The Walt Disney Company dominates the landscape of theme park tourists, and there’s good reason why they do. They are devout believers in the philosophy that they shouldn’t meddle much with the Happiest Place on Earth, the Most Magical Place on Earth, and even Euro Disney. The jury’s out on the validity of their belief on that last topic, but the point remains. Uncle Walt’s company claims a de facto monopoly on the theme park industry.
Still, even the best organizations have room for improvement. Disneyland and Walt Disney World may claim tens of millions of annual visitors, but they’re not perfect. The point of this article isn’t to diminish what the company has accomplished, either. Instead, it’s to place the focus on the weak spots in the chain, the ones they could address in a manner that would enhance a Disney vacation even more. Here are six issues Disney must fix to improve their theme parks.
1. Too much planning
This is probably the most frequent concern expressed by theme park visitors. People remember a simpler time when they could show up at the park and wing it. I don’t want to turn this into an I Walked 10 Miles Uphill in the Snow rant, but I do have vivid memories of the way my beloved father handled a park visit. We’d drive for ten hours to Orlando, enter the park, and grab a map. Then, we’d walk the other way from the herd. It was a simple strategy that worked brilliantly when I was a kid.
Today, that same level of planning would mean that we have no FastPass selections and no Advanced Dinner Reservations. Suffice to say that our trip would involve a great deal of waiting and not enough enjoying. As Disney has tracked big data to establish a baseline for park behavior, they’ve lost something. I’m generally a huge fan of metrics in all phases of business, but whenever I read a comment lamenting the sheer volume of planning required for a Disney trip, I nod my head.
The company has to do something to get back what they’ve lost, which is the spirit of adventure Uncle Walt tried to encapsulate in Adventureland. Now, people have to anticipate too much if they want to maximize a Disney vacation. This isn’t a difficult fix, either. By ceding a layer of control, Disney could restore the excitement of an unplanned day at the Happiest Place on Earth. Rather than trying to maximize traffic by a couple of percentage points, they could restore the first come, first serve premise on which all theme parks are based.
2. Half-day parks
Here’s a list of the functioning rides at Disney’s Hollywood Studios right now. They are Star Tours, the Great Movie Ride, Toy Story Midway Mania!, Rock ‘n’ Roller Coaster starring Aerosmith, and the Twilight Zone Tower of Terror. There are also some shows and interactive exhibits, of course, but those five rides exemplify the half-park issue. It also leads to a question. At what point does something stop being a theme park and instead become more accurately described as a permanent county fair? Having five operating rides isn’t just disappointing for Disney. It’s embarrassing.
The company is aware of the issue. They’ve already announced the intention to enhance Hollywood Studios with Star Wars Land and Toy Story Land. They’re also beefing up Epcot and adding a massive expansion to Disneyland as well. Still, it shouldn’t have taken this long to address a problem that’s existed for years now. Do you realize that until the Frozen ride debuts next year, the “newest” original, non-Omnimover ride at Epcot is Mission: Space? If you last visited in late 2003, you haven’t missed anything of note! Yes, some of the attractions have received updates, but that’s true of Frozen as well since it’s a reboot of an existing ride as well. And that brings us to sunny point number three…
3. Slow response time
Frozen the movie debuted in November of 2013. There were few Frozen tie-ins at the parks during its first six months, the timeframe during which everyone and their grandmother posted a viral video performance of Let It Go. Yes, the parks are probably too Frozen now, but that’s not the point. Disney doesn’t do an especially good job of being proactive. Instead, they are almost always reactive.
This behavior is due to the conservative philosophy of the Imagineers. They’d rather respond too late rather than anticipate and be proven wrong. That’s almost admirable in a way, but it’s also not a viable business strategy. It’s precisely how they wind up with a park as pointless as Hollywood Studios. By erring on the side of caution, they wind up with too many old attractions that desperately need new ideas.
If you disagree, think about it from this perspective. Name the good rides at Animal Kingdom. If you’re like me, Dinosaur made the list. What’s noteworthy about this attraction is that Dinosaur the movie was basically forgotten by the time it exited theaters. Still, the ride is so enjoyable that nobody cares, even if its Countdown to Extinction modified to tie it together with the film slightly more. There’s already proof at Walt Disney World that nobody cares if a movie isn’t an instant Disney classic. They’ll still enjoy the attraction based on it as long as it’s good, which the overwhelming majority of Disney attractions are. There should have been a Frozen ride in the planning stages six months prior to the release of Frozen rather than 18 months afterward. The company HAS to do better about understanding current park problems and anticipating future ways to solve them.