Thursday, June 13, 2024

The Future of Attractions is Intellectual Property

Disney CEO Bob Iger said last month during a media conference that the future of the Disney parks is in intellectual property (IP) and not original stories built for the parks.  He spoke specifically about how the new Zootopia land in Shanghai Disneyland was a great success because the movie is so popular there. He then talked about how as far back as Cars Land at Disneyland and Toy Story Land at Walt Disney World that he knew that investment in IP for the parks was the way to go, and "it's very, very clear what that delivered."

I have to admit, I didn't think much of his comments at the time, mostly because both Iger and Parks Chairman Josh D'Amaro, as well as former CEO Bob Chapek, have said similar things over the years. The reason this came up now is because Disney is preparing to "turbocharge" their investment in the parks in the coming years, spending $60 billion in the parks over the next decade.

We've talked about that last part quite a bit, and have been very enthusiastic about this, as it means major changes coming to the parks, with new and expanded attractions and lands.  We've also talked about how the reason this is happening is because the parks division is actually Disney's most profitable, so this is something that investors are very interested in, now that the streaming bubble has burst a bit.

As I said, I didn't think much of Iger's recent comments, but as is often the case, the Disney internet picks up on something and it became a "thing."  I don't think people should be surprised about the reliance on IP in the parks, but after seeing a comment on a Disney Tourist Blog post recently, it really got me thinking about what we get in terms of new attractions at the parks.  Tom Bricker noted that the last real attraction built for Disney parks that WASN'T related to IP was Expedition Everest.

I had to really stop and think when I read this, as I couldn't believe this was the case.  But a quick look at opening dates for attractions pretty much confirms this; there were some smaller things that have opened and closed already, or attractions that were designed to be temporary, but basically that is correct - Expedition Everest, which opened in 2006, was the last "original" ride built for a Disney park.

Think about that for a second - that was eighteen years ago!  Everest was the culmination of the work at Animal Kingdom, an ambitious and fun coaster.  Of course, it's also known in Disney circles for having the most impressive animatronic that doesn't work, which is why you have the "disco yeti" effect instead of seeing the piece in all of its original glory.  That isn't the reason why Disney hasn't invested in other original rides since, but it is an interesting note if we really look back at this as the last of the true stand alone rides.

I don't know why this fact was sobering to me when I read it.  After all, Disney has obviously created a ton of new attractions since 2006, and some of them are among my favorite rides anywhere.  Just because they're based on existing IP, does that matter?  A good ride is a good ride, after all.  And I generally subscribe to that theory.  But I can't help but feel like something is being lost here.

I hate to bring it back to "what would Walt want?" because that's a lazy trope that both fans use when they're disappointed in the company and the company itself uses when they're trying to get good press for something that they suspect will be disappointing.  A double edged sword, if you will.  But I do think a lot of the legacy rides at the parks obviously owe a great deal to Walt himself, and what was happening in the company at the time.

When Walt created Disneyland, he took employees who had worked on creating his successful animated movies and had them help build the theme park.  This was the birth of the Imagineer.  Is it any wonder that so many great, original attractions were made under these circumstances?  There were certainly tie-ins to the animated movies, but they were mixed with originals, with stories and characters created just for the parks.

Imagineers continue to be the best in the business at what they do. The "problem", I guess, is that they are working under the direction of someone who only wants to see rides built upon IP.  So if they want to create a great attraction, it has to be themed to something that Disney has already created, usually something fairly current and obviously popular.

Is Iger correct in his assessment?  It's hard to argue with success, and the Disney parks have been more successful than ever, especially coming out of the pandemic.  Iger had a large hand in making Disney the global mega-force that it is today, as Pixar, Lucasfilm and Marvel were all acquired under his leadership.  Those franchises have all been major money makers for the movie business, and it would stand to reason that this would bleed into the parks as well.  Hence, Toy Story Land, Star Wars Galaxy's Edge and Avengers Campus, to name a few.  

But I think what Iger is overlooking is that the "synergy" that Disney craves so much actually works both ways.  Consider Pirates of the Caribbean, a classic Disney parks attraction that spawned one of the most successful movie franchises of this century.  The Jungle Cruise became a movie starring The Rock. There's also the Haunted Mansion, another classic Disney attraction, that has been made into a movie multiple times.  Figment, Epcot's original mascot, is allegedly having a movie made about him.  Even Orange Bird, a collaborative effort between Disney and the state of Florida, has enduring popularity, based on all the merchandise that you see in the parks.

Disney (parks) fans love a good in-joke, something that they can share with other fans that might seem totally strange to outsiders.  Figment and Orange Bird are good examples of this, as well as the Country Bears, the Tiki Room birds and even the characters in Carousel of Progress.  For things that most people have actually heard of, there are park originals like Space Mountain and the Matterhorn, iconic rides that have been reference in pop culture for ages.

My point here is that Disney had decades of their own stories built up, some of which fed into movies and some that just remained synonymous with the park experience.  Obviously they also capitalized on popular movies and TV shows but there was a mix, an idea that they could also make something creative and captivating without having to fall back on characters and stories that everyone already knew.

I just think it's short-sighted to ONLY build attractions based on Disney IP.  That handcuffs your most creative cast members into working within a limited box.  I imagine that this mandate will continue as long as Iger is there, and probably beyond, as most of this work will continue after he has (theoretically) stepped down as CEO.  Perhaps the next CEO will want to forge his or her own path by breaking from this way of thinking.  

But I'm not so sure about that - it's more acceptable to "fail" when you're basing your attraction on existing IP than if you had to come up with something original.  And Iger is correct in thinking that guests will likely be more interested and excited about an upcoming attraction if it already seems familiar to them through movies or other media.

I simply worry that this way of thinking leads to laziness.  Not to go off on too much of a tangent here, but this is what seems to be happening in movies, with Disney as a major offender.  For many years, the movies coming from Disney Animation Studios rarely made sequels.  In large part, this was because movies made for kids often had a defined beginning, middle and end, leaving not a lot of room for ambiguity at what would happen afterwards.  A sequel was largely unnecessary if the story was tied up neatly with a "happily ever after."

But this model means that writers and animators had to start over with every movie, relying on the name Disney to draw people in, rather than existing characters that they knew and loved. And like anything, the movie business has its ups and downs.  So recently, Disney movies have not been great success stories - a movie like Strange World simply wasn't very good, but Wish should have been a huge hit and just wasn't.

So what does Disney do here?  Why, rely on their past successes, of course!  Why do you think there's a Moana 2 coming out this year, followed by a Zootopia 2 and a Frozen 3 and 4?  Even Frozen 2 was a largely unnecessary movie, that had to invent a problem for its characters to solve.  As much as I love Moana and Zootopia, these movies make me nervous.  I would much rather Disney keep swinging with new, original stories rather than fall back on sequels just because they know they'll do better at the box office.

I mention all of that, because that is essentially what is happening at the theme parks.  Rides and attractions are only going to be made based on existing IP, and only on successful ones at that.  That's a lazy approach, and might work in the short term but seems bad for the bigger picture.  I'm sure these new rides, attractions and even lands will be great (most of them anyway - not everything can succeed) but does Tropical Americas have to have an IP tie in?  Heck, even an innocuous smaller attraction like Journey of Water at Epcot had to be associated with Moana to get the green light.

I guess this is what makes me sad when an older legacy ride closes or gets renovated to include Disney IP.  I always said that it felt like we were losing a piece of Walt, but now that I think about it, what we're losing is originality.  The Country Bear Jamboree might not have been very popular at this point, but it was a piece of the parks that felt like it belonged.  At least they'll still be there, but now they'll be singing Disney songs.

I doubt we're ever going to lose Pirates or Haunted Mansion - those are too popular and enduring to fail.  But what if Big Thunder Mountain is re-themed to include IP?  What if the Carousel of Progress is turned into a Big Hero Six show about technology?  They actually tried to do this with the Tiki Room in the past, but a mysterious fire was enough to make them put it back the way it was.

I remember when Illuminations (the long running nighttime spectacular at Epcot) closed a few years ago and I felt sad at the time because I loved that show.  But it truly was the end of an era, now that I think about it.  Pretty much every nighttime show nowadays is a version of the same thing - a bookend original song surrounding a montage of Disney songs while fireworks go off.  I don't mean to knock this either; Happily Ever After is the best nighttime show Disney has ever produced, after all, and even if they aren't great, these shows are usually at least "good." 

But Illuminations was different.  It was a wholly original show, based on mostly instrumental music without any Disney characters or songs.  And it WORKED.  It WAS Epcot, as much as any attraction there.  I just can't envision Disney taking a chance on a show like that in today's age - it's easier to pull on the heart strings with reworkings of "You'll Be in My Heart" or "Go The Distance" than to come up with something original that will resonate with guests.

This post sounds negative, and I guess it is.  I just had to process how I was feeling about the all powerful Disney IP invading everything.  I know Disney will make some tremendous stuff with this $60 billion investment.  I just wish that some of that would go to original attractions that could build their own fan base among park goers.  Like Illuminations, though, this seems to be a thing of the past.

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