There are signs of life at Disney World's slowest-growing theme park. Epcot introduced two new attractions last month -- the only two rides that Disney (NYSE:DIS) is opening in 2016 at its Florida theme parks -- and they seem to be clicking with park guests.
The June 17 debut of Soarin' Around the World -- the worldly update to its original Soarin' hang gliding simulation that was also introduced in Anaheim and Shanghai -- opened to rave reviews. The addition of new sweeping vistas of global landmarks complete with new dispensed scents should woo fans of the popular ride.
Frozen Ever After opened four days later. The Frozen-themed boat ride hasn't had as smooth a run as Soarin' Around the World at the other end of the park. There have been several mechanical snags -- it was also down for a spell yesterday -- but despite the hiccups and low capacity, it's an attraction that's also scoring strong marks with its riders.
It also helps that the wait times for the new character-greeting area for guests to interact with Frozen's Anna and Elsa is as short as the ride is long. Wait times yesterday were just 10 minutes in the morning and 15 minutes in the late afternoon when I was strolling along. That's a far cry from the hours that fans in Anna and Elsa outfits had to wait to meet the characters two years ago, when Frozen fever hit a frenzied peak. However, the new character-greeting experience offers a memorable consolation prize for those who can't, or can't wait to, ride Frozen Ever After.
This is just what Epcot needed
Epcot is Disney World's second most visited park, and according to industry watcher TEA/AECOM, it was also the world's sixth most visited amusement park last year. However, outside of Disney's two parks in Japan, Epcot was the slowest-growing park among the world's most visited attractions.
If we narrow the focus to Florida, TEA/AECOM's annual survey shows Epcot's 3% attendance growth in 2015 fell well short of Disney World's three other parks, as well as both of Comcast's (NASDAQ:CMCSA) Universal Orlando attractions. Comcast in general has been growing a lot faster than Disney in Central Florida in recent years, but Epcot's slow growth relative to Disney's own Florida parks isn't a fluke. As I pointed out recently, you have to go back to 2007 to find the last year Epcot wasn't either Disney's World's slowest-growing park or tied for slowest.
This makes June's additions critical, and this may be just the beginning of Epcot's transformative update. Disney World blog WDW News Today reports that the Universe of Energy pavilion will close after the peak travel summer season, to reopen as a Guardians of the Galaxy-themed attraction.
It's only a rumor, but if true, it will be Disney World's first Marvel attraction. Disney has been reluctant to go full throttle with its blockbuster comic-book franchises, and that's understandable to some extent. Comcast's Universal Orlando has a Marvel Super Hero Island that opened a decade before Disney acquired Marvel. The deal struck with Universal Orlando offers exclusive regional theme-park use of Marvel's Avengers, X-Men, Fantastic Four, and Spider-Man franchises, blocking Disney's ability to dream out loud with attractions at its Florida theme parks. However, after Guardians of the Galaxy became a surprise hit at the box office, it's only logical for Disney World to work with the property that's fair game for Disney World.
Whether or not this rumor-mill chatter pans out, Epcot is well positioned to break its eight-year streak of being Disney World's slowest-growing theme park. Guests can fly or freeze in new ways, and after years of phoning it in and relying on wine festivals and nostalgia to attract guests, Disney is finally giving the neglected park the infusion of new attractions it sorely needs.