Well, Universal Studios Orlando’s Wizarding World of Harry Potter has finally opened, and it really shows what Disney Imagineers can do when they’re given a free hand. It’s just a shame they had to go work for Universal to get it. Kevin Yee’s review was especially effusive about Potter’s centerpiece attraction, a coaster/dark ride called Forbidden Journey that’s unlike anything Disney has right now. One line from his review especially caught my eye: “The ride itself spares no expense.” Spares no expense? You know, there was a time when Disney spared no expense. It wasn’t that they spent money recklessly, but a visitor to the parks or resorts never got the impression that the company was sacrificing customer experience to save a few bucks. That is not the case anymore. Let me cite just one recent example: the return of the Michael Jackson vehicle, Captain EO.
During its first run at the Disney parks, the show had in-theater smoke and laser effects that accentuated the action onscreen. Responding to the rumors last year that EO would be returning, Disney CEO Bob Iger said “It’s the kind of thing that, if we did it, would get a fair amount of attention and we’d want to make sure we do it right.” What happened? You know what happened: Captain EO opened at Disneyland on February 23 without the smoke and the lasers, and there’s no reason to believe they’ll be present at EPCOT or any of the show’s other venues at Disney parks around the world. I’d understand if the show was only going to be around for six months or so (actually, no I wouldn’t. This is Disney, for Pete’s sake, not Six Flags!) but the word is it’s going to be around for one or two years. The in-theater effects may have just been a gimmick, but I’d argue that this twenty four-year-old show needs all the help it can get.
Now, in all fairness things have improved from their late-90s, early-2000s low, when even basic maintenance was obviously being neglected just to save a few bucks. But a basic fact of the business world is that nothing puts the fear of God (or their customers) in a company like some serious competition. Another unfortunate fact is that a company that’s been without competitors for a long time will generally fail to recognize them when they materialize. For a real-world example of that, look no farther than Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer’s initial reaction to the iPhone. He laughingly dismissed it and expressed satisfaction with Microsoft’s current smartphone strategy. Never in his wildest dreams did he imagine that the iPhone would race past Windows Mobile like it was standing still and three years later Microsoft’s share of the smartphone market would be somewhere close to zero.
That’s why I’m worried about Disney. Florida’s Magic Kingdom has long been the most-visited theme park in the world, and the Walt Disney World Resort is Florida’s most popular vacation destination. Judging by Team Disney Orlando’s disinterest in making substantive improvements to the property, it seems obvious that they can’t imagine things any other way. On the WDWMagic forums not too long ago, Disney videographer extraordinaire Martin Smith listed just a few projects that the Orlando executive team has vetoed in the last three years:
- Imagination 4
- Space Mountain 2.0 (ostensibly with onboard audio, like the Disneyland version)
- a World Showcase project
- an Illuminations replacement called Skydance
- a “Lucasland” area at Disney’s Hollywood Studios
- a new attraction at Animal Kingdom
Why were these projects vetoed? From what people in the know are saying (and let me emphasize that I am not one of those people) the executive train of thought goes something like this: “Walt Disney World’s parks are some of the most visited in the world, so why should we try to improve anything when we can just spend the money on executive bonuses instead?”
“Ah, but what about the Fantasyland expansion project now underway about the Magic Kingdom?”, you ask. A lot of people may disagree with me on this, but the Fantasyland project is not Disney’s response to Harry Potter. It’s a response to the fact that on the busiest days of the year, the Magic Kingdom reaches its maximum capacity and is forced to turn away customers eager to enter the park and spend money there. Don’t believe me? Consider this: The Wizarding World of Harry Potter didn’t take anyone by surprise; it was years in the making. Disney had plenty of time to ready up a slate of offerings to compete with it. And what did we get for this, the Summer of Potter? Captain EO and the Main Street Electrical Parade! Zip-a-dee-frakking-doo-dah. (Pardon my Caprican)
The best thing that could happen to Disney right now is for The Wizarding World of Harry Potter to be such a huge hit that Universal is inspired to bring the rest of their parks up to that same level of quality. Hopefully, Universal sees Disney’s complacency and smells blood in the water. If they could start to steal visitors from Disney, to the point where the parks actually see attendance decline, maybe that would bite Team Disney Orlando in its most sensitive spot: right in the executive bonus. Maybe then they’d turn the Imagineers loose to make some of that old-school Disney magic.