Franchise Fever Is Taking Over Disney’s Theme Parks

August 26, 2019, 6:43 PM UTC
Avengers Campus
Guests can suit up alongside their favorite Super Heroes at the Avengers Campus, beginning in 2020 at Disney California Adventure park at Disneyland Resort. The campus will feature the first Disney ride-through attraction to feature Spider-Man, along with other heroic encounters. (Disney/Marvel)

You only have to look at the box office to see what Disney’s theme parks will look like in the future.

In laying out its plans for how it will expand its resorts leading up to the 50th anniversary of the Magic Kingdom in Orlando in 2021, Disney is relying heavily on film franchises that have generated well over $1 billion at the multiplex.

That includes Marvel’s superheroes and Pixar animated characters, Frozen, and Star Wars, among the new attractions, parades, restaurants, hotels, and cruise ships set to open or launch over the next several years.

Coming Attractions

Major new attractions include:

—A “Star Wars: Galactic Starcruiser” hotel, planned for Orlando, that requires a two-night minimum stay as it simulates a voyage aboard the Halcyon spaceship, new to the sci-fi franchise, and provides a pod transport direct to the Star Wars-themed Galaxy’s Edge parks, new for 2019.

—A Marvel Avengers Campus, planned for Disney California Adventure and Disneyland Paris, opening in 2020, includes Spider-Man’s first Disney ride-through attraction, where guests can sling webs at menacing bots. The campus will also include restaurants and experiences featuring Ant-Man and The Wasp, Doctor Strange, Thor, and Iron Man, plus a “Black Panther” ride that will fly guests to his home of Wakanda.

—A new coaster called “Wandering Oaken’s Sliding Sleighs,” set for Hong Kong Disneyland, as part of a dedicated Frozen-themed land.

—“Guardians of the Galaxy: Cosmic Rewind,” a new storytelling coaster that rotates to focus on the action, planned for Epcot, in Orlando.

 —A Zootopia-themed land at Shanghai Disney Resort, in China, designed around the hit animated film.

Moana inspires a playful new water trail at Epcot.

—“Remy’s Ratatouille Adventure” ride, for Epcot, and La Creperie de Paris restaurant, themed around Pixar’s “Ratatouille”—already popular at Disney’s park in Paris.

—Rapunzel will grace the stern of the Disney Wish, the first of three new ships setting sail in early 2022.

—Tokyo’s Disney Sea will also get Frozen‘s Arendelle castle as part of its biggest expansion to date in its new “Fantasy Port” area coming in 2022. Set after the events of the film, guests will be able to visit Arendelle and enjoy a boat attraction that shares the story of the sisters from the film. In addition, guests will be able to dine in a new restaurant set inside the castle. 

Mickey and Minnie Mouse aren’t being left out of the plans, with the iconic characters getting their first dedicated attraction, “Mickey & Minnie’s Runaway Railway,” at Disney’s Hollywood Studios, in Florida, in 2020, and Disneyland, in 2022.

Even the blue genie from Aladdin, whose live action version starring Will Smith, surpassed expectations when it conjured up $1.026 billion, is represented with a new park-planning app launching in 2020.

“We spend a lot of time listening to what our guests want, what you like, and how you prefer to spend your time with us,” said Disney Parks, Experiences and Products Chairman Bob Chapek, at the D23 Expo Sunday. The event is Disney’s version of Comic-Con, held every other year in Anaheim, Calif., just across the street from Disneyland.

“What we hear from literally millions of our guests is they want more ways to experience their favorite stories, more ways to personalize their visit, and more experiences that only Disney can provide,” Chapek added. “Every attraction should tell a story that resonates with guests of all ages, which is why we are adding more Disney, Pixar, Marvel, and Star Wars into our parks.”

Not every new planned attraction is based on an attraction that necessarily resonated with audiences the way Disney had planned.

Mary Poppins is getting her first attraction at a Disney park, at Epcot’s United Kingdom pavilion, but last winter’s Mary Poppins Returns underperformed, with a nearly $350 million worldwide haul.

New Pavilion for Epcot
Epcot at Walt Disney World Resort in Florida is undergoing a transformation, with new attractions and experiences. A new pavilion will be home base for Epcot’s signature festivals. The three-level structure will feature a plaza level, a middle expo level, and a park that sits in the sky on the top level, complete with a view of World Showcase.

Park Attendance

Disney is giving Epcot, one of its four parks at Walt Disney World, in Orlando, the biggest planned makeover with new attractions, shows and experiences, after recent successful upgrades to Animal Kingdom and Disney’s Hollywood Studios, which now are boosted with lands dedicated to Star Wars, Avatar, and Toy Story.

Epcot’s Canada and China pavilions are getting updates with new films, while new venues will feature firework displays from new vantage points.

The entire footprint of Epcot is being reimagined, with four neighborhoods, themed around human connections, science and technology, natural beauty, and travel destinations.

Disney needs to keep its parks fresh, especially in Orlando, as competition from rivals like Universal is heating up. 

Universal recently announced plans to build an additional theme park in the area, which will house a Nintendo-themed land, expected to be a major hit with families. It already scored with two Harry Potter-themed attractions.

More than half a billion people visited theme parks around the world in 2018, a record, according to the Themed Entertainment Association, with attendance increasing 5.4% to 501 million.

Disney saw an uptick of 4.9% at its 12 parks worldwide, according to the association. It remains the top theme park operator, with Orlando’s the Magic Kingdom the most visited, with nearly 21 million people last year. The original Disneyland is still number two, with 18.6 million, followed by Tokyo Disneyland and Tokyo DisneySea.

Epcot came in at number seven, with 12.4 million, and still saw a 2% gain in visitors in 2018.

Shanghai Disneyland also surpassed expectations with 11.8 million, an increase of 7.3% over 2017.

New attractions can certainly bolster ticket sales, with Disney’s Animal Kingdom enjoying a 10% boost in attendance, last year, after the opening of an Avatar-themed land and the addition of new nighttime shows.

Follow the Money

Still, all you need to do is follow the money to see what’s inspiring the designers at Disney Imagineering these days.

The 23 movies that currently make up Marvel’s cinematic universe, have generated over $22 billion worldwide to date, with nine of them crossing the $1 billion mark. This year has been sensational for Disney, with five of its movies topping $1 billion at the box office, with two more expected with Star Wars: Rise of Skywalker and Frozen 2. Angelina Jolie’s Maleficent sequel is also expected to perform well.

As a result, Disney is stepping up to continue the story at its parks, with the company expected to spend $24 billion on updates to its resorts and cruise ships over the next five years—more than it spent to buy Lucasfilm, Marvel, and Pixar combined, according to analysts.

Lack of Imagineering

Disney may be looking to give guests more of “what they want” to keep the parks filled in the future, but would Epcot look the way it does now were it being designed today?

In the past, Disney’s Imagineers were more open to creating original rides like “Test Track,” “Mission: Space,” and “Soarin,’” using new technologies to wow guests.

Designers also explored new architectural designs, like the massive oversized golf ball, which houses “Spaceship Earth,” an icon for Disney over the past 37 years. That, too, is being overhauled with a story driven attraction “that will appeal to the variety of guests who visit Walt Disney World,” Chapek says.

Just steps from Spaceship Earth will be a new statue dedicated to Walt Disney. He’ll be shown seated in a new section called “Dreamers Point,” in a lush garden that includes a wishing tree.

Given all the changes coming to his parks, it’s only appropriate that he’s sitting down to take it all in.

Editor’s Note, Aug. 27, 2019: The text has been updated to reflect that the Star Wars hotel is currently only officially slated for Orlando.

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