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Princesses, pirates...and villains?
Is a fifth theme park on the way to Disney World?
Generating over 50 million visitors a year and enough revenue to allow Scrooge McDuck to swim in an Olympic-sized pool of gold coins, Florida’s Walt Disney World is already the most popular and successful theme park resort on the planet–by a considerable margin. Its four theme parks dominate the industry’s attendance charts with the Magic Kingdom invariably sitting at the very top of the list. That hasn’t stopped speculation about a fifth theme park, however.
It’s been 25 years since the company opened the resort’s last park, Disney’s Animal Kingdom. Might The Mouse finally be ready to build a new gate? Given recent comments by CEO Bob Iger, that would certainly seem to be the case. Which inevitably leads to the next question: What would be the theme and scope of a fifth Disney World park?
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Iger raised some eyebrows at The Walt Disney Company’s annual shareholder meeting earlier this week when he casually mentioned plans to invest $17 billion in the Florida resort. That’s billion with a “b.” 17 of them. That’s an extraordinary amount of money. Oh, and the CEO said the investment would take place over the next ten years. Talk about the 21st century’s Disney Decade.
I remember when Epcot opened in 1982, reporters breathlessly announced that it cost $1 billion to build the park and that it was the world’s largest construction project. It seemed like an impossibly big number back then, but it’s quaint by today’s standards. It’s estimated that Epcot’s newest attraction, Guardians of the Galaxy: Cosmic Rewind, cost upwards of $500 million alone. (Granted, it’s an incredibly sophisticated, groundbreaking attraction.) Still, according to inflation calculators, $1 billion would equate to about $3.1 billion in today’s dollars. No matter how you parse it, $17 billion would translate into a supercalifragilisticexpialidocious amount of new development at Disney World.
The bold announcement seems at least a bit curious given the company’s current austerity posture. Disney recently conducted the first round of layoffs that will reduce its worldwide staff by 7,000, and it has pledged to cut $5.5 billion from its budget. Contrast that with the heaping wads of capital expenditures about to be lavished on Disney World and consider that Iger also estimated the investments would create 13,000 new positions at the mega-resort.
Given the imminent opening of Universal’s Epic Universe, it would make sense for Disney to announce a fifth gate to divert at least some of the attention away from its crosstown rival. So what might the Imagineers be conjuring? Tokyo DisneySea has proved to be quite popular and could provide a great template for a new park.
But I’m hoping that The Mouse mines its dark side and gives fans what they’ve been craving: a Disney villains park. The company strongly hinted just such a scenario at last September’s D23 Expo. During a what-if, blue sky presentation, Imagineers presented stirring concept art for a “beyond Big Thunder Mountain” expansion at the Magic Kingdom that could include a villains land. It elicited perhaps the biggest ovation from the audience. Why not expand the concept to an entire park?
As long as we’re dreaming, how great would it be for Disney to not only explore darker themes, but pair it with some truly thrilling coasters and other rides? The company has upped the ante with offerings such as Tron and Cosmic Rewind, but it has largely ceded high-impact, scream-worthy attractions to Universal. (VelociCoaster anyone?)
I remember having a conversation years ago with legendary Disney Imagineer Marty Sklar about Disney embracing its villains and going full tilt with thrill rides. He told me it would never happen and disparaged the notion of ever building an “iron park” like Six Flags. Times have changed, however.
Universal has proven that it’s possible–indeed it seems to be Universal Creative’s defining trait–to incorporate world-class thrills as part of highly themed E-Ticket rides. People clearly love what they are doing. And it appears that major thrills are on order for Epic Universe.
It’s time, therefore, for Disney to step it up. Just think of what $17 billion could buy in pioneering, scare-the-pants-off-you rides. Imagine what the Imagineers could develop if they were unshackled from their Mickey Mouse gloves and challenged to create next-level thrills. Should Disney go this route, I predict Scrooge McDuck would need to build a second Olympic-sized pool to hold his gold coins.
Do you think Disney should build a villains park? Should it include big-time thrills? What ideas/hopes/dreams do you have for such a park?