Monday, January 23, 2023

Have The Disney Parks Lost Their Unique Theming?


One of the many unique things about Walt Disney World Resort is that it has four separate theme parks ("gates", as they're called in the industry).  No other Disney resort in the world has more than two.  This is one reason why Orlando is often considered the mecca of the Disney experience, even though the original Disneyland is in Anaheim.

Does Disney World really "need" four parks to draw tourists?   That is an interesting question and one that has changed over time as the theme park industry has expanded.  Universal Orlando, for example, is in the process of opening their own third gate as a way to draw guests away from Disney and towards their own product; Universal doesn't want to be the "add on" park(s) to the Disney experience - they want people to come to Florida for their parks alone.

The Disney World experience has grown a lot over the last fifty years, as Magic Kingdom opened in 1971, followed by Epcot (1982), Hollywood Studios (1989) and Animal Kingdom (1998).  There was always a reason to open the subsequent parks after the original, but keeping guests on property (and thus spending money) was a big motivator.

You'll notice that there hasn't been a new gate in the last 25 years, which is very different from the first 27 or so years of Walt Disney World.  There are still debates about whether Disney needs a fifth gate (I'd vote no, as the experience has become so thorough and exhausting that it would tip over into "overwhelming" - but they didn't ask me).  

I mention all of this basic background as I thought about this post today.  I'm in the process of reading The Imagineering Story by Leslie Iwerks, which essentially is the biography of Walt Disney Imagineering over the years.  As this 700+ page tome unfolds chronologically, you get a good sense of the "how" and "why" things were done the way they were done.  The book is quite interesting and worth the read if you're interested in this sort of thing.

As it relates to Walt Disney World, it's especially compelling to see how the parks came to be and the reasons behind them.  Epcot was Walt's original idea for a "city of tomorrow" but translated into a theme park. Hollywood Studios developed out of an idea for one attraction that grew and wouldn't fit inside Epcot. And Animal Kingdom came from Michael Eisner wanting a fourth gate and famed Imagineer Joe Rohde developing a plan related to animals that was distinctly not a zoo.

As each of these parks developed, there was a core theme that was unique to that park that would differentiate it from the park(s) that came before.  As we sit here 25 years on from the last opening, though, I began to wonder - do these parks still adhere to their original themes?  If not, then why have things changed?  And does it even matter?

Let's start with the most divisive of the parks, Epcot.  When Walt Disney was still alive, he envisioned a community that would solve many of society's ills, including crime and transportation issues.  It would be a utopia.  Whether that original plan was viable became a moot point when Walt died in December of 1966.  Magic Kingdom was being built, as an east coast approximation of the original Disneyland (which is why I didn't really talk about the theming question in relation to that park - it has essentially always fulfilled that vision).

In the 1970's, Epcot was resurrected as a concept, but this time in theme park form.  The plan that got developed would pay homage to Walt's vision in many ways - it would showcase both technological advancements to help people in their daily lives as well as be a showcase for international customs and traditions, a concept that came out of the 1964-1965 World's Fair.  These two somewhat unrelated ideals became the blueprint for Epcot at its opening.

Epcot - both Walt's idea and the park it became - was a major departure from the castle style park of the Magic Kingdom.  One of the many tenets that were followed in the early days was "no Disney characters."  The attractions would all be some form of "edutainment", allowing guests to learn and feel they took a unique experience away from a day at Epcot.

Whole books and documentaries have been made on this subject, so I won't belabor the point.  But over time, this concept got worn away, as Disney realized that guests had certain expectations for a Disney park that weren't being met.  Disney characters had meet and greets inside the park, and certain original attractions were overhauled or replaced with more "fun" versions. The general concept remained but in an updated way.

This began to change when intellectual property (IP) was introduced to attractions such as The Seas (now with Nemo) or when Frozen Ever After replaced the Maelstrom in Norway (the first character attraction in the otherwise "real" World Showcase).  Most recently, Guardians of the Galaxy: Cosmic Rewind opened in its own pavilion - it became a huge hit, even though it is the furthest thing from the original Epcot vision.

Epcot has the largest number of "purists" who fondly remember the park of their youth and hate that it has become another dumping ground for Disney IP.  I totally understand this perspective.  But Disney usually makes these changes for a reason, and "attendance" is a big one.  If Epcot was constantly the least attended park, changes like this would be inevitable to distribute guests more evenly.

This is a tough one for me, because I adore Epcot, no matter what form it takes.  Like many Imagineering projects, they thought and created BIG and then waited to see what would happen.  These changes have all been gradual, but now are just a part of life in that park.  Guardians could have gone anywhere - Disney tried to create a backstory that would fit Epcot but it really could have gone in any park that needed an attraction.  

Next we have Hollywood Studios, which opened as Disney-MGM Studios in 1989.  There were essentially two anchors to the park when it was created - one was the Great Movie Ride, a long, nostalgic look at the magic of movies past.  This was the attraction originally conceived for Epcot until Disney realized they needed to go bigger and made it the focal point of a new gate.  

The other anchor was the idea of a working studio, showing movies as they were being made as well as an attraction that was a studio backlot tour.  This was a good idea, and one that was the basis for Universal Studios Hollywood (that originally began as just the tour until they started added attractions and making into a full theme park).  The idea was that everyone likes movies, so you could play off the nostalgia factor as well as become a giant ad for Disney's current productions.

Again, this idea didn't always pan out, and the studio tour aspect was phased out.  The Great Movie Ride stayed around much longer but even that eventually made way for Mickey and Minnie's Runaway Railway.  So if the foundations of the park were no longer there, does Hollywood Studios still fulfill the premise it began with?

If we pull way back and just look at "movies" as a theme, then yes!  More specifically, in recent years, the park has become the "Star Wars (and Toy Story) park."  Those are indeed movies.  But again, Disney's IP dominates (including those two big acquisitions, made under Bob Iger's first reign) and it loses the "golden age of Hollywood" vibe that it once had.

Finally we come to Animal Kingdom, a park designed to show animals in their natural environments and give guests an opportunity to explore and understand conservation efforts that were happening around the world.  The areas based on real life countries were designed to look worn and lived in, as opposed to the ideal sheen that most of the other parks showcased.

The main attraction upon opening was Kilimanjaro Safaris, an open air ride through a wildlife preserve where guests could see animals up close but not in the cages of a zoo.  This attraction still runs today, and along with the various animal trails and Conservation Station, it means that this park hews most closely to its original ideas.

Of course, some of that has eroded as well.  Dinoland USA was an opening day area, and even at the time didn't fit in the real life conservation theme.  The rumors have been swirling that this area will be replaced by some kind of Moana or Zootopia themed land which would be a net positive but be a harder sell for the park's ethos.

The biggest addition to the park since its opening has been Pandora: The World of Avatar.  Since this is a land based on a movie, it's a stretch to say it fits with the original vision of the park, though nature and conservation are still present themes.  But at this point, if you mention Animal Kingdom to someone, they're more likely to be excited by Flight of Passage than by the gorilla trails.

Taken as a whole, the question then becomes did these parks "sell out" their original visions for something that would be more popular with the average guest?  More than anything, Disney is interested in the bottom line and while theme is something they can point to as to why people keep coming, they're more likely to homogenize the parks in order to attract the largest numbers of guests.

I often think about this when it comes to popular music.  What you hear on the radio is often bland, unobjectionable stuff, pleasant to listen to but not edgy or pushing any boundaries. This is the case because radio stations are designed to appeal to the largest number of people so they have to play music with smoother edges.  The same thing applies to television.

The beauty of both of these is that if you want something else, you can look elsewhere - streaming services have led to a plethora of music and television choices, and the internet is always a good tool to find something new.  In Disney's case, they're still the giants of the industry - if you're looking for a niche, you probably won't find it there.

Is this a bad thing?  I've written a lot here but haven't really answered that question.  My feeling in general is - no.  Disney has been able to keep the general theme of each park separate, while still expanding and manipulating that theme in response to guest attitudes.  I suspect this will continue this way - whatever park is in most need of updating, something new will be created to go there, regardless of what park it is.  Imagineering makes a living on creating stories and reasons for WHY something is there.

Even with all the gradual moves towards the middle, I don't get the sense that these parks became one giant Disney conglomerate.  Standing in Africa in Animal Kingdom is much different than standing on Hollywood Boulevard at Hollywood Studios or Fantasyland at the Magic Kingdom.  There is still a unique feel to each park, even if it's far away from where they began.

These parks may not adhere fully to their original visions, but that doesn't mean they've lost their soul.  The parks all still have different feels to them, which is a testament to how they were originally built and the care that went into them.  More than anything, though, they all feel like Disney, which is in itself the point.  If concessions have been made along the way, it has mostly been a net positive.  Disney has to please the largest amount of people and smoothing out some of their original edges is the best way to achieve that.

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