Disney's Hollywood Studios has been a construction site for years now, which can be off-putting to guests. Some will visit for the new Toy Story-themed land this year, but we expect the biggest crowds to appear in 2019 for the Star Wars expansion.
Disney’s Hollywood Studios, an Orlando theme park devoted to the movies, has been in coming attractions mode for years now.
Officials announced a massive expansion of the nearly 30-year-old park in 2015, and serious construction has been under way for the last couple of years.
“Hollywood Studios is certainly in the middle of an amazing transformation, and clearly Toy Story is right at the forefront of that,” said Phil Holmes, the park’s vice president, at a media event previewing the new land Friday in New York City. “What’s great about this continuing transformation is, at the heart of it, to really bring our guests into those favorite stories they have, truly an immersive environment.”
At 11 acres, the new land is crafted to resemble the back yard of Andy, the owner of the toys in the Toy Story movies. It will include a family friendly roller coaster, Slinky Dog Dash; Alien Swirling Saucers, a spinning ride; and an expanded Toy Story Mania, a popular ride that doubles as an interactive video game; and a counter-service restaurant.
With its theme and decor featuring giant Jenga towers, Scrabble pieces, crayons, and Tinkertoys, the expansion seems tailor-made for families with young kids — an audience primed to embrace the characters for nostalgic reasons.
“Disney’s ideal target for Toy Story Land is parents who fell in love with Toy Story when it first hit theaters and now have kids that they’d like to introduce to these characters,” Robert Niles, founder and editor of the industry website Theme Park Insider, said in an email. The first movie came out in 1995; the fourth is set for a 2019 release, which should add a fresh wave of interest.
Holmes said the feedback he’s heard from families is that they want attractions they can experience together — not just a slew of rides that appeal to young kids or older visitors.
“What our guests have told us is the family wants to stay together,” he said. “There may be enough for all the family to do, but is there enough for them to always stay together as often as they’d like to?”
Holmes said visitors also want more immersion in movies, not necessarily glimpses of how movies are made. The park focused on making-of demonstrations and backstage tours when it opened, and the vision has evolved as consumer interest has shifted.
“Our guests have told us they want to be in that moment,” he said. “They don’t want to be passive, they don’t want to just see behind the scenes. They want to be in the action.”
The upcoming Star Wars expansion at the park is designed to do just that, with a Millennium Falcon attraction, a planetary back story, and creatively designed food options. An immersive hotel, which will be “seamlessly connected” to the park, according to officials, is also scheduled to open next year.
And Disney rival Universal has found a gold mine in its own expansions featuring the Wizarding World of Harry Potter. Universal Orlando Resort’s two theme parks with the Potter-themed lands both saw attendance increase in 2016, and last year’s revenue for the theme park division grew 10 percent to $5.4 billion.
Disney and Universal both have been on an expansion kick in Orlando for the past several years, with the addition of Harry Potter worlds at both Universal parks; an expanded Fantasyland at Magic Kingdom; a new water park at Universal last year and an Avatar-themed land that also opened last year at Disney’s Animal Kingdom. That attraction helped boost Disney attendance in the fourth quarter of 2017, executives said.
Hollywood Studios could use the bump. It was the least-attended of all four Walt Disney World Resort parks in 2016, according to the most recent worldwide attractions attendance report from the Themed Entertainment Association and the economics practice at engineering firm AECOM. Attendance at all 11 Disney parks around the world that had been open the previous year fell in 2016, though revenue increased 5 percent in fiscal 2016 and another 8 percent in fiscal 2017, to $18.4 billion.
In a ranking of the top 25 theme parks in North America, Disney’s Hollywood Studios came in at No. 5 with almost 10.8 million visitors, just ahead of Universal Studios and Universal’s Islands of Adventure in Orlando. Disney and Universal do not release park-by-park numbers in the U.S., so the report is based on educated estimates; operators are given a chance to review them before they are released.
Still, Niles does not expect the opening of Toy Story Land to turn the tide for Hollywood Studios in 2018. He predicted a “tough year” for Disney and especially Hollywood Studios.
“Disney has more than enough loyal fans who come every year to keep its attendance solid in 2018,” he said. “But it’s going to be a tough sell for casual fans to visit this year as opposed to waiting for what promises to be a much more compelling Star Wars land in 2019. I think that Star Wars is going to rob Disney of some would-be visitors this year, just like Potter did to Universal in the year before it opened.”
After the busy 2017 that saw the Avatar opening at Disney and Volcano Bay water park at Universal, Niles said this year would be considered a “down” year for Orlando despite the addition of Toy Story Land and a Fast & Furious ride at Universal.
“That’s a big year in any other market,” he said. “Orlando is a crazy-lucrative market for Disney and Universal, which is why the two companies will continue to spend big to protect and expand their markets there.”
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Photo credit: Toy Story Land will open at Disney's Hollywood Studios in Florida on June 30. Slinky Dog Dash, a family-friendly roller coaster, is pictured. Matt Stroshane / Walt Disney World Resort