If you've been around the Disney Parks fan community long enough, you've no doubt taken sides in a whole lot of well-meaning debates... Management, beards, "political correctness," tattoos, screens... Fans are always taking sides and talking about something. But in the last decade, there's been one debate that reigns supreme: IP, or intellectual property – the use of licensed, owned, or acquired brands, movies, characters, stories, and settings in Disney Parks. Recently, a Twitter user raised the question:
It's a good question! After all, if you spend time scouring #Distwitter or Disney Parks social media groups, you'll undoubtedly see a lot of pushback against Disney Parks projects based on big IPs! Some fans practically beg for Disney to stop adding so much Pixar, so much Marvel, so much Star Wars, and even so much Disney into the Disney Parks!
Of course, IP has been a part of Disneyland since its 1955 opening, and many of the park's most beloved attractions are based on films – sometimes, films that didn't even belong to Disney! So even the most fervent fans can't possibly "hate IP in the parks." Rather, it has to be a case of debating how IP is used... And to help us weed out the good from the bad, we propose four questions Imagineers should ask themselves before permanently planting an intellectual property into Disney Parks.
1. The Timeless Test
The question: “Will it still matter in 10 years? 20? 50?”
To our thinking, one of the most important questions Disney Imagineers need to ask themselves before incorporating intellectual property into the parks is simple: will it last? The push for modern IPs in Disney Parks began in earnest in the 1980s, and though there were some stumbling blocks (like the Lost Legend: Captain EO with its distinctly-’80s style and its star who became embroiled in controversy), the movies Eisner brought in (like Star Wars, Indiana Jones, and Toy Story) had largely already proven to be generation-defining by time they appeared in the Parks. That's why Star Tours and Indiana Jones Adventure still hold up!
Universal had that too… at first. Despite opening with epic, elaborate Lost Legends: Kongfrontation, Jaws, Back to the Future, or Earthquake acting as throwbacks to iconic, timeless films from the ‘70s and ‘80s, only one survives today. In the early 2000s, Universal became wildly aggressive about updating its Studio park with whatever’s hot at the moment... without applying the Timeless Test. The result is a park where ride lifetimes are measured in seasons, not decades, and where attractions sometimes feel designed for short-term installation in “flex spaces” more than built-out, physical, “permanent” attractions.
If that’s how Universal wants to operate, that’s their prerogative! But it is a little worrisome to see aspects of the M.O. seep over to Disney, where there’s a perceived rush to get hot brands into the parks come hell or high water. Cynics might suggest that Disney’s pursuit of Parks projects is guided by the company’s focus on franchising and consumer products more than any multi-decade strategy or longevity - a proposition seemingly supported by the often-short tenures of Resort-level executives looking to demonstrate year-over-year returns versus thinking a decade out, or about such silly concepts as a park’s spirit.
Even when IP is part of an established, successful franchise, sometimes fans worry that its execution in the parks is a little-too-Universal. For example, it’s hard to imagine that California Adventure’s Guardians of the Galaxy - Mission: BREAKOUT! will still be around in 20 years; but of course, it’s probably not meant to be. The six month changeover from the Lost Legend: The Twilight Zone Tower of Terror that created it can just as quickly be done again to swap it to whatever action film’s hot in the 2040s… But to think that the 2017 version of Chris Pratt or his character Star Lord will still occupy that building in 2041? Eh… Doubtful (but possible!).
Another example of “The Timeless Test” is being put to work right now. At Shanghai Disneyland, an entire land themed to Zootopia is joining a “castle” park, which is objectively kind of weird (but maybe more understandable since Shanghai Disneyland is pretty unapologetically different, and since Zootopia was a pretty resounding box office hit in China).
Increasingly, though, it seems likely that Disney could “double dip” on the project with a copy at Animal Kingdom despite the park’s (now-retired) creative lead Joe Rohde stating explicitly that Zootopia wouldn’t fit. With a Disney+ series and sequel on the way, you can imagine why the Resort’s leadership would say of a Zootopia land, “Sure, we’ll take one!” But has Zootopia really proven itself as a film (much less franchise) that’ll still be relevant in ten years? Twenty? Fifty? Is it worthy of a permanent land at a Disney theme park? Or perhaps more to the point, that Disney theme park? Which leads us to our next thing for Imagineers to consider…
2. Respect for Parks’ Identities
Question: “Why should it go into this park?”
When EPCOT Center opened, it was a revolution! Disney World’s “permanent World’s Fair” was closer to the ambitious and industrious later years of Walt’s life than his fairy tale, animated origins. Devoid of characters, bolstered by corporate power, and glowing with the monumental architecture of the ‘80s, it was marked by big, bold ideas and adult authenticity. When the Disney-MGM Studios opened less than a decade later, it, too, was a revolution with its “Ride the Movies” M.O. championed by new leadership; so was Animal Kingdom. Even California Adventure was born (then reborn) with a particular spirit; a vision; an identity!
Today, it’s clear that the ultra-ambitious origins of EPCOT or the distinctly-Californian stories of California Adventure are long, long gone. But more to the point, they haven’t really been replaced with anything as bold or strongly adhered to. The notion that Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy can “fit” in both is a pretty damning example of just how muddled any given park’s particular identity has become. Few would argue that Galaxy’s Edge makes much sense in the historic Disneyland with its diminutive storybook-scaled areas. Even the once-impenetrable DisneySea has seen Finding Nemo overtake its “nautical Tomorrowland,” and even the most stalwart defenders of the park would find it hard to narratively excuse the spectacular Fantasy Springs that’s on the way, bringing Frozen, Peter Pan, and Tangled to the otherwise literary, grounded park.
Once upon a long time ago, Disney World largely kept “modern” IPs (and particularly outside ones like Star Wars and Indiana Jones) at its Studio park, relegated to boxy “soundstages.” Though Disneyland seems somewhat immune from impermanent IP additions, every other park seems to have settled into being some degree of “Studio” park itself. Pixar Pier, Galaxy’s Edge, Avengers Campus, Moana’s Journey of Water, Zootopia, Toy Story Land, Arendelle: The World of Frozen, a Tomorrowland populated entirely by Pixar… Though Imagineering’s latest group of projects are big, bold, and elaborate, their somewhat “drag-and-drop” placement in parks can make them feel out-of-sync, with little care about fitting a park’s spirit, story, or scale… Which brings us to our next thing to consider…