Conquering Everest

Getting my family to go to Disney's Animal Kingdom is never easy. My wife hates the heat, a byproduct of Disney's (NYSE: DIS  ) boneheaded move to make its fourth gated attraction in Florida practically devoid of air-conditioned relief. My 7-year-old son enjoys the animals but tires quickly at Disney's boneheaded move to make Disney's fourth gated attraction in Florida practically devoid of rides and indoor attractions. My 12-year-old son? He's a trooper, willing to come along if only to watch the rest of the family complain about my boneheaded move to take the family to Disney's fourth gated attraction in Florida.

I was hoping that things would change once Expedition Everest opened up. At a reported cost of $100 million, Disney is banking plenty on the ability of a single thrill ride to help improve the fortunes of its least-visited theme park in the Sunshine State.

The family-entertainment giant is certainly putting plenty of marketing muscle behind the new coaster. Interactive ads have been plastered on popular websites for months, and just as Disney had done with its Tower of Terror opening in Disneyland two years ago, it created a free downloadable game to help build up the viral hype.

Everest? Eh?
My family finally got to experience the ride last week. Along with a daring niece and nephew, we followed the morning crowd to the faux mountain, enjoyed the brisk stroll through the queue, and boarded our train.

We were left mostly unimpressed by the ride itself. It lacked the thrills of larger coasters, and as far as themed coasters go, it could sorely use a few more scenes to build the tension and move the story along a little better.

Getting off the ride, we didn't go through any "let's do that again" chatter. Expedition Everest is fine -- just fine -- but that may not be enough help Disney. All one had to do was look around. Mornings at Animal Kingdom once usually meant beelines to the Kilimanjaro safari ride in the back of the park, where guests boarded an expanded jeep to see much of the park's prized wildlife. With a single ride, Disney has been able to disrupt the traffic flow at the park.

Animal Kingdom? Ahhh!
Another perk is that the park was open from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. Yes, the week leading up to Easter is peak season for Disney, but I recall the park being open only from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. a year earlier at the same time. This is good news for Disney, but it's also good news for Landry's (NYSE: LNY  ) . As the owner of the Rainforest Cafe restaurant that straddles the park's entrance, Landry's will now be able to rake in a greater volume of the bigger-ticket dinner crowd that just didn't materialize when folks were scurrying out of the park in the afternoon.

Landry's also acquired a majority stake in Asia, a huge counter and table service dining complex that's going up adjacent to Everest and will open in the summer of 2007. It's another playfully intriguing creation by Rainforest Cafe founder Steven Schussler.

Landry's has three Rainforest Cafes on Disney's resort properties in Florida and California. Together, the three units generate $80 million a year. With Everest keeping folks in the park later and bumping up the operating hours during peak travel periods, that one single attraction should add millions to Landry's top line. Once Asia opens with its eclectic collection of retail offerings alongside quick-service and full-service eateries, Landry's may wind up as a bigger winner than even Disney relative to its size.

Theme Park 2.0
Animal Kingdom should have been a winner sooner. Because of the animal-blessed savannah, it is Disney's largest park in terms of acreage. The company has tried to set it apart as more than just an overpriced zoo -- even with its clever "Nahtazu" ads to get the word out that the park is "not a zoo" -- but attendance fell every year after its 1998 opening until 2004. Everest may have been a personal disappointment, but I would be shocked if the park didn't shatter its 1999 attendance record this year.

The key here is that Everest will get folks to go through those once-rusty turnstiles. But will Disney be able to keep them coming? Disney's other Florida parks have earned their faithful. The Magic Kingdom draws the best, given its flagship status and countless number of signature rides and attractions. Epcot wins over food lovers and oenophiliacs with its top-notch international eateries and its lushly landscaped greenery. Disney-MGM Studios earns its wings with live shows and the best two thrill rides on any Disney property. Animal Kingdom? It's practically unbearable in the summer and is very much still a work in progress.

It may not seem that way to everyone. Of the 8.2 million guests who visited Animal Kingdom last year, not all went begrudgingly. Many enjoy the serenity and the park's unscripted charm. The vegetation has grown out to the point where even though it's still a hotbed of sweat and humidity, at least there is more shade now. The park's safari ride may also be the most valuable Disney attraction, and its Festival of the Lion King is arguably the best live theme-park show.

That's why I hope Disney doesn't wait another eight years to add the necessary attractions to make this a park that can withstand the veto power that has held it back in the past. When Six Flags (NYSE: PKS  ) opened a marquee coaster at its Great Adventure amusement park in New Jersey last summer, it immediately saddled the park with an area of kid-friendly rides to give everyone something to do as they extended their stays. Even the less expensive parks run by regional players like Cedar Fair (NYSE: FUN  ) or CBS's (NYSE: CBS  ) Paramount Parks have a ton of rides beyond the themed eye-candy experiences.

Beyond its transportation-based rides and shows, Animal Kingdom has exactly one ride that doesn't have a height requirement beyond the 15-minute safari. It's a void that looms as large as Everest these days.

Wildlife is a great theme. It resonates throughout the company. Disney's top-grossing animated fare -- The Lion King and Pixar's (Nasdaq: PIXR  ) Finding Nemo -- are animal-based. And Walt Disney's original primetime show was rich in fauna documentaries. So there is too much at stake here to get this wrong. It's true that I have been one of the park's most vocal critics in the past, but it's mostly because of the vast potential that I don't want to see it waste.

Sure, it doesn't hurt that I can get to the Animal Kingdom parking lot in as little as five minutes from our second home. It's the lazy driver in me that seems to always want to sway my family to Animal Kingdom when we're there. So help me out here, Disney. Let Everest be the beginning and not the end of your park-revitalization plans. Let my next boneheaded move be going anywhere else but Animal Kingdom.

Pixar is an active recommendation forStock Advisorsubscribers, while Cedar Fair units have been singled out forIncome Investorreaders. Whatever your investing style, we have a service for you. Try out any of them free for 30 days.

Longtime Fool contributor Rick Munarriz really does spend too much time in Disney World. He has a vacation home at Villas at Island Club, and he is determined to finish scribing hisDisney Whirlcynic's guide to Disney World. He does own shares in Disney, Pixar, and Cedar Fair. The Fool has a disclosure policy. He is also part of theRule Breakersnewsletter research team, seeking out tomorrow's ultimate growth stocks a day early.


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