It's a bittersweet birthday for Disney's (DIS 0.14%) Animal Kingdom. The wildlife-themed attraction opened on Earth Day in 1998 -- 22 years ago Wednesday morning -- and this is the first time that guests won't be coming to celebrate its birthday milestone. Disney World remains closed, as it has been for more than five weeks to mitigate the spread of coronavirus.
However, the real surprise here as Disney's Animal Kingdom blows out 22 birthday candles in an empty room is that it continues to be the most recently opened Disney theme park in Florida. Disney World turns 50 next fall. Disney opened four theme parks in its first 27 years, but none in the final 23 years before its golden jubilee. The world's leading theme park operator could use a new park, perhaps now more than ever.
If you build it, they will come
With parks closed and a deep recession likely, this would seem to be a terrible time to break ground on a fifth theme park. Disney just furloughed 100,000 of its theme park employees earlier this week, and budgeting for big-ticket expansion would be tone-deaf at best and financially imprudent at worst.
However, one can also argue that this is the best time to shake things up with a bar-raising move. It takes several years to get a new gated attraction off the ground. Rival Comcast (CMCSA -1.63%) won't open Epic Universe at its Universal Orlando resort until 2023. The fact that Disney World's largest competitor will have quadrupled the number of theme parks it has opened since Animal Kingdom's debut is pretty insane.
Disney continues to have an overcrowding problem as attendance inches higher at its four theme parks. Disney hasn't been phoning it in, especially lately, as it has been updating and expanding its existing premium-priced tourist magnets. However, this is clearly an arms race in the eyes of Comcast, which has been fleshing out its lodging, entertainment, and theme park offerings in central Florida. If Disney waits until Epic Universe opens to figure out its next move, it will be too late.
Social distancing is making a visit to a crowded theme park a distant dream right now. Disney's gated attractions will likely be among the last things to open when the economy starts to grind its gears again. Even when Disney World does reopen, it will likely offer a materially altered experience until the coronavirus pandemic is under control. However, Disney moving ahead on a fifth park that is long overdue isn't about today or even next year. The consumer mindset and economy will be in a much different place come 2024 or 2025. The competition will be stronger.
Disney World's last theme park could've used a younger sibling, but now it's old enough to be a parent. Sometimes the worst time to announce a new park is the best time to do exactly that.