In some ways, it seems like Walt Disney World is firing on all cylinders. The parks have never seemed more crowded, for one thing, and it hardly seems like there is an off-season anymore with short lines. That implies plenty of business and profits, and indeed the quarterly results only vary slightly from the basic message of “this parks-and-resorts division makes a lot of money.”

But there are challenges ahead, as well. None of these will come as a surprise to longstanding readers, but it’s useful to summarize where we stand every so often:

FastPass+ backlash. Virtually every discussion and message board conversation these days seems to evolve (devolve?) sooner or later into an indictment of FastPass+ and its effects on the parks. It seems clear that while I’ve seen some benefits, there are others who dislike the switch immensely and are not shy about voicing their opinions. Most of the time, the objections take the form of disliking the schedule-everything mentality this system enforces, but there are also objections to the way the system is being rolled out operationally (limit of only three per day, no parkhopping, etc). People got used to the original FastPass concept and now feel like the revision is a big letdown. This kind of sustained bad press will eventually have a deleterious effect on actual public opinion, if it hasn’t already, so in some ways this is rolling boulder already in motion, and it’s going to be difficult to stop completely.

Remember these?
Remember these?

MagicBand backlash. There have been fewer complaints about the bands than the FastPass+ system they are used with, but the bands are wrapped up in some of the same arguments. FP+ tends to take longer at the attraction entrance, in part because the bands are hard to work with, even if you know what you’re trying to do (“make Mickey touch Mickey”). On this one point, I wonder if Disney can roll out a technical fix. Can’t they just increase the reception on the antennas inside the posts, and make them more sensitive so that the bands don’t have to be positioned so exactly to scan?

The bands are not universally popular in other ways. Some resent having to wear them all the time–this may be especially an issue during the hot summer months, when the rubber will get all the more sweaty. I’ve heard some folks say that the RFID cards are easier to work with than the bands in general.

Rising Prices, Lowered Value. Like clockwork, prices go up every year. It’s almost entirely “across the board.” The ticket prices go up a few percent a year – sometimes twice per year – and hotel prices creep up, too. Even the food prices go up; this is the legacy of inflation, of course, but when it comes with a reduction in portion sizes (Food and Wine festival is notorious for this), then the value is seen as taking a double hit to the downside. Couple that with public-relations moves that are seen as customer-unfriendly – the RapidFill technology that limits free refills – and the entire restaurant division looks like it’s under siege as times.

Does FP+ add enough value to offset other increases? (Some say it REMOVES value)
Does FP+ add enough value to offset other increases? (Some say it REMOVES value)

Disney is a publicly-traded company, which means it often feels the pressure (or applies self-inflicted pressure) to beat its own results quarter after quarter. This kind of pressure often leads one away from strategic thinking (“let the customer return home with money in his wallet” was a Walt idea) toward tactical, wondering exactly how much the market will bear in price increases, and pinpointing the EXACT point of diminishing marginal returns. The unfortunate, but natural, side effect of this kind of analysis is that Disney *will* find the maximum price the public will pay – arguably they have found it – and that means they are by definition pushing SOME customers away even as they reap maximal profit out of those willing to stay. This is the design; it’s what they are aiming at.

Competition. The big chatter among fans is that Disney is facing unprecedented competition here in Central Florida. But while Legoland is nice, it’s no real threat to Disney’s core business. Likewise, SeaWorld’s big hopes with Antarctica haven’t panned out. The real competition these days is of course from Universal. It’s not just the enormous Harry Potter expansion, though certainly it’s the most visible element. There’s an awful lot going on. CityWalk is being rejuvenated in a big way. Not too long ago, themed mini-golf was added. The gigantic Cabana Bay resort will add to the feeling that this area is a complete Universal zone – not unlike the effect one has of staying “on property” with Disney. And still the rides keep coming inside the parks: new Simpsons expansions, new Transformers ride, and who knows what else they have yet to announce (there are plenty of rumors, many of them fixated upon the Jurassic Park area of IOA).

The first Potter land put IOA on the map in a big way.
The first Potter land put IOA on the map in a big way.

The thing is, one or two of these challenges could be credibly laughed off. Disney is the industry leader by a long shot; of COURSE the competition, well, “competes” with Disney. But Disney just does its own thing and still stays the industry leader.

Then again, challenges like this become cumulative. They add up to a reason to avoid a Disney vacation. I’ve seen numerous Disney fans in message boards proclaiming that they might go to Universal instead this time, or simply skip Orlando altogether.

And yet! (Does this feel like a tennis match yet, with whiplash from snapping our heads to both sides of this debate?) Disney is not the industry leader by accident. When they do something right, they get the kind of homerun that competitors cannot TOUCH by a country mile. The first times I saw Carsland in DCA and the volcano from the inside in Tokyo DisneySea, I was literally agape, literally speechless. Standing toe-to-toe with Disney in the themed environment wars is like jabbing at the reigning heavyweight champion and fooling yourself that you’re landing lots of blows while he does nothing. Indeed it looks like you’re winning for a few second. And then the haymaker comes, and all you see are stars.

Disney could end up doing that to Universal in lots of different ways. No one I know thinks the Seven Dwarfs Mine Coaster will be the answer, but I’ve been vocal here before that a hypothetical Star Wars land, if done truly right, would be the kind of monster success that would overshadow the competition. Even Pandora has a chance of doing that – let’s see what actually gets built first before we condemn that project any further.

And Disney has a lot more in its corner. Much of the recent investment and infrastructure lately has gone to support princesses and meeting characters. Those without children (or specifically young girls) may feel like this is a waste of time and money, but the reality is that the segment of the visiting population who WANTS experiences like that is large and, if anything, growing. Disney is meeting needs with these expansions, and there are no Universal “intellectual property” competitors to Disney’s own characters.

On top of all that, Disney still has its brand. As noted above, the brand is taking some hits on the chin lately, and may even be bruised. But a multi-billion dollar brand doesn’t just die overnight. Even if Disney just coasted on its reputation – rested on its laurels, to kind-of-quote Walt Disney himself – it would still be the industry leader for the foreseeable future.

Theme parks and their reputations are like giant ocean liners. Once they set a direction, they are hard to turn around, for better or worse. There may be increments and salvos in the battle between ships, but we need to think in terms of these stately long ships and their slow navigation, not the quick dogfighting of attack jets, when comparing Disney and Universal. And that means that Disney will be tricky to unseat. It’s possible, but it’s going to be a long battle. As far as Universal has come lately, their parks still lack the complete range of experiences offered by any of the Walt Disney World parks.

Re-Launching Ultimate Orlando

I’ve maintained a “side blog” since 2006 and have finally decided to unify all my social networking around this one site and brand. That means I will soon stop posting about my Disney updates to my regular Facebook account, and will only use the “Ultimate Orlando” venues/accounts going forward. Also of note: I had to change the YouTube channel, so if you subscribe to the current one be sure you switch your subscription to the new one. If you follow me on any of these services, please update your bookmarks:

Ultimate Orlando Clicks

We take a slideshow video tour of some construction spots in the Magic Kingdom, including the Seven Dwarfs Mine Coaster and its new shrubbery.

Direct link: http://youtu.be/M7t7qUuMxCU