3. The Balance of ‘Old’ and ‘New’
The question to ask: “Does it respect the park's history?”
“Disneyland will never be completed as long as there’s imagination left in the world.” For those “outside” the Disney history bubble, Walt’s quote is hopeful and inspiring! For the rest of us, it sounds like a threat - probably because it often accompanies Disney Parks Blog posts announcing the closure of a classic ride or experience.
On one hand, it’s absolutely essential that Disney Parks grow and change and incorporate new intellectual properties (so long as they pass the Timeless Test and respect the park’s identity, we hope); on the other, though, Disney Parks are not mere showcases for modern blockbusters. Disney parks are not museums, but they are historic places. Generations of tradition lie within every square foot of the parks, so the decision to insert intellectual property has to be made carefully, and with balance.
It’s probably why both the Declassified Disasters: Stitch’s Great Escape and The Enchanted Tiki Room: Under New Management are both remembered as pretty colossal disappointments. Not only were they pretty objectively bad attractions in their own rights; they also “defaced” Disney “classics” with unneeded characters.
And so it goes with Pooh replacing Toad; Jack Sparrow joining Pirates; a Star Wars land without Luke and Leia; the “Pixarification” of Disney Parks; Marvel heroes assembling in Epcot; characters “invading” It’s a Small World; an “upgraded” Star Tours axing the beloved Rex… Each upgrade, plussing, or infusion of “hot” IP does have to be done with care. Imagineers walk a tricky tightrope of keeping parks both reverent and relevant.
Parks need to feel current. Disney would be downright daft to just ignore its $100 billion in content acquisitions in the last two decades, including The Muppets, Pixar, Marvel, and 20th Century Fox, much less Disney’s own home-grown hits of the 21st century. But in addition to applying the Timeless Test and respecting each park’s identity, Imagineers should be careful to let Disney Parks be historic places, too, not just showcases for blockbuster movies.
4. Remembering Originality
The question: “Can we create something more timeless, park-appropriate, and additive without the IP?”
As we’ve suggested, Disney has a whole lot of media-based IP, and a whole lot of reasons to use it. Cars Land wouldn’t be half as incredible if it had been a generic desert town as originally envisioned; inventing a generic alien planet would be a lot harder than using the built-in imagery of Avatar or Star Wars, and it would lack the cultural resonance. But applying the simple questions we’ve asked so far (“Will it matter in 10 years?” “Is it park appropriate?” “Does it respect the park’s history?”), sometimes Imagineers may run into the answer, “No.” So… what then?
Well luckily, we know Disney Imagineers don’t just use IP; they can create it. In fact, some of the most sensational attractions in Disney’s entire portfolio are ideas born from the minds of Imagineers! It’s not just historic classics like Haunted Mansion and Pirates of the Caribbean…
It’s also the Modern Marvels: Mystic Manor or Tokyo's Twilight Zone-free Tower of Terror, wrapped into the mythos of S.E.A.; the Lost Legend: Journey into Imagination; an entire portfolio of characters, expanded worlds, and mythologies created just for the theme parks! Those stories become so ingrained in generations of visitors that they become pop culture staples. Disney Imagineers add to the cultural zeitgeist by way of their theme parks.
And whether you’re talking about old classics like Jungle Cruise or new originals like the Modern Marvel: Expedition Everest, some of Disney’s most magical worlds, strongest stories, and coolest characters are those invented for the parks.
Which makes it so strange that U.S. Disney Parks haven’t received a genuinely IP-free anchor attraction since 2006, and it’s hard to imagine any are on the way. If Disney Imagineers aren’t empowered to generate strong original ideas, the Parks are only taking from the zeitgeist instead of adding to it. Eventually, that’ll catch up with the Parks!
So yes, it's absolutely true that the same fans who once faulted California Adventure for being "too much California, not enough Disney" now accuse the park of being "too much Disney, not enough California"! It's not that those fans are hypocrites; it's that Disney arguably overcorrected! With the scales tipped so heavily away from original ideas or homemade IP, it can feel that Disney's parks are mere marketing tools.
As with everything on this list, the answer is simple: balance. It’s frustrating to imagine how easily California Adventure could make use of Mystic Manor, or bring to life the never-built Possibilityland: Discovery Bay, even in addition to IP-focused add-ons like Avengers Campus and Incredicoaster.
Putting it all together
Anyone who suggests that Disney Parks ought to just “freeze” in place and time in their current states clearly hasn’t been around long. Disney Parks are defined by change, and most of the time, that change has come through intellectual property that makes the parks relevant for the times. As long as Disney keeps producing (and acquiring) brands, characters, stories, and portfolios that matter, those brands will keep finding homes in Disney Parks.
So all we can hope is that Disney Imagineers decide to carefully consider the four points we raised here.
“Will it still be relevant in 20 years?” “Why should it go into this park?” “Does it respect the park’s history?” “Can we tell a stronger story without the constraints of IP?” Those four questions could be revelatory ones, ensuring that when movies make their way into Disney Parks, it’s done well. And by just applying those simple standards, would Zootopia come to Animal Kingdom, or Guardians of the Galaxy to Epcot? We’ll leave you to decide…