Should Walt Disney World Add a Fifth Theme Park?
The Michael Eisner tenure at The Walt Disney Company started with glory but ended in shame. During the Disney Decade, then-CEO Eisner promised that his company would expand the theme park empire dramatically.
When Disney’s Animal Kingdom debuted in 1998, Eisner promised the arrival of a new themed land, Beastly Kingdom, soon afterward. He intended to follow it with an entire fifth gate at Walt Disney World. More than 20 years later, we’re still waiting. However, circumstances have changed in recent months due to pressure from an industry competitor.
So, now seems like the perfect time to address an age-old question. Should Walt Disney World add the long-rumored fifth theme park? Here are a few reasons why the idea is good, along with a couple of reasons why Disney should wait.
Let’s be blunt. Universal Studios is making Disney look bad. As I’ll explain in a bit, it’s a nonsense argument that the two theme parks are in competition. For Universal to believe that is akin to me thinking I could beat Zion Williamson in a slam dunk competition. It’s delusional at best.
Here’s the problem, though. The media loooooves to run headlines that make Disney look reactive rather than proactive. It’s not the least bit true, as demonstrated by the excellence of Pandora – The World of Avatar.
For years, headlines suggested that Disney had chosen terribly with the Avatar intellectual property. Now, the place consistently draws massive park crowds.
Disney doesn’t do anywhere near as much wrong as its critics want you to believe. However, in place of hundreds of “Disney was awesome again today!” stories, people run stories that paint the company in an unflattering light.
Recently, Universal Studios announced its third themed gate. Epic Universe joins Volcano Bay as a relatively new addition to the Universal Orlando campus. Just by making the announcement, Universal has placed Disney on the defensive. It’s ridiculous, but that’s where we’re at.
How can Disney go on the offensive? The estimate for Epic Universe’s opening is 2023. At any point before then, Disney can reveal its own new theme park.
Since they’ll go last, they’ll have access to better technology, and the company already staffs the finest theme park inventors on the planet. So, Disney would shrug off the competition as trivial while winning the industry arms race, too.
Good Theming Potential
Speaking of reveals, rumors of potential Disney theme park ideas have existed for 25 years now. Former Imagineers have indicated that plans existed in tandem with Animal Kingdom, as the company’s philosophy at the time dictated quick expansion. The current CEO, Robert Iger, is more concerned with maximizing the existing spaces.
We still know what those plans are, though. The most exciting one for many is Dark Kingdom. That’s a popular internet term for a park that celebrates the villains in the Disney universe. Yes, the Dark Queen, Maleficent, Oogie Boogie, and Dr. Facilier would have a home of their very own. It’s akin to Disney Villains After Hours, which does exceptionally well at Magic Kingdom.
Of course, I favor a different plan. I referenced Beastly Kingdom earlier. I’ve previously written about this themed land that Eisner cut from Animal Kingdom. At a later date, I’ll examine all potential Disney themes that the company could construct as the fifth gate.
However, I’ll add that Beastly Kingdom as a full themed land would drive theme park attendance. Modern Imagineers could finally fully embrace the fantasy realms that Walt Disney treasured. It’s the closest we could get to a 21st-century reboot of Disneyland.
I visited Walt Disney World during October/early November of 2019 and January of 2020. Those times are historically the offseason. The place was mobbed every day we were there…and it rained quite a bit. Nothing deters people from vacationing in Orlando these days.
Believe it or not, this type of success has caused a weird problem for Disney. In 2008, the Walt Disney World campus hosted 47.1 million visitors. By 2018, those numbers had increased to 58.3 million. That’s nearly 24 percent growth in a decade.
Let me be clear. Disney has NOT added 24 percent more attractions during that timeframe. Also, those numbers are significantly lower than what I expect park traffic statistics to reveal for 2019. So, where is everybody going?
I just wrote an article about interactive line queues at Magic Kingdom. Disney added almost all of these attraction elements over the past decade. The company didn’t do so randomly. It’s a tacit acknowledgment that guests are waiting in line now more than ever before.
Even FastPass+ can only mitigate the situation somewhat. As such, Disney’s going to replace a lot of the current system with Disney Genie later this year. Still, the BEST solution is to pull traffic away from the existing parks. A fifth gate would do so. This aspect alone almost necessitates the construction of a new theme park over the next few years.
I believe this because the one thing I can say For CERTAIN is that Walt Disney World park traffic isn’t diminishing anytime soon.
During calendar 2018 – we don’t have confirmed 2019 numbers yet – Disney theme parks serviced 157.3 million customers. In other words, it’s like the entire country of Russia visited the Happiest Place on Earth, and they invited Belgium to join them. Disney hosts a mind-boggling number of people each year.
The gap between Disney and others in the theme park industry would fill the Grand Canyon. Merlin Entertainment and Universal Parks & Resorts received 117 million guests…combined. The difference between first and second in the industry is 90.3 million. That’s more people than the entirety of Germany!
So, even though I discussed the perception of competition earlier, the reality is that Disney’s on its own island. Their market share dominance borders on a monopoly, and that’s why Universal’s making them look bad. If a much smaller company can afford to build new parks in Orlando, why can’t Disney?
From a public relations perspective, Disney NEEDS this win. The company has done so much right with Marvel and Pixar and the theme park division as a whole. Any blemish like this sticks out and gives critics ammunition in their tireless onslaught against the Mouse.
By building the fifth gate, Disney shuts up everyone, at least for a while. That’s reason enough to do begin construction. However, the company does have a couple of viable reasons not to do it just yet.
Better Funding Options
In 2017, Disney’s market cap was “only” $147 billion. As I type this, it’s at $240 billion, which is 63 percent growth in a little over two years. Obviously, a lot of that stems from the Fox acquisition, but that transaction cuts both ways.
Disney’s still paying for Fox and will for a while to come. They’ve also just accepted to some short-term financial losses to build Disney+. Realistically, the company’s investment capital is limited right now.
This seems like a good time to mention that Shanghai Disneyland cost $5.5 billion to build. Park officials had only estimated it at $3.66 billion. So, it ran over budget by 50 percent.
Obviously, the fifth gate at Walt Disney World shouldn’t cost quite that much, but Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge came with a price tag of $1 billion on its own. Just spit-balling a guesstimate here, Disney would need to spend upwards of $4 billion for a fifth gate.
Is that decision the best use of resources? Should the company do more to improve the existing parks instead? Critics have detailed the broken attraction elements, lackluster park cleanliness, and show-related budget cuts for years now. With billions of dollars in play, Disney could perfect its Orlando theme parks and probably Disneyland to boot.
The problem with choices like this one is that nobody’s right or wrong. A fifth gate that meets expectations quickly pays for itself and generates an entirely new revenue stream. Conversely, a disappointing one like, say, Walt Disney Studios Park at Disneyland Paris qualifies as a massive waste of resources. In such a scenario, improving current parks is better.
These are the hard calls that have defined the lives of high-level Disney executives for generations now. And financial outlays aren’t the only problem…
The worst thing that happened at Walt Disney World last year was the Disney Skyliner shutdown. The oddest part of Universal Orlando Resort’s expansion plan for its next gate is the location. The new facility will open several miles away from the current ones, introducing new transportation challenges on the campus.
Disney would face a similar situation with a fifth gate. Now, don’t get me wrong. The company has a lot more experience in dealing with such concerns than Universal. However, I-4 and the back roads at Walt Disney World are already suffering from gridlock.
A new theme park comes with that much more traffic. In fact, it’ll face overwhelming congestion issues during its first few years in operation. Early adopters will flood the roads with cars. Anyone who has driven in Orlando recently just winced at the thought of it.
Presumably, Disney would emphasize either monorails or an extension to the Disney Skyliner. To date, the gondolas haven’t proven as reliable as the company had hoped. Meanwhile, the prevailing belief is that more monorail routes are prohibitively expensive.
A few years ago, Disney flirted with autonomous vehicles before the tech company collapsed, leaving them without a partner. Such technology is coming one day soon, just like Hyperloop seems likely. And the Virgin Trains station at Walt Disney World is under development, too.
Disney officials may believe that the time isn’t right for a new fifth gate. Once transportation options improve in Orlando, they could plan a theme park with better, more efficient logistics.
Given all of these factors, the idea of a Walt Disney World expansion doesn’t have a right or wrong answer at the moment. If we get one, we’ll all love it. But if we don’t, we’ll appreciate the improvements that Disney makes with its current parks. Personally, I’m always hoping for Beastly Kingdom to become a reality, though.