Disney World Rumors: Carsland Looks Good, Avatar Iffy, Fantasyland Disappoints

DHS-Cars-Land

It’s been a while since I have written anything about Disney World here.  After nearly daily postings leading up to and following our family trip in the fall, I decided to give the Disney stuff a rest.  Not to mention, there really hasn’t been much worth talking about in recent months.

This morning, Al Lutz over at Mice Chat posted an update that was filled with juicy Disney World rumors.  What follows are the WDW-related highlights.  You can read the entire article (which focuses primarily on Disneyland and management changes) here.

Before we get to the Disney World rumors, I want to give you some background on the source.  Lutz is connected.  He knows what he is talking about.  He has a long track record of breaking Disney news.  And when something he writes about doesn’t come to pass, it’s usually because Disney changed their minds after the fact.

Lutz’s primary focus is on Disneyland in California.  He has been accused of having an anti-Disney World bias.  If you read his columns on a regular basis, I think it’s almost impossible to deny that to some extent, he is anti-WDW.  But generally speaking, his criticisms are usually true if not 100% fair.

With that in mind, here’s what Lutz has to say:

We’d told you previously how TDO had been dragging their feet on the plan to add Cars Land to DHS and had been chipping away at the budget so that all that was left was a slightly downsized version of Radiator Springs Racers and a town that had more faux facades than actual shops and restaurants. In that depressing environment, WDI had been shopping their plan to build the fully fleshed out version of Cars Land for Tokyo Disneyland to replace their Rivers of America section of that park.

But over the Christmas break a fire was lit under a few key Burbank executives when it was realized WDW’s New Fantasyland project wasn’t pulling in the numbers or customer satisfaction ratings that had been hoped for. WDW’s hotel occupancy and spending numbers have been hurting for several years, and they were hoping for a big bump from New Fantasyland and its lone new attraction, a clone of the Little Mermaid omnimover. New Fantasyland hasn’t give them the bump they needed, and the customer satisfaction results are showing that it won’t be driving the new attendance or spending gains that WDW really needs in the next few years. And there’s currently nothing under construction in WDW, while their Universal and Sea World competitors have major new projects coming out of the ground.

If only to prove how quickly things can change in the Disney empire, WDI execs returned from their Christmas break to quickly huddle and then directed their teams to figure out how to clone as much of Cars Land as possible so that it could open at Disney’s Hollywood Studios park as quickly as possible, aiming for a late 2015 debut (nearly three years to the day after New Fantasyland officially opened). TDO execs were also told to stop value-engineering the project into a smaller footprint with fewer offerings and let WDI do their work. And since the James Cameron alliance that was supposed to bring Avatarland to WDW within the same timeframe is going nowhere fast, and may not even show up in a theme park at all at this point, WDI is thrilled to dig in and start real work on an accelerated plan to bring Cars Land to Florida.

The result will be a Cars Land that has just about everything the DCA version does, with a few filler buildings omitted and the very expensive Luigi’s Flying Tires ride missing entirely. The very deep basement beneath Luigi’s, needed for the giant fans and motors that resembles the generator room at Hoover Dam, would be extremely difficult to build in the swampy Orlando soil and raise the cost even higher. But even without Luigi’s, if the frenzied pace on this project continues in Glendale there’s a good chance they’ll make that Thanksgiving of ’15 opening date, if not slip just a bit to the winter of ’16. So long as WDW’s numbers don’t go from bad to worse this spring, the DHS Cars Land project should make the trip to Florida mostly intact.

It’s no secret the New Fantasyland project has shown lackluster customer satisfaction ratings, and the piecemeal way it debuted last year with major construction still underway on the D-Ticket mine coaster is not helping things there this year. (Maybe all those suits should have taken the underwhelming response Jay Rasulo got when the project was confirmed at the D23 Expo a few years back more seriously, instead of blowing it all off.) Cars Land is widely understood now to be the way to open a major new land, and New Fantasyland’s staggered 18 month-long reveal is the scenario to avoid.

There’s a lot in there to digest.  I posted back in August that Carsland was likely coming to Hollywood Studios.  Since then, that rumor had cooled as Orlando was slowly chipping away at the budget.  But it sounds like the failure of the New Fantasyland expansion has had a beneficial side effect.

I’m not thrilled with the idea of cloning DCA’s Carsland in Florida.  “Cars” is a property that doesn’t interest me very much.  And I like the idea of Orlando getting something new instead of another clone from out west.  But, if it’s a choice between a fully budgeted Carsland and a “value engineered” Carsland, I’ll take the one with all the bells and whistles.

Luigi’s Flying Tires has been the least successful part of Carsland.  So if it doesn’t make the trip out East, that’s okay with me.

The next nugget to chew on is that the new Fantasyland has had disappointing numbers.  Personally, I don’t find this surprising.  The new Fantasyland is very nice for what it is.  But it’s not worth planning a trip around.  It is something Disney World should be doing on a consistent basis to keep the parks fresh.

After several years of construction, the “expansion” has yet to net a single new ride.  Dumbo got added capacity, Barnstormer got stripped of its theming and we traded the out-of-date Snow White dark ride for a new but modest Little Mermaid dark ride.  These are all improvements, but they are not worth scheduling an expensive trip to experience.

Really, the only thing that surprises me is that Disney didn’t see this reaction coming.  When the project was announced at D23 several years ago, the reaction was so underwhelming that Disney went back to the drawing board.  Their answer was to cut some meet and greets from the budget to fund a kiddie coaster that won’t open until 2014.

It’s really hard to believe that Disney had higher expectations for what amounts to a beautification project.  There have been far too few updates at Disney World in the last several years.  Meanwhile, their competition has upped their game.  The bar has been raised and Disney is not even trying to exceed it.  And yet, they are surprised by low guest satisfaction scores. 

Lutz also suggests that Avatarland at Animal Kingdom is falling apart.  Nothing new there.  That project was hastily announced as an answer to Universal’s Harry Potter.  But it hasn’t generated anywhere near the excitement Disney was hoping for.  No surprise that Disney has been butting heads with James Cameron over the budget and the content.

Back to Lutz as he discusses Disney’s Next Gen project:

The elephant in the room on all of these long range plans however is the NextGen program, publicly marketed as MyMagic+. MyMagic+ has had a rocky start in Florida, with both hardware and software problems cropping up in the parks in the first few weeks and a surprising dustup in the press between Bob Iger and Congressman Ed Markey over allegations of inappropriate use of children’s information with the RFID enabled wristbands that are the backbone of MyMagic+. (Apparently Iger forgot what happened with the Disney’s America project when Eisner snipped back in a similar tone.)

Disney has now budgeted more for MyMagic+ than they spent on fixing DCA over the last five years, so the stakes are very high. What could derail the expansion plans on both coasts is MyMagic+ falling flat on its face with customers when it finally goes live this spring. There are still dozens of questions and pitfalls, all issues that front-line Cast Members and management identified as weak links in the system right off the bat.

The problem with MyMagic+ is that it was dreamed up by Burbank execs who have absolutely no experience working in a theme park, and who have shown very little interest in getting out into the field and learning the business even after they were assigned to the program that would remake it. The Achilles heel to any new park initiative is the front line troops in the operations departments who will be working with the program and trying to sell it to the customers. So far, very little input has been sought from the front line Cast Members, and to make matters worse the public explanations of the program have been overly vague. For every answer offered to customers about MyMagic+, there are a dozen Cast Member questions still unanswered.

The canary in the coal mine for all three of these projects will be the big D23 Expo this August in Anaheim. If they try and flog MyMagic+ to the fans at D23 and fail to mention any new theme park expansion in Anaheim and Orlando, you’ll know things are bad for both coasts and that most of that Billion dollar NextGen budget was wasted. With the accelerated plans for WDW’s Cars Land however, the bulldozers may move in by late spring and Disney may be forced to announce that project months before the D23 Expo.

Let’s hope there’s something to talk about at D23 Expo other than magic wristbands and queue enhancements already outdated by visitors in Standby staring at their iPhones instead of expensive queues.

I am taking a wait and see approach to MyMagic+.  My initial reaction is that I can’t believe they spent all this money on something that is not likely to improve the guest experience. 

Next Gen/FP+/MyMagic+ or whatever Disney is calling it today cost a LOT of money.  Money that could have been spent sprucing up all four of the WDW theme parks.  It could have paid for a brand new e-ticket in each park.  Instead, they spent it on data-mining and wrist bands that let you pay for things without having to dip into your wallet.

Then there are the privacy concerns.  How much of an issue these are is open to debate.  I’m not an expert, so I won’t weigh in.  But there is no denying that Disney has gotten itself into a pickle where Congress is concerned.  I have to think that Iger’s antagonistic response to Congressman Markey’s concerns about privacy issues was the wrong way to go.

For months now, the cast members in operations have been buzzing about the headaches and potential nightmares of implementing MyMagic+.  Toss in regulatory issues and possible legal battles, and this could turn into a very expensive train wreck.

Even if Disney masterfully side-steps all of these issues (which is highly unlikely given Disney’s track record of late) the best case scenario is still less desriable than if Disney had used this money to create new attractions. 

I don’t want to go too far down the MyMagic+ road just yet.  I’ll wait and see how it plays out.  But for now, it’s worth noting that this thing cost over a billion dollars and is loaded with pitfalls.

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Posted on February 5, 2013, in Fantasyland Expansion, Hollywood Studios, theme parks, Walt Disney World and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. What this also seems to indicate is that they are rushing in this Carsland cloning instead of doing the thing that would really pull in big crowds consistently and raise fanboy heart rates like Harry Potter did: A fully realized Star Wars land that could be put where they are putting Carsland.

    Now that would draw crowds. Of course it also has not been designed yet, unlike a Carsland clone. Just typing the word “clone” makes me want Star Wars instead.

    I’ve read wishful-thinking rumours about an entire Star Wars park, but I really don’t believe it.

    It’ll be interesting to see how the FLE numbers look when they open the Dwarf coaster. What they have done is a big improvement to what FL once was, but so far, yes, the Be Our Guest restaurant is the most useful and impressive thing in the expansion.

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    • I put this togther largely for your benefit. We haven’t talked Disney in a while. ;)

      For whatever reason, Star Wars is off the table. I don’t know why. You would think after purchasing it, Disney would want to use it more. But from what I hear, there hasn’t been any interest in Star Wars in the parks. Not for decades. And the purchase apparently hasn’t changed that much.

      One thing I have heard is that Disney wants to wait to see how Star Wars 7 does. Sounds silly, but Disney does stupid things sometimes. So I’m not all that surprised.

      TDO doesn’t want to shell out for the clone. So they sure don’t want to pay for a newly designed land! For the last several years, they have done the cheapest and easiest thing. A Carsland clone is that. But even that was too expensive for them. Fortunately, it sounds like they are being forced to at least do the minimum.

      Don’t believe it. There probably won’t be a 5th gate in FL in our lifetime. It’s hard for me to imagine the resort being in a position to support a 5th gate. They have crumbling infrastructure and two 1/2 day parks as it is.

      Eventually, they will bring Star Wars to the parks. But not any time soon. The most optimistic rumor I have heard from a reliable source involves retheming a restaurant and maybe adding an attraction. But even this is at least 5 years out.

      I can’t imagine any one planning a trip just to see the Dwaves coaster. I really can’t see anything in the FLE having any real impact on attendance. That’s got to have Disney worried. They were planning massive, unprecedented price hikes this year. They were expecting to discontinue discounts and still have hotels at capacity.

      They were also expecting to be able to cut back on just about everything and still have people lined up. There was a new parade and fireworks show in development. But Disney cancelled the parade. Not sure about the fireworks. They were going to bring back Spectromagic instead, but they didn’t store it right and now the floats are ruined. So they are stuck with Electromagic which has maintenace problems of its own. Many suspect they will eventually cancel the evening parades entirely outside of hard ticket events!

      By the time the Mine Coaster opens, Universal will have Transformers. Harry Potter 2.0 will probably have an opening date. Plus there are other projects in the pipeline. And Sea World is growing as well. Disney World will always be bigger, but Universal is gaining momentum. From what I hear, Disney is starting to panic.

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