Pandora - The World of Avatar

In late February, Disney CEO Bob Iger announced a multi-year, two-billion-euro expansion of Disneyland Paris. The changes won't be officially rolled out until 2021, but they've already given us a glimpse at the direction Disney plans on taking its theme parks. According to Iger's statement, Walt Disney Studios Park will be transformed with three distinct lands themed to Star Wars, Marvel, and Frozen.

On the surface, this isn't anything revolutionary. Disney films and stories have always been a fundamental part of the Disney Parks. When Disneyland first opened its gates to the public on July 17, 1955, four of its 17 inaugural attractions were based on Disney properties: Snow White's Adventures (Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs), Sleeping Beauty Castle (Sleeping Beauty), Mr. Toad's Wild Ride (The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad), and the Mad Hatter's Tea Party (Alice in Wonderland). In 2018, 25 Disneyland attractions are based on films (i.e. not original concept rides like the Haunted Mansion or Big Thunder Mountain Railroad), with another 48 film-based attractions scattered across Walt Disney World's four parks.

Snow White's Scary Adventures

Image: HarshLight, Flickr (license)

The difference, rather, is in the way Disney is choosing to approach its material. Instead of creating a cluster of one-off attractions and calling it "Fantasyland" or “Tomorrowland,” the company is structuring large areas of their park around one film or franchise to create a more immersive experience, a la Universal Studios' Diagon Alley and Hogsmeade. We saw it happen with Disney California Adventure's Cars Land in 2012 and Shanghai Disneyland's Treasure Cove in 2016, and then again with Animal Kingdom's Pandora – The World of Avatar in 2017.

While there's clearly no imminent danger of Main Street, U.S.A. being redesigned as the streets of San Fransokyo or Spaceship Earth torn down and replaced with the Death Star (permanently, that is), it's clear that Disney is steering its theme park development in a new direction—one that does away with the idea of generic lands based on themes of fantasy, innovation, and exploration and instead offers guests the ability to step into incredible replications of their favorite films. There are some clear advantages and disadvantages to this approach; let's break them down.

Pro: Disney can tailor its theme park experiences to its most vocal and dedicated fanbases.

Anna and Elsa

Image: Frank Phillips, Flickr (license)

There’s a reason why Disney isn’t shelling out the big bucks for a replica of Giselle’s cottage in Andalasia or the thief-riddled underbrush of Sherwood Forest. Each Disney film and franchise has attracted its own subset of dedicated fans, of course, but only a few have been massively and consistently profitable. Instead of shuffling Frozen singalongs and meet-and-greets from land to land, Disney now has the power to dedicate large swaths of its property to keep up with (and feed into) the supply and demand for its hottest animated film to date. Star Wars Land promises to be even more of a worthwhile investment than Toy Story Land or Disneyland Paris’ version of Arendelle, given the longevity of the Star Wars franchise and Disney’s plans to develop more films and stories in its universe for years to come.

Con: There’s less space for original, non-branded attractions and entertainment.

Spaceship Earth

Image: Sam Howzit, Flickr (license)

Let’s face it: Some of the best things in the Disney Parks have nothing to do with their films. Think about the popularity of Spaceship Earth and the now-defunct Horizons or the classic feel of Pirates of the Caribbean, the Haunted Mansion, and Space Mountain. There’s no doubt that Imagineers know how to craft a compelling and iconic attraction from scratch, but more and more lately, Disney has chosen to brand their attractions and shows. (Case in point: the last non-film based attraction to debut at Disneyland was Astro Orbitor, which opened nearly 20 years ago in May 1998.) This isn’t to say that Imagineers won’t be able to apply that same degree of creativity and care to Toy Story Land, Star Wars Land, “Marvel Land,” and “Frozen Land,” but working within a branded franchise limits the company to specific themes, characters, and storylines—parameters that would be lifted to a considerable degree in more generic themed areas like Adventureland and Frontierland.


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