Saturday, September 16, 2023

New Things Coming to Disney World: Expectations, and the Art of the Spin


Last weekend saw a whirlwind of news announced for Disney World (as well as the other parks throughout the world) at Destination D23.  I wrote a post that day that noted everything that had been announced, as well as my immediate reactions to them.  I've had a chance to digest all of these things over the past week, and I wanted to write another post with some more thoughts on what's coming, when and why things were done in this particular way.

If you haven't already read it, please look at the D23 post linked above, as that talks about all the announcements in list form.  I'm going to refer to all of these things in this post with the expectation that you know what I'm talking about (a leap of faith many times, I'm sure).  

I touched on this at the end of that other post, but what I really wanted to talk about here is what is coming, and when.  Disney has promised a bright future for its parks, but that future can still be a while away.  So how did they reconcile the fan expectations, along with promises to their shareholders, with what was announced last week?  Let's dig into that a bit.

Most of the optimism around the future of the parks is centered on the earnings call Disney had with investors in April.  During that call, Bob Iger made the proclamation that the company would invest $17 billion (with a "b") over the next decade.  Even that positive news was overshadowed a bit with the context - Disney is involved in multiple lawsuits with Florida governor Ron DeSantis.  This was both a threat and a promise to the governor - "we won't be able to spend this money in your state if we have to be bogged down with all these legal issues."

A lot of that is bluster, however.  Iger is craftily trying to position Disney as the company of the people, fighting against his oppressive government overlords.  He's using the promise of Disney's investment in the parks - something that millions of theme park fans around the world are totally behind - and making the governor the bad guy (which, in truth isn't that hard to do; also true - Iger has since come across as more as an out of touch rich guy than he had hoped when it comes to the SAG-AFTRA negotiations.  But I digress).

In any case, the threat subtext of that statement isn't actually much a threat, regardless of how the lawsuits go.  Iger said this on an investment call, and investors take companies at their word that what they say is what they will do.  Language can be kept vague so that there is some wiggle room in the future, but make no mistake - Disney is planning to spend this money at the Florida parks.

This has been backed up by other interviews with Iger, as well as the head of Disney Parks, Experiences and Products, Josh D'Amaro.  All signs point to a commitment by Disney to spend on its parks.  D'Amaro was recently quoted at Destination D23 as saying, "over the next decade, we're going to have more projects underway than at any point in our history."  We'll come back to this quote in a bit.

The bigger question becomes "when", and that's harder to answer.  Disney Parks is a division, not a whole company.  The Walt Disney Company, as a whole, has a lot of balls in the air right now, and many of its divisions outside of theme parks are struggling.  This is actually one of the reasons Iger put this number out there - Parks IS a big winner, and helping to keep the company afloat.  Investors should want to hear that one of the profitable divisions of the company is going to have more resources allocated to it.

But Disney still has to resolve some short term concerns, including the future of Disney+ as a streaming service (the streaming bubble seems to have burst, and not just for Disney), as well as its existing investment in ABC, ESPN, Hulu, etc, not to mention those aforementioned lawsuits with the governor of a state in which Disney is the largest taxpayer.  That's a lot for any company to handle, which is why rumors have popped up recently about Disney potentially selling off parts of their company and streamlining what they do best.  I'll believe that when I see it. The point remains - the investment into the parks has to wait, but it is coming.

All of this leads us back to Destination D23, and what was announced (and what wasn't).  Another quick aside on this - D23 is the official Disney fan club, which is largely known for having a large exposition every other year where representatives from the company make announcements about what is coming in the future.  The "off years" (as this was) have "Destination" D23 events, often smaller and with less expected of them.  

I bring this up to say that there shouldn't have been a big expectation for anything substantive this year.  But in fact, we got a LOT of announcements related to the parks, Walt Disney World in particular.  This appeared to be a PR move by the company, an olive branch extended to the loyal fans of the parks.  Iger has made a point of doing this since his return as CEO and this was no exception.

As to the substance of these announcements, that's where things get interesting.  There were two MAJOR overhaul/expansion projects talked about, one for Animal Kingdom and one for Magic Kingdom. But the details on these are quite vague, and with good reason - they're not coming for a while.  We'll talk more about why that is below.

Instead, we got a lot of "smaller" updates to existing attractions.  Besides the things that were ready and just waiting for an official date (Figment meet and greet, Hatbox Ghost, Moana Journey of Water), most of the new things put out were changes that were largely unexpected, but will serve to refresh existing parts of the parks.  I saw one fan post complain something like, "Why can't they just build more instead of taking away something too?"  Valid!  But there is only so much space to work with, and these are bigger projects that take years to complete.  Change is a part of life, and of the parks - if Disney can replace something that already exists, it takes much less time and money, and gives them something to market to fans who visit frequently.

And that's largely what we got this year.  Adding Ahsoka to Star Tours isn't a major change, but it is one that should be relatively simple to shoot and get up and running.  Changing "It's Tough to be a Bug" into a new Zootopia show breathes some life back into an area/park that needs help and won't involve changing that theater around much, if at all (I hope they keep the rumble seats, though I'm not sure how they'll use them).  Refreshing the Country Bear Jamboree, whether we like it or not, is a good way to draw people into another underutilized attraction, and also probably won't require much beyond a new soundtrack and program for the animatronic bears. I hadn't even mentioned Soarin' in that original post, since the news came in afterwards.  But Epcot is getting Soarin' Over California (the OG Soarin') as part of the Disney 100 celebration.  A simple attraction refresh, and a limited time offer should draw more people there.  Even the new Pirates of the Caribbean lounge coming to Magic Kingdom shouldn't be a huge project - the space already exists (my original suspicion was Tortuga Tavern but the always great Disney Tourist Blog seems to think it'll be in the old Pirates League, and I have no reason to doubt Tom).  

What do all those things have in common?  They should all be relatively quick and inexpensive to produce.  That means that while we're waiting around for that $17 billion to be spent in earnest, things can be happening at the parks!  That list didn't even mention Tiana's Bayou Adventure, which is in the process of replacing Splash Mountain, since it's already happening.  But that is another big chip the company can use to entice frequent guests, once it's complete.  I also didn't mention Luminous: The Symphony of Us, the new nighttime spectacular at Epcot.  It is also replacing something, but that one seems to be more about correcting a mistake (as Iger sees it) in Harmonious.  Still, that's another attractive draw right at the holiday season.

One attraction that needs some help but was NOT mentioned here is Spaceship Earth, which was due for a complete overhaul right before the pandemic hit. That project has been delayed and/or shelved entirely.  I thought we might hear more about it at D23, but we didn't.  I still think it's going to happen at some point, but since that is another major project (on par with any "big" attraction overhaul like Tiana's), I suspect there just isn't room in the budget for it right now.

But interestingly, another major attraction overhaul WAS mentioned for Epcot, and it was one that no one saw coming - a new Test Track.  My initial thought was that they decided to move ahead with this instead of Spaceship Earth for now, which seemed odd to me.  But once again, Disney Tourist Blog called my attention to something I hadn't thought of - this attraction is mostly funded by the sponsor, General Motors.  That means the budget and timeline for this project can probably happen sooner rather than later, since it doesn't involve Disney laying out a large amount of money right now (this is similar to the parks in Asia, where Disney has partners such as Oriental Land Company in Japan and Shanghai Shendi in China - it's no wonder the international parks have major projects coming soon while the local parks are playing the waiting game).

So in the next couple of years ("fast" doesn't always mean "immediately" in Disney construction terms), you'll have at least six or seven new things that Disney can use as marketing fodder to bring guests back.  The major projects might just be getting started at that point, and can take years to complete, but it's not as if NOTHING is happening.  I wonder if the major projects were happening if we'd have so many "other" things going on at once - resources are still limited, and every bit of progress on a park expansion is big news.

This is a clever bit of spin on Disney's part.  They've talked about major investments coming to the parks, and while we're waiting for those to even go from "blue sky" concepts to something concrete, we're STILL getting additions and changes to the existing parks.  What could have been a big loss ("Disney is years away from any new additions") becomes a positive ("look at all these things we'll be able to show you in the coming years").

As for the new, somewhat vague major expansions, I have no real thoughts on a timeline.  The concept for the Animal Kingdom Dinoland overhaul changed entirely since it was announced last year, though it appears that the Encanto/Indiana Jones/tropical Americas theme is closer to being a reality.  I hope that gets the official greenlight soon, as Animal Kingdom is the park in the biggest need of a change, and the park furthest removed from a major addition (Pandora in 2017, which was and continues to be a huge hit).

Speaking of Pandora, the much talked about expansion of Magic Kingdom "beyond Big Thunder" is allegedly on the scale of Pandora or Galaxy's Edge.  That obviously will be a massive project and one that hopefully delivers.  For reference, Galaxy's Edge was officially announced in August 2015, construction began in April 2016 and the land opened at Disney World in August 2019 (the Disneyland version opened a few months earlier).  Pandora was announced in September 2011, but details were vague. Construction didn't begin until January 2014, with the land opening in May 2017.

My suspicion is that the Magic Kingdom expansion at least follows this pattern.  If that's the case, we're still a couple of years away from breaking ground on anything, since we're still in the "blue sky" phase of planning.  So, say, construction begins in early 2026 and it doesn't open until mid-2029.  Does that feel like it's coming "soon"?

This is why I go back to D'Amaro's quote about the amount of projects "underway" in the next decade.  No one says they'll be DONE by then.  The next decade would be until 2033 in this case, which certainly seems like the distant future.  But the promise is there, and these major expansions might only be the beginning of that $17 billion investment (Pandora cost about $500 million, and Galaxy's Edge around $1 billion.  Costs rise, but that's only a small part of what was promised by Iger).

As I said in the previous post, the future is bright.  We just have to be patient, since we largely have no choice.  We can be mad that Disney is in a "lull" period right now, but as I pointed out, they are doing their best to make even that period new and interesting.  I can't wait to see what the future holds for these parks.  If Disney truly plans to invest as heavily as they say, this could be one of the most productive periods in the history of the parks.

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