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Disney World Delays its 5,000-Seat Mistake

By Rick Munarriz - Apr 6, 2016 at 8:17AM

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Disney's Animal Kingdom theme park delays the opening of its nighttime Rivers of Light attraction.

Image source: Disney.  

Walt Disney's (DIS 3.69%) Animal Kingdom theme park will be hitting the age of legal adulthood later this month, but it won't be celebrating with the nighttime show that was supposed to be a game changer. The world's leading theme park operator announced yesterday that Rivers of Light won't be ready for its slated April 22 debut.

Other park enhancements that were set to coincide with the new nightly show -- including nighttime rides on Kilimanjaro Safari -- will also be pushed back. Disney didn't divulge the exact reasons for the postponement, but it did promise an update by mid-May. That makes it highly unlikely that guests will be able to enjoy the new operating day-stretching attractions until the peak summer season.

The delay isn't entirely a surprise. There were rumblings about the show either not being ready or up to Disney's standards in recent weeks, and Disney never updated the theme park's operating calendar. That last point was particularly telling. Despite announcing that the nightly celebration of animals would premiere on Earth Day, coinciding with its grand opening on the same day 18 years earlier, the calendar never budged from Animal Kingdom's proposed 6:30pm closing. That never made sense since darkness doesn't kick in until more than an hour later. How can you run nighttime safari rides or stage a riverfront show of lights and water screen projections with the sun still blazing in the horizon? 

Unfortunately for Disney this is just the latest setback. Over at Epcot's World Showcase, its Frozen-themed ride was originally reported by several outlets as opening in early 2016. That's not happening, and that's problematic because it sits on the site of a similar boat ride that it shuttered two years ago. However, at least that attraction never had a firm opening date.

The timing of Tuesday's announcement -- a day after COO Tom Staggs' resignation and two days before Comcast (CMCSA 1.18%) (NASDAQ: CMCSK) is set to open The Wizarding World of Harry Potter in California -- is unfortunate. The departure of Staggs will lead to thorny questions about succession at Disney, and Comcast sticking to its April 7 opening at Universal Studios Hollywood is salt in the wound. If Disney rival Comcast can stick to an April opening why not the House of Mouse?

Then again, this could also give Disney some time to solve the capacity issue behind the attraction. With just 5,000 seats, Rivers of Light has far less capacity than the existing nighttime shows at Disney World's three other theme parks. According to Themed Entertainment Association, the park's average attendance was nearly 30,000 guests a day in 2014. Can a show thrive if it's available to just a sixth of the park's guests? Even if the park is able to extend its hours to the point where it offers two nighttime performances we're still talking about a hyped-up attraction that will only be accessible to a third of its guests -- and that's on a typical day. The situation will be far worse during peak season with even more guests unable to catch it, and that became a bigger deal earlier this year when Disney decided to charge guests more for one-day tickets during periods of heavy demand.  

Rivers of Light is a key component in transforming a park that routinely closes at dusk into an all-day destination, drumming up high-margin dinner and beverage sales along the way. Unfortunately for Disney, the "light" at the end of that tunnel keeps getting farther away.

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