Walt Disney World’s New Fantasyland
Two Operational Issues Worth Following

January 3, 2013 No Comments

On December 6, the Walt Disney World Resort debuted the long-awaited renovations and additions to its iconic Fantasyland area in the Magic Kingdom theme park.  Dubbed “New Fantasyland”, the premiere included a new attraction, revamped rides and new dining options.  In addition, over the next two years, even more New Fantasyland attractions will arrive including a much-anticipated Snow White and the Seven Dwarves mine train that promises cutting edge ride technology.

New Fantasyland was announced over two years ago. Since, The Large Park Report has carefully tracked the developments, as they represent some of the most significant changes in decades to the world’s most-visited theme park.  With the initial phase now open, two interesting operational issues appear worth following, issues that, depending on how they are answered, will go a long way toward defining the long-term impact of the New Fantasyland.

How Will New Fantasyland Compare to the Wizarding World of Harry Potter?

While comparisons can sometimes be unfair, the reality is that, in the highly competitive world of Central Florida theme parks, major additions at competing parks are often judged against each other.  In recent years, that comparison inevitably begins with Universal Orlando’s Wizarding World of Harry Potter.  The widely acclaimed creative and commercial success of the Wizarding World represents one of the few times that Universal has generated stronger buzz than Disney World.  In terms of merchandise sales, food and beverage sales and, to a lesser degree, attendance counts, the Harry Potter themed mini-land has had a major impact on Universal’s revenue as well as travel patterns for many Central Florida guests.

While Disney World remains the more visited and more profitable of the two full-service theme park resorts, the Wizarding World has generated more momentum than ever for Universal Orlando.  The big question is:  can New Fantasyland serve as a creative and financial firewall for Disney World?

To answer this question as accurately as possible, the extent of Wizarding World versus Fantasyland needs to be examined.  Both efforts opened with major attractions, the Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey thrill ride at Universal and Under the Sea: Journey of the Little Mermaid family dark ride at Disney, as well as new dining options and repurposed existing attractions.  Standing alone, Forbidden Journey is generally considered a more significant attraction than the Little Mermaid except for one major distinction:  Little Mermaid does not have a height restriction while Forbidden Journey does.

This is one of the clearest strategic differences between New Fantasyland and Wizarding World.  While Forbidden Journey has been quite successful, the 4-foot height requirement automatically cuts out a significant chunk of potential riders.  Add to that the fact that its thrill ride nature limits others from riding for either physical reasons or fear reasons and the potential pool of Forbidden Journey riders is clearly smaller than that of the Little Mermaid.  This is significant when you consider that many Harry Potter book fans likely fall within these three excluded categories.

Universal obviously understood this reality yet still opted to make a thrill ride the feature opening attraction for the Wizarding World.  One rationale is likely the fact that Universal Orlando has typically marketed to a demographic that is older than young children and young families with children (though it does provide options such as the Dr. Seuss themed area).

Whatever the reasoning, this will be an interesting operational issue to follow.  Wizarding World has unquestionably generated a great deal of success but what if it had opted for a cutting edge family dark ride to tell the Harry Potter story rather than a thrill ride, (or, at least, first went family-friendly and then followed it with a thrill ride).  Compare that to Disney’s strategy of first adding the non-height restricted attraction and then following it with the new thrill ride, and the distinct strategies are compelling to note.

Other amusement facilities that are considering introducing new attractions as part of a major addition should carefully observe these two approaches.  While both can be successful, an amusement facility must have a strong understanding of its target market if it opts for the narrower, thrill-oriented segment versus the broader, non-height restricted audience.

Adult Beverages in the Magic Kingdom

Since opening in 1971, the Magic Kingdom has generally not served alcoholic beverages.  Exceptions have been limited to private events that occurred outside of regular park hours.  This policy dates back to the opening of Disneyland, which likewise limited alcohol to private events and the in-park private dining club.

With the opening of New Fantasyland, Disney announced that it would deviate from this policy by allowing alcohol sales inside the new full-service restaurant in Fantasyland.  While Disney has gone to great lengths to explain how the alcohol sales will be limited to a single venue during select times and will not include carry-out options, the fact is that a Rubicon has been crossed.

The big question is what will be the effect of that crossing?

The early responses are mixed though decidedly less against the policy than some might have anticipated.  At least two individuals with a close understanding of the situation noted that Disney made the announcement with trepidation. This would, after all, be one of the most significant changes they could make to the last theme park that Walt directly worked on.

Will families be turned off by the fact that one of the few alcohol-free areas would now be gone—especially one that otherwise has a very child-centered focus?

A decade or so ago, the answer might have been “Yes”.  However, as the consumption of wine and beer has become much less stigmatized in social settings, the likelihood of a mass revolt has been diminished.  Still though, with alcohol comes the potential for overconsumption.  Disney has, again, assured guests that this will be closely monitored.  Doing so, however, can present real challenges.

Consider the situation at Disney’s Epcot theme park where a growing number of guest groups engage in what’s known as “Drinking Around the World.”  This effort involves consuming a drink at each of the country pavilions that make up the World Showcase part of Epcot.  The game has become so popular that it’s not uncommon to see groups travel around that portion of the park wearing “Drinking Around the World” themed T-shirts and other paraphernalia.

We’re told that Disney has engaged internally  in extensive discussions about how to manage this fairly recent (and increasingly expanding) phenomenon.  So far, the response has been fairly passive with no direct efforts to ban organized efforts to Drink Around the World.  With guest inebriation a growing concern at World Showcase, the logical question is how passively would Disney respond to potential overconsumption in the New Fantasyland?

While there are obvious differences (for example, there is only one alcohol-serving venue in Fantasyland versus numerous ones in the World Showcase), all parks should keep a close eye on how the industry’s undisputed leader manages the introduction of alcohol into a very child- and family-focused area of the theme park.  If the process is successful, it could provide a “best practice” for other amusement facilities to emulate when considering the introduction or expansion of alcoholic beverages into their venues.

(Reach Contributor Chad Emerson at chaddemerson@gmail.com.)

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