When Disney announced that a Frozen ride would replace Maelstrom at Epcot, many fans mourned the loss of an old-school favorite. There was also anger about the shift in World Showcase’s theme with changes to the Norway pavilion. Now that we’ve learned more about this new ride here at The Tomorrow Society, let’s discuss what Disney’s accomplishing with this move. The reasons are obvious, but it’s too easy to dismiss concerns as resistance to change. Frozen After Ever is sure to draw large crowds, yet its impact might not be universally positive. Let’s start by looking at likely reasons why Disney has taken this course in Epcot.
Popularity and Attendance
Frozen’s abundant popularity makes its presence in the parks a no-brainer. Disney has set up meet-and-greets, live shows, and dance parties to capitalize on it. Creating a dark ride with the beloved characters makes sense. Sequels and a Broadway show will ensure that the mania continues for as long as possible. The big question is where this story fits best at Disney World. The Magic Kingdom is the closest thematically, especially in Fantasyland. However, that park is packed and just completed a major expansion. The Hollywood Studios is the obvious choice given its lack of popular attractions beyond the headliners. Disney also has a lot of space available there due to the recent closures of the Backlot Tour and the American Idol Experience.
Why not put a Frozen ride into the Hollywood Studios? The two big reasons are Pixar and Star Wars. While nothing has been announced about either franchise, rumors are flying about new attractions at the Studios for those properties. Disney doesn’t want to throw everything at one park, despite its many needs. According to the 2014 Global Attractions Attendance Report, the Studios gained about 200,000 guests in 2014 (about 2.0%). That’s a far cry from the huge gains of over a million visitors by Universal Studios last year. The Studios is a priority, but Disney may use other franchises to compete with Harry Potter.
This brings me to Epcot, which ranks second in crowds among Disney World’s four parks in Orlando. The surprise is the limited attendance gap between this park and the lower two. Epcot drew about 11.5 million guests last year, most likely aided by popular festivals. Its growth hasn’t kept pace with the Magic Kingdom, and there has been little investment in new attractions in the past decade. Disney is counting on Frozen to bring a large bump in crowds and re-engage casual fans with Epcot.
The big question is where the larger numbers will originate. Universal is opening Skull Island: Reign of Kong in 2016, so Islands of Adventure should remain popular. Diagon Alley will still draw visitors who’ve yet to check out the new Potter land. I don’t expect millions of families to design trips to Disney World around the new Frozen ride, however. This raises the possibility that it will cannibalize numbers from the other parks. The Avatar land won’t be ready at the Animal Kingdom for several years, and it may be even longer before anything happens at the Studios. People who take trips of 3-5 days may decide to forego those parks for Epcot. While that will improve Epcot’s bottom line, it may not have a dramatic impact on Disney’s profits.
Selling Epcot’s Theme
A bone of contention with some fans is what Frozen Ever After means to Epcot’s theme. This isn’t the first move by Disney to bring more characters into the attractions. The radical shift from the serious tone of The Living Seas to the lighter Seas with Nemo & Friends is a perfect model. Putting the Three Caballeros into the Mexico pavilion was another precursor that set the stage for this choice. Even so, these examples don’t match replacing Norway with the fictional kingdom of Arendelle. It will still represent Norway, but the content will focus on Frozen. This is the next step in Epcot’s evolution.
It’s been sad to watch this move away from the EPCOT Center that connected with so many in the ‘80s and ‘90s. Instead of using new technologies to enhance the theme, Disney has created a mishmash of attractions that don’t connect thematically. The foundation remains there for something great, but it seems more unlikely with each new choice by management. They don’t seem to know what to do with Epcot and have tried to shoehorn properties into awkward places. Meanwhile, the marketing continues to treat the park like it’s still the educational haven of its early days.
Here at The Tomorrow Society, it’s frustrating to watch executives spinning changes like they fit the ‘80s EPCOT Center model. Chief Operating Officer (and likely future CEO) Tom Staggs said that “it doesn’t seem out-of-character at all” when describing this new ride to the Wall Street Journal. He referenced that it would give visitors a “taste of something like Scandinavia”. It’s this type of comment that angers fans who loved EPCOT Center. It’s understandable yet still insulting to speak like nothing has changed with the shift from Maelstrom to Frozen Ever After. This new ride could be amazing, but it does not connect to the themes set up in 1982.
Ride Capacity and Crowd Flow
Looking beyond thematic concerns, worries exist about the potential ride capacity of a four-minute boat ride. Maelstrom was not super popular yet still would draw significant lines during busier days. One of the reasons was the capacity, which was about 1,000 riders per hour. That figure works out to 12,000 riders in a typical day (with an earlier 9 a.m. opening) if the ride functions normally. This also doesn’t take into account variances due to FastPass Plus. The new attraction may have a different loading procedure that creates more capacity, but it’s still the same vehicles and ride system. Given the limited headliners in the rest of Epcot (Soarin’ and Test Track), the demand for Frozen Ever After should be massive. Will guests find themselves waiting for hours to experience a four-minute ride? The potential is there for serious issues.
The second question with the choice of Norway is the impact on crowd flow. Will that limited footprint be capable of handling the hordes of guests? Meeting Anna and Elsa in the Royal Sommerhus could draw more people than the ride, and that capacity is probably much lower. The wide pathways of World Showcase currently make Epcot feel less congested than the Magic Kingdom. It will take some inventive strategies to avoid turning Norway into a logistical mess. I’m confident that Disney has studied this issue, but I still wonder if there’s much they can do to solve this conundrum.
I’ve tried to take a realistic view of Disney’s plans for the Norway pavilion, but it’s hard not to feel sad. Epcot has been my favorite park since I was eight years old in 1984. I’m still amazed to stroll under Spaceship Earth while upbeat music plays in the background. Beyond Frozen Ever After, it’s hard to say what’s in store for Epcot. The Energy and Imagination pavilions need a serious upgrade, but I’m not optimistic that will come anytime soon. Disney’s attention will probably stay with the Animal Kingdom and the Studios in the next five years. Frozen will help Epcot with attendance and merchandise sales in the meantime.
Now that characters will occupy another World Showcase attraction, I wonder if it’s time to double down and make a huge change. Instead of taking half measures and trying to have it both ways, maybe Disney should go even further. Miyazaki films could deliver an amazing experience in Japan, and the Ratatouille ride from Disneyland Paris could fit in France. I’d rather see Disney focus on upgrading Future World, but at least those moves would represent a serious investment in Epcot. It’s frustrating to watch the park grow stagnant and rely on special events and restaurants to gain profits. The model isn’t terrible, but there is potential for so much more.
Frozen Ever After will certainly be popular, but it will be interesting to see its longevity. My six-year-old daughter was intrigued to see the spot where the ride will be during our last trip. Many kids and adults are excited. Trends change, however. The description announced by Disney sounds lackluster. I’m not ready to write off anything before I ride it, but the information thus far isn’t convincing. High-tech animatronics can only take you so far. Regardless, I hope this is the first stage of a plan to revitalize Epcot and not the only move. Without a strategy to regain its lost glory, the park will continue to flounder creatively. You never know, though. Even the tiniest of actions can change the future.