Normally at this time of year, I write a retrospective piece looking back at the year in Disney, but for personal reasons, I’ve decided now is the time to look forward, not back. Instead of recollections, I’m writing prescriptions.These are the things I believe will help Walt Disney World continue to compete for the hearts and wallets of their fans while fending off challenges from other entertainment options both near (Universal Orlando) and far (changing TV viewing habits at home, for instance)
I’ll try and limit myself to one or two recommendations each and something that can at least get started in 2014. I don’t intend each prescription to solve every woe, but it will at least make a significant difference in one or two major problem areas.
The oldest theme park in Central Florida is showing its age more and more and suffers from serious stagnation in both attractions and entertainment (translation: a serious capacity issue). There is something they can do quickly to make a dent. As part of an overall project to update Tomorrowland, I prescribe for the park an indoor air-conditioned high-capacity theater capable of hosting shows similar to the Hyperion Theater at California Adventure. With multiple shows a day, this adds a lot of capacity, gives guests a place to cool off in the heat and humidity, and allows for a showcase for Disney’s latest animated musicals (Rapunzel Stage show anyone?). This is also something that could be accomplished quickly and with minimal in park disruption by setting the theater outside the berm. Additional revenue can be raised by hosting events in the space, something the Magic Kingdom is currently lacking.
This park has the highest capacity of all four parks. It has two wonderful festivals and an enjoyable Christmas overlay. These are wonderful for what they do to attract guests. However, the mission and vision of EPCOT has been ignored for too long, and many areas of the park are in serious need of rejuvenation. Let’s tackle the two sections of the park separately.
For World Showcase, the obvious prescription is a new country pavilion or two and I would very much love to see that announcement tomorrow. But based on the way Disney funds the pavilions, I don’t see that happening in 2014. Instead, how about more country specific entertainment. Are we in Germany? How about horn players from the alps or a year-round Octoberfest that doesn’t require a $40 buffet to see. For the countries that already have bands or acrobats, add cultural ambassadors in period attire for meet and greet opportunities with Disney characters. It may not seem like much, but adding an extra 20-30 minutes to do or see in each pavilion makes EPCOT a much greater value.
In Future World my prescription is simple… add a people eater attraction. Both Horizons and World of Motion used to absorb guests like a sponge. They also were focused on the lesson of learning from our past and applying it to our future. Imagineers can take that idea and apply it to any genre of technology and make an quintessential Disney attraction. Heck, bring back either Horizons or World of Motion and make everyone happy. Since that will take more than a year to accomplish, I’ll settle for a true showcase of tomorrow’s technology in Innoventions. This should be sponsored by Disney to show off Disney’s tie-in to all the new technologies coming. I realize this isn’t very grand, but Disney should do it up World’s Fair style and take over one whole side of Innoventions.
Disney’s Hollywood Studios
This is really the toughest prescription for me, simply because so much is wrong with this park, and much of it doesn’t have a simple fix. That’s not to say it’s not a wonderful park. It has some of the best cast members, great entertainment choices, and some great dining options too. The park suffers from a lack of a coherent theme. Is it a retro-park (as the two major avenues imply)? A working movie studio that takes you behind the scenes and puts you in the movies? or something else? Disney California Adventure faced a similar problem, but a huge placemaking effort fixed much of it. DHS definitely needs this, but it’s not something I’d want to be done half-baked (in terms of budget or preparation.) Therefore I’m willing to wait a few years for this to be done right.
In the meantime, my prescription is for Disney to commit to add two new attractions, with at least one an E-Ticket. The obvious choice for this is to leverage the recently acquired Lucasfilm Star Wars property. But a dark horse would be to clone the TRON attraction going into Shanghai Disneyland (although TRON might work better in a re-launched Tomorrowland at the Magic Kingdom). That same technology also works as a speeder bike Star Wars attraction, I’d be happy with either. The second attraction should be something the whole family can enjoy together and probably Pixar related – a Monsters Inc dark ride would work, but then again, Brad Bird’s The Incredibles have been horribly neglected by the parks, this would be the perfect time to resolve that with a 3D ride-through attraction (Like Transformers at Universal, but not as violent motion-wise). Think of all the merchandise any of those would sell. The mind boggles.
Disney’s Animal Kingdom
This prescription was hard to write. The park already has a couple major projects underway. The Festival of The Lion King is finally moving to Africa, a night time water show has been announced and the Tree of Life will get a much needed makeover along with more night time entertainment on Discovery Island (and night time safaris too). Finally, Avatar is coming and the concept art looks amazing. We know Imagineers can execute if they have the budget, let’s hope that’s the case.
My prescription for DAK may seem simple, but I think it will solve a big problem – expand and realign the parking lot and reconfigure and energize the main entrance plaza. I swear, half the time I decide against going to DAK it is because I know I’ll get parked in a far corner of the lot with only sporadic Tram Service to get me to the front gate. I then lose more time navigating the main entrance plaza and then Oasis and Discovery Island before I really get to what it is I want to do. If I have to write off an hour of my day just getting to the fun, I really am less likely to go.
Fix this by moving Cast Member parking and the service entrance to the back of DAK. Move non-Disney bus drop off over where the service entrance is now. Then change the alignment of the parking lot so the tram runs closer to the exterior of the parking lot and the parking is at a 90 degree angle from now it is now. The front half of the lot will be all that’s needed most days and it will all be within walking distance of the main entrance. This is similar to DHS and EPCOT’s current configurations. Lastly, the ticket booths are too close to the main gates and that whole area gets over-crowded quickly. Move tickets to the other side of bag search and add some visual interest (aka a Weenie) to incentivize people to move toward the Oasis. This would also add room for a much needed shopping and quick service location just inside the main gate (possibly a back entrance into Avatar too).
My wish for Dining is an end to the Disney Dining Program. It inflates prices, prevents full capacity from being used, and places Disney’s nicest dining experiences out of reach for most guests. Of course, you can wish in one hand and … you know the rest. So here’s my prescription, Disney should create a Disney Dining Reservation App. Guests can sign up and buy reservation credits for $10 a seat. Then 24-48 hours ahead of the dining time you’d like, the DDR App will ping you with availability. Guests dining through this system get a 20% discount like Tables in Wonderland and get to apply the $10 to the cost of their meal. However, if you don’t show up, the $10 is lost and you’re locked out of making reservations for a week. The restaurants can then safely hire and schedule staff knowing that even if every table isn’t full due to no-shows, the $10 a seat will still flow in. Right now Disney only staffs to meet reservations made months in advance leaving empty tables but with no capacity for walk-ups.
Resorts / DVC
I love Disney’s resorts and I’m even okay with the concept of Disney Vacation Club. If it works for you, by all means buy in. I think having a core group of repeat customers will be good for the park’s upkeep. As a local, my resort experience is different from most resort guests. I go to experience one thing (a dining experience or a holiday decoration usually) and don’t really stay in the rooms. Disney has decided that the path to profitability for Walt Disney World is tied to revenue management at the resorts. The more guests they can get to pay to stay on property the better.
In the past, Disney has done this by offering a better experience for guests staying on property. You’re not just closer to the parks, you’re in the envelope of magic. Disney has even extended that envelope to the airport with Magical Express. You also got the change to enter early or stay late at one of the parks. But as of late, Disney has ‘value engineered’ most of the benefits of those experiences away. There are fewer ‘gratis’ experiences at the hotels (such as random character encounters) and the ‘pay for play’ moments cost more. Those extra magic hours have shrunk and attraction choice is sometimes limited making the park just as crowded as it was during the day.
Now with Fastpass+, resort guests are an exclusive benefit of early reservations. At DAK, this has created huge problems with Fastpass to the E-tickets gone very early in the day. If that system rolls out to the other parks, it will present a serious swing of benefits toward Disney’s resort guests and away from day guests. If resorts want to offer perks to their guests, those perks should be specific to the resort experience, not creating a class of VIP guests inside the parks. Therefore, my prescription for the resorts is for Disney to invest in more magical experiences at the resort (better pools, night time entertainment, access to characters, etc) and keeping all in-park benefits the same for all guests.
Fastpass+, MyMagic+, and Next-Gen have been rolling out in the parks for over a year now. The true promise of these systems remains a ways off, but I see a glimmer or two of hope there. My prescription would be to remove the focus from Fastpass+ by opening Fastpass+ reservations to all at the same time. Let the My Mobile Magic App serve as your key if you don’t yet have an RFID enabled pass or MagicBand (just sync up once you’re at the park). Instead, I would focus on enabling the magic moments that Next-Gen technology can enable. This is what will create the real memories for guests and has always been the true promise of the technology. That Disney focused on Fastpass+ for resort guests tells me they took their eye off the ball of providing excellent guest experiences first.
The impact of the 2013 promotion of Limited Time Magic was comatose for most of the year, although there were a few sparks of life there. Disney plans these yearly marketing efforts years in advance, so any prescription I make now is unlikely to make a big impact on the overall scale. Right now Disney marketing seem to be under the impression that giving away vacations is a good trick, and I’m sure they have the numbers to back them up. But what these minor promotions don’t do is ignite the imagination. Disney needs something to really celebrate to do that. Since there’s no major anniversary to celebrate in 2014, Disney should focus on a tie-in to another part of the Walt Disney company, develop some of that synergy the company used to be famous for. I don’t claim to have the best idea on the planet, but nostalgia always plays well, and right now the people that grew up with Disney Afternoon on ABC have young kids of their own. Disney already has costumes for these characters in stock, all they need is a way to relive the magic. It doesn’t hurt that long lost friends was one of the most popular Limited Time Magic events, Disney just has to kick it up a few notches and layer it on top of a well-themed year long promotion. Of course, they could always give away a car a day too.
Believe it or not, I’ve never been to Blizzard Beach. I do enjoy Typhoon Lagoon, but I don’t like the crazy crowds that can sometimes descend on the park. My prescription here is a familiar one, increase capacity. If adding rides to the two water parks is too difficult, then add some unique water park experiences to your existing resorts (see the new pool at the Grand Floridian). This kills two birds with one stone, reduces demand on the water parks and adds value to the resort increasing reservations without impacting the in park experience for all guests.
A multi-year expansion for Downtown Disney has just kicked off. Things are going to get crazy for a bit. My wish for Downtown Disney tenants is for as smooth a trip as possible during this transition to Disney Springs. But for guests, I’d like to see Disney continue to experiment with evening and night time entertainment options. Heck, bring back the fireworks barge on weekends and set up a concert stage or two for a music festival. Do a jazz festival one month, bluegrass the next, etc. I know it will be tough with all the construction walls, but the guests will thank you.
This is really the unheralded fifth gate at Walt Disney World. Disney doesn’t do much with it for regular guests, because the guests who visit with the explicit purpose of competing at ESPN WWOS already generate significant traffic. That’s not to say there isn’t room for improvement there. Disney has even acknowledged this themselves. They have plans for a huge 100+ lane bowling complex, but the funding for that collapsed and Disney is waiting for a new sponsor. I understand why they do this, but I wish they would find the money some other way. And that’s my prescription for ESPN WWOS, do more events designed to bring in regular guests and members of the community. They do have one great experience already planned, 2014 will see the Orlando City Lions soccer club playing their home games at a temporary stadium at ESPN WWOS while an MLS caliber stadium is built in Downtown Orlando. But they should damn the sponsorship and get that bowling alley started right away.
That’s it from Dr. John today. I’d love to read what you prescribe for the parks. Let us know in the comments.