One of the neat things about Walt Disney (DIS 0.83%) is that all four of its Florida theme parks -- and even the resort's two water parks -- are differentiated experiences. Magic Kingdom offers the greatest assortment of rides, and over the past few years it's been the most visited theme park on the planet. Disney's Hollywood Studios is a celebration of movie making, and while it was the least visited of the four dry parks in 2019 -- the last full pre-pandemic year -- new ride additions that came online just before the COVID-19 shutdown should keep the turnstiles busy. Animal Kingdom is the animal-themed park that was often criticized as a "half-day park" until it enhanced its animal theme to also include one of Disney World's most intense roller coasters and an entire area themed to the Avatar franchise.
This brings us to Epcot, the only Disney World park that did not grow its attendance in 2019. It opened 40 years ago as a haven of slow-moving educational attractions in the front of the park and a series of country pavilions surrounding a massive lake in the back. It was an interesting alternative to the Magic Kingdom, exuding in charm what it lacked in thrill rides and character experiences found at its sister park. Epcot has evolved over the years, and it's in the process of the largest makeover that any Disney World gated attraction has gone through. Construction walls have blocked off large swaths of the park over the past three years.
Sometimes you have to take a step back to take two steps forward. If you can excuse the construction zones at Epcot right now, it doesn't take long to realize that Disney World's worst park -- or at the very least it's most incomplete resort destination -- is on its way to becoming a star attraction again.
Getting to the Groot of the problem
Disney's theme parks have been a shining star in the media giant's financial performance in recent quarters. Disney's domestic theme parks segment saw its revenue nearly triple -- up 182% -- in last week's fiscal second quarter. The year-over-year comparisons are easy, but stack the domestic parks against where they were for the same three months in 2019 and you'll find revenue and operating income rising 16% and 32%, respectively, from pre-pandemic levels.
No park is getting as much attention as Epcot while Disney World celebrates turning 50 in an 18-month celebration that will continue through March of next year. It opened Remy's Ratatouille Adventure -- a family-friendly dark ride where guests shrink down to rat size as they navigate through a Parisian restaurant -- late last year. Later this month it will open an even bigger attraction at the other end of the park.
Guardians of the Galaxy: Cosmic Rewind is special. The richly themed indoor roller coaster is more like a next-gen carnival ride through a planetarium show, but that doesn't mean that it's cheap. The longest indoor coaster in the world is also the most expensive. One industry analyst told Bloomberg that the ride likely cost Disney about $500 million. No other theme park or regional amusement park operator has that kind of money.
The new thrill ride is themed to the popular Marvel franchise, and it's the kind of ride that will get folks coming back to enjoy the full experience. The attraction has a soundtrack featuring six different songs that came out between 1976 and 1985, and each ride is accompanied by just one of the tracks.
A Disney park opening two major rides in a span of eight months is a pretty big deal. Epcot also opened a new high-capacity eatery last month, and that follows the richly themed and luxury-priced Space 220 table service restaurant that opened last fall.
There is still a lot of of work to be done. Hop on the monorail that circles Epcot from Disney's Ticket and Transportation Center and you'll see behind the construction walls to see how much of the park is a hard-hat construction zone. A Moana-based water attraction and other experiences will open in the future. There are also a lot of plans that have seemingly been put on hold including a Mary Poppins ride, the PLAY! pavilion with several interactive adventures, and a multilevel festival center. With revenue and operating profits at pre-pandemic levels, it's just a matter of time before Disney's top brass dusts off those plans.
Disney's theme parks have always been an important part of the giant media stock's empire. With media networks going through evolutionary changes and Disney+ still a couple of years away from profitability, more of the growth burden will be on its collection of high-end theme parks. If where Epcot is heading is any indication, the House of Mouse is in good paws.