park as a multi-gate resort with two theme parks and three hotels.

But it's still nowhere near the size of the Florida Project.

And yet, every once in a while, something happens to illustrate why bigger isn't always better when it comes to attraction and resort design. Sometimes, the "blessing of size" can be a curse, and limitations inspire better design.

Take the recent announcement that Disneyland will also build an installation of Mickey & Minnie's Runaway Railway for a 2022 debut in the park's Toontown land. That means that the original Disneyland will be getting two of the big-name developments also coming to Disney's Hollywood Studios at the Walt Disney World Resort: Runaway Railway and Star Wars: Galaxy's Edge.

But let's consider how they two parks redesigned to accommodate those new attractions. Here are the attractions that Disney removed for them at Disney's Hollywood Studios:

And here are the rides and shows that went away at Disneyland:

Okay, Disneyland did have to reroute the Rivers of America. And Disney's Hollywood Studios did also clear space for its Toy Story Land by eliminating the Studio Backlot Tour. But Disneyland found a way to add three new rides to its parks without having to close other attractions — something that Walt Disney World could not, or would not, do.

Why?

Frankly, Walt Disney World could have built its new Star Wars land outside the old footprint of Hollywood Studios, perhaps over where it is building that new Star Wars hotel. But it chose to lay waste to the southern half of its park instead. The designers and management team decided to self-impose site restrictions that they did not have. And years from now... Disney's guests will thank them for that.

Hard truth: Size enables sprawl in development. (Been to Houston recently?) If Disney had built Galaxy's Edge outside Hollywood Studios' footprint, it would have established a precedent that years down the road could have left the park a thematic and logistical mess, with fans having to walk past long-played out and ignored "attractions" such as the Honey, I Shrunk the Kids playground and a wheezing old auto stunt show to get to the "good" stuff far behind them.

Better to take this opportunity for addition by subtraction and cull several attractions that had either failed or appeared on their way to failing the test of time. Among the attractions lost to Galaxy's Edge, only the loss of the holiday light show really gutted fans. But that was hardly a uniquely "Disney" experience.

At Disneyland, the culling has been happening for decades. A far more mature park, Disneyland has few attractions that the public would not miss. The lack of the "blessing of size" meant that Disneyland has been making hard decisions about what to keep and what to replace for years. What expendable and substantial facilities remained at the park were pretty much all backstage. So that's where Disneyland has been cutting, sending away anything that can be relocated offsite.

With Project Stardust, Disney has been optimizing available space within the park, creating a new foundation to support the expansion of its attendance for the next decade. That should allow Disney to address the few remaining holes in Disneyland, such as those in Tomorrowland, without overwhelming the rest of the park. But again, it's the limitation of available space that demands efficiency in content and design.

Now looking beyond Galaxy's Edge and toward Runaway Railway, I think that time will treat Disney World's decisions less kindly. The Disneyland Toontown installation likely will yield a more thematically appropriate facade for the ride than the Chinese Theater Disney World is using. Disney's recent purchase of Fox gave Disney what would have been more than enough great IP for a needed freshening of The Great Movie Ride. In hindsight, gutting the Animation Courtyard and replacing it with an east coast version of Toontown, anchored by Runaway Railway, would have been the better move for the park in the long run.

But overall, Disney is building a better future for Disney's Hollywood Studios by treating it like it exists in space-constrained California than on an expansive site in Florida. Because, regardless of the amount of space you have to work with, smart designers and managers should treat every square foot of a property as precious real estate, to be used with the best intent.

Replies (12)

April 25, 2019 at 4:29 PM

The blessing of size still does matter with all of the available acreage at the world's largest theme park destination resort- simply doesn't matter when the plan is about re-imagining Disney's Hollywood Studios. The concept over thirty years ago began more as an extension of Epcot that evolved into a third theme park gate when it could easily have been developed elsewhere on property with more space to grow instead of creating their own challenge for more room to grow. Plus, they used up about the same acreage to develop Toy Story Land as well. Seems like this all proves Walt was correct and the blessing of space remains a big gift that Disney simply didn't utilize back when they rushed the development of their third Walt Disney World theme park, unlike the vast expanse at their fourth gate.

April 25, 2019 at 10:08 PM

Two different issues for me. One is removing old, out dated attractions. The other is having enough space in the park for ease of mobility to enhance ones experience (without being squeezed side to side in busy periods), and most importantly enough attractions to justify the cost of tickets.

Quite frankly the decision to cull some attractions in Hollywood Studios and not increase it's size seems motivated by finance and to keep costs down. As it is, the crowds expected for Star Wars will (in the short term at least) make for a miserable experience - primarily because there are not enough other attractions.

April 26, 2019 at 9:35 AM

This all comes down to the concept of self-editing. Having the luxury of space can cause bloat and excess. You can have too much of a good thing, and I think Disney understands that, but in the end these decisions are likely being driven financially. It doesn't make sense for Disney to continue to expand the perimeters of their parks ad infinitum. At some point guests will tire of aging attractions that are more extraneous remnants than charming throwbacks. The ability to edit out or change/update old attractions is key to keep guests coming back for more. I strongly believe that every attraction has a finite lifespan, and that if you don't continuously work to keep it up to date and current, at some point you have to come to the realization that it has to be completely replaced, which could be a costly, but necessary decision. The attractions sacrificed for the upgrades to DHS are not the only fat on WDW's bones, but were conveniently located and excised to make way for a leaner, meaner theme park.

April 26, 2019 at 11:40 AM

Walt hated it that the hotels around DisneyLand where cutting onto the theme of his park.
It's a shame WDW didn't honer that vision. Especially Epcot's World Showcase is continually getting intrusion, now with another hotel and the cable cars.

The thing with Disney Studios is that the park layout still is a mess. It still will have dead ends and crowded walkways after the opening off GE. They didn't improve anything except adding a nicely themed land with 2 rides and removing many more rides.

April 26, 2019 at 12:13 PM

"removing many more rides."

What actual "rides" were removed? The only ones were Catastrophe Canyon, which IMHO was more time sink than ride, and Great Movie Ride, which was problematic given the awkward licensing issues with the ride. I think the removal of the attractions from DHS was essential not only to create space for Galaxy's Edge, but to change the feel of the park. It's no longer a "studio" park, thus hanging onto relics like LMA, the Backlot Tour, rotating sound stage attraction, and GMR prevented the park from evolving into a modern theme park.

I agree that logistically the park is a mess to get around that will only be compounded by the crowds that will flood the park for Galaxy's Edge. However, aside from bulldozing the entire park and starting over, there's little they could have done from a flow perspective. I would expect that at some point Disney will create a loop that connects RNR/ToT with TSL to eliminate the worst of the dead ends. Galaxy's Edge will eliminate the Streets of America and Pixar Place dead ends. I think ultimately Disney has to look long and hard at the Fantasmic! and Indy stunt show arenas as the next chunks of real estate to re-develop, but I doubt anything will happen with those for another decade.

April 26, 2019 at 12:25 PM

Honey, I Shrunk the Kids, Lights Motors Action, Backlot Tour, Streets of America, Premiere Theater were all no big loss. But they should have kept and updated the Great Movie Ride and built Mickey's Railway elsewhere.

As for Disneyland, I'm wondering what backstage facilities were moved, other than the horses and some maintenance shops?

You talk about culling, but one attraction that should have been kept was Country Bears. Yes, in the day it was losing popularity, but if it had stuck around, I believe it would be very popular now because of the nostalgia.

Tiki Room was also getting low attendance for a period of time, but now it is well attended because of the nostalgia and huge crowds in the park. America Sings is probably better off reinvented as Splash Mountain, but IMO Country Bears would still be popular today, they should put in DCA.

April 26, 2019 at 12:41 PM

I keep forgetting the license issue was a key reason Great Movie Ride was removed. After all, in 1989, the rights to so many movies were so much more free and open before studios clamped down more. Still love it but can see the logistics affecting things.

It's tricky as everyone loves certain attractions more than others and hates losing them in any way. I love the Pooh ride at WDW but still miss Mr. Toad and 20,000 Leagues. It's just hard to tell what can last longer for a new generation.

April 26, 2019 at 9:32 PM

"It doesn't make sense for Disney to continue to expand the perimeters of their parks"

Have a quick look at the attendance of Disney parks. Magic Kingdom itself has gone up nearly 25% in 10 years.

That means you are cramming more people into the parks by the millions - by logic you need to add more experiences, attractions and land - unless you don't give a hoots about guest experience.

Up until the recent additions there has been a nigh on decade of lack of investment in new attractions to keep up with the increase in attendance - there certainly hasn't been a 25% increase in attractions.

Furthermore, what is also evident, the more new investment they are putting into the parks the more crowds are increasing, and ultimately profits they are making.

April 26, 2019 at 7:39 PM

Still very much miss the Osbourne's Christmas lights. That was a highlight of the season

April 27, 2019 at 9:30 PM

I'm glad Disney replaced old, outdated attractions to make space for Toy Story Land and Star Wars Land. Just because they have the ability to expand their footprint, doesn't mean it's the way to go. Cull the parks of their loser attractions and keep the entirety of the park a more pleasant, pleasing experience whenever possible!

However, expansion isn't something to be afraid of or avoid at all costs. It's a valid option, too. If Disney wanted to bring a copy of Cars Land to the east coast, and they decided that an expansion was the way to go, I'd support the decision.

Disneyland has no choice but to be really smart. Disney World can (and should) follow that blueprint, but be flexible, depending on the situation.

April 27, 2019 at 9:53 PM

I don't understand how people can be against expansion when the attendance is growing quite a fair bit - and will only continue to grow.

April 29, 2019 at 12:19 PM

@AndrewMciveR - It's not just about the size of the park, it's more efficient use of that space. It's very similar to what's going on in most modernizing cities today. Cities don't indiscriminately expand their limits so they can fit (and tax) more people, they start going vertical and rezone properties to better utilize their existing space. If they don't, those cities start sprawling, which is exactly what occurred through much of the 80s and 90s around the US. The sprawl was cheaper and more convenient from a management and practicality standpoint, but ended up creating many of the problems suburbanites are dealing with today (dependence on cars, traffic, wasted public space, increased costs to link communities, etc...). Now cities are starting to build "up", and create communities and neighborhoods that are only a few blocks in area, but are essentially self-contained mini-cities all linked together with public transit and other ways to get around (sidewalks, trails, bike lanes, scooter/bike share, rapid bus lanes, etc...).

The same concepts apply to theme parks only on a smaller scale. Sure, it's easy and cheaper to simply expand the perimeter of a park and build on virgin ground, but 20-30 years from now, what is the park going to look like? If Disney simply kept bumping out the borders of the parks, they would not face the pressure of continuously improving their product. It would be far cheaper to install a new attraction off to the side with a long winding path to reach it, but it's better if that attraction can be woven into the existing landscape, and in the process eliminate some less popular attraction(s) and/or under-utilized space. Certainly MK expanded its borders to allow for the New Fantasyland expansion, and is building out again for the Tron coaster, but even with those two expansions, you'd have to consider what they could have done if under the significant space constraints of Disneyland. I bet you the Little Mermaid dark ride would have probably replaced one of the less popular Fantasyland dark rides, and Be Our Guest would have taken over Pinocchio Village Haus. Tron probably would have taken over the Tomorrowland Speedway, a relic of an attraction that at some point will meet its fate anyway.

As far as squeezing more people into a park that's not getting any bigger, that's supposedly why Disney created FP+. A big selling point of the system is to allow guests to plan their days and more easily navigate parks packed to near capacity. Even with 40-50k people in the park, FP+ theoretically allows guests to experience some of the favorite attractions with little or no wait. Also, with better utilization of existing park space, guests can have more attractions to experience without having to walk across an ever-growing park. At some point, a park can get "too big" for guests to experience, which means operators are losing money from guests only spending a single day in a park that probably should be experienced in multiple days. Obviously there's some benefit from the guest perspective of a park that has more attractions than you can experience in a single day - they can probably skip all those lesser attractions and focus their single day on the headliners. Imagine if EPCOT, MK, DHS, and DAK were a single park, and a guest could ride TestTrack, Soarin', ToT, 7DMT, FoP, etc... on a single day admission. That's great for us, but terrible for Disney, because Disney would be leaving a lot of money on the table. It doesn't make financial sense to have parks that have multiple days' worth of attractions but guests only spend a day in them because they can ride the cream of the crop in one day (who's going to go back for a second day to ride Dumbo, Spaceship Earth, and Dinosaur?). If the park perimeters kept growing, they would at some point reach a breaking point where the admission price would get out of control to keep making the park bigger because of the increased maintenance cost and guests on average spending less and less time and money in the parks.

At some point, WDW will come to a time where if they want to increase resort revenue, they will need to add another park. Simply making each individual park bigger won't bring that revenue. People have argued that WDW has been at that point for over a decade now, but it hasn't happened. Perhaps we're getting close, but that's the next real "expansion" that will occur at WDW.

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