What Is Disney’s Secret Project?
When The Walt Disney Company hosts D-23 events, we can safely expect the unexpected. Even so, virtually every Disney analyst felt sandbagged by a recent scheduling update. With zero fanfare whatsoever, Disney revealed that they will spend an hour on August 22nd discussing “Secret Walt Disney Company Project.” What’s going on? We honestly have no idea, but let’s engage in a bit of fun speculation.
What Do We Know?
Please don’t think less of me when I answer, “Absolutely nothing.” I spend a lot of time tracking Disney across all phases of their company, and I keep my ears to the ground about rumors. When Disney suddenly reveals a secret project, I know that it could mean literally anything.
Disney has its fingers in an impossibly large number of pies. While speculation will understandably center on theme parks, you shouldn’t assume that’s the topic here. It could just as easily be about credit cards or transportation or more children’s hospital initiatives. We just don’t know, but that’s why we’re all excitedly guessing! Let’s take a look at a few enticing possibilities…
How Universal Plays a Factor
Let’s start with the big one. A few days ago, Universal suddenly added a press conference to their agenda. On August 1st, the mayor of Orlando and the governor of Florida joined Universal officials to announce Epic Universe, a third themed gate at Universal Orlando Resort. What does this news have to do with Disney?
The real answer is possibly nothing. The secondary answer is that the new Universal project pressures Disney. Since the opening of Disney’s Animal Kingdom in 1998, Universal has added one Orlando park, Islands of Adventure. Now, they’ve announced another one.
In fact, three of the last four parks in the Orlando area are Universal projects. Meanwhile, Disney lowered their early ambitions for Animal Studios and faced negative press about it until Pandora – The World of Avatar opened in 2017.
As I’ve discussed, the idea that Universal and Disney are in competition is ridiculous. A kid with a lemonade stand is no more of a threat to Coca-Cola. I’m only mildly exaggerating. Universal’s theme park attendance in 2018 was a bit under 50.1 million. Disney dominated them with 157.3 million. That’s either more than 100 million or triple, whichever sounds more impressive to you.
A New Theme Park?
Still, the perception is that Universal is up-and-coming. Disney’s been intransigent, at least in North America. Overseas, they’ve added parks in Hong Kong and Shanghai, but the national media doesn’t get excited over what happens abroad.
At some point, Disney needs to add a new theme park. It’s entirely possible that this secret project is that park…but I doubt it.
Even so, let’s explore the idea for just a moment. The start of 2019 marked the end of a 50-year struggle for the company. Disney had tried to buy cattle rancher Oren Brown’s land since the 1960s! In January, he finally sold his property.
In combination with another purchase, Disney now has 2,540 acres of prime real estate near Walt Disney World. The combined total of all four Disney gates is less than 1,130 acres. Now, I’m not factoring parking facilities, work areas, or the like when I say that.
I’m merely pointing out that Disney does have space for a new theme park. At the time of the purchase, everyone involved with the project indicated that it was land intended for conservation purposes. It would be a bad look for Disney if they lied about that.
To a larger point, I just don’t believe that Disney could keep a project that ambitious as a secret for this long. Similarly, even if the company were to announce a new park, there’s no guarantee that it would be in North America.
So, please don’t get your hopes up, friends. I’d rather you be pleasantly shocked than crushed during the secret project reveal.
A New Themed Land?
Universal tends to think big, while Disney thinks small and efficient. To wit, Universal opened a waterpark named Volcano Bay that has performed very well thus far. It’s also experienced a slew of problems. Simply stated, Universal overpromised and under-delivered.
Disney’s business mantra is the exact opposite. They’d rather do one thing well than several things sloppily. As a point of comparison, the Disneyland debut of Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge has gone off without a hitch. The place even survived an earthquake.
Meanwhile, Universal has introduced a terrific new attraction called Hagrid’s Magical Creatures Motorbike Adventure. It’s an unqualified triumph…when it works. And that isn’t often. Universal’s had to open it later and then close it earlier to perform unexpected maintenance.
On a different note, Disney has also consistently responded to splashy Universal updates with news of their own. For example, Disney announced Pandora in 2011 in the wake of The Wizarding World of Harry Potter in 2010. As mentioned, The World of Avatar wouldn’t open for another six years, yet Disney stole headlines from their peers.
For these reasons, don’t be surprised if Disney’s big reveal is a new themed land, one that’s likely to grab headlines. While the company’s shown reluctance to build the fifth gate, they have certainly added plenty of new and renovated lands in recent years.
I can even tie the two thoughts together. Universal will make a multi-billion investment with Epic Universe. Where did they get that cash? Isn’t it possible that some of the money came from Disney buying back their rights to Marvel?
That’s the kind of themed land that would steal headlines from literally any other project. It’s blind speculation based on no facts whatsoever, but hey! We’re all just guessing right now.
Did you watch Universal’s grand announcement? At one point, the chairman and CEO of Universal’s theme parks, Tom Williams, all but begged for a Virgin Trains USA stop at the Orlando Civic Center. He did this because it’s potentially big business for Universal to get a high-speed rail station close to Universal’s parks.
The desperation in Williams’ voice might have told a story. Most infrastructure analysts believe that a light rail station will come to Walt Disney World soon. Since this project was semi-confirmed in May, I don’t think it would qualify.
However, an entire transportation infrastructure conversation could. Let’s say that Disney chose to expand the monorail. Wouldn’t everyone want full details? Similarly, a massive investment in new Disney Skyliner stations would require more detail as well. They wouldn’t be secret projects, though. Would they?
You know what might qualify? Self-driving cars. I mentioned this last year when Jalopnik relayed details about a failed project. All the way back in 2017, park officials had signed off on automated transportation around the Disney campus. Unfortunately, the technology company employees wound up suing each other, ending the project.
Could Disney have something similar ready to roll out? If they did, it would make the recent Disney bus and monorail renovations a bit odd. I think this one bears watching, however, with or without a secret project reveal.
My final area of speculation today is a more general thought. Six years ago, Disney unveiled the Magic Band, a remarkable piece of technology. Using these bands, guests can pay for anything at the parks. All they need to do is tap the band at a cash register. The credit card on file pays for the transaction.
This technology is seamless. It was also years ahead of its time. Today, Apple Pay and Google Pay have mimicked the concept to much success. Disney executives have surely tracked the popularity of this form of a hands-free financial transaction. And they likely want a piece of the pie.
Also, anyone involved with economics will tell you that the real money is in money. Being the middleman on any financial transaction is the quickest way to earn big money. As the most revered company on the planet, Disney may want to cash in on their reputation, so to speak.
I know from following Disney Research and many tech sites that the company does have some exciting technologies in play. They also have brand awareness and trust levels that surpass most other companies.
But I don’t think this idea is sexy enough to qualify.
So, what do I think Disney’s about to reveal? I’m going to take an obvious one. Technically, the company hasn’t confirmed Marvel Land at Disney California Adventure yet. It’s an open secret that I’ve mentioned on MickeyBlog for at least six months now…but it hasn’t been announced yet. At this moment, I’m inclined to believe that this is the “secret project” in question.
As a Disney fan, I really, really want a Villains Park or Beastly Kingdom at Walt Disney World, though.