It takes more than superior IP in order to stay ahead of the competition
It’s not what you have that matters; it’s what you do with what you have. In the winter of 2012, Disney acquired Lucasfilm for the sum of $4.05 billion, gaining unfettered access to the studio’s bounty of Star Wars and Indiana Jones films, among other assets. The acquisition furthered Disney’s preexisting involvement with the franchises, as they had already collaborated with George Lucas on multiple attractions for the Disney Parks, including Star Tours (1985), Indiana Jones Adventure: Temple of the Forbidden Eye (1995), Indiana Jones Adventures: Temple of the Crystal Skull (2001), and Star Tours – The Adventures Continue (2011).
It may have been too soon to expect Disney to develop something as expansive and ambitious as Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge; after all, they’d only started to test the waters with Cars Land. But the few attractions they had already developed for Lucasfilm hinted at their ability to blend compelling IP with mesmerizing tech—from the Enhanced Motion Vehicle (EMV) system that randomly generated hundreds of thousands of variations in vehicle movement to the choose-your-own-adventure feel of Star Tours – The Adventures Continue and its eight possible destinations.
Now, with the opening of Galaxy’s Edge in May 2019, Disney is once again infusing its IP-based attractions with innovative tech. Guests who step aboard Millennium Falcon: Smuggler’s Run may be asked to take over the controls of the fastest Corellian light freighter in the galaxy, while those who experience the forthcoming Rise of the Resistance ride have been promised trackless vehicles, gargantuan AT-AT walkers, and a frightening face-to-face confrontation with the Audio-Animatronic Kylo Ren.
Where Chapek’s arguments veer into hyperbole (or perhaps just a skewed perception of the Disney Parks’ competition) is when they claim that Disney is doing things that nobody else in the theme park industry is doing. Yes, the company has a claim to Star Wars and Pixar and Frozen and any number of successful films and franchises that Universal and Six Flags will never get their hands on. But when it comes to the theming and tech behind the attractions, elements like large-scale animatronics and launched steel roller coaster systems, responsive merchandise, 3D projections, and in-depth character experiences, it becomes harder to make a case that Disney is still performing a cut above the rest. They have the IP in-hand, but whether they have the vision to keep pushing the boundaries of the theme park experience remains to be seen—though, if Chapek’s comments about Rise of the Resistance are anything to go off of, we may see it happen sooner rather than later.
A wealth of franchise material may motivate Disney to keep Walt’s brand alive, albeit in a different way
Visit the Disney Parks often enough, and you’re sure to hear the refrain of this now-iconic quote: “Disneyland will never be completed. It will continue to grow as long as there is imagination left in the world.” It’s been trotted out to cover any and every ‘new’ element at the parks, but rarely is it delivered in the same spirit that it was given.
The nature of theme parks (even those beyond Disney’s berm) is to expand and improve with age. The debate is never whether or not Disney’s parks should change, but what might be the best way to enhance their most charming, well-made, and magical qualities. Are they made better by adhering to a philosophy that prizes innovation and experimentation? Or are they doing fans a greater service by basing their future attractions and lands only on viable IP?
It’s not necessarily an either-or conundrum. For Chapek, the path forward is clearly marked by the stories and characters who have best served Disney fans. And Disney has proven that, for the most part, they can be trusted to supplement that ‘franchise orientation’ with the kind of forward-thinking technology and guest experiences that even Walt himself would have approved of.