By Chad Emerson
The large park and resort industry has been on a run of explosive growth through new rides, shows, and parks (especially in overseas markets). We’ve seen cutting-edge, immersive lands like the Wizarding Worlds of Harry Potter, an annual onslaught of faster, taller and more thrilling coasters, and dark rides and shows that have introduced us to virtual reality and exceptional special effects like never before.
The Walt Disney World Resort is no exception to this trend with 2017’s debut of the groundbreaking Avatar-themed land at Animal Kingdom and the highly anticipated Star Wars land at the Hollywood Studios Park. Both represent technological advancements nearly unparalleled in the global theme park industry. This year, though, Disney World took a decidedly different approach while still introducing a major new land to its Hollywood Studios property.
In this issue of The Large Park Report, we examine how Disney’s new Toy Story Land offers more modest technology but a super high-level of “fun”—returning to some degree to the original Walt Disney approach.
The Power of Pixar
When Disney purchased Pixar in 2006 for over $7 billion, it was wagering a great deal on being able to generate new revenues from iconic existing Pixar characters like those created in Finding Nemo, Monsters, Inc. and The Incredibles. One obvious route was to order sequels which they did, and which have been very profitable in all three of those cases.
Some would argue that the Grand Prize in the purchase, though, was the Toy Story franchise. Even though these movies did not generate as much worldwide box office revenue, the Toy Story characters seemed to make the deepest emotional connection with audiences when you add in additional revenues like merchandising (after all, a movie about toys appears perfectly set for a merchandise campaign).
In addition to sequels and post-box office revenue (such as DVD sales and streaming rights), many of the Pixar films seemed “ready-made” to serve as the storyline for new theme park rides and shows. With a large supply of characters that appealed to a broad audience, the Pixar films were quickly introduced into existing Epcot and Magic Kingdom areas with new shows and rides based on those characters.
It wasn’t until 2012, though, that Disney debuted the first new area entirely themed to a Pixar movie: the $1 billion plus Cars Land at Disney California Adventure. Today, many credit Cars Land with largely reviving Disney’s least successful domestic park and re-introducing guests to Disneyland’s sister park in Anaheim.
The sure-fire power of Pixar as a theme park experience was now fully evident.
Woody Meets Mickey
While smaller in scale, the Toy Story Mania 4-D attraction introduced at Hollywood Studios in 2008 helped draw guests to Hollywood Studios much like Cars Land did for California Adventure. At the time, Hollywood Studios offered several successful shows and thrill rides (think Raiders of the Lost Ark and Tower of Terror) but didn’t really have an iconic all ages-friendly attraction like its sister Disney World parks did.
Toy Story Mania quickly changed that as huge lines continued from opening day leading Disney to add multiple new ride tracks to accommodate guest demand. While the Toy Story Mania technology was extremely sophisticated (such as the advanced automation and wireless ethernet systems), one could make a strong argument that the fantastic success of the attraction is not because of the whiz-bang technology but because the ride is one of the most fun attractions anywhere in the amusement industry.
From its interactivity and familiar characters to the bright colors and happy sounds, Toy Story Mania arguably defines what “Fun” means when it comes to a theme park attraction.
Fortunately, Disney didn’t miss this lesson when it began to plan its first full Pixar area at Walt Disney World. With this summer’s opening of Toy Story Land at Hollywood Studios, Disney’s creative teams clearly designed the entire land with “Fun” in mind.
The 10-plus acre addition includes a new entrance to Toy Story Mania and increased capacity for that attraction. Guests also experience two new attractions: Alien Swirling Saucers and Slinky Dog Dash. Both rides are all ages-friendly with Slinky Dog Dash offering slightly more thrills than you might expect for a “family coaster” especially a modest mid-ride launch onto the second part of the ride track.
Neither attraction will “wow” the rider with largest, fastest, biggest type features though. That hardly matters since both offer nicely-themed, visually-appealing fun. As this writer swirled around the saucers and sped through the dash, all you could do is smile and enjoy the experience. Just enough thrills to hold on but not too much to distract you from taking in all the bright lights and happy sounds while you spun and dashed through Toy Story Land.
This is an important lesson because fun can be just as rewarding and thrilling, if not more. Disney nailed this without trying to make either ride too complicated with elaborate backstories or on-ride interactivity that might distract a rider from the Fun (which for Slinky Dog Dash clocks in at over two minutes—an impressive length for a family coaster).
Another fun feature to Toy Story Land is Woody’s Lunchbox—initially the only food and beverage location in the new area. The seating and theming is cleverly designed as if the venue were actually Andy’s lunchbox and you were experiencing it at “toy size” (as the rest of the land is designed to be experienced with the guest viewing it from a toy’s smaller perspective). However, even more interesting is how Disney’s food and beverage planners developed the menu to replicate many of the items that you might really find in a child’s lunchbox.
That means it’s not surprising to see that kids’ meals include a mandarin orange, Babybel snack cheese and other items many parents have packed for lunch for their kids over the years. This is not to say that Woody’s Lunchbox is haute cuisine or even breaks new culinary ground. But it is fun. Fun to visit, fun to order from and fun to eat at—the Toy Story Land success carried over to food and beverage.
As fun as Toy Story Land is, it currently can become a bit of a logistical logjam when crowds get large because it is currently a cul-de-sac style design with one way in and one way out. This will change once the adjacent Star Wars Galaxy’s Edge Land opens and creates another access point. However, that’s still at least a year away which means two summers and one holiday season of tight traffic. Disney may have been better served by creating a secondary entrance as they did at Pandora or even maintained with the new Fantasyland project at Magic Kingdom several years ago.
This temporary logistical challenge though is not enough to thwart the big chunk of fun that is Toy Story Land. Indeed, as this writer interviewed three different Disney officials as part of the grand opening media festivities, each one said essentially the same thing:
The Toy Story Land project was one of the most fun ones they’ve ever worked on.
Their smiles in saying that will clearly carry over to the guests that experience this fun-filled new Disney World experience.