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Is Disney World Making a 5,000-Seat Mistake?

By Rick Munarriz – Mar 12, 2016 at 9:05AM

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Disney's Animal Kingdom has big plans for its new Rivers of Light show, but capacity could be an issue.

Image source: Disney.  

We're now a little more than a month away from the debut of the first official nighttime show at Walt Disney's (DIS -1.04%) Animal Kingdom theme park in its 18-year history. The arrival of Rivers of Light will be a game changer

The nightly celebration is billed as a "brilliant spectacle of glowing lanterns, magical fireflies, dancing fountains and animal spirit," but more importantly it will give guests a reason to stay late at the only Disney theme park that routinely closes before dusk. Disney's animal-themed park has been experiencing an uptick in attendance ahead of the new show's debut, and when you pair Rivers of Light with next year's ambitious Avatar-fueled expansion, this could be the bar-raising move that turns this 18-year-old into a debutante belle of the theme park ball. 

Unfortunately, there may have been an oversight in the planning stages of Rivers of Light. Crews have been working on the outdoor amphitheater that will surround the show's lake since last year, but it apparently isn't going to have the same kind of capacity as Disney World's other nighttime shows.

Disney offered up a few nuggets of information during a live-streamed Q&A with a couple of members of the new attraction's creative team on Tuesday. A big revelation is that the show will only have a seated capacity for 5,000 guests. There will be some partly obstructed viewing outside of the amphitheater, but in its purest form it's a show that will only be enjoyed by 5,000 guests per performance. That's well short of what Disney's other nighttime extravaganzas can entertain.

The open-air shows at Disney's Magic Kingdom and Epcot can be seen by nearly anyone that wants to experience them. Fantasmic has a capacity of just 6,900, but that's a park with plenty of table-service restaurants, thrill rides, and nighttime shows to keep guests that don't make it into the one or two nightly performances entertained. Animal Kingdom has also been outdrawing Disney's Hollywood Studios every year since 2010, according to industry tracker Themed Entertainment Association. That is going to be a problem. 

Themed Entertainment Association pegs the park's attendance at 10.4 million guests in 2014. That's an average of nearly 30,000 guests a day. A single show means that just a sixth of the park's guests will be able to catch it. If Animal Kingdom stays late enough to offer two nightly performances, we're still talking about shutting out two-thirds of the day guests. 

It gets worse. That's just an average. During peak holiday periods it's easy to see Animal Kingdom's daily attendance at least double. That means even a greater percentage of guests won't be able to catch Rivers of Light, and that's going to be a thorny issue because last month Disney moved to a demand-pricing model where guests pay more to visit on busier days. Guests pay $97 for a one-day ticket during the slow season at Animal Kingdom, but that ramps up to $114 for a one-day holiday outing. In other words, the park will be more expensive on the days when it's less likely to catch the signature show. 

This is a pretty big deal. Since most of the guests at Animal Kingdom won't be able to get into Rivers of Light, they probably won't stay past sunset. They'll grab dinner and drinks outside of the park. The master plan of getting folks to stay late at a park that routinely operates on banking hours may run into a few bumps on the road -- at least until Avatar's Pandora opens next year. Disney will get it right, but don't be surprised if the world's leading theme park operator runs into a few guest satisfaction issues at the park in the coming months.  


Rick Munarriz owns shares of Walt Disney. The Motley Fool owns shares of and recommends Walt Disney. 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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