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Pandora May Not Save Disney World This Year

By Rick Munarriz - Jul 7, 2017 at 3:10PM

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What if Disney World threw an Avatar party and nobody came? Disney's Animal Kingdom is faring well since its Avatar-themed expansion, but that may be coming at the expense of its sister parks.

Disney (DIS 1.64%) made a big bet on James Cameron's Avatar to drum up attendance at Disney World, and it may not be paying off. TouringPlans.com -- a popular trip planner and queue watcher -- just put out a report on the impact of the new Avatar-themed expansion of Disney's Animal Kingdom on the resort's attendance trends. Shareholders aren't going to like what they see.

TouringPlans.com analyzes wait times across all four of Disney World's theme parks to make a rough estimate of crowd sizes. There was naturally a spike in tourist activity around the time that Pandora -- The World of Avatar opened during Memorial Day weekend. Attendance -- or more specifically the hourly average number of guests at attractions, in this case -- soared 18% between May 27 and June 7. However, since June 8, the hourly average number of guests at Disney World rides or attractions has risen by a mere 1,349 sun-baked park-goers, or 4%.

A family walking through Pandora

Image source: Disney.

Fight of passage

The two new Pandora attractions have an hourly capacity of 2,900 and the wait times for Flight of Passage and Na'vi River Journey are consistently above an hour. If the average number of guests across all of Disney World's offerings has risen by 1,349 in recent weeks, it means that the wait times are shorter across the rest of Disney World since last summer. Park guests may be comforted by seeing shorter wait times, but it's going to be disappointing if Disney's massive investment in Cameron's eco-friendly sci-fi franchise only produces a 4% uptick in turnstile clicks.

It gets worse. Folks gravitating to Disney's Animal Kingdom are coming at the expense of the resort's three other theme parks. Unlike rival Comcast (CMCSA 1.46%), which saw dramatic surges in attendance through Universal Orlando when it added The Wizarding World of Harry Potter attractions at Islands of Adventure in 2010 and Universal Studios Florida in 2014, Disney is just robbing Goofy to pay Pluto.

Distribution of Guests June 8 to June 29 2016 2017
Disney's Animal Kingdom 19% 31%
Magic Kingdom 34% 32%
Epcot 25% 19%
Disney's Hollywood Studios 22% 18%

Data source: TouringPlans.com.

The good news is that reinforcements are coming to the two parks that need it the most. Disney's Hollywood Studios will open Toy Story Land in 2018 and Star Wars Land in 2019. And a massive makeover for Epcot will likely be announced later this month during Disney's D23 fan conference.

It's certainly disappointing that Pandora doesn't appear to be extending vacations at Disney World the way we saw at Comcast's Universal Orlando after its Potter-fueled additions. Investors will need to take a long-term view of what Disney adds to Disney's Hollywood Studios in the next two summers, and then at Epcot starting in 2020, to see the true potential of Pandora.

Disney itself seems to be all but throwing in the towel. On Wednesday it began opening Disney's Animal Kingdom an hour later and closing it an hour earlier, despite July typically being the peak summer travel season. After seeing attendance at Disney World decline in three of the four quarters of the 2016 calendar year -- and industry tracker Themed Entertainment Association confirms slight declines at all four Disney World parks -- shaving two hours from the park's operating day confirms that the newness of Pandora is wearing off.

We should only see modest recovery in terms of attendance, but the silver lining here is that revenue growth should be more robust than the headcount. Folks are paying more for their tickets, and giving guests at Disney hotels two extra hours every night (since May 27) to explore Pandora should keep bookings at healthy levels. Pandora is just the opening chapter in Disney's game-changing transformation; clearly, the House of Mouse still has a lot to do throughout its resort.

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