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The War for Orlando

Updated: Sep 25, 2023

by Matthew Calvino

If you were to ask a kid 20 years ago about their favorite theme park, they would only say one: Disney World.

Disney World has run the theme park industry for over six decades, having seven out of the 10 most popular theme parks in the nation. In 2022, they reported $28 billion in revenue from the parks, annihilating the 50% improvement in revenue from Universal Studios Parks & Resort - a mere $7.5 billion for the year.

So how could I possibly say that the fall of Disney Parks” is approaching? Well, it comes down to a few key factors that all spell the end.

Disney’s revenue was $28 billion in 2022, as aforementioned. But they profited only $2.1 billion. Universal made $2.7 billion in profits. How? Simple. Disney is devastated by a supremely slow turnaround for new attractions in their parks.

Consider this: Disney’s “Avatar” expansion took three years to make. It houses two rides: Flight of Passage, a 3-D experience and Na'vi River Journey, a boat ride attraction. The land was a small expansion, comparable in size to the Asia area in Animal Kingdom.

Universal on the other hand, is building an entirely new theme-park that is extremely ahead of schedule with over 10 attractions, in four years. This park titled, Epic Universe has five entirely different areas, even an area called Dark Universe, which is a classic monster area that seems to work as an all-year-long Halloween Horror Nights.

Meanwhile, Disney has not discussed any new rides besides the reworking of facades from old attractions or developing small expansions to their parks. They are too slow to bring fewer attractions.

Another part of Disney Parks’ potential collapse is the destructive retheming of the parks. Both companies have a share in the blame, but it is clear that Disney is becoming more and more supportive of this possibly due to the switch from Michael Eisner as CEO to Bob Iger.

Eisner promoted the use of Imagineering to create original rides that flowed in a theme of said park. Each Disney Park had a central value of learning: Magic Kingdom was about pride for America and its history, Animal Kingdom was about conservation and nature’s beauty, Hollywood Studios was about film production and its impact on popular culture, and EPCOT was about world cultures and living in the new age of technology. It was a beautifully cohesive set of parks, with hotels that did the same.

However, Iger slowly began to use Disney’s intellectual property to try and sell more merchandise in its parks, eliminating infamous attractions such as the Great Movie Ride, Maelstrom, Ellen’s Energy Adventure, Splash Mountain and Test Track. These rides were matched perfectly with the theming of their areas.

However, these rides were replaced with new intellectual property based attractions, using “Guardians of the Galaxy,” “Frozen,” the new Mickey Mouse cartoons, and “Princess and the Frog.” Even Test Track’s new reskin is in the conceptual design of “Tron,” the movie releasing right before the reskin.

Examples like “Frozen” in the Norway pavilion are also a destruction of the learning experience that was once in that pavilion, because instead of learning about the mythological and modern history of Norway, you end up seeing a ride for little kids with reduced thrills and basic animatronics. There is a major loss of theming and value in the park if everything is becoming a cheap snatch for merchandise with lack of innovative creativity.

With that being said, let us consider the alternative: Universal Studios. Yes, for a couple of years they created attractions based on IPs, but they became immediately memorable.

The elimination of the Murder She Wrote attraction led to a legendary attraction at the parks, Transformers: The Ride. The experience is a 3D dark coaster, but with the ride being a continuation of the plot of the first “Transformers” movie, it made the attraction a must-experience for “Transformers” fans. The ride is also extremely enjoyable, using a similar idea as Spiderman’s attraction as it follows the chase for the Allspark fragment.

The “Harry Potter” attractions have also been done extraordinarily well. Forbidden Journey is part of the first generation of kooka-arm attractions and Escape from Gringotts being the early trend-setters for immersive queues for plot development. These lively queues were truly innovated by Universal and copied by Disney, as only after Universal Studios did Disney truly move into the world of lively, immersive queues.

Even the Orlando version of Fast and Furious: The Ride, a flop of an IP attraction relative to the rest of Universal Studios’ rides worldwide, is loved by many for its tribute to the movies, bringing in the set-used cars from the series to decorate the line.

Now, seeing the failure of Disney’s forceful use of IP-based rides, Universal has pivoted to the more modern theme park goer, a family who wants a mix of recognizable characters with attractions that display extreme creativity. The Epic Universe theme park is bringing in that spirit, with innovative and large-scale areas that have thrills and fun for all ages, something Universal Studios originally never could provide.

Finally, the true nail in the proverbial coffin of the Disney Parks is the Disney Genie and subsequent Fastpass replacements. The Genie app for the Parks is supposed to recommend the most suitable rides for a customer’s experience. However, the obvious flip side of this is that Disney is controlling the algorithm so that instead of getting a tailored experience, it makes it so that guests follow whatever Disney says is the best experience.

Furthermore, it is extremely useless as the major amenities of the app come with a paid add-on called Genie+. The real issue is not this app however. It is Lightning Lane, the Fastpass replacement based within the $15 dollars a day Genie+. Before, Fastpass used to be a simple system that made any park guest control their experience, choosing, with their free Fastpass add-on to their ticket, which rides to apply the Fastpass for. Plus, it had in person kiosks that allowed older guests who had less experience with technology to physically print tickets or talk to customer service representatives right at the booth.

However, Lightning Lane is different. It sticks all guests onto one mobile app, making it difficult for the elderly to use, and makes them pay for each ride’s Lightning Lane (yes, even after the cost of Genie+) with varying prices and extremely limited availability. Additionally, another horrendous downside is that guests, in order to book Lightning Lane, are forced to wake up at around 7 a.m. to get ones for their groups due to their lack of availability on weekends.

The fall of Disney is multifaceted, with the main competitor, Universal Studios, becoming much more creative and efficient with their development and services. Disney is seemingly trying to drain every last dollar. Meanwhile Universal maintains an ever-improving, consumer-focused experience that trades away the cheap merchandise selling model for a creative and immersive experience.

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