Now that we’re a year into the opening of the first stages of New Fantasyland, many of the Internet naysayers are still professing that it is not the “Potter Swatter” that the Walt Disney World Resort needed. This is a logical fallacy, based on a premise that Walt Disney World and the Universal Orlando Resort are completely analogous. While it is far from an apples to oranges analysis, it is still more akin to comparing a tangerine to a juicing orange. While both resorts feature multiple parks and resort hotels, the sheer scales and logistics involved in the operation of each make such a linear comparison impossible.
For instance, lets take a look at the premiere piece of evidence that claims New Fantasyland is not the success for the Magic Kingdom that the Wizarding World of Harry Potter was for Universal Orlando: the Themed Entertainment Association Global Attractions Report. (While these numbers are not official, they are the best indicator we have.) In 2010, the year the WWHP area opened at IoA, attendance jumped 30.2%. That same year, MK attendance dropped 1.5%. One can’t argue that WWHP wasn’t a success, and we don’t need to look at how many people that actually translates to know that. Fast forward to this year’s report– IoA still continues to outpace the MK in growth 4% to 2.5%. However, when you look at the actual numbers in 2012, MK’s attendance actually grew by over 87,000 more than IoA, and nothing new actually opened until November. The initial Potter effect leveled off. And while these numbers are not official, they are the best indicator we have.
Regardless of that, the goals of the two expansions are vastly different. While any addition is attended to attract return visitors, the Magic Kingdom is more looking for places to put people at this point. While actual park capacities are both variable and kept secret, some estimates are made. These numbers come from a variety of sources around the Internet, so reliable is questionable– but they are close to the numbers I heard in my time as both a Cast Member (1998-2003) and Universal Team Member (2003). The MK reaches capacity at about 90,000, and Islands of Adventure about 40,000. In 2009, before the WWHP opened, IoA averaged about 36% capacity while MK was 56%. In 2012, both parks were averaging approximately 56%, and for the year August 1, 2012-July 31, 2013, the MK closed due to capacity (at least Phase 2: barring non-Annual Passholder day guests without in park reservations) twelve times. (Thanks to TouringPlans.com for the closure numbers.) If the MK tried to attract a double-digit increase, it wouldn’t have anywhere to put the guests. IoA now has the same problem, and any further expansions will have to focus on adding capacity.
Now, let’s look at what was actually added to both parks in the two expansions. The MK re-themed a kiddie coaster, added a dark C/D-ticket ride, doubled the capacity of one of it’s more iconic attractions, a themed interactive show where a group can participate, heavy theming, and is still adding an E-ticket hybrid thrill/dark ride. Universal re-themed a kiddie coaster and a dueling adult coaster, added a themed interactive show where one at a time can participate, and an E-ticket hybrid thrill/dark ride.
People will argue the MK lost a dark ride for a meet and greet. While I lament the loss of Snow White’s Scary Adventure, calling it a one-for-one exchange for a meet and greet is ignoring a lot of facts. The original plans for New Fantasyland did not include the Seven Dwarfs Mine Train. It included more themed meet and greets. So the change involved removing a low capacity B/C ticket ride that had one of the shortest waits in Fantasyland, replacing it with a meet and greet, and replacing the proposed meet and greet area with an E-ticket with the same theme as the removed ride. It was a three-way trade similar to what happens in the MLB on a regular basis.
The MK expansion wasn’t a full reaction to the WWHP–it was meant to solve other problems. However, with Universal’s continued and promised investment in it’s parks, WDW will likely need to respond in some way. EPCOT, Hollywood Studios, and Animal Kingdom all can use attendance bumps, and the Studios and AK can both use capacity bumps as well.
We know AK is expecting a major expansion with the controversial Avatar-themed land. While Avatar is still the highest grossing movie of all time, I don’t think anyone will argue it has the same fan base drawing power as the boy wizard, if it is a well themed land with great attractions it will still draw crowds. This site, and many others, have talked about the rumored Studios refurbishment for a long time, and the Lucasfilm purchase seems to have changed the focus from primarily Pixar to Star Wars. While this re-imagining of the plans may delay things, everyone still predicts an eminent investment in that park. This leaves Epcot as the park without any future plans or significant rumors. Test Track’s recent refurbishment did a good job, but won’t be a huge impact on the park. There are currently rumors dancing around Imagination! and Captain Eo undergoing a significant change in 2014. That would be an excellent start, and if it is done well could help revitalize Future World.
However, I think Disney is still hesitant about aggressive expansion from the initial AK impact. When the park first opened in 1998, Disney hoped that it would add a day onto most guests’ stays, but initial numbers showed that it was only cannibalizing days from the other parks. While it is something to keep in mind, 15 years is too long to sit without attempting anything to prolong guests’ stays.
It is definitely time for the Walt Disney Company to look at the theme park competition a bit more. Universal Parks on both coasts are investing significant amounts into expansion. While Disney has not seen significant draws away from its parks so far, allowing the competition to continually reinvent and improve itself to the extent that it has without reaction is not long-term planning. However, blindly comparing one project to another is not a fair assessment of the situation. The Walt Disney World Resort’s complacency with its secondary parks is a legitimate concern for fans, but lambasting the projects they are completing with inappropriate comparisons is doing all parties a disservice.