Walt Disney (NYSE:DIS) has an attendance problem at its Florida theme parks.
All four of the chain's Orlando theme parks saw attendance declines in 2016, albeit very small ones. That's probably a result of neglecting its parks for many years while Comcast (NASDAQ:CMCSA) steadily built its Universal Studios park into a viable rival.
It's not so much that Disney got worse -- though in some cases, it did -- it's that Universal added so much, led by its two Harry Potter-themed lands. These unique attractions, which connect Universal Studios and its sister park, Islands of Adventure, via the Hogwart's Express train, set a new standard for theme-park attractions.
They also served as a major wake-up call for Disney, which eventually realized that adding shows and character meeting spots wouldn't be enough to keep up. Understanding that and acting on it have been two different things, as the company has been quick to make plans but slow to enact them.
As a Florida resident pass-holder to Walt Disney World and Universal, I'm going to break down what's wrong with each of Disney's Florida parks, how the company plans to correct them, and in some cases what it should do. This is not a scientific study but one done by someone who enjoys all four Disney Parks generally more than he likes Universal Studios -- though I do like both quite a bit.
With the recent opening of Pandora, the World of Avatar, Disney has transformed a weaker park that really only required a part-day visit into a full-day park. Pandora offers Harry Potter-level attention to detail while also adding two much-needed rides, including Flight of Passage, which may be among the company's best.
This section joins Animal Kingdom's signature safari and its popular Expedition Everest rides to create a satisfying full-day experience that's bolstered by the new nighttime Rivers of Light Show. The only flaws at Animal Kingdom are long wait times for the park's raft ride, which is a minor quibble, and the fact that because animals aren't performers, there's no guarantee of what you'll see. But Disney can't be blamed for that.
Disney's Hollywood Studios
A gutted theme park, Disney's Hollywood Studios (DHS) is basically a work in progress. The company acknowledged that the park needs a major overhaul and will complete one in 2019, but until then there's precious little to do there. This may be the park most affected by Universal Studios, and Disney is firing back with a land dedicated to Toy Story and a major expansion devoted to Star Wars.
Toy Story Land opens in 2018, and Star Wars Land, the company's most ambitious expansion ever, follows in 2019. Until then, DHS has a few solid rides in Star Tours and Toy Story Mania, along with the rumored-to-be-updated Tower of Terror and the aging Rock 'n' Roller Coaster. For now, though, the park is simply a work in progress that two years from now should be a destination equal to any other in the area.
While Epcot is my favorite Disney park, it's also one that needs a lot of work. The World Showcase, with its range of eating and drinking options, remains fun, but it lacks rides of note. Yes, young girls enjoy the attraction based on Frozen, but aside from a lame dark boat ride through Mexico, there's very little to do in this half of the park other than eat, shop, and watch dated movies. Fortunately, that's generally fine, because the eating and drinking more than cover for the lack of rides.
It's Future World, at the front of Epcot, that needs the most work, and that's the area that Disney will probably focus on in its announced, but not-yet-revealed, reboot for the park. This section has Soarin' and Test Track, two top-tier attractions, as well as Mission: Space, a solid ride that could use an update.
Aside from that, much of Epcot needs a major overhaul. Many of the rides are largely unchanged since I rode them in the 1990s -- although some, including Spaceship Earth, have had slight updates. Other areas have been left vacant or are used occasionally for short-term attractions or shows.
This whole area of Epcot could use not just an update, but a revision of its concept. The park needs more top-tier rides, especially a thrill ride or two, and it could also use some high-end simulator rides like the ones at Universal Studios. Even the kids' rides and shows based on Finding Nemo could use a refresh, and in general this park just needs more attractions -- as well as another country pavilion or two -- to make up for the slow attrition that's occurred over the years.
If Epcot is my favorite park even though it needs lots of work, Magic Kingdom is my least favorite that doesn't. While many rides at the company's flagship Florida park are dated, that's part of their appeal. Rides such as Haunted Mansion or Pirates of the Caribbean haven't changed much in decades, but they're meant to be retro experiences.
Part of the reason I find Magic Kingdom less appealing is that it's the park devoted to Disney characters and experiences. That's great for little kids, but I'm not really in the "take a picture with a Disney princess" demographic.
There are rides at Magic Kingdom that despite nostalgia could use an update. It's a Small World was torturous in the '80s, and now it's hard to imagine that even a little kid would enjoy it. In general, though, those complaints are mild, and Disney has even added little quirks, such as live Muppets performances, that enhance the overall park.
Fixing the magic
Disney's biggest problem is that it coasted for so long given that it had no real competition. That put the company in a position where it needed to do a lot to three of its parks to equal what Comcast has done with Universal's two main Florida theme parks.
The company has fixed Animal Kingdom. It has a plan for Hollywood Studios that should revitalize that property, and Magic Kingdom only needs minor tweaks. That leaves Epcot as the major wild card, which is fitting, because it's the one park the company has acknowledged needs major work, while it hasn't said what those efforts will entail.