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Return of the Orlando Theme Park Wars?

Concept art for Star Wars mini-park planned for Disneyland Paris

Concept art for Star Wars mini-park planned for Disneyland Paris

Orlando in the 1990’s was bookended by stiff competition between Disney and its rival Universal Studios. When Michael Eisner got wind that Disneyland’s cross-town rival Universal Studios was preparing to open in Orlando as well, he rushed the mouse’s plans for its own studio theme park into production, even opening a whole year ahead of Universal. Universal returned the favor by firing back with Islands of Adventure, which contained rethemed versions of the Beastly Kingdom attractions Disney had cut from its Animal Kingdom project just a year earlier. Universal even hired a lot of the Imagineers Disney had just laid off to help make IOA a quality theme park.

And then things calmed down for nearly a decade. Disney kept churning out new attractions (Expedition Everest, Toy Story Midway Mania to name two) while Universal Studios was the forgotten step-child in a larger corporation that was dealing with ownership and financial problems. Eventually that got all sorted out and two things happened that turned around the fortunes at Universal Orlando Resort.

First, Universal got the theme park rights to use the Kuka robotic arm roller coaster that everyone was excited about at IAAPA in 2004. Second, it was able to convince Harry Potter scribe J.K. Rowling that they would be better caretakers for her story than Disney. The Kuka robocoaster win had something to do with that, but Universal was also willing to give Rowling final approval on nearly every detail. Disney would not.

Since the opening of Wizarding World of Harry Potter in June of 2010, it’s been clear to every theme park fan that Disney was no longer the only company capable of achieving totally immersive storytelling that its Imagineers had become famous for. For the last few years, everyone has been waiting for Disney to answer with a project that reset the level for theme park design. I have not seen it myself, but I’d told that Cars Land out in California is amazing. Alas, that’s not helping here in Orlando. New Fantasyland, while richly detailed (and not totally finished yet), has fallen flat in terms on increasing attendance, and didn’t really add any new E-ticket attractions when all is said and done. Tom Staggs, back when he was still Disney’s chief financial officers, did reach out to James Cameron to secure his Avatar franchise as a counter-punch to Harry Potter. However the current target date for opening Avatar-land is now 2017, construction may not even begin until the second Avatar film has opened in 2015.

Universal, in the meantime, has seen that if you build it they will come. WWOHP has been the catalyst for a huge improvement in attendance for Universal Orlando: 30% one year, 26% the next and a still healthy 9% the last. That’s real return on investment. Universal wants to make sure that growth continues, so they’re opening a new Transformers 3D attraction (that took less than 9 meonths to build, btw), an expanded Simpsons town, and a second Harry Potter themed land that will be open next year.

So are we to wait 4 years for Disney’s direct answer to Universal renaissance? If you believe the growing buzz, the answer is no.

Cars Land at DHS would replace backlot and Lights Motors Action.

Cars Land at DHS would replace backlot and Lights Motors Action.

That Disney’s Hollywood Studios would get some sort of expansion between now and when Avatar-land opens at Animal Kingdom is becoming more and more clear. The question has always been how much money will be invested in fixing the park? One major rumor was that since Kathy Magnum, the head show producer for DCA’s Cars Land was asked to come to Orlando, Cars Land was on the horizon. Since they just built Cars Land at DCA, they could conceivably replicate it at DHS without spending as much money. But we now know that Magnuson is attached to the Disney Springs project. That’s not to say she couldn’t do both, just that it makes Cars Land less likely than it once seemed.

There was also a rumor that they’d cherry pick a few of Cars Land’s best elements and then also add a Monsters Inc themed attraction (or Ratatouille or Crush Coaster, depending on what day of the week you heard the rumor).

A TRON themed coaster for Shanghai could easily be rethemed to Star Wars.

A TRON themed coaster intented for Shanghai could easily be rethemed to Star Wars.

The other expansion idea for DHS has been Star Wars Land. In fact, this rumor has been floating around for years. Lucas has long expressed interest in doing more with Star Wars at Disney and now that we own Lucasfilm, a lot of the licensing barriers have been eliminated. The problem with this rumor is that the existing Star Tours attraction is landlocked. This isn’t a show stopper, but it means that Disney has to replace some existing elements no matter which way it goes (Toward the Muppet Theater or toward echo lake area and current parade building/parking lot (I think this is more likely)). With the new Star Wars films VII, VIII, and IX set to roll out every 2 years starting 2015, Disney definitely wants to take advantage of the expected excitement.

Or they could do any combination of the above. When will the announcement be made? Wait for D23 Expo is what I’m hearing. But the rumors are getting louder and time to open something quickly is running short. has a few juicy rumors similar to what I’ve been told. Lance at Screamscape has also heard similar rumors.

The schedule sounds like it will be this:
2014 – Seven Dwarfs Mine Train (MK)
2015 – New Stage show (DHS) – Magical Map in place of B&TB
2016 – Star Wars Phase I & Cars Land (DHS)
2017 – Avatarland (DAK)
2018 – Star Wars Phase II & More Pixar Attractions (DHS)

But the schedule could be even more aggressive when its announced. That is apparently part of the negotiations going on between Imagineers and management right now.

I’m not sure we have any reason to get excited until any announcement is actually made. Persistent rumors like this usually come from teams who are pitching their ideas to those who control the money. They leak details of their plan in order to show they have public support for the idea. The other side then has to do the same and you end up with rumors that never had a chance of coming true. That said, I was expecting the Star Wars Land announcement to come during Star Wars Weekend, but no dice. Now D23 seems the most likely chance, although it could happen at any time if Disney greenlights everything.

If this is happening, then the real winners will be Orlando visitors. They’ll get a better experience at both Universal and Disney. Even SeaWorld, Legoland, and minor players like Fun Spot and Gatorland will be forced to continue investing as well. With Orlando setting record growth in visitors for the last three years, now is the time for Disney to fire back at Universal and show they can still tell immersive theme park attraction stories better than anyone.

I have one thing to say, let the Battle for Orlando Begin!