Walt Disney (NYSE:DIS) made a mistake by announcing its planned Star Wars lands many years ahead of their opening. What became the soon-to-open Star Wars: Galaxy' Edge was first confirmed by the company in August 2015, nearly four years before the summer opening of the Disneyland version and more than four years before the late-fall launch at Disney World.
Making these plans public so early lead to some consumers deciding to postpone visits to the parks, specifically to Florida's Disney World group of theme parks. The company's California parks tend to rely on regional visitors who aren't spending as much to travel, while the Florida parks are tourist destinations.
Knowing that Star Wars was coming kept some -- maybe a lot of -- families from visiting over the past few years. That led to the company having to goose Florida attendance by dropping some local annual passholder summer blackout dates each of the past two years and offering low-priced multi-day tickets to Florida residents.
Now, as the company plans to make major changes to its Florida Epcot park, it has shown that it understands the mistake it made in going public with its Star Wars plans four years ahead of the real launch date.
What is Disney doing?
It's worth noting that the Star Wars lands were a somewhat unique situation. Disney started construction on them a few months after announcing them, and it was not like the company could keep its largest-ever in-park expansions a secret. Construction would have led to speculation, and many would have guessed Star Wars as a likely candidate to explain the unannounced building.
If, however, the company had worked without tipping its hand, it almost certainly could have shortened the period between the public getting confirmation of the Star Wars lands and their launch, and some of the Star Wars effects could have been minimized. With its now-public Epcot changes, Disney has offered a different type of narrative: The company has nine major changes on tap for the park, but they're being rolled out over three years, and none is so grand that the average person would postpone a trip to wait for one.
Disney has also been somewhat vague about its Epcot makeover. Some experiences, like films in the Canada and China pavilions, as well as a new sing-along experience in France, are coming "soon." Others, including a Guardians of the Galaxy-themed roller coaster, will take longer to open, and Disney has not offered a timeline aside from saying they will be completed by 2021.
How is this plan different?
Epcot is spacing out its attraction rollout, which should help in two ways. First, while waits for new rides will likely be long and attendance will be up, spreading out the additions over years should minimize the unpleasantness caused by super-packed parks. Second, the company has not made any specific period on the calendar a clear end date for people to push their vacations to.
Disney made the Star Wars situation worse by jumping the gun with its announcement of its plans. In this case, the company has big changes planned, but has released them in a way that actually dampens the excitement. Collectively, these changes -- which include a revamped park entrance and a new pavilion -- amount to a major overhaul of Epcot.
Disney isn't completely ignoring how these changes will impact Epcot. The company used the term "historic transformation" in a blog post, but that largely referred to the new "Play" pavilion that it has offered very little detail about. A new pavilion is exciting, but it's hard to justify postponing a trip for a space that has been introduced with intentionally vague language.
"This innovative, new pavilion is beyond anything we've ever created and is completely unique to Epcot," said Zach Riddley, portfolio executive, Walt Disney Imagineering in a blog post. "Built on the power of play, it introduces an immersive and interactive 'city' where you can explore, create, and interact with some of your favorite Disney characters."
That does sound like fun, but in a very non-specific way that shows you the company has a plan without telling you much about the plan. While the Star Wars news kept people away, the rolling nature of the Epcot introductions may actually encourage multiple visits. In other words, come this summer for the new films, the singalong, and a limited-time new nighttime show, and come next year for a new ride and maybe a new highly themed eatery.
It's a "something's always new at Epcot" approach that keeps consumers from seeing the current park as a work in progress. It's possible that some consumers will put the pieces together and see these changes as a huge collective whole. Most, however, probably won't do that, and that should keep park visitation steady even as the company quietly makes major changes.