Walt Disney World opened 44 years ago yet remains extremely popular with domestic and international guests. The resort saw huge expansion during the ‘90s in the time named “The Disney Decade” by former CEO Michael Eisner. This era built the expectation that new attractions would appear each year, often at multiple parks. A greater focus on efficiency and the economic realities after 9/11 changed the game for Disney. They still opened attractions but treated the parks more like mature properties. This often shifted the focus towards maximizing the space and increasing profits without capital expansion. They’re still remarkable places for new and returning guests, but constant growth isn’t always in the cards.
This blog series will look at each Disney World park and explore how Disney is balancing new growth with the expectations of a mature resort. There are exciting new lands and rides on the way, but shareholders want profits to increase every quarter. It’s easy to get frustrated as Disney moves slowly while Universal builds high-tech attractions on a regular basis. Comcast is treating Universal Orlando like a growth property. Will Disney set aside their conservative approach and shift to that mindset? With a true competitor looming on the horizon, a new course is likely. The D23 Expo announcements revealed that we’re in store for a real theme park war. Fans are the winners of this battle, assuming we can pay the bills.
My first subject is Disney’s Animal Kingdom (DAK), which opened back in April 1998. I visited the park during that summer, and it felt very different than the others. The mix of animals and attractions was tricky, and Disney has struggled with the marketing. By saying a place isn’t a zoo (Nahtazu!), you’re essentially admitting that it’s very similar to one. That doesn’t mean that DAK is a failure. It’s a charming place with seemingly endless pathways to explore. It rewards a slower pace and isn’t built for commando touring. Despite the beauty, many guests still call it a “half day park”. For that reason, Disney is investing serious dollars into keeping them at DAK for the entire day.
Growth: Pandora Is Rising
The best example of Disney creating an immersive land on par with Diagon Alley at Universal is the upcoming Pandora: The World of Avatar. When they announced the project in 2011, it felt like a knee-jerk reaction to the success of the Wizarding World of Harry Potter. Construction didn’t begin for three years, and many wondered if it would ever happen. Work is now well underway, and the detailed model at the D23 Expo raised the excitement. I’m not a huge fan of the movie but remain intrigued to enter this ambitious new land. Disney isn’t going cheap with this area.
Pandora will include two new attractions, a flying Banshee simulator thrill ride (called Flight of Passage) and a slow-moving classic boat ride. When you combine these additions with a striking walk-through environment, dining, and merchandise, it could be something really special. This new land is going to dramatically change the flow of crowds at DHS. Instead of starting with Kilimanjaro Safaris and Expedition Everest, most will turn left and head to Pandora. We observed a similar change at Disney California Adventure when Cars Land opened in 2012. Popular attractions became walk-ons early in the day, and this shift helped to build a stronger park.
The Joys of Harambe
One of DAK’s most interesting sections is Harambe, which recreates a bustling African marketplace. There’s a feeling of excitement in this area with its mix of music, shopping, and crowds. The tighter quarters enhance the atmosphere in a similar vein to Hogsmeade at Islands of Adventure. Recent additions to Harambe have only improved the effectiveness of this vibrant spot. Relocating the Festival of the Lion King to Africa does more than make room for Pandora. It takes one of the park’s most popular attractions and shifts it to a more centralized spot. This live show also fits a lot better in Africa than Camp Minnie-Mickey. That area was originally meant to be temporary yet lasted for more than 15 years.
Another recent addition is the Harambe Market, which includes more food options. While it’s really just another dining locale, this section is important to grow the park into a full-day spot. By offering guests choices that go beyond standard fare, Disney wisely gives another reason to stick around. The safari, stage show, and walking trail could occupy several hours at a minimum. The market gives guests a chance for a quick meal before continuing their day. Disney is using every angle to keep us comfortable in the park. Their goal is a full day at DAK for everyone.
Rivers of Light
Next year, Disney is making several upgrades to shift DAK into an evening park. The success of the Harambe Nights special events in 2014 supported Disney’s ability to expand the hours and draw crowds. The Rivers of Light nighttime show goes even further and looks very promising. The brief glimpses of the technology at the D23 Expo were spectacular. Rivers of Light follows the World of Color model in more ways than one, but it may work even better. Using the Tree of Life and the lagoon to project grand images of the animal world should be impressive. Of course, Disney needs more than one way to keep guests happy at night.
Creating an evening version of Kilimanjaro Safaris could be a logistical nightmare. How do the animals stay engaged? Regardless, Disney is adding several new animals and special lighting to create something different. The popular attraction should draw major crowds and ensure there are other highlights before Rivers of Light. While you could slot this move as a choice for a mature park, it’s still part of DAK’s growth. Guests should ride in the morning and then return at night for a separate experience.
Maturity: Let’s Be Wilderness Explorers!
Disney World’s management is using different ways to keep guests engaged. Dance parties are prevalent everywhere and rarely add to the fun. On the other hand, there are strong examples where these tactics have led to great experiences. The best example is Wilderness Explorers at DAK. It’s essentially a complicated scavenger hunt where guests interact with cast members and explore the less-traveled spots of the park. For parents with kids who love games, trying to get all the badges might be the highlight of the entire trip. It was for my six-year-old daughter.
What makes Wilderness Explorers stand out is the high level of complexity and engagement. You really learn about the animals and connect with the park in a different way. Unlike Agent P’s World Showcase Adventure, you don’t waste time watching long videos. Instead, you’re answering questions from cast members and experiencing the environment. It’s also a great way for parents and kids to bond as they work together to find each spot. I’d love to see more attractions on this level at the other parks.
A Trek in Wild Africa
DAK is a huge park, but much of the land isn’t reachable on foot. Kilimanjaro Safaris and the backstage areas occupy a lot of the acreage. Guests willing to spend the extra money can enjoy more of it through the Wild Africa Trek. The three-hour safari gives an up-close view at animals that you can only glimpse on the regular ride. It’s a smart move by Disney to take better advantage of the park’s highlights. A recent Sunday schedule includes eight separate tours, so it’s likely popular.
I’ve never taken the Wild Africa Trek, but I’m almost certain it’s amazing. That said, it’s too bad that the costs are so high. Prices start at $189 per person (on top of your admission ticket), and that amount can really add up for a family. From a business perspective, Disney is smart to take advantage of DAK’s assets. On the other hand, it wavers close to gouging customers. That’s the downside of focusing on efficiency. The parks have plenty to offer, but the rates keep rising to earn greater profits.
A Different Kind of Theme Park
My opinion of DAK has changed dramatically in the past few visits. Watching my daughter take to the Wilderness Explorers challenges made a huge difference. Taking a relaxed stroll helped me actually see the park. There are still a few challenges. The big one is the “Disco Yeti”, which hasn’t worked properly since its early days. Hot days also feel even rougher at DAK, where the heat feels trapped in the narrow paths. That said, it’s one of Disney’s most beautiful parks.
Disney has taken a deliberate approach to updating DAK, but it will be different with changes like Rivers of Light and Pandora. If guests love those attractions, everything will change. The park is 17 years old but has serious untapped potential. It’s too bad Disney never gave us Beastly Kingdom, but the next few years might help us forget that missed opportunity. DAK is much further along than the Studios and deserves more credit. If Disney keeps investing in its future, I have few doubts that the “half day park” reputation will quickly become a thing of the past.