Theme park Star Wars expansion to be based on new films, says Disney CEO

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Yesterday Disney’s CEO Bob Iger was interviewed by Variety’s Claudia Eller at their Dealmakers Breakfast event in Hollywood. These breakfast gatherings are wonderful, less formal settings and sometimes the interview subjects really open up in terms of what they share with that audience. I’m sure Iger didn’t spill the beans on anything he didn’t want to, but what he did mention is pretty big news.

The conversation started of on some general topics related to running a studio the size of The Walt Disney Company. Iger focused on how in a world where there’s more content than ever, it’s even more crucial to create fantastic content. Sometimes the mouse house even makes content that it knows is great, even if it doesn’t expect it to find an audience. Iger called films like “Million Dollar Arm” and “McFarland” ‘Brand Deposits’ to give the brand some value with consumers. In theory, with enough ‘brand deposits’ the company can cash out with some off-brand material every now and then too.

Iger mentioned his thoughts on the ABC Network lacking a cohesive brand due to it’s wide variety of shows and programming. He also mentioned he recently rode a prototype of a creature based Avatar ride that will be coming to Animal Kingdom. This sounds like the ‘Soarin’ like ride that will feature a Banshee like flight across Pandora.

The conversation then turned toward Star Wars, which is one of a few big properties coming out for Disney next year. Actually, Iger let loose this gem first “We’d love to make another Indiana Jones movie, but we’re pacing ourselves right now,” indicating that Star Wars would be a priority.

Disney’s Hollywood Studios Expansion Rumors Revitalized

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Is the next shoe ready to drop for the upcoming Disney’s Hollywood Studios expansion?

Disney has already closed American Idol Experience and will slowly be consolidating its “Frozen Summer” offerings, the Sing-Along which is expected to move into the former home of American Idol, the ice rink may go away or may be moved, and the store will be moved. But Frozen is expected to have a home at Disney’s Hollywood Studios for some time in the future.

For a long time, the big rumors have been about a Star Wars themed land coming to Disney’s Hollywood Studios. However, there has also long been a rumor of a second expansion happening simultaneously (or nearly) that would grow the presence of Pixar Studios in the park.

Those Pixar Place rumors have been growing significantly louder recently. Word is that the Studio Backlot Tour will be closing forever on September 27th and that adjoining areas, restaurants, and outdoor vending would close beginning in early October. Meanwhile the Oaken’s Trading Post store will move to the old exit area for the Studio Tour (the former AFI exhibit). It’s believed that will make way for a third track to be added to Toy Story Midway Mania in the warehouse currently home to the ice rink.

Envisioning a new Disney’s Hollywood Studios

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There have been a number of different rumors about the changes coming to Disney’s Hollywood Studios should the company decide to spend a few bucks fixing it up. The photo above and descriptions below are a compilation of what a few sources have told me plus a dose of what seems most likely just based on my experience with Disney World’s expansion history.

First, why would Disney be willing to spend a princely sum on Disney’s Hollywood Studios. They’ve just spent a half-billion dollars on expanding Fantasyland, somewhere north of two billion on the next-gen technology that’s bringing us Fastpass+ and MyMagic+, and have committed to building Avatarland, which might approach a billion dollars before all is said and done there as well (I’m including relocating Festival of the Lion King in that total).

There are a number of things lining up that point to DHS getting some TLC soon.

  • First Avatar-land has been delayed, so that bucket of money is potentially available to be shifted to DHS.
  • There is a growing awareness amongst Disney World managers that next-gen won’t be an attendance driver for the parks and resorts.
  • DHS has had problems keeping guests in the park after mid-afternoon. With Universal Orlando adding even more attractions, Disney is worried about losing one day of the Disney vacation to Universal.
  • Lastly, since the Lucasfilm addition, Disney has made clear that they’ll be looking to the parks to help capitalize on the new Star Wars properties. The Star Wars Weekends have been huge successes, particularly when it comes to selling merchandise, and Disney wants to attract that crowd all year long.

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.