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3 Ways Fox Will Reshape Disney's Theme Parks

By Rick Munarriz - Dec 14, 2017 at 2:47PM

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The $54.2 billion deal will have big implications for Disney's cable and studio properties, but let's not forget about what this could mean for Disneyland and Disney World.

The long seductive dance between Twenty-First Century Fox (FOXA) (FOX) and Disney (DIS 3.69%) finally has some paperwork. The all-stock deal will bring a lot of assets to the House of Mouse, and while most of the chatter centers around Marvel theatrical licenses, the regional sports networks, and what will be a controlling stake in Hulu, there are a lot of moving parts to this transaction.

Twenty-First Century Fox content will naturally broaden the reach of Disney's cable and content properties, but this deal also will affect the company as the world's leading theme park operator. Disney's theme parks and resorts segment was the only division to grow its revenue and operating profit in fiscal 2017, and this deal will make Disney's second-largest business even better.

James Cameron and Bob Iger at Pandora's opening at Disney World.

Image source: Disney.

1. Disney can now Na'vi-gate Pandora 

Disney's Animal Kingdom in Florida opened Pandora -- The World of Avatar to critical acclaim in May. Two big concerns going in were that audiences had forgotten James Cameron's 2009 blockbuster Avatar and that Disney has no control as to when the oft-delayed sequels will come out. Taking ownership of Twenty-First Century Fox means picking up Avatar's theatrical rights. 

The new expansion is amazing, and even if you dismissed the original movie as a high-tech retelling of Dances With Wolves, it's easy to get lost in the richly themed moon of the film's Na'vi people. It's also home to the very impressive Flight of Passage ride that is Disney's first bar-raising attraction in years. Getting chummy with Cameron and having more at stake with Avatar is a great thing for Disney, especially if wants to import it to its other theme park destinations worldwide.

2. There's more ammo in negotiating with Comcast

There's a reason why Disney has chosen Guardians of the Galaxy and not the better known Avengers, X-Men, Spider-Man, and Fantastic Four franchises as the basis for the first Marvel-themed ride at Disney World. Rival Comcast (CMCSA 1.18%) has regional theme park rights to all four of those franchises as part of its deal for Marvel Super Hero Island that opened at Universal Orlando years before Disney acquired Marvel. 

The Fox deal isn't going to change the Marvel restrictions that apply only to Disney World, but Disney will have more bargaining chips if it should ever want to trade assets for those beefy rights. It's worth noting that Disney will own the production rights to The Simpsons once the asset sale is finalized in 2019, notable because Comcast's parks in California and Florida have Simpsons-themed areas. Disney will also take over Fox's American Horror Story, the creepy series that has been a fixture at Universal's Halloween Horror Nights events in the past. Sooner or later, Comcast is going to get tired promoting properties that will contribute financially to its competitor, and it may be open to some kind of deal. 

3. Get the fifth gate chatter going again

Disney has opened a new theme park in Florida every 10 years or so, and we're now well overdue for a fifth major destination. Comcast has acquired gobs of land just outside of Universal Orlando, and it's expected to announce plans for at least one if not two new theme parks in the coming years. There's nothing like a major content infusion to serve as the catalyst for a fifth gated attraction. 

A lot of the online chatter suggests that many of its freshly acquired franchises would be right at home at Disney's Hollywood Studios, but why slide into a park that will already be chock-full of attractions come 2019? Disney would be better served to take these new properties and tap into the already owned content that it has yet to mine as the basis for a fifth theme park, one that could take on Comcast by offering more thrill rides and a livelier slate of after-hours programming. Is Universal's Halloween Horror Nights up for the challenge? 

This is Disney's largest purchase in its history. It's only fitting that it means huge things for its theme parks business. Isn't this really why CEO Bob Iger just extended his stay through the end of 2021? If it's not, it should be.

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The Walt Disney Company Stock Quote
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Twenty-First Century Fox, Inc.
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