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Is Educational Entertainment Dead at Walt Disney World?

A steady shift

Disney Institute Mouse Ear graduation cap

Image: Disney

While it may seem like the shift away from education in Disney attractions came suddenly with the arrival of Marvel, Star Wars, and Frozen, the change has actually been very gradual.

The closing of the Disney Institute may have marked the first fall of the dominoes. For those unfamiliar, The Disney Institute was a Disney resort entirely centered around hands-on learning experiences and workshops. Guests could take cooking classes, learn how to DJ, learn time management, rock climbing, gardening, or even explore Disney’s wilderness conservation lands. Financially, it ultimately proved a failed experiment. This was around the same time as a changing of the guard within Disney management—Bob Iger had just come on as COO and would succeed Michael Eisner as CEO five years later in 2005.  The institute still exists as a professional development center, but the original vision of a learning paradise for guests proved unsustainable.

The last Walt Disney World attraction with both an original story and educational focus was Soarin’ in 2006 (which was a copy of its California counterpart; Mission: SPACE opened two years earlier). Since that point, Disney has slowly changed gears to focusing on attractions based on intellectual properties while mainstays from the old days have fizzled out. The Great Movie Ride shut down to become the future Mickey and Minnie’s Runaway Railroad. Universe of Energy closed to make way for Guardians of the Galaxy. The Art of Disney Animation long shuttered its doors and currently holds Star Wars Launch Bay. Even Spaceship Earth is getting ready to undergo a years long refurbishment with no telling what it will look like on the other side.

A Frozen turning point…

Olaf and the reindeer on Frozen Ever After

Image: Disney

While it makes a certain amount of sense for Disney’s Hollywood Studios to shift this direction, the two parks that guests always assumed were safe in their educational vision have always been Epcot and Disney’s Animal Kingdom. However, even there, the winds are changing.

For Epcot, the arrival of Frozen Ever After brought a flood of younger visitors and families no one ever expected. We still bemoan that this new attraction was built on the quirky bones of Maelstrom, but there is no doubt it improved Epcot’s attendance. The change didn’t stop with a single attraction. The entire Norway pavilion has slowly been taken over by Frozen, with pockets left here and there of classic structures. Even Kringla Bakery needed a renovation to keep up with guest demand.

On one hand, you can see where Disney is coming from. Walt Disney World is ultimately a destination for families, and with sponsors of major shows and attractions pulling out, the park definitely has needed an attendance boost. It makes sense to add tie-ins to IP’s like bringing Frozen to Norway and Ratatouille to France. The success of Frozen Ever After only proved that the shift works.

Navi River Journey boat surrounded by glowing trees

Image: Disney

Similarly, no one could have predicted the stellar success of The World of Pandora at Disney’s Animal Kingdom. With only tenuous threads to the park’s vision (except perhaps that Avatar is sort of Ferngully: The Last Rainforest for adults?), The World of Pandora became one of Disney’s wildest successes, skyrocketing attendance. There’s no telling what effect a more universally-known property like Star Wars will have on Disney’s Hollywood Studios after 2019 with the opening of Galaxy’s Edge.

While the shift towards intellectual property-focus is understandable, is Disney taking it too far? Should the upcoming Guardians of the Galaxy Coaster have been reserved for Disney Hollywood Studios or is the ride going to be a breath of fresh air for Future World? Is “Epcot Forever”—a show that appears to entirely surround Disney characters and music—a worthy successor to Illuminations, a show that highlighted diversity or is it more heavy-handed IP promotion likely to fall flat with long-time fans? What will this shift mean for Disney’s Animal Kingdom? Should we expect The Lion King to take over the remaining theming of the Africa land or The Jungle Book to become the prominent theme in Asia? Is the whole park basically going to become Zootopia?

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