Home » All-Star Roundtable: The 6 Biggest Developments in Theme Parks in 2014

All-Star Roundtable: The 6 Biggest Developments in Theme Parks in 2014

2014 has proven to be one of the single biggest years in theme park history, with major developments and announcements occurring at literally every corner of the globe and with ramifications that are certain to be felt for quite a long time to come.  But what if you had to pick only one to be representative of the whole industry for the whole year?

It’s hard to think of a more appropriate topic for an All-Star Roundtable, and it’s hard to think of having a more appropriate lineup of guests than the crew that started the roundtables off, six long months ago:

(Our friend Derek Burgan, unfortunately, wasn’t able to join us due to some unforeseen circumstances that popped up at the last minute).

The panelists came up with six different contenders for the title of single most important development of 2014, ranging from the grand debuts of new theme park lands to the increased competitiveness – and creativity – of the industry’s major players to the implosions of long-lasting brands.

Marc N. Kleinhenz, freelancer:

2014 has been a huge year for theme parks all across the globe, from new Wizarding Worlds in Orlando and Osaka to a wide swath of attraction closures at Walt Disney World to the announcement that Tokyo Disney Resort is going to have its biggest expansion yet.

Which development do you think is not only the most important to note, but the one that will also perhaps be the most telling for what’s to come in the next several years?  When theme park historians – all three of them – look back at 2014, which do you think will be the first topic of their dissertations?  =)

1. Theme parks = dead; franchises = the future

Robert Niles, Theme Park Insider editor-in-chief:

When we look back at 2014, I think that the future critics of this industry will see the opening of Diagon Alley as one of those turning points in the history of themed entertainment, in the tradition of the opening of Disneyland and the 1964 New York Fair.

Before Diagon Alley, theme parks retained much of their predecessor amusement parks’ DNA – they offered collections of attractions, with the additional benefit of a common theme that held together the various attractions within a land.

Diagon Alley takes us toward the next step in the evolution of themed entertainment, from a themed collection of attractions to a complete, unified immersive environment.  Universal’s Diagon Alley isn’t like Hogsmeade – a Harry Potter-themed land.  It is Diagon Alley itself, faithful in size, scale, and line-up, with no rides, buildings, or features that break the environment.

As Evanna Lynch said, you don’t see roller coaster tracks in Diagon Alley.  They really could have filmed the movies there, and been just as convincing for the audience, if not more convincing for the actors.

This evolution already is having an effect on other developments in the industry.  From what I’ve heard, one of the continuing delays in Disney’s announcement of Star Wars Land has been the internal battle Diagon Alley has fueled within Walt Disney Imagineering.

Many within WDI want Disney to do better than Diagon Alley with Star Wars Land, but the Star Wars universe, spread among so many planets, doesn’t lend itself to creating complete, immersive environments in theme park spaces the way that Harry Potter does.  (Plus, there’s that whole thing with getting more money from the Disney brass for the project budget, too.)

I’m coming to believe that not many people care about theme parks, per se, anymore.  It’s all about specific franchises, and perhaps the brands that cultivate these franchises (Disney and Marvel, to name the two biggest right now).  People want to connect with their favorite franchises, and Diagon Alley has forever raised the standard of what a physical connection with a franchise can be.

2. Disneyland Paris’s rebirth

Nick Sim, Theme Park Tourist editor-in-chief:

I agree with Robert that Diagon Alley is a hugely significant development.  As the only participant in this roundtable based in Europe, however, I’m going to pick out something different – the €1bn recapitalization of Disneyland Paris‘s parent company by Disney, which was announced in October.

Back in 1992, when the Euro Disney Resort first opened, Disney (and most analysts) were supremely confident that it would be a success.  It was following the same blueprint as Disneyland, Walt Disney World, and Tokyo Disneyland, it would be based in a continent that was already in love with Disney (and that already supplied huge numbers of visitors to the Florida parks), and it was within relatively easy travelling distance of tens of millions of affluent Europeans.  It should have been a slam dunk.

The problem, of course, was the resort’s financial structure, which, in hindsight, was a disaster waiting to happen.  A collapse in the French property market and a recession left the resort with a huge debt burden that it has never been able to escape.

Paris’s version of Magic Kingdom was, and still is (for me, at least), by far the most visually impressive of the various “castle” parks that Disney has built around the world.  Not only that, but it also possessed the very best versions of classic attractions such as Big Thunder Mountain, Pirates of the Caribbean, and Space Mountain.

Despite that, and despite the opening of a second park in Walt Disney Studios, the resort has never really been able to climb out from under the cloud that its early financial difficulties caused.  Many people over here regard a visit to Disneyland Paris as a consolation prize for those who can’t afford a trip to Disney World.

And the once-stunning first park still looks great in many places, but is beginning to (quite literally) fall apart in others.  The sight of the Mark Twain Riverboat rotting away in the Rivers of the Far West was a pretty depressing one when I last visited back in September.

The original Star Tours lives on at Disneyland Paris – the only version of the ride still in operation.  Why?  Because the resort is simply too broke to upgrade it to Star Tours: The Adventures Continue.  Meanwhile, Space Mountain: Mission 2 – once one of the best roller coasters in Europe – is now so uncomfortable to ride that many guests simply avoid it altogether.

Next door, Walt Disney Studios is an embarrassing shadow of a Disney park.  Yes, it has some great attractions – the Twilight Zone Tower of Terror, Crush’s Coaster, and the underrated CinéMagique and Animagique.  But the theming surrounding them is virtually non-existent – the park resembles a bunch of Disney attractions dumped inside a concrete parking lot.

Except, that is, for the new Place de Remy area, which houses the excellent Ratatouille: L’Aventure Totalement Toquée de Rémy.  We spent many hours relaxing in this area, taking in the ambiance of a fantasy, Pixar version of Paris.  There is hope for the rest of the park yet.

Which is why I’m so excited that Disney stepped in, again, to refinance Euro Disney SCA.  Yes, the complicated financial maneuvers will still leave the resort a billion euros in the red.  But it will stand a real chance of turning a profit – and money will finally be available to upgrade attractions in Disneyland Park and begin to overhaul Walt Disney Studios.  It’s not necessarily the Disney California Adventure-style rescue plan that I’d hoped for, but it’s a huge step in the right direction.

It’s also a clear statement from Disney that it can’t – and won’t – allow Disneyland Paris to simply go under.  Nor will it allow it to continue scraping along, damaging the Disney brand with poor maintenance and a lack of new attractions.  Disney CEO Bob Iger has essentially admitted that the company can’t allow Europe’s biggest tourist attraction to collapse, and is seemingly ready to throw the financial muscle of Disney behind it to ensure its brand is protected.

And as someone who fell in love with Disneyland Paris on first sight, it’s hard to look past that as the most significant theme park industry event of 2014.

Marc N. Kleinhenz, freelancer:

Let me follow up with a question, if I may:

Given your responses, Robert, do all of you guys think that maybe Diagon Alley may prove more damaging than helpful?  Is there the possibility that other companies – such as that great example of Disney with Star Wars Land – may shoehorn every attraction/land/development in this hyper-authentic, 1:1 model?

3. SeaWorld’s implosion

Seth Kubersky, Orlando Weekly:

Obviously, I agree with Robert that The Wizarding World of Harry Potter – Diagon Alley made the biggest impact on the amusement industry this year, at least in North America.  The opening of Hogsmeade in 2010 finally gave Universal a draw big enough to steal a day or two from Walt Disney World for the average visitor, but Diagon provides the critical mass to make Universal Orlando a viable destination in its own right.

It won’t happen overnight, but the kids I see around the parks today seem more enchanted by interactive wands than MagicBands, and they will remember that in 20 years when they are bringing their own children to Orlando.

Diagon Alley may end up having a larger effect on Disney World than Universal itself.  After a decade of complacent stagnation at WDW’s theme parks, we’ve recently seen a marked acceleration of long-discussed expansion plans, especially at Hollywood Studios (soon to be Hollywood Adventure?) and Animal Kingdom.

While Star Wars and Avatar lands have been in the works for years, it’s hard to see the flurry of closures and construction in the last few months since Potter’s much-publicized premiere as a complete coincidence.

If intensified competition has incentivized Disney to increase investment in its parks, all the better for both companies’ customers.  But I agree with Marc that there is a danger of the Wizarding World model being applied indiscriminately to inappropriate intellectual properties.  Universal’s integration of high-tech attractions, unique food and beverage, and collectible merchandise only works because J.K. Rowling created rich source material replete with appealing experiences (edible and otherwise) that can be recreated in a theme park environment.

The problem is that the Potter universe is pretty exceptional in that regard; neither Star Wars nor Avatar (or even Frozen) have must-have consumables built into their narratives to nearly the same degree, nor are their environments as easily adaptable to the real world:  it’s easier to create a convincing castle and steam train than realize floating mountains and interplanetary transit.

Ultimately, it comes down to finding (or creating) stories that connect with audiences, and finding innovative ways of telling them that resonate with your brand.  The big news is that this lesson is starting to trickle down from the top-tier chains to regional parks; Six Flags and Cedar Fair are both shifting from extreme iron rides towards family-friendly themed dark rides.

On the flip side, Antarctica’s whole turned out to be less than the sum of its parts, doing nothing to slow SeaWorld‘s decline.  I have a feeling that the implosion of the SeaWorld brand may turn out to be the 2014 story that has the longest legs in 2015.

(PS I’m planning my first trip to Disneyland Paris for next fall, and can’t wait to see how Nick’s observations about the resort’s future play out in person!)

4. Disney World’s creative resurgence

Robert Niles, Theme Park Insider editor-in-chief:

Yes, we all should be happy that Disney is pouring money into Euro Disney, but I’ve lost count of the number of Disney bailouts here.  At this point, I’m not expecting any permanent fix – or even change in direction – for Disneyland Paris until Disney buys it outright and assumes complete responsibility and control for the project.

I think that we should be looking to Avatar to see what Disney does next with a Diagon Alley-style immersive environment.  Keep in mind that I’m saying a Diagon Alley-style environment, not a Diagon Alley environment.  The great theme parks distinguish themselves from the copycats in applying lessons learned from other parks in ways that are appropriate to the IP and to the environments that they are creating.  Diagon Alley calls for a particular mix of experiences; Avatar will demand another.

But, from all I’ve heard, Disney is planning a similarly immersive and interactive environment for that land.  This isn’t to be just a common decorative theme around a collection of rides and show, but a platform upon which visitors can experience their own story within the space.

Obviously, many of us hope that Disney can do the same, and better, with Star Wars.  But the challenge of creating an immersive environment for an IP that spans a galaxy is intimidating.  If I were Disney, I’d want to take a shot at Avatar first, learn some lessons, then apply that knowledge to Star Wars Land.

5. Diagon Alley’s influence will be (somewhat) limited

Nick Sim, Theme Park Tourist editor-in-chief:

Robert’s right to be skeptical about the future direction of Disneyland Paris, given the history of false dawns associated with that resort.  What gives me hope this time around is that this is Bob Iger’s Disney, which has a recent track record of investing in failing theme parks and resorts to turn them around.  This isn’t the Disney of the late Eisner era, which would attempt to spend “just enough” to tackle a problem (and fail, in the case of Disneyland Paris).

Yes, ultimately, it will require Disney to take full control of the resort in order for it to really reach anything like its true potential, but my hope is that this will be seen in the future as the first step along that road.  If Disney is willing to (literally) stop the rot, I’m betting that it’ll go further, too.  Of course, it could just be yet another in a series of inadequate bail-outs.  We’ll see.

As for Diagon Alley, I think it will have an influence on the theme park industry, but there are at least three factors that will limit the scope of that influence:

1. Diagon Alley basically perfects the formula that Universal created with Hogsmeade.  But the problem for the rest of the industry (and for Universal) is that there are only so many franchises that offer the same potential as Harry Potter.  Universal has two of them:  Potter itself and The Simpsons.  Disney also has several, from the bigger Pixar hits (Cars, Toy Story, etc.) to Star Wars.

(Yes, you can’t build the entire Star Wars universe into a theme park land, but Universal didn’t try to build the whole of Britain when it built Hogsmeade and Diagon Alley, either.  And a light-speed space journey between two planets is just as plausible as a four-minute train ride from London to Scotland.)

I’m sure Cedar Fair, Six Flags, and Merlin would love to copy what Universal has done with the Wizarding Worlds.  But they don’t have their own intellectual property to build on, and the big ones – the ones with expansive worlds adored by tens of millions of fans – are going to be snapped up by Disney and Universal.  So you could argue that Diagon Alley will only really influence the top end of the market.

There may be some exceptions, but the only ones I can think of are those aimed at toddlers, such as Peppa Pig World at Paultons Park in the UK (which is like a mini-Wizarding World for two-year-olds and has been a huge hit on a smaller scale).

2. The fact is there are still millions of people whose main intention when visiting a theme park is to go on rides (preferably as many as possible).  Theme park operators do not need to go to the same lengths as Universal has with Diagon Alley to attract these visitors and keep them happy.

Take Alton Towers, Merlin’s flagship park in the UK.  In 2013, it opened The Smiler, a record-breaking roller coaster with 14 inversions.

The ride’s theme is virtually non-existent.  The queue line is a cattle pen.  Yet I have witnessed people queuing for upwards of two hours in the rain for a ride that lasts less than three minutes, only to immediately run around again and join the back of the queue.  Why?  Because it is an incredible, exhilarating physical experience riding The Smiler.  At £18 million, it cost a fraction of what Diagon Alley cost.  But I bet it serves its purpose for Alton Towers just as well as Diagon Alley serves its purpose for Universal Orlando.

It’s true that the likes of Merlin, Cedar, and Six Flags are now investing in dark rides, but I don’t think that’s solely down to a desire to copy Universal and Disney.  It’s also a reflection of the fact that those high-capacity rides are now becoming more affordable, thanks to the hard work and ingenuity of their manufacturers.  The parks no longer need to spend tens of millions to deliver a solid dark ride experience.

3. Not every theme park experience needs to be fully immersive and thematically perfect.  Millions of people wait for hours on Disney’s Main Streets every year to watch parade floats containing waving cartoon characters come past.

Thematically, this is all over the place.  Does it matter?  Of course not.

Diagon Alley will force Disney to up its game, and Universal will want to one-up itself, too.  But there’s still room for plenty of other types of experience in theme parks all over the world.

6. The last IP dominoes will fall

Seth Kubersky, Orlando Weekly:

Nick, the Orlando attractions industry is much different than what you see in Europe, and I didn’t mean to imply that minimally themed thrill rides are going away entirely in regional parks.  However, I think that Smiler is a good example of Alton Towers giving an iron ride a creative backstory and marketing push (as they do for many of their attractions) that gives it audience appeal beyond being “just” a roller coaster.

More broadly, the latest moves in both Europe and the USA from companies like Mack and Merlin show that balancing between story and thrill can be successful outside the Disney/Universal bubble.  As you mention, manufacturers are now making high-end hardware available to mid-tier buyers at prices that should feed a virtuous cycle of customer demand for more creative dark ride experience.

At IAAPA this year, I was impressed how companies like Oceaneering, Triotech, Alterface, and Dynamic are finally offering regional parks the type of experiences you used to only find in the majors.  For example, Dynamic’s SFX Coaster (being built in Abu Dhabi) looks even better than Gringotts.

And in the long run, raising the bar for regional parks – and what their visitors expect from them in terms of immersiveness – should eventually force Disney and Universal to up their game.

Finally, I’m hoping/expecting the success of Diagon Alley to help shake the last few plums from the intellectual property tree.  Star Trek, James Bond, and especially Lord of the Rings are the three biggest holdouts that could supply enough material for substantial theme park lands; maybe their rights holders will see how much money there is to be made from a quality product and finally bring these properties to life on the scale they deserve.


Previous All-Star Roundtable entries:

5 Reasons Why Disney’s Hotels Aren’t Full… but It Doesn’t Care

5 Reasons Why Universal’s Diagon Alley Is NOT a Flop

4 HUGE Changes Coming to a Theme Park Near You

5 Reasons Why Disney WON’T Change to Fend off Competition in Orlando

4 Ways That Universal’s Diagon Alley Will Change Theme Parks Forever