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What Is Happening In Florida?

Leaked Fantasyland plans for Walt Disney World

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.

Poster for the Wizarding World of Harry Potter

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.

Hogwarts Castle, The Wizarding World of Harry PotterRendering of Hogwarts Castle for The Wizarding World of Harry Potter – no cartoonish rendering here!

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.

Hogsmeade Village, The Wizarding World of Harry PotterConceptual rendering of Hogsmeade Village from The Wizarding World of Harry Potter

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.

The Three Broomsticks, The Wizarding World of Harry PotterConceptual art for The Three Broomsticks tavern from The Wizarding World of Harry Potter

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.

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13 comments to What Is Happening In Florida?

  • Mark

    You forgot the really pessimistic view… That all the rumors are just that and Disney is intentionally not competing with Potter because they know that no matter what happens, they (a) won’t keep the hardcore Potter fans away from Universal and (b) will benefit from more people in Central FL regardless of what drew them there…

    http://www.yesterland.com/harrypotter.html

    That said, I do think at least the Fantasyland rumor is true, and FoxxFur’s latest post really does have me cautiously optimistic for the first time in a long time. As a fellow East Coaster who’s been the Disney guy for a long time and watched the parks’ slow, painful, deterioration year after year starting in the mid-’90s I’d seriously thought that Tokyo was the only place I’d ever be able to find the Disney of my childhood again. With the kinds of improvements we’re starting to see though, maybe things really are starting to turn around? I’m not sure if I can allow myself to hope that much…

  • Thanks for the link to Werner’s article – I haven’t seen that before.

    I did leave out the really pessimistic view, because sometimes I believe that’s the real answer and then I don’t feel like writing about the parks anymore. :)

    I do think that whatever Disney is or isn’t planning to do is mostly independent of any fear of competition from Universal. Ultimately, Disney will continue to get a huge audience, although I do think that Harry Potter will have an impact. I know I’ll be checking it out, even if it comes at the expense of a day at the Studios. Then again, two trips out of three anymore I skip the Studios anyway.

    But even without considering competition, Disney needs to keep things fresh. Even if they started work on the Fantasyland expansion yesterday, by the time it’s open it will have been 20 years since the MK got an E-ticket.

    I’m like you – cautiously optimistic. Foxx’s article did cheer me up somewhat, and maybe some of the subtle VP shifts in WDW management will have some effect. In the end, though, I’ll see these gains as minor, fleeting victories until Jay Rasulo is gone. Iger should seriously look into bringing back Matt Ouimet and making him the head of Disney Parks. As long as we’re stuck with Rasulo, victories will be hard-won.

  • I also neglected to mention the irony that, even if they’re not worried about it, Disney’s main competition over the next few years will come from an attraction themed to Harry Potter (which Disney bid to obtain the rights to, only to lose out to Universal) and based on the KUKA ride system (which Disney bid to obtain the rights to, only to lose out to Universal). The cheapness, she always comes home to roost.

    Of course I should add that if any of our friends at Disney want to contact me and let me know how I’ve got it completely wrong and am terribly misguided, feel free to drop me an email…

    And, as always, I should underscore the fact that I’m not slagging off WDI. They can’t bring us the goodness unless management asks for it and funds it. They can’t force something into the parks. The failure of new attractions to reach their potential lies at the feet of Rasulo (and Iger for enabling him), not WDI.

  • BK

    interesting stuff, nice job. having just returned from a week at WDW (with 7 year old neice in tow), the MK seemed lackluster and in need of a reboot – the new facade to Small World attraction was being finalized, I wonder if it’s an upgrade over the lame tent/fair theme?

    Back to the point, whether this upgrade is a response to Universal or not, who knows? And maybe… who cares? Progress is good regardless of the reason, eh? Still, it seems this is more a counter-programming sort of strategy. Disney is playing to their strengths (princesses, 7 year old girls) rather than competing for the Wizard crowd necessarily. and in the short term, maybe they limit whatever drain they might experience due to the Wizard, and in the long-term, they’ve just redone/added to/improved a major section of their core park. seems smart.

  • Truecoat

    I have two hopes for Harry Potter and WDW.

    First, Disney does nothing. Takes a wait and see approach.

    Second, Harry Potterland is huge and hits Disney where it counts, in the bank.

    I guess I had 3 things….

    Third, Disney overbuilds and adds several E-tickets to all parks. (I can dream can’t I?)

  • Another Voice

    Wow – great article.

    There sure has been a lot of stuff out this week, and this was a good analysis. At this point my money on “the leak” is that it was either a “I’ve got something cool to show you” e-mail to a friend that escaped into the wild from WDI, or it’s an attempt to sabotage a scaled-back effort at WDW (say, just a clone of ‘Mermaid’ and a ‘Princess Faire’ akin to what Disneyland built in the Wonderbra theater).

    I think it’s fair to say that Disney Parks are really at a turning point right now. Some people within Disney sense it; a lot of The Big Suits are completely oblivious to it. At stake is what kind of role the parks will play within Disney – as a major business unit in its own right or as a ancillary division squeezing a additional profits from the products of the rest of the company. It’s the Hollywood Records position – they don’t really sign bands anymore in hopes of selling CDs, they instead focus on soundtracks to hit movies and this week’s Disney Channel tweener protobimbo.

    A full explanation would require a lengthy article, but in summary the choices facing Disney are very different than the choices facing Universal. It’s not a matter of direct competition: Universal Orlando won’t outdraw WDW in any likely scenario. The real struggle, and the danger for Disney, is to open up the Orlando market – to get people to say “we’re going to Orlando” instead of saying “we’re going to Disney”.

    It’s the “landscape is kind of nebulous” that Michael wrote about. Think of Las Vegas. The strip is filled with mega resort each costing far more than a Disney theme park does. Yet no one goes to Vegas and stays inside the same resort for the entire trip even though there’s more than enough inside each resort to keep people entertained. You pick one to stay at – and then run up and down LV Blvd. seeing all the other mega resorts and attractions. No one really cares that these hotels are MGM Mirage vs. Harrahs – they only care that this one is like Venice and that one has a really cool restaurant.

    Universal would thrive in an environment of “mobile guests”. Both because Universal has some attractive offerings and also because of some horrendous missteps Disney has made through arrogance and ignorance. So far, however, Disney has been successful at using tricks and gimmicks to keep guests locked in, but they’ve ignored the one thing that will undo everything they’ve done.

    People will pay all kinds of money to see something they REALLY want to see.

    It’s worked before – it got people to drive an hour from Los Angeles into the boonies orange groves of O.C., it got people to drive the entire length of the east coast and into retched swamp land in Florida. And it has the potential to get people five miles up I-4 with or without “Magical Express”.

    It remains to be seen if ‘Harry Potter’ and Universal’s execution are going to be enough to get people to REALLY want to see it. Disney is gambling all of WDW on the negative. If they are wrong, then WDW could become nothing but “This is where they have the ‘High School Musical Show’ park” in Orlando World.

  • philphoggs

    What great post guest and host ~ this has truly been an education.

  • squidvicious

    interesting analogy AV – to Las Vegas (I thought the same thing) and in noting how the parks have become a delivery vehicle for products generated by TV/movies. though, i tend to be less cynical than most i think. i don’t see “Orlandoworld” as Disney’s fault…more a simple evolution. certainly there are diffirent strategies for surviving and thriving in whatever new environment emerges. i think the ‘tricks’ (assuming you mean dining plan, magic express, etc.) are rational and affordable strategies – vs. the other option of a 5th gate!

    i noticed on my recent visit that while some of the lands/attractions were not… “modern”, they were kept up well. as was the entire property. and every little food cart had 2-3 staff (three people to serve lemonade?!?). and what I also noticed was that my inlaws – who are frequent guest at Atlantic City casinos – didn’t always appreciate the subtle things. and that’s what I think still sets Disney apart – sublte ambiance, attention to detail, quality. I mean, any park can have a dolphin show (seriously, Hershey Park used to do one… maybe they still do). not really sure where I’m going with this…. I suppose, I reject the argument that Disney needs to ‘dumb down’ to compete. I think many of the new E-ticket attractions (new in the last 10 years?) are great additions… but if they do that solely to compete with Universal and help keep the teens on property, i don’t think it’ll work and could actually degrade some of the parks better features.

  • I will eagerly await the new Wizzarding World of Harry Potter, Universal Islands of Adventure has been a favorite of mine for a few years now, despite the attendence figures to the contrary.

    I agree that Islands of Adventure has top class themeing and I can’t wait to see how they re-create the Lost Continent into HP world.

    I think Disney needs something new, exciting and BIG to beat this. Although I also agree that it is the cumulative effect of bringing many visitors to the Orlando area that makes money for both Disney and Universal as well as the other main Orlando attractions.

  • Scott

    Very interesting perspectives in these comments. As DVC members, we’ve been to Florida a few times since joining. We use the Magical Express, but we almost always rent a car or van to get around the property and maybe go to a restaurant in town. We’ve never been to any of the other attractions in the area, but we aren’t opposed to going, especially if something of quality (like the Harry Potter addition promises to be) comes to one of the other parks. The biggest thing that would keep us going to Disney parks (obviously we’ll continue to stay in DVC accomodations) would be a high quality expansion or refurbishment to one or more of their parks.

  • Very interesting article. I hope the expansion actually does happen. Bring back Mr. Toad!

  • philphoggs

    The secret answer to the WWHP threat may be found in rumor for rumor…. the Liberty Bell Riverboat revision to Tianna’s Showboat Jubilee. Someone please tell me this isn’t as bad or as extensive as it sounds.

  • philphoggs

    Nevermind… after reading a few post I see that actually this seems pretty cool and isn’t a revision, but somthing that might be really special and interesting. Of course the whole jazz thing kinda sold it for me.

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