Theme Park Wars: Notes from an Interview (Part I)

I was recently interviewed for an article in a
major metropolitan newspaper. I usually write down as much as I can for
the interviewer in addition to answering what questions they may have. There has been some debate recently about conducting email vs. phone interviews. I would prefer
interviews to be conducted via email, but don’t have the sort of clout
where I can insist on that. But I will continue with publishing notes
from the interview after the publication date so my unfiltered words are also printed.

In this case, the
publication date has come and gone and I couldn’t find the article
online. So here’s the interview notes without the link to the final
product, I apologize if it’s a little disjointed at points:

You
ask about the Diversification of Disney. In my view Disney seems to be
doing the exact opposite right now. In fact, they’re circling the
wagons around the three main brands (Disney, ABC, EPSN) and either
folding in or renaming everything else (Hyperion, Buena Vista). So the
question is how does this play for the Theme Parks?

We
have what has been called the "Pixar-ification" of the parks. Bug’s
Life
opened with Animal Kingdom (DAK), so we won’t count that. But with
Monster’s Inc, Laugh Floor (what an unfortunately acronym, btw), Buzz
Lightyear
at the Magic Kingdom; Toy Story Midway Mania and Toy Story
Block Party
Parade at Disney-MGM Studios; and two Finding Nemo
attractions (Epcot and Animal Kingdom) having opened or being under
construction, just in Orlando, one has to wonder what’s next for the
theme parks? Will they find room for the traditional Disney stories or
even some of the recent films. Plus there is that rumored name change
of Disney-MGM Studios to Disney-Pixar studios? Which is odd, since
Disney-MGM Studios is very light on the Pixar stories right now.

Expedition
Everest
and Finding Nemo – The Musical have done wonders for DAKs
attendance figures. That park was due for some improvements. A new sit-down restaurant is next. However, the
park could still use some additional night time offerings (shows,
attractions, ??? – I believe regular fireworks are off the table due to the
proximity of the animals) to extended the operating hours and help
Disney rake in some dinner dining dollars. Right now, guests are still
leaving in droves after the afternoon parade.

I
think DAK’s additions provide further evidence that a new e-Ticket and
a show/parade is enough to increase park attendance (see Indiana Jones
Adventure
/The Lion King Celebration parade at Disneyland as proof
positive and Tower of Terror at California Adventure as a negative
example). It’s certainly cheaper than building a whole new gate. This
may be the reason that GE and NBC/Universal has changed its mind about
investing in their Orlando parks. Last I heard GE was considering
selling off the theme parks if they could get a buyer. But then about
6-8 months ago all that talk stopped (probably about the time it looked
like Harry Potter would fall to them). Now they’re talking investment.

The
placement of the Harry Potter island in Islands of Adventure will
create very profitable foot traffic patterns for Universal. Guests will
have to walk half way around the park to get there passing food and
stores along the way. By the same token, there had better be something
worth experiencing when they get there or word will get out fast (and
the Harry Potter community is as gossipy as the Disney community) that
Universal has short-changed the franchise. Fans don’t "need" the
attraction and will continue to be happy with the books and movies. A
great theme park attraction will be like a cherry on top, but only if
it’s as sweet and the whole franchise.

I’ve
not heard if the recently announced $120 million capital investment
includes the Harry Potter property. Keep in mind that Universal will
also be spending some dough to relocate the Wet-n-Wild water park to
the Universal property as soon as 2008. Universal Studios could use a
new attraction as a draw too. I hope NBC/Universal takes the time and
money to do this right.

Aside: Disney
has let go a ton of great talent at Imagineering, so there is a wealth
of people for NBC/Universal to tap into to design Harry Potter Island.
Possibly building something that rivals Disney’s emmersive design.

(Stay tuned for Part II tomorrow)

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