Today is a big day for Disney (NYSE: DIS ) . It's when the company kicks off Disneyland's 50th anniversary celebration by officially launching new rides and attractions at most of its parks while announcing plans for even more potential tourist magnets in the future.
It's easy to get lost in all of the celebratory glitz behind the so-called Happiest Celebration on Earth. This is a mouse-eared merchandising dream with 18 months of turnstile clicks that will turn even the loudest of hype horns into mere ambient noise by the time this party comes to a close at the end of next year. Yet, if you listen hard enough -- somewhere between the English and Spanish monorail boarding announcements and the intermittent scrapes of a popcorn vendor scooping up kernels -- you will hear four faint syllables that will build to a deafening roar by the time it's all over: Disney gets it.
Over the years, I have been one of Disney's most vocal critics. Four years ago, when most of the world was still smitten, I was blasting Disney for attempting to cheat quality at its theme parks, networks, and studios. Since today marks the beginning of the chainwide theme park extravaganza, I'll again focus on what went wrong -- only to show why Disney is finally getting it right.
How Disney lost it
Over the years our family trips have been spent exploring the various traditional amusement parks and cutting-edge specialty themed attractions that line this seemingly endless country of diversions. In the summer of 2001, we visited Kennywood, a throwback park in the outskirts of Pittsburgh. One of the newer rides was Exterminator, a spinning mouse coaster made by Reverchon. Kennywood had enclosed the coaster in a dark building and designed the ride around the futile extermination of giant rats. While I'll admit that the props were a little hokey, it was a clever way to present a small coaster.
A year later, Disney opened Primeval Whirl at its Animal Kingdom wildlife park. It was essentially the same Reverchon spinning coaster, only sparsely themed and staged completely outdoors. I couldn't believe it. A small regional park had outdone the masters of imagineering.
Disney has never been about colossal thrills. If I need to ride some amazing coasters, I'll head out to Cedar Fair's (NYSE: FUN ) Cedar Point in Ohio if I've got a feel for steel, or Indiana's Holiday World if I'm in the mood for wood. But to see Disney and its deep pockets trumped when it came to attraction innovation was a bit much.
While Disney was building Dumbo clones, places like Islands of Adventure were erecting state-of-the-art theme parks with dark rides like The Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man, which Disney has yet to outdo stateside.
With its two newest domestic parks drawing the lowest attendance and operating under the shortest hours, it just drove home how far Disney had strayed from the quality formula that drew tens of millions annually to its other theme parks.
While I wrote a more biting critique of the shortcomings at Animal Kingdom, I was even more disillusioned after my first visit to Disney's California Adventure this past summer. How can a park this expensive feel so hollow?
Yes, Disney had lost it -- but little did I know that it was on a quiet path to recovery.
How Disney got it back
Back in December I was at EPCOT in Florida and decided to check out a rather nondescript new attraction, Turtle Talk With Crush. Tucked away in the ground floor of the Living Seas aquarium was the first new addition in years at the Florida parks that I would classify as fantastic. Starring Crush, the fatherly surfer-dude turtle from Pixar's (Nasdaq: PIXR ) Finding Nemo, this combination of computer animation and a live vocal performance -- the Crush character fields questions from children in the audience without ever breaking character and is perfectly synced to the animated screen -- made me a believer in what Disney's imagineers could accomplish.
Since then, just about everything that I've seen or heard at the parks is encouraging. Expedition Everest may be what finally transforms Animal Kingdom into a full-day destination. While I have never been a big fan of cloning rides, I'm glad to see that the only spectacular attraction at California Adventure is now Soarin' at EPCOT as well.
Disney is also embracing technology. From plans to let folks trek through the parks virtually this summer or play along with live riders at Disneyland's new Buzz Lightyear attraction, Disney finally gets the Internet. A decade ago Disney seemed to be leading the way on that front by placing a webcam in the Magic Kingdom, acquiring Infoseek, and publicly pondering a play for Yahoo! (Nasdaq: YHOO ) .
Disney's brand made its website properties gravitational, but the company did little to make it sticky. Premium online services were self-defeating as there was a wealth of things to do for free on the Internet. Yet now it is tying its theme park experience to the Web. Recently the company began allowing its photographed park guests to order prints online after they returned home, through its PhotoPass program. It was a brilliant move and just like Disney's FastPass ride reservation system, Disney looks like once again it is ready to lead the way in the theme park industry.
The sum of its parks
One of the most intriguing aspects to this prolonged Disneyland fete is that it will commence with Michael Eisner as CEO and come to a close with Bob Iger at the helm. That will give Eisner an 18-month window to dictate how he will be remembered in Disney lore.
Set aside the soured relationships that have cost Disney billions -- and I mean that quite literally as the creative forces behind Pixar and Dreamworks (NYSE: DWA ) that Eisner repelled command a cumulative market cap of $9.5 billion these days -- and things are definitely looking up. With ABC back on track and the theme parks gearing up for a pair of record years, Eisner's most material historical flaw will be the decimation of the animation studio under the final years of his watch. In a sense, Iger should be grateful for that. It will allow him the quickest path to endear himself to investors and Disneyholics alike by watching over animation's potential renaissance.
As for the theme parks, let's hope that Iger takes the technological baton and spares no expense to make it sing. Let Disney remember how important it is to stand out as an attraction worth driving to from Toledo, flying to from Dublin, and walking to from the parking lot.
This isn't just a golden anniversary. It's a golden opportunity.
Some more recent Disney-related headlines:
- Disneyland is turning 50 but it doesn't look a day over 49.
- My 2001 rant on Disney coming apart at the seams.
- Share your thoughts in our Monte Cristo battered Disney discussion board.
Longtime Fool contributor Rick Munarriz went to all six of Disney's domestic theme parks last year. He owns shares of Disney and Pixar and units in 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.