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Disney World: The Real Marathon Starts Now

By Rick Munarriz - Jan 10, 2016 at 5:00PM

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Florida's leading theme park operator has a lot of work to do in 2016 and beyond.

Source: Disney.

The Walt Disney World Marathon concluded on Sunday morning with tens of thousands of well-conditioned runners navigating their way through the 26.2-mile course that goes through all four of Disney's (DIS -1.38%) theme parks. The endurance event capped off a weekend of running events that drew 84,150 total race registrations last year.   

Folks from all over the world were racing through Disney's world over the weekend, but now it's time for the media giant itself to lace up its shoes and start sprinting toward the finish line.

The leading operator of theme parks has big plans in the year ahead -- and beyond -- to raise the stakes. It's seen rival Comcast (CMCSA -1.70%) (NASDAQ: CMCSK) post larger attendance gains at its Universal Orlando resort in recent years. The catalyst for Comcast's surprising growth spurt has been the ambitious Wizarding World of Harry Potter, and it's probably going to be bad news for Disneyland out on the other coast when Comcast opens a similar Potter-themed area at Universal Studios Hollywood in April.

Disney's Florida theme parks have been coasting in recent years, emphasizing in-park technology, festivals, and temporary attractions over the iconic E-ticket experiences that originally set itself apart from the competition. That will change in the second half of this decade.

Anyone visiting Disney World's theme parks lately has seen the House of Mouse busy at work. You enter the Animal Kingdom parking lot and immediately see huge cranes -- mechanical ones, not the birds -- piecing together the floating mountain and other structures of what will be an Avatar-themed area anchored by a pair of unique rides. It should open early next year. Venture into the actual park and you will see crews building out a lakefront amphitheater that in a couple of months will host a nighttime show that will will extend the operating hours of the park. 

Disney's Hollywood Studios is where the most work is about to take place. In a few years this will be the home to Toy Story Land and the highly anticipated 14-acre Star Wars Land. Disney has been closing several attractions to make room for the additions, cruel math that will pay off in the long run.

Trek out to Epcot and the classic Soarin' ride just closed last week for a lengthy refurbishment. When it opens in a few months it will be as Soarin' Around the World with expanded capacity. Epcot's World Showcase pavilion is now months away from opening a Frozen-themed boat ride. 

There isn't a lot going on at Disney World's original Magic Kingdom park in terms of new rides. Then again, it's also its most visited park. Even the gutsy decision a couple of years ago to charge more for single-day admissions to the Magic Kingdom than Disney World's other gated attractions hasn't stopped the growing guest counts. It remains the world's most visited theme park, according to industry watcher Themed Entertainment Association. 

One can argue that building up its three less popular parks is by design. By the time Epcot, Animal Kingdom, and Disney's Hollywood Studios are fleshed out with theses new magnetic additions it wouldn't be a surprise if Disney went back to pricing all four parks the same for one-day guests. 

Expansion isn't cheap. However, after reportedly spending more than $1 billion on MyMagic+ technology technology, this ambitious wave of construction will be what puts it all together. Disney has just started tapping into the potential for MyMagic+ and its scanned Magic Bands that guests use to enter the parks, expedited queues, and in some cases settle up at the register. As Disney's rides and attractions get better in the coming years one can expect the data mining guts of MyMagic+ to take the in-park experience to a new level. Disney's going to be spending a lot of money to make its parks better now, only because it will make more money for its shareholders later.  

Rick Munarriz owns shares of Walt Disney. The Motley Fool owns shares of and recommends Walt Disney. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

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