Disney (NYSE:DIS) is likely to announce record results for its theme parks division on Thursday, but it's easy to wonder if the family entertainment giant is doing enough to earn those record turnstile clicks.
I'm at Disney World this weekend, and some things are pretty embarrassing. Animal Kingdom and Disney's Hollywood Studios closed at 6pm and 7pm, respectively, on Friday night. They didn't shut their doors early for a hard-ticket Halloween event the way that rival Comcast (NASDAQ:CMCSA) (UNKNOWN:CMCSK.DL) did to make way for its Halloween Horror Nights. The parks are closing early -- even on a weekend evening -- because there just isn't enough at the parks to keep folks entertained.
Animal Kingdom has been trying to shake the common complaint that it's not a full-day park, but it's hard to offer up much of a fight when you're operating on bankers' hours. Disney's Hollywood Studios is a different story. It's been closing attractions, giving folks less to do at the park than they did a couple of years ago.
However, as bad as things may be at Animal Kingdom and Disney's Hollywood Studios -- Disney World's two least-visited parks -- at lest we know that things will get better soon.
Take a trip to Animal Kingdom, and from the parking lot you see gargantuan cranes helping to piece the heavily themed Avatar section of the park together. A huge ride building and the early construction of the area's floating mountains are clearly visible from the lot. Head inside to the Asia section of the park, and you'll see crews busy building permanent seating around the lake for the upcoming Rivers of Lights nighttime show.
A trip to Animal Kingdom will be a completely different experience in two years from what it is right now. Between Avatar's two new rides and the Rivers of Light ritualistic tribute to animals, you won't be seeing the park close at 6 p.m. before long. You need darkness, after all, for something called Rivers of Light to shine in more ways than one.
We know why Disney's been carving out Disney's Hollywood Studios. Pixar Land and Star Wars Land are coming. There haven't been any definitive opening dates revealed, but Pixar Land doesn't seem like it will take too long to get ready. Star Wars Land is far more ambitious, but it would be a shock -- and heads will probably roll -- if at least the initial phase of the 14-acre project isn't open for fans of the iconic sci-fi series in five years.
This brings us to Epcot. It's Disney World's second most visited Florida attraction at the moment, but the attendance gap between the park and both Animal Kingdom and Disney's Hollywood Studios is narrowing. Going back to 2006, just before the recession rocked the travel industry, it's the only Disney World park that hasn't grown its attendance in the double digits through 2014, according to industry tracker Themed Entertainment Association.
As bad as the situation may be at Animal Kingdom and Disney's Hollywood Studios, Epcot is the one that has struggled the most. Every other Disney World park -- and Comcast's two Universal Orlando theme parks -- is growing in the double digits.
Epcot has an identity problem. The park traces its roots to Walt Disney's vision of a planned community, but that is not what the park turned out to be. It's a park that's always trying to manage the delicate balance between edutainment in the front of the park and foodie-centric country pavilions in the back. It's a beautiful park, but it's lacking in the personality department. There's no shortage of people who love the park, but the attendance numbers don't lie.
The near-term plan to spruce up Epcot isn't very exciting. It's adding a new theater to expand the capacity of its popular Soarin' attraction, and it's changing up the video to feature the entire world instead of just California. There's also a Frozen boat ride opening next year, but let's face it: Even your Anna- and Elsa-loving daughter has been over Frozen for a few months now.
I predicted a few weeks ago that Epcot would be Disney World's least visited park by 2020, but I simply left it at that. I figured that's a bold forecast that needed to be fleshed out, and until Epcot proves otherwise, I'm going to stick to that prediction.