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Turning Point: Disney Parks Turn Their Backs on Originality

Theming hits and misses

Image: DisneyHonoring Walt Disney’s legacy is a full-time job for current Disney cast members. Since his death, they’ve been tasked with herculean feats such as the construction of Walt Disney World and, later, the opening of Epcot. The latter project was near and dear to Uncle Walt’s heart, so much so that it was his last major announcement prior to his death.

When Magic Kingdom opened, Disney park planners felt pressure to duplicate popular Disneyland attractions, something that their founder and leader had never wanted to do. When Epcot opened, it didn’t follow Walt’s wishes of a functional prototype city of tomorrow. It did, however, include a daily version of the World’s Fair, the World Showcase, and a forward-thinking area known as Future World.

The theming in all of these areas had a specific purpose. It was to reflect the express wishes of either Walt Disney or the fans who had previously requested various attractions and points of interest. A lot of the Epcot that you’ve known stood as a tribute to Uncle Walt. What park planners gradually learned over time is that concepts like Tomorrowland and Future World place a lot of demands on Imagineers. An idea can quickly feel dated in a constantly changing world.

Image: DisneyIn its earliest iteration, Epcot’s Future World was an education-focused but fun place for kids to visit, with The World Showcase section in the back for parents to appreciate. Over time, Future World grew stale, an issue we’ve since seen repeated at Disney California Adventure and, to a lesser extent, Tomorrowland.

Some of the pavilions at Future World never evolved the way that Imagineers had hoped/projected, and Tomorrowland was a difficult situation all around. The beloved nature of the attractions meant that Disney couldn’t undertake the changes needed to modernize this themed land. To this day, Tomorrowland Speedway takes up a massive amount of space while offering a lesser version of an attraction kids can enjoy at any decent tourist trap town. And Disney California Adventure always had a shaky theme that never quite gelled.

The trial balloons

Image: DisneyDisney executives have always loved their own IP, which is why they hesitated to promise the world to JK Rowling for a Harry Potter themed land. Once they watched a major competitor build a wildly successful Wizarding World with that premise, they got smart. Disney started to embrace IP more than ever before.

The first move was the acquisition of a license for Avatar, which was the number one movie of all-time when Disney added it. They announced plans to build an entire themed land for IP that they didn’t own, an unmistakable acknowledgement of a past mistake. This area took six years to become a reality, but Pandora – The World of Avatar is a huge success by any measure. Still, Disney didn’t own the IP, and their executives viewed the situation as less than ideal.

During the many (many many) years of construction on Pandora, Disney made several modifications to their past attraction philosophies based on the successes and failures of this project. The first step was Frozen Ever After, the repurposing of a good ride at the Norway Pavilion, Maelstrom. By the time of the announcement of this conversion, Frozen had already become the most popular animated movie of all-time. Disney made a perfectly logical decision by changing a solid but unpopular ride into something IP-themed. It helped that Frozen was already a part of the zeitgeist by that point, something that was never said of Maelstrom.

Image: DisneyDisney doubled down on the premise by doing something a bit more controversial. At the start of 2017, the company shuttered the Disney California Adventure version of The Twilight Zone Tower of Terror. In its place, they again prioritized IP with the introduction of Guardians of the Galaxy – Mission: Breakout!

Yes, Twilight Zone was also an IP, but it wasn’t one that Disney owned. Disney purchased the entire Marvel business in 2009, and Guardians of the Galaxy is one of the greatest success stories thus far. Kids love Rocket Raccoon and Groot, which translates to huge merchandise sales and a popular IP. With the re-theming of Tower of Terror into a Guardians of the Galaxy ride, Disney took a strong step toward a new business model. They determined that specific Disney IPs, particularly the ascendant ones, were the best anchors for rides.

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There are 3 comments.

Disney only stated that a 'Guardians of the Galaxy' ATTRACTION would be at Epcot. There's no proof anywhere that it'll be a roller coaster. Please only use terms that the park has stated rather than go on what you personally want to see.

D23s announcements for me reeked of soul-less corporate synergizing. No vision. Minimal enrichment or sophistication (the space restaurant may be the only exception). It's all 'Ride our Fantasy Movie Franchises' at the expense of learn-something-about-the-actual-world-while-having-fun. No coherence of theme. No depth beyond what an MBA manager-type understands of "themed amusement parks".

Depressing.

This all makes me so sad. My favorite rides at Disney have always been the original IPs and stories: Haunted Mansion, Pirates (pre-Depp), Jungle Cruise... I have more happy memories of the Carousel of Progress than I do of any of the 600 Toy Story shooting rides. Even Maelstrom's always held a special place in my heart, not because it was a spectacular ride, but precisely because it was so unknown; it was like a little secret tucked away in the otherwise grown-up centric World Showcase.

I don't want or need to ride the movies. Like, I have TV at home. Give us something different in the parks.

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