The bar has been raised. The new level is: Gigantic fire breathing dragon on top of a tower. No word yet on whether or not said fire breathing dragon’s wing flap has a thrust equivalent to a 747 on takeoff.
It’s probably safer to say the bar was raised back on June 18, 2010 when Universal officially opened the doors to Phase 1 of The Wizarding World of Harry Potter. Since then, Universal has been out for blood. They have the financial support of Comcast, a smaller and more efficient creative team, and a willingness to do things that Disney won’t.
The last new ride announced for Disney World was the Seven Dwarfs Mine Train on January 11, 2011. Since then, they have significantly “plussed” two older attractions (Star Tours and Test Track) and opened part of New Fantasyland. These are all good things, but creatively not particularly innovative.
Universal has long played second fiddle to the Mouse. Since Universal Studios opened, the only time it beat any Disney World park in attendance was in 1998 when the Animal Kingdom opened in April. When Islands of Adventure opened a year later, it barely registered as a blip on Disney’s radar despite a lineup of critically acclaimed attractions.
At the time, Disney was ready to respond should Islands of Adventure affect their bottom line. However, the only initial damage was a select group of Imagineers taking some loose Beastly Kingdom concepts up I-4 to Universal Creative to be used as part of the Lost Continent.
It wasn’t until the June 2010 opening of The Wizarding World of Harry Potter that the attendance shift began. Since then, Islands of Adventure’s attendance climbed from 4,627,000 in 2009 to 7,674,000 in 2011. During the same time period, Universal Studios’ attendance climbed from 5,530,000 to 6,044,000 (Source TEA Reports). The result of this was Universal’s theme parks moving from 16% of the Orlando theme parks market share in 2009 to 20.67% of that market share in 2011. During the same time, Disney’s share dropped from 74.86% to 71.49% and Sea World’s dropped from 9.14% to 7.84%.
Universal has proven that constructing a highly themed land around a popular intellectual property will have a greater effect on attendance than piecemeal additions. This concept was reinforced by the attendance spike at Disney California Adventure after the opening of Cars Land in 2012, which saw a 22.6% attendance increase (Source TEA Reports). Currently, Universal is building themed lands and supplementing them with attraction additions elsewhere. The build time for a themed land is substantially longer than a fast tracked single attraction, and when the two are combined it helps keep the parks fresh. This is a strategy Disney has to seriously investigate.
Both Animal Kingdom and Hollywood Studios have larger expansion pads in multiple locations in the parks. Additionally, there are areas were single attractions can be blended in seamlessly to existing themed areas. If Disney doesn’t look at building large themed lands as well as single attractions, it’s more than reasonable that Islands of Adventure and Universal Studios could surpass Animal Kingdom, Hollywood Studios and even Epcot in attendance in the next few years. As a theme park fan, I’m intrigued that Universal doesn’t seem to be resting on their laurels. Rumors have been circulating that other areas of the parks will also see additions after Phase 2 of The Wizarding World of Harry Potter opens in 2014.
The expectation is that many Disney World projects will be announced at the upcoming D23 Expo in August. The question isn’t if Disney will announce new projects, but how many projects they will announce. It’s nearing the point that Hollywood Studios needs a DCA level makeover, Animal Kingdom needs a new attraction before Avatar (pandas or a nighttime show?), and Epcot needs multiple pavilions upgrades.
As a Disney fan, I’m hopeful that Tom Staggs takes the stage on August 9th and begins a Steve Jobs type presentation. This is Disney’s big chance to respond and if all they have is a Seven Dwarfs Mine Train and Grand Floridian DVC update, fans will riot in the streets. As each day passes, it sounds more and more like Disney is gearing up for several announcements. Some possibilities include attraction details on Avatar, some form of Cars Land, Polynesian DVC, a replacement for Wishes, a replacement for Captain EO, a new film at Soarin’ and possibly even a Star Wars land.
It’s getting to the point where anything less than what’s listed above would be a disappointment for fans. It’s asking a lot, but Disney put themselves in this position. At the 2011 D23 Expo, John Lasseter admitted that Disney California Adventure wasn’t up to Disney standards. It’s time someone else admitted the same of the Florida parks. They can be fixed, and hopefully the pressure from Universal is enough to kick off projects in all four parks.
Things are moving in the right direction after the Splash Mountain refurbishment and replaced laser effects in DINOSAUR. The additional refurbishments scheduled for Jungle Cruise and Muppet*Vision 3-D will hopefully also yield positive results.
Oh, and one more thing… How about a fix for the Yeti?