In case you haven’t noticed, it’s been a while since a Disney theme park in the United States opened a major attraction not based on a high-earning Disney, Pixar, Marvel, or Star Wars property. In fact, our look at each park’s last IP-free headliner might leave you surprised. It seems that the era of Haunted Mansions, Big Thunder Mountains, Pirates of the Caribbean, Test Tracks, and Expedition Everests is over with no signs of a come-back…
To be sure, that’s on purpose! Over the last two decades, the entire entertainment industry has found itself in the midst of what we call the “Content Wars” – each studio in an all-out race to license, acquire, and own as much intellectual property as possible. That content is needed to populate streaming services, power lucrative licensing deals, and of course, to be used on the battlefield of theme parks.
But more and more, fans are beginning to wonder if we’ll ever see Walt Disney Imagineering unshackled from the studios’ output. Will we ever get another headlining ride at Disneyland or Walt Disney World that isn’t based on a Disney blockbuster? Here’s why we think it doesn’t seem likely at the moment, and your chance to vote…
The Case FOR IP
Even for those who wish Disney Parks would spend less time focused on characters and stories taken from movies, there’s an easy case to be made. Disney’s former CEO (and big IP fan) Bob Chapek infamously shot down fans’ nagging about IP-based attractions: “if our competitors had our catalogue, they’d be doing the same thing. But they don’t. And we do.”
Okay, maybe he wasn’t the most eloquent or likable guy. But admit it: he was right. The cultural weight of Disney + Pixar + Marvel + Star Wars arms The Walt Disney Company with an IP collection that is, truly, the envy of the industry. Frankly, no one even gets close. And that catalogue has come at a price. Since 2000 alone, Disney has spent about $100 billion acquiring companies (including The Muppets, Pixar, Lucasfilm, Marvel, and 20th Century) to get at their character portfolios. Because of (or depending on who you ask, despite) Disney’s leadership, each remains a defining IP of our times.
So you can understand why Disney executives would hear fans begging them to do something other than Marvel, Star Wars, and Pixar in their theme parks and think, “Have they lost their minds?” To not use those portfolios would be absolutely ludicrous… and a huge waste of money since the theme parks are a major money-maker and battleground in the Content Wars.
In a post-Wizarding-World industry, Disney has somehow managed to assemble a world class collection of stories to bring to life in their theme parks. To argue that instead they should pour hundreds of millions of dollars into rides with no IP tie in would leave many executives’ heads spinning.
The Case AGAINST IPs
Let’s be clear – no one is suggesting that Disney Parks should not use characters, stories, or settings from Disney, Pixar, Marvel, Star Wars, and the rest. Of course Disney characters have been a part of Disney Parks since day one, and no one would seriously wish that they weren’t going forward. However, for most of the parks, it’s been two decades or more since they opened a ride without a movie tie-in.
That’s important because it shows that the mindset around the parks has changed drastically. Once upon a time, Imagineering was seen as a producer of content – just like the storytellers at Pixar, Marvel, Lucasfilm, or Walt Disney Studios. It’s just that instead of their end result being a film, Imagineering’s creativity created attractions. Just as the studios were good at making stories and characters and worlds that fit films, Imagineers were able to build stories and characters and worlds that fit the medium of theme parks! Haunted Mansion! Journey into Imagination! Alien Encounter!
But Disney’s laser focus on mandated IP tie-ins for the parks has changed Imagineering from a producer or creator into something more like a museum curator. Their job isn’t to make new worlds; it’s to translate ones from the studios. And likewise, theme parks have become buckets meant to collect content from the studios rather than being a source of new content themselves. It’s disheartening to long-time fans, for example, that Josh D’Amaro’s biography on Disney’s website notes that oversees Disney Parks – ”the global hub where Disney stories, characters, and franchises come to life.” Is that all corporate Disney sees the Disney Parks as? Brand loyalty centers where Disney franchises come to life? Maybe…
The reason that’s irritating is because we know what Imagineering is capable of when they’re allowed to design outside the boundaries of the blockbuster. Look at Mystic Manor, Shanghai’s Adventure Isle, or Expedition Everest – rare modern landmark of IP-free Imagineering. That’s what Imagineering is capable of… which makes it really hard to swallow Pixar Pier, or the notion that Disney’s theme parks are all just differently-decorated brand loyalty centers, and that Zootopia is equally likely to be added to… well… any of them.
The Case for Balance
Here’s the thing – Disney Parks will always feature Disney stories, and especially in an era when content acquisition is at the forefront of the entertainment industry, Disney + Pixar + Marvel + Star Wars projects aren’t going anywhere. Instead, we have to direct you to our four simple rules to making sure IP is done right.
When fans say they’re sick of IP-based attractions, what they really mean is that Disney’s theme parks today seem to lack balance. For most of the parks, it’s been two decades or more since they opened a ride without a movie tie-in. And as fans look down the barrel of inevitable IP additions like Moana in EPCOT and Zootopia in Animal Kingdom, can you blame them for starting to wonder if Disney’s parks even really have unique, deeply-embedded meanings anymore?
There’s no perfect answer, but it seems that what most fans are rallying for is a return to balance. More Rise of the Resistances, and more Guardians of the Galaxy: Cosmic Rewinds, and more TRON Lightcycle Runs… sure! But also, more Mystic Manors, Big Thunder Mountains, Discovery Bays, and Pirates of the Caribbean.
What do you think when it comes to the tug-of-war between IP and original at Disney Parks?
- Disney Parks should go 100% original for a while to balance recent IP obsession
- Keep the “Ride the Movies” train going and make use of those acquisitions
- Return to balance, with both original and IP-based attractions
Let us know your opinion by voting in our poll and by leaving us a comment below or on our Facebook page.