2013 has been an amazing year for theme parks fans all over the world. This year we saw one major theme park company rededicate themselves to providing top of the line attractions and experiences to their guests. We also saw another major theme park operator decide the take a different approach and provide a service to their guests that no one really asked for or needed to begin with. I think 2013 will go down in the history books as a year of transition and experimentation. A year where theme park guests discovered they do have a voice and they can and will take their very valuable theme park dollar to the most competitive and innovative company. This is a year of Blackfish, Transformers, and more. 2013 was exciting, freighting, and somewhat mysterious. Let’s dig into the top 9 news nuggets of 2013.
Honorable Mention: This years Limited Time Magic campaign was met with a less than positive response from Disney fans across the nation. The campaigned was designed to offer small, “new” experiences to visitors but what they ended up getting were truncated experiences that had mostly already been in the parks, but cut back due to budget constraints. Any actual “new” offerings that came out of Limited Time Magic were just chances for visitors to buy more “new” merchandise. One of the true low lights of the campaign was in late January when the weekly offering from Disney was a chance for fans to go online and vote to choose the 2014 Disney Art Design. This is not exactly the best way to convince your most diehard fans to get on board with the campaign. On the other hand, some true highlights of the campaign were the Monsters University 24 hour event and the Long Lost Friends meet and greets. They were both huge fan favorites and will surely be in high demand in 2014. The best way to sum up Limited Time Magic is this; these were all “special” events that should not have been special. These activities, parties, meet and greets, and offerings should all be offered on a regular basis at the parks. In the past, many of these activities did take place, but they were cut when Disney needed to save money. Personally, I think its wrong to take something away from visitors and then years later, bring it back for a Limited Time and bill it as something special and magic. To me, it just seems cheap and exploitative.
Story 1: Disney Interactive started this year out with a huge announcement. They revealed their newest, mufti-platform, sandbox style game Disney Infinity. After some delay, the game was released in mid-August and features collectible figurines that are then synchronized with the game, allowing for characters from multiple Disney properties to interact and go on adventures. The game was met with warm reviews and positive comments from fans; receiving a 9/10 score from Game Informer and 8.7/10 from IGN, but now it seems that many fans are cooling on the game. While the initial game play is fun and adventurous, fans seem to get overloaded on the possibilities and soon get bored with the game. Without any clear direction or goal, many fans get lost and overwhelmed with the game.
Story 2: 2013 saw the foundation being laid for something huge in 2014. Universal began work in Orlando and Hollywood to expand the presence of Harry Potter in their parks. In Hollywood, the historic Gibson Amphitheater was demolished to make way for a full sized Hogwarts Castle and more Potter attractions. In Orlando, Universal ramped up construction of Diagon Alley. With what us promised to be a ground breaking attraction in the Gringotts Bank Coaster, many fans are eagerly awaiting the Spring of 2014. Universal Orlando will also see the Hogwarts Express go into operation in 2014. Universal is definitely hitting Disney hard with this one, and with the only attraction to come from Disney in 2014 being the Seven Dwarfs Mine Train Coaster, you can bet many more hardcore Disney fans will be jumping ship to visit the boy wizard at Universal Studios. Universal is poised to do many more big things in the coming years, so stay tuned.
Story 3: In the Spring of this year Tom Staggs made a major announcement about the future of Downtown Disney in Orlando. The massive project will bring 150 new shopping and entertainment options to the long suffering shopping and dining district at Walt Disney World. Disney Springs will also see the construction of two new parking garages built to help with the parking and traffic issues that have plagued Downtown Disney for years. Construction started in April and should be completed sometime in 2016. Announcements of which shops will be moving in are slowly trickling in and it is certain that many Disney fans are curious and cautious about the future of the shopping and dining district. Personally, I think any improvements that are made to the area will be nothing but positive. The parking garages and road improvements will be a welcome site and visitors will be spared the usual headaches of trying to navigate Downtown Disney traffic and parking. And while I think that doubling the current size of the Disney Store is more than unneeded and ridiculous, as a whole, I am excited to see the finished Disney Springs. (Even though the fanboy inside of me is screaming that the money for this project should be used for attractions and park improvements)
Story 4: On June 20 of this year Transformers the Ride 3D opened at Universal Studios Orlando and by August it had its 1 millionth rider. The opening of this ride marked a huge milestone for Universal; the attraction was built in a dizzying 10 months time. Universal made a clear and blatant shot across the bow at Disney with this project and they saw their attendance numbers spike because of it. When it comes to the Orlando theme park wars, you can consider this attraction a huge win for Universal. Even though many insiders and fanboys screamed that the attraction is too much like Universal’s Spiderman attraction, that didn’t seem to faze or bother Orlando tourist (70% of Universals visitors) who showed up in droves to experience this amazing attraction. The fact that it was built from the ground up in 10 months was just icing on the cake for Universal and many people in the industry are taking Universal very seriously. Universal proved they would not fall victim to a sophomore slump and that they could not and would not rest on Potter alone.
Story 5: 2013 saw the third D23 Expo come to Anaheim. Fans packed the convention center in anticipation of meeting some of the big names in Disney Entertainment. While the convention saw virtually NOTHING from the Parks and Resorts section of the company in terms of new attractions, fans were treated to the usual panels, presentations, and merchandise options that have become staples of the bi annual Expo, including Tony Baxter receiving a Disney Legend award. I was not too impressed by this years Expo, but to be honest, I was really only looking for new information from the theme parks. I really don’t see myself spending all of that time and money flying out to California just to buy some merchandise or hear speakers on a panel tell stories that have probably already been told before. Granted, I am probably not the target audience for the Expo, but I do think that they could do a lot more with this massive gathering of Disney fanatics than just sell them merchandise and show them movie trailers from upcoming Disney flicks. (Yes, I know there is a lot more to the Expo and I am generalizing, but this is how a lot of outsiders feel about D23)
Story 6: Earlier this fall, while we in the States all slept soundly, Tokyo’s D23 Expo was unveiling new concept art and ideas for Animal Kingdom. Hungry fans also got a bit more to chew on as Disney released more details about the Avatarland project. After two years of virtually nothing, Disney debuted models, photos,, and concept art for the new land. Along with the floating mountains and simulators of Pandora, Disney has also promised a new nighttime entertainment show and nighttime safari for the infamous, “half day park.” If Disney is going to commit to this level of live entertainment inside the park, I hope they do not make the usual huge cutbacks 6 months into its run. These improvements seem to be just what is needed at Animal Kingdom and hopefully, Disney will give the Imagineers the proper budget to make this expansion top of the line. if Disney can deliver a Carsland type of experience inside the Animal Kingdom, you will once again see the balance of power (and guests money) change in the Orlando theme park wars.
Story 7: SeaWorld Orlando saw its share of highlights and very low lights this year. While new areas such as Antarctica opened up in Sea World Orlando and announcements of new water rides and experiences were made, 2013 will be remember, by many, as the year of Blackfish. The controversial documentary by Magnolia Pictures and CNN aired to a national audience this year and sent shock waves across the themed entertainment community. Many celebrities came out and publicly denounced SeaWorld. The film features heart wrenching scenes of Orcas being abused, and trainers being attacked by captive Orcas. While many have come out and questioned some of the statements in the film, the much unwanted attention for SeaWorld this year has left a lot of people feeling angry and upset. Even though I have seen this movie several times, I am not still sure what to believe. Every documentary should be taken with a grain of salt, but the images in this movie are striking and disturbing. SeaWorld has spent so much time this year battling the negative press; most of the attention from the opening of its new Antarctica exhibit has been lost in the fray.
Story 8: Famed and legendary Disney Imagineer Tony Baxter said goodbye this year. After over 30 years of working with Disney, Baxter announced he was stepping down from full time work with the company. Baxter was a principle Imagineer in many Disney projects such as Big Thunder Mountain, Splash Mountain, Indiana Jones Adventure, the 1980’s Disneyland Fantasyland redesign, Disneyland Paris and more! While questions swirl about exactly why Baxter is stepping down, fans will be forever in debt to him. His career was capped this year by receiving a window on Main Street at Disneyland and the honor of being named a Disney Legend. I am still curious as to exactly why Tony left the company and a lot of signs are pointing to him being pushed out. One thing is for sure, this is a huge loss for Disney fans and the parks may never be the same now that he is gone
Story 9: In 2013 we saw the testing and implementation of the new Next Gen project for Disney World called My Magic +. The new technology will allow guests to buy merchandise, enter theme parks, purchase food, and more all with a wave of a wrist band that has an RFID chip inside of it. The project, however, has been plagued with massive technical issues and is severely behind schedule and over budget. There are some serious questions out there amongst fans; does this technology even work? Is all of this money and effort worth it for the visitors? Is this technology even going to benefit visitors? I really don’t see how having this technology on my wrist is going to benefit me more than having new rides and experiences inside the parks. The fact that this project has gone so far over budget and out of control makes me really sad and even a little bit angry at the top decision makers at Disney. To me, its just not worth it and someone needs to be held accountable for this massive project failing so far.
2013 has been a banner year and I am so grateful to you listeners and readers. I hope 2014 has even more fun and adventure. To hear more about this year in theme park news, listen to the Wakefield Report Year in Review show with special guests Eric Davis, Ryan Kennedy, and Dusty Sage!