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Disney’s next big expansion places visitors in the middle of a beloved film franchise — which is a sentence that can apply to many of the entertainment giant’s projects these days.
And there are many: Disney’s capital expenditures this year are expected to total about $4.6 billion, up from $3.6 billion in 2017. Of that, $3.2 billion went to parks and resorts last year, underscoring the escalating competition among theme park owners.
The latest addition is Toy Story Land, an 11-acre, three-ride area packed with oversized building blocks, construction sets, Christmas lights, green army men, and famous toys, including Woody, Slinky Dog, and Buzz Lightyear. It officially opens Saturday, but Disney held a media preview Thursday.
Set in the character Andy’s backyard, the land is designed to make visitors feel like they are fellow toys playing while their owner is away. (In typical Disney attention to detail, Andy’s giant footprints can be spotted on the ground throughout the land.)
“You’re shrunk down to the size of a Green Army man, joined with all your favorite characters from the Toy Story franchise and able to walk through this land in a toy’s shoes,” said Ivan Chan, project manager with Walt Disney Imagineering. “It’s just giving you that experience that kids have always imagined, of being able to interact with their toys.”
And their movies. While the first Toy Story came out in 1995, sequels are still coming. So the franchise has grossed nearly $2 billion at the box office globally with Toy Story 4 is set for release next year.
Recent and upcoming park expansions around the world have been built around Frozen, Avatar, Guardians of the Galaxy, Ratatouille, Tron, the broader Marvel cinematic universe, and, of course, Star Wars.
“If you go back a few years and you look at when they bought these IPs [intellectual properties], they bought Star Wars, they bought Marvel, they have to use them,” said Dennis Speigel, president of consulting firm International Theme Park Services. He said theme parks are turning to intellectual property for inspiration more than ever.
“It’s the right thing to be doing, it’s the right place to be placing their capital in the parks,” he said. “They just have to be judicious and make sure that they spend their money across the correct demographic strata.”
Catering to the Full-Family Crowd
Park executives have stressed that they want Toy Story Land to appeal to every member of a multi-generational family, from young kids to grandparents. Look no further than the restaurant, Woody’s Lunch Box, which serves everything from grilled cheese sandwiches to alcoholic lemonade and chocolate-hazelnut desserts with candied bacon.
“What our guests have told us is the family wants to stay together,” Phil Holmes, the park’s vice president, told Skift earlier this year. “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?”
Millennials — who might have seen the original in 1995 when they were young and now watch the movies with their own kids — are especially in the target zone.
Chan, the project manager, is 28. He said he thought about his generation as he was working on the expansion.
“I was doing it for the same kids that have grown up with the movies along with inspiring the next generation of kids that might not have seen the movie,” he said.
None of the three rides in the land are too extreme: Toy Story Mania, an interactive carnivalesque video game that already existed but has been expanded, has no height restriction, while guests must be 32 inches tall to ride Alien Swirling Saucers and 38 inches to ride Slinky Dog Dash, which is described as a “family-friendly coaster.”
“It’s not the Incredible Hulk or anything like that,” said Duncan Dickson, an associate professor at the University of Central Florida’s Rosen College of Hospitality Management and former Disney executive. “It’s fun for mom and dad and the kids that are 6 to 10 to go on. … It diversifies the product at Hollywood Studios definitely.”
Boost for Disney’s Hollywood Studios
Last year, Hollywood Studios had the lowest attendance of all the parks at Walt Disney World Resort in Orlando, with about 10.7 million visitors, according to an annual industry estimate. That number was a slight decline from the year before, the kind of slump that is often seen before a big new attraction opens.
The new land will likely give it a major lift in visitors. According to the attendance study, published by the Themed Entertainment Association and the economics practice at the engineering firm AECOM, Disney’s Animal Kingdom saw attendance jump more than 15 percent to 12.5 million after opening Pandora — The World of Avatar last year.
Greg Antonelle, chief brand officer for the Disney-only travel agency MickeyTravels, said he expects his own park habits to change.
“We’ve been coming to Walt Disney World for years and years, and for a lot of the time it’s almost been like a half-day park for us,” said Antonelle, who owns the business with his wife. “With Toy Story Land there, it probably becomes a full-day park.”
Clients have been enthusiastic about the opening, he said.
“I would call it somewhat hysteria,” Antonelle said. “We’re hearing people are going to try to get to the park at 2, 3, 4 in the morning on Saturday and obviously wait, almost like a Black Friday type of event. People want to be the first in line.” (Opening time is 8 a.m. Saturday.)
By late next year, the park’s profile will have jumped into hyperspace with the opening of Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge.
Orlando Theme Park Wars Continue
Unlike last year, when Disney and Universal both opened major expansions in the same week, the rest of Orlando’s attractions are relatively quiet this year.
But for the longer term, the theme park wars rage on, with Universal vastly expanding its resort. A new hotel is opening this summer, and a Nintendo addition is coming at some point. The operator, part of Comcast, is widely expected to announce an entirely new park; it has been buying up pieces of land for years.
Universal’s two theme parks have seen attendance grow significantly in recent years, following the opening of Harry Potter-themed lands in 2010 and 2014.
“In three to four years with everything that Disney and Universal have something online, it’s going to really jar the attendance and the tourism growth in the whole market,” Speigel said. “When you look at both of the operators and you see the capital — I mean, it’s the most capital I’ve ever seen coming online as long as I’ve been in this business.”