This summer has seen the most significant expansion at the Walt Disney World parks since New Fantasyland opened in late 2012. Pandora appears to be a creative success and has largely drawn positive feedback. By most accounts, it’s a gorgeous land that fits comfortably within Disney’s Animal Kingdom. The two new attractions reduce the burden on the park’s other headliners, and one of them (Flight of Passage) should remain popular following the initial rush. The news seems good for Disney, in all but one aspect — Pandora is having a limited impact on park attendance.
Disney fanatics live in our bubble of excitement for park news, and that’s okay. We’ve anticipated Pandora’s arrival for a while, and the land mostly bypasses concerns from lack of interest in Avatar. The lingering question is how many guests will change their vacation habits. Avid fans made the trip to be among the first to enter, but we’re still a small group. Is Pandora enough to draw the average guest to Disney World beyond their normal vacations? Wait times at the Animal Kingdom are huge in Pandora but largely non-existent at other attractions. On a recent Disney Dish podcast, Len Testa spoke about indications that perhaps the number of visitors to the park hasn’t changed. If those estimates are accurate, that’s an alarming trend given the investments in Pandora. Nighttime entertainment like Rivers of Light has made the park a cool destination, but that may not be enough to move the needle.
There are also signs that 2017 will be another soft summer for the resort. The dynamic pricing and hot weather may be spreading out guests to other times of year. Competition from Universal may also continue to siphon people away from Disney. Conventional wisdom dictates that attractions will draw more visitors to a theme park. We’ve seen that happen at the Universal parks and at Disney California Adventure after Cars Land. Disney World is its own separate entity, however. It’s considered a rite of passage for many and draws families that aren’t going for a specific ride. They’re visiting the resort because that’s what people do. This reasoning helps Disney maintain popularity, but it also limits their ability to increase attendance.
The Disney Decade
Many Disney fans grew up during the massive period of growth in the boom days of Michael Eisner’s tenure. Calling this time “The Disney Decade”, Eisner’s team made the choices that helped create modern Disney World. Following the opening of the Studios, he announced a bold plan that included a tremendous increase in hotel rooms along with the attractions. This expansion inspired guests to spend more time at the resort. Instead of going to Disney World for a few days and hitting the beach, guests spent their entire vacation there! Many rooms would sit empty without all the new rides to draw them. They were a key component of its success.
Quite a few of the resort’s foundational attractions arrived during the ‘90s, including Splash Mountain, The Twilight Zone Tower of Terror, Rock ‘n’ Roller Coaster, and Test Track. Those rides are still popular, so there may be a law of diminishing returns with expansion. I’m not letting Disney off the hook, though. They might not draw higher attendance, but incredible experiences lead guests to have a better time. Even with all the guest surveys, it’s hard to quantify the importance of high-quality work.
I can use my own vacation habits to illustrate this trend. I’m interested in the latest additions, but I’m going to visit. The E-tickets listed above are still a main reason that I enjoy the parks and are a selling point. When I’m on vacation, I’m complacent in the same way that Disney can be complacent. The moves from the ‘90s are still paying off, yet they’ve also put the company (and fans) on auto pilot with our visits.
A Regional Example
The importance of constant updates feels more crucial at regional parks, which often draw visitors back with a new ride or show. My local park Six Flags St. Louis is a good example. Their advertising spotlights the latest offerings every year. The focus is generally on thrills, so it becomes a one-note park. Service, dining, and other amenities aren’t stressed by management. That means that everything hinges on the success of the fresh output. Let’s take a look at Six Flags’ latest additions in the past five years:
- 2017 – Spinsanity (Whirling Disk’O)
- 2016 – Fireball (Super Loop)
- 2015 – Justice League: Battle for Metropolis (large interactive dark ride)
- 2014 – Tsunami Soaker (Twist ‘n’ Splash)
- 2013 – Boomerang (coaster that closed temporarily following 2016 accident)
The five-year run is impressive, but four of the installments are off-the-shelf rides that are common across the country. The exception is Justice League, and even that has become a staple now at many Six Flags parks. There’s still just one dark ride in St. Louis, and the technology doesn’t match the latest advances. Six Flags is looking to compete with attractions and failing because their output falls short. The price is less than Disney but not cheap enough to draw hordes of day guests. When the options feel stale, the attendance will drop.
I cite this example to illustrate the advantages that Disney World has over most parks. They’re known for attractive resorts, customer service, and a positive atmosphere. People want to ride their old favorites, but it’s the total package that sells the resort. Six Flags St. Louis does not offer the same level, so their success is more fluid (up or down) due to the latest expansions. In a sense, it’s a great problem for Disney to have. They’re guaranteed a certain volume of guests no matter what they do. It’s the return on investment of a major project that’s tougher to gain.
The Star Wars Asterisk
I’ve just spent 1,000 words explaining how Disney may struggle to increase attendance, but there is one exception. The anticipation for the Star Wars Experience is off the charts when compared to other expansions. There’s no comparison between the impact of Pandora, Frozen Ever After, or the upcoming Toy Story Land on crowds. When the two Star Wars lands arrive in 2019, Disneyland and the Studios will see a huge rush of guests. The fandom for that franchise is different than even Marvel or other hot properties. I expect to see a lot of quick changes from Disney to give the people more to do when those lands are mobbed.
What’s less clear is where the numbers will come from, even with Star Wars’ massive popularity. The Studios will see a big increase, but a sizeable percentage of that shift might come from other Disney parks. Epcot is the most likely target, especially if expansion plans continue to stall. The Animal Kingdom should also take a hit once Pandora’s initial rush is over. I wonder how much the overall resort’s numbers will go up in 2019. There should be an increase, but it may not be as high as Disney hopes for with the investment.
The Ultimate Motivator
It’s important to note that Disney may be okay with a small dip in attendance. If they’re able to earn higher profits while reducing crowds, it’s a win-win scenario. The regular price increases seem designed to keep the parks from becoming too packed while still making more money. This is a dangerous long-term approach for any company, however. Disney is targeting a more narrow market of wealthy guests, and there is a tipping point if service slips.
My Disney fandom comes from the attractions, so it feels strange to consider this issue. Particularly with the original EPCOT Center, there was always a surprise around the corner when I visited as a kid. Part of that excitement came from being a child exploring an amazing world, but it remains with me. Epcot hasn’t received many updates lately, and it’s frustrating. Disney continues to draw crowds through annual festivals, good restaurants, and the fun World Showcase atmosphere. Epcot is a perfect example of how to maintain popularity at a park without much expansion.
On the flip side, Epcot’s attendance has been relatively flat for a long time. When Disney eventually gives it a DCA-like makeover, it will be a test case for my theory. More people will likely visit the park, but will it draw a greater number of guests to the resort on the whole? There’s a reason that we’re seeing investments in a gondola system and resort upgrades. Getting visitors to stay on site is the real profit driver. The parks set the foundation, but it’s the pieces around them that grow revenues. Disney World will continue to thrive, but how far it can go is a different question. I’m fascinated to see what happens next.