Aside from the brief distraction of Comic-Con last week, the entirety of discussion in the online Disney community recently seems to have centered around the “leaked” blueprint that supposedly shows an upcoming expansion for Florida’s Fantasyland. With no comment from Disney, except a possibly telling statement from Imagineering that they have nothing new to announce “at this time,” all that’s left to go on is speculation and a few vague facts from a handful of sources. So, let’s try and whittle down the possibilities at least a bit.
The first question everyone had when the plans appeared was whether or not they were real. While no one I know personally can confirm this specific plan, I’ve had reliable people confirm that at least the various elements of the plan have been discussed at WDI and are not just fanboy speculation. This led to the next question: was this plan a legitimate WDI concept for the area, or just a bunch of real (and therefore plausible) rumors that had been collected together to fool people?
This is an area in which we’ll have to trust a number of prominent bloggers, as they’ve circulated the news recently that the plans are, in fact, from Imagineering and that Disney management is none too happy about their leak. This has been confirmed by Al Lutz in his recent update at MiceAge, and Lance at Screamscape, among others. So if the plans are real, how real are they? We all know that even the most definite, fully-designed attraction can vanish in a puff of smoke if something goes wrong. Projects much better known that this – projects that have been publicly announced! – have fallen by the wayside many times in Disney’s past.
Any analysis of the rumors must also factor in consideration of the motives behind the leak, possibilities for which have been mentioned in an earlier thread by our valued poster “Another Voice.” Of course, there’s always the chance that someone in the know decided to leak a juicy tidbit to a friend and it wound up online. But there’s always the possibility that the leak was an attempt by an Imagineer to drum up public support for their project, or to affect some desired political goal inside the company. With the fiscal year approaching its end, Imagineers could be trying to justify their positions, or to drum up some additional funding. It could also have been an intentional leak, designed to draw attention away from other Disney woes – some have speculated online that it was ballyhoo to distract from economic issues or even the recent monorail fatality.
One subject that online discussions about the leak seem to return to time and time again is the popular supposition that the plan is Disney’s official retort to The Wizarding World of Harry Potter, which opens at Universal’s Islands of Adventure park next year. Some seem to think, with varying degrees of hyperbole, that Disney is worried they’ll take a huge hit in attendance from Potter’s arrival in Orlando and are planning a wave of new attractions to fight back. Others, including “Another Voice,” insist that Disney management is not at all concerned with the new competition.
I tend to believe that this is the case; Disney has maintained their market share fairly consistently over the years and concerns about competition seem to have faded away. To put it more pessimistically, if you look at the things they’ve chosen to offer in recent years, it’s hard to believe that they don’t think that guests will swallow anything that they put out if they just slap the Disney name on it. A company that respects its customers and feels the need to compete for their dollars does not create something like Stitch’s Great Escape. But, having said this, I still find the timing interesting from a historic standpoint.
Having followed Disney rumors online for quite a while now, the last time I can remember such a quantity of “insider-vouched” speculation going on was in 1999 – coinciding exactly with the impending opening of Islands of Adventure. The story at the time was that Disney was indeed concerned about the new competition; after all, Animal Kingdom had just opened to less than overwhelming attendance. Universal invested heavily in Islands of Adventure, using a staff heavily populated by laid-off Disney Imagineers, and many of its major attractions looked to top some of Disney’s offerings. It also featured a few attractions, including the Dueling Dragons coaster, that bore a striking resemblance to concepts originally developed for the Animal Kingdom’s abandoned Beastly Kingdom area. Disney head Michael Eisner saw the new park as a challenge to Disney’s dominance in Orlando, and allegedly allowed Imagineers to develop a slate of ambitious new projects which would be greenlit should the new Universal park prove a success. It seemed that Orlando was on the verge of a theme park arms race.
Sadly, it all came to naught. There’s been a lot written about why, exactly, Islands of Adventure never drew even a sizable fraction of the crowds it expected those first years. The park was gorgeous, and wonderfully themed in some parts. It contained an ambitious slate of attractions, and one – The Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man – is among the greatest dark rides of all time. Unfortunately, over the years, park maintenance took a downturn and there was a lack of expansion due to a series of changing corporate owners that held no interest in the theme park business, but in those first years it was quite a jewel. Still, a botched pre-opening ad campaign completely failed to create awareness of the new park, and instead misguidedly tried to create an identity for the entire resort as something called “Universal Studios Escape.” This disastrous campaign left potential guests confused, and unaware that Islands of Adventure was a completely new park. Disney never got the competition it expected, and the grand plans to best Universal were abandoned.
It’s easy to see how, despite the sudden resurgence of so many rumors, Disney wouldn’t see the new Universal expansion as competition. After all, Universal gave it their all in 1999 and still failed. And while I do believe than in the long term Disney will remain fairly bulletproof due to their space in the collective consciousness, the upcoming Harry Potter attraction will have an effect. Certainly in the short-term, and possibly in the long-term.
I think it’s sometimes difficult for Disney fans and theme park fans in general to step back and put themselves in the mindset of the general public. As the person who, since childhood, was always known as the “Disney guy,” I’m usually the go-to person for anyone at school or work who is planning a trip to Orlando. For most of these people, usually first-timers, the Orlando theme park landscape is kind of nebulous. There’s “Disney” or “Disney World”, of course, and that usually means the Magic Kingdom. Then there’s EPCOT/EPCOT Center, and Universal, and that animal thing (Is that Busch Gardens? Is Sea World part of Disney too?). These people have no resort loyalty, and the second they see that Harry Potter is in Orlando they’re going to start packing their bags no matter which park he’s in. They might still think Universal is in Disney World, and will have no idea what Islands of Adventure is, but they’ll call the number on the screen to make their reservations. I have a number of friends, all otherwise perfectly respectable adults, who’ll flip out when they see the Potter art and want to go – immediately. I don’t know if any of them have ever been to Walt Disney World, or if they even like theme parks, but they’ll be peeling out of the driveway before I even get to give them directions.
This is the danger to Disney in the short-term. I’ve no idea if people will take a pass at Disney parks for a while, but I know that they will spend a day at Islands of Adventure. If the new ride, allegedly to be called Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey, lives up to its potential, then Islands of Adventure will finally get the attention it deserves. Even if it’s only for a short time, I would imagine that any dips in Disney park attendance would mostly affect Animal Kingdom or the Hollywood Studios. Those are always the first parks to feel the effects of any downturn, anyway.
The danger to Disney in the long-term is impossible to determine; but while it will most likely be negligible, it’s possible for Universal to do some real damage. This, for the most part, is in the hands of Universal. The Harry Potter area will bring them attention that they’ve rarely, if ever, received on a national scale. If they leverage the attendance boost into a wave of new expansion and manage to expose those new guests to the other legitimately impressive attractions in the park, it’s possible that Islands of Adventure will finally make its name in the public consciousness ten years after its opening. Will they ever overcome Disney’s lead? No. But if they play their cards right they can certainly cement a permanent rise in attendance and start, at the very least, to threaten the less-attended Disney parks.
The interaction of these events with the Fantasyland leak is speculative, but again I point out that this is the most heated period of rumor-peddling since the debut of Islands of Adventure. Not only have we had the Fantasyland leak, but there’s also been a resurgence of talk about the Animal Kingdom expansion. Then there’s the always-forthcoming Monsters, Inc. coaster at the Studios, and some sort of rehabilitation of EPCOT’s Imagination pavilion. In the Magic Kingdom, there’s the often-rumored and much needed remodeling of Tomorrowland. And as for Fantasyland, with all the talk of the leaked plan there’s been no meaningful discussion of the Personal Experience Portal, the X-Band/RFID technology, or any of the other rumored technological upgrades for existing attractions.
Al Lutz, in his story today, says that Imagineering is mad because the Fantasyland plan was to be their big reveal for the upcoming D23 convention. Of course, some more cynical readers suggested that they’re mad because the plan they’re going to announce is pared down from the leaked designs and will leave fans cold. That’s definitely a possibility, but if WDI does plan to bring a worthwhile plan to announce I think the leak might have had its benefits. First, they got a massive and unsolicited focus group, as well as an enormous amount of publicity. If they do announce a plan, and if it’s of comparable scale, they’ll actually have details and renderings that will far surpass the vague leaked blueprint.
The key, of course, is whether they’ll announce anything. Lutz is the most significant indicator that they will, but we won’t know until then what the scale of the remodeling will be. At the very least, week by week we seem to be learning more. These plans are real, the intent to expand the park is real, and now we just have to see if they’re going to make up for past mistakes by making this something really special.