10 BIG Challenges Disney Will Face Over the Next 10 Years
It can often seem like Disney’s only challenge is to come up with more stories for their movies and attractions for their parks.
But in reality, Disney (like most companies) faces all kinds of challenges as they navigate a changing world. Whether those struggles are with new technology, public image, competition, or anything else, Disney has to work hard to stay ahead. We’re taking a look at 10 BIG challenges Disney will face in the next decade.
Using past trends and research about theme parks and entertainment today, we discovered several challenges that Disney is either facing right now or might face in the coming years. Let’s take a look.
Keeping Up with New and Leading Technology
If you’ve been on some of Disneyland and Disney World’s newest rides, you know that they’re no strangers to new technology. Rides like Flight of Passage in Disney’s Animal Kingdom make use of established tech like stereoscopic video combined with groundbreaking new technology like the ride vehicles themselves. Others, like Spaceship Earth in EPCOT, may seem slightly dated now but were way ahead of their time.
So although keeping up with new technology has normally been a strength for the Disney parks, we’re seeing technology advance so quickly that it’s bound to be a challenge to stay ahead of it all. Here’s some newer tech that we haven’t seen put to use much in Disney parks:
- Mixed reality, where you can combine VR with real experiences, like the Pokémon GO game; Universal Orlando has introduced some limited experiences like this at times in the Jurassic World section of their park.
- Black box rides, which would combine roller coasters with VR technology. Universal has a ride in Japan that’s almost a true black box ride. Guests sit in a real ride vehicle and wear VR headsets as they go through the ride. These sort of coaster experiences have grown in popularity around the world in the past few years. Having a ride like this would allow Disney to change the theme frequently to match different movies or storylines (since changing a VR experience could be faster than changing a whole ride).
- Stuntronics are basically animatronics that are built to do stunts. You can already see one in Disneyland — the Spiderman animatronic that does flips and leaps in Avengers Campus is a stuntronic. Disney pioneered the tech for this, too. But Disney could use these in a lot more areas around the parks where stunts might otherwise be unsafe or impractical (like as part of a ride).
Keeping pace with all the new technology is especially difficult considering how long it takes to construct new rides and experiences in the parks. We’ve already seen with TRON: Lightcycle Run and Guardians of the Galaxy: Cosmic Rewind in Disney World that ride construction can take much longer than initially planned. Both of these rides were supposed to open on October 1st, 2021, but they’ve both been delayed until at least 2022.
And with a global labor shortage adding to the difficulties, the actual construction of new experiences is a far slower process than the rate at which some technology is developing.
Although Disney has kept up with technology pretty well in the past (and even been a technological leader in some cases), it seems like a big challenge to keep their pace going forward. The world, in general, is interested in adopting new technologies more than ever before.
According to Business Insider, the time that it takes consumers to adopt new technology is shrinking very fast. For example, it took 30 years for 10% of US consumers to adopt electricity and only 5 years for 10% of US consumers to adopt tablet computers. If that pace keeps up, all companies (not just Disney) will need to continue to speed up their plans and development in order to stay ahead. There will potentially be a challenge of racing against time to ensure they’re up to date with the latest and greatest ride technology to meet consumer demand.
Maintaining Old/Original Attractions
While Disney is trying to push ahead and develop new technologies, they also need to consider the value of original attractions in the parks.
A lot of nostalgic favorite attractions have already been removed or changed from certain parks, including Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride, The Great Movie Ride, and Maelstrom (all completely changed to new experiences in Disney World).
Disney fans love their classic attractions, so the theme park executives need to weigh the value of keeping classic concepts and making room for new ones. Should Peter Pan’s Flight be mowed over to make room for a new VR experience? Or will guests miss the nostalgia created by that classic ride too much to justify that change? Could guests’ tastes ever potentially evolve away from these “old fashioned” rides? Could there one day be a day where Haunted Mansion or Pirates of the Caribbean is a snore-fest and guests just lose interest?? What then?
Other old attractions in Disney World include Space Mountain, the Walt Disney World Railroad, Prince Charming’s Caroussel, and Spaceship Earth, to name a few. Disney will have to decide which attractions are really worth the space and maintenance required.
Walt Disney said “There’s really no secret about our approach. We keep moving forward—opening up new doors and doing new things—because we’re curious. And curiosity keeps leading us down new paths.” So is it really more in the Disney spirit to keep replacing attractions with new ones?
And it might become more and more difficult to maintain older attractions as technology moves on and leaves old processes behind since the tech is out of date. Anytime something changes in Disney World, some people are bound to get upset about it. It’s just how things are — we Disney folk tend to be very sentimental, and everyone hates change sometimes. So it’d be really hard to see some old favorites disappear from the parks, but Disney might need to clear the way if they want to keep up with new and exciting experiences.
Balancing Old Favorites and New Content
This challenge is similar to the one before it: does Disney keep the old theme on attractions and hotels or make room for new stories and themes?
We’ve recently seen some re-theming at places like the Moana rooms at Disney Polynesian Village Resort and new Incredibles rooms at Disney’s Contemporary Resort. Citricos at Disney’s Grand Floridian Resort recently got a Mary Poppins-themed update, and Maelstrom was booted out in favor of a Frozen-inspired ride.
Most of the makeovers we’ve seen involve changes to include newer intellectual property (or IP for short). That means Disney is taking an existing theme that’s not as widely recognizable as “Disney” (like the Polynesian resort’s previous generally tropical-themed decor) and replacing it with a more obviously “Disney” theme (like Moana). It still fits with the old theming but updates it to include a property that is more easily recognizable as a part of the Disney brand to a wider range of guests.
The IP re-theming appeals more to newer guests and kids in Disney World, since it makes your experience more immersive and recognizable. But long-time Disney guests have nostalgia with the existing themes, and those are very uniquely “Disney World” experiences to them.
The problem Disney will face is which group they should cater to going forward. If current trends are any indication, it seems like Disney is going with the new guests and kids on this one. Does that mean we’ll have to say goodbye to other uniquely Disney World things like Orange Bird and Figment as well? Or maybe more hotels, like Fort Wilderness and Pop Century, will get Disney movie themes. Time will tell.
Fixing More Problematic Theming
Disney World first opened in 1971, and a lot of attractions in the parks (Magic Kingdom especially) are a reflection of the times in which they opened. Some of the attractions have (or had) problematic theming that, while acceptable when released, is not really appropriate in any setting today, and especially in a theme park.
For example, when Kilimanjaro Safaris opened in Animal Kingdom, the ride featured a storyline about poachers inside the wildlife reserve. Guests were told to look out for the illegal activity, and you could see signs of “poaching” around you on this ride. Towards the end of the ride, there was actually an animatronic of a bloody dead elephant that, according to the storyline, had been killed by those poachers.
There is an appropriate time and place to discuss the problem of poaching in detail. But a playful Disney ride with kids on board might not be that time and place. Disney fixed that theming by getting rid of the dead elephant animatronic and adjusting the ride script to be a much more leisurely safari ride. The Cast Members still mention the problem of poaching and how guests can help fight against it, which pulls in a meaningful and educational message without traumatizing guests.
Pirates of the Caribbean was updated in 2018 to address the “Take a Wench for a Bride” scene, among others. It was altered at both Disneyland and Disney World. The famous Mercado scene used to display women being auctioned off to pirates along with the chant, “We wants the Redhead!”
The scene was swapped in 2018, and the “Redhead” is no longer a villager but now a plundering pirate named Redd! She’s no longer being auctioned off — but she’s helping to oversee the auction of the village’s goods to increase their rum supply instead!
Other examples of fixing problematic theming include the recent changes at Jungle Cruise in the Magic Kingdom, which corrected inappropriate portrayals of native people. Disney updated the ride to be about monkeys and other animals sabotaging a safari full of tourists. Some of those classic elements have changed, but the spirit of the ride remains the same.
Rock ‘n’ Roller Coaster also got a small update recently, when Disney censored an inappropriate hand gesture in the ride’s pre-show. And Splash Mountain is being completely re-done to have a Princess and the Frog theme instead of being based on Song of the South, which has been criticized for its offensive themes.
But not all the attractions with potential theming issues have been addressed. The Haunted Mansion is sometimes a source of controversy for portraying violent death and suicide in a light-hearted way. The hanging man scene during the pre-show is an especially concerning aspect of this ride.
Peter Pan’s Flight also has a scene where indigenous people are portrayed in a stereotypical way, much like they are in the film. And the background story of Tom Sawyer’s Island is also set storyline with insensitive portrayals. Inclusivity and sensitivity are important — Disney recently added Inclusivity as one of the main pillars their Cast are trained on — so Disney will need to look carefully at the messages being conveyed in its parks. As a major destination that sees millions of guests every year from all around the world, Disney World has a lot of power to deliver positive and helpful messages as they continue to update and improve the attractions.
Balancing Profit With Public Perception
Disney recently faced a lot of backlash against Genie+, the new paid FastPass system in Disney World and Disneyland. Even leading publications that don’t normally write about theme park updates — like CNN and the New York Times — provided commentary on Disney’s decision.
And Genie+ isn’t the only price increase that we’ve seen in Disney parks recently. We regularly see price increases on food items, merchandise, and tickets. Guests generally react negatively to price increases, since a Disney vacation can already be a strain on the budget. So how does Disney balance that negative perception with their goal of making a profit?
One of the options that Disney seems to be adopting is to just keep its head down and keep moving forward. After all, guests are still coming to Disney World, and the number of visitors has increased in the last fiscal quarter. If the demand is still high, then Disney’s price increases actually make a lot of business sense.
We expect Disney to continue to raise prices for a few reasons: (1) They can. There is a high demand for the products and experiences that Disney offers, and the laws of economics dictate that the price increases are justified to match that demand. (2) Labor shortages and other recent difficulties mean that Disney is still recovering from a downtime over the pandemic. Although they certainly don’t seem to be in any real financial trouble, the company has always focused on progress and growth, which has been stunted or at least slowed for the last year and a half. (3) Looking at past trends, Disney doesn’t do a whole lot of price decreases. Disney’s current direction, based on its history, is price increases.
But Disney still needs to adjust and account for the negative perception that those price increases bring. As a family-friendly brand, Disney’s goal is to be viewed as a vacation destination for any family, not just the wealthy, which is sometimes hard to achieve when people are upset about the changes being made. With all the complaints about recent changes, Disney may need to account for their decisions.
Controlling the Public Story
The Disney brand has a very specific public image. The company is used to controlling that public image carefully. But with the explosion of social media and content creation online, it’s getting more and more difficult for the company to hold onto that control.
There are tens of thousands of content creators who are influencing the way people see Disney. Here’s one of them: Hi, it’s us! DFB! We — and other creators — are not part of the Disney company, which means Disney can’t dictate how we portray them. If there’s a problem or a controversial decision, creators can point it out and call out Disney for whatever happened.
50 years ago when Disney World opened (or even 20 years ago before social media was THE thing), the speed and expansiveness of online communication was not anywhere close to where it is now. Where Disney once had tight control over the story, now thousands of people are chiming in and giving their own opinions. As a popular brand, Disney is very closely watched, which means they need to navigate decisions and messages very carefully.
Competing with Universal
One of the Disney theme parks’ biggest competitors is Universal Studios, which has locations in both California and Orlando (just like Disney). With the two Harry Potter-themed additions in Orlando, and new thrill rides coming out in recent years like Velocicoaster, Universal has become more tempting than ever to tourists.
According to the Themed Entertainment Association’s Global Attractions Attendance Report, in 2019 Universal parks saw a 2.3% increase in tourist attendance and Disney parks saw a 0.08% decrease in tourist attendance. Disney parks still had a lot more guests overall in 2019 (155,991,000 to Universal’s 51,243,000), but Universal’s growth was significantly higher.
According to the Orlando Sentinel, Universal Orlando is also recovering faster from the pandemic-level crowds. In August, Universal’s crowd levels were down just 64%, compared to Disney World’s decrease of 80%. In addition to these statistics, Universal is in the process of building a brand new theme park in Orlando: Epic Universe. This will be the third theme park there, and it’s scheduled to open in 2023 (although construction has been delayed recently).
When Universal’s Wizarding World of Harry Potter (Hogsmeade) land opened in 2010, Universal’s attendance increased a whopping 13.7%. In the same year, Disney parks’ attendance increased 0.7%. In 2014, when the next Harry Potter land opened in Universal Orlando, Universal’s attendance increased by 10.4% while Disney parks increased by 1.3%. If the same trend happens with Epic Universe, Universal could draw significant crowds away from Disney World.
Universal Orlando has some similar perks to Disney World, including an optional (paid) FastPass-type service. Disney World used to have the advantage with a free FastPass service, but the recently released Genie+ program is comparable to Universal’s paid Express Pass.
Disney World historically has had more guests than Universal Orlando, but Universal’s recent growth and guest attendance trends are pointing to more similar stats in the future. If Disney wants to continue to be the clear leading theme park in Orlando, they’ll need to offer guests more reasons to choose them over Universal. More perks, new attractions, possibly even a new park (though this last option is unlikely) could all contribute to guests’ choice to visit Disney over Universal.
Creating New Nostalgia
Disney fans are not usually super excited about change. Most of the time, when an old ride or show closes in Disney World, there is push-back from fans who miss the closed attraction. Usually, guests come around to the new updates and come to love them as well with time, but this isn’t always the case.
The Magic Kingdom’s Happily Ever After nighttime show recently closed to make way for Enchantment. The new show has bigger fireworks and more projections (including some down Main Street, U.S.A., which has never been done before in Disney World), but it still was not received enthusiastically.
In fact, Enchantment is one of the first nighttime shows that, based on guest reactions online, could be perceived as a flop. Reactions on social media indicate that people are still upset about the show (even more than a month after its opening), and the strong negative reaction has continued for longer than the initial push-back normally does. In this case, Disney’s creation of new nostalgia didn’t seem to work.
In other areas, Disney has been relying heavily on old nostalgia. For example, the live-action remakes of classic Disney movies have continued with films like Cruella, Mulan, and The Lion King.
Other films were not really remakes but were still based on old nostalgia, like the Jungle Cruise movie, which is based on the popular Magic Kingdom attraction. Audiences have responded pretty well to some of these films, but there has also been criticism from audiences that there isn’t enough new content.
Disney will have to continue to take risks with new content that might not pay off (like Enchantment) in order to adhere to its mission to create “unparalleled storytelling [using] creative minds and innovative technologies.” Staying true to their brand could mean more flops in the future, but those risks are necessary for the progress of Disney as a company.
For new attractions, theme parks, movies, shows, and more, Disney will need new nostalgia. They need to create stories, music, and experiences that guests will love for generations, the way they have done in the past.
Creating Interactive Experiences
In general, guests (especially younger guests) are more interested in interactive experiences than they have been in the past. This might be due to a new generation raised on video games and other active entertainment, who now wants to experience similar levels of engagement on vacation.
Disney has started catering to this preference, with attractions like Rise of the Resistance. This ride isn’t just a “sit in your vehicle and watch a show” experience. Instead, guests become part of the story and get to interact with characters and move around on their own.
Other rides increase engagement with more interesting ride vehicles, like the bike-style vehicles over at Flight of Passage in Animal Kingdom’s Pandora. TRON: Lightcycle Run is an upcoming ride where guests will sit on the vehicle like a motorcycle. These kinds of rides make guests feel more like they’re part of the story rather than just watching a story (compared with rides like Journey of the Little Mermaid and Haunted Mansion where you sit in the car with a bar over your lap and go through scenes).
The Play! Pavilion in EPCOT (which was supposed to open in October 2021, but its opening has been delayed) is planned to include interactive experiences, games, entertainment, and hands-on activities, which also cater more to the guests who want to be involved in their vacation experience.
Some of the activities that will be in the Play! Pavilion include helping Edna Mode (from The Incredibles) “on her quest to rid the world of uninspired style” and competing in a water balloon fight hosted by Huey, Dewey, Louie, and Webby (from DuckTales).
So Disney has been working towards more interactive experiences already, and they’ll need to continue this to keep guests engaged. These new, innovative experiences will have to compete with the older, nostalgic rides, which we’ve already discussed in this article. Disney needs to balance the demand for these kinds of attractions with the demand to keep old attractions for sentimental reasons.
Managing Effects of the Pandemic
Like a lot of companies (and people) around the world, one of the biggest struggles right now is managing and recovering from the effects of the pandemic. According to the Orlando Sentinel, the Magic Kingdom saw a 67% decrease in park attendance in 2020 from 2019. After years of steady increases in attendance (and thus profit), the huge drop has impacted Disney significantly.
But the effect of the pandemic reaches further than just Disney World’s park closures. Economies around the world have taken a hit, and unemployment rates increased tremendously during the coronavirus. According to the Washington Post, in May 2020 the American unemployment rate hit the worst level since the Depression-era.
Although the American economy is improving fairly steadily (according to CNN Business), a lot of people are still recovering financially from this difficult time. When money is tight, the first things to go are usually luxuries like travel and vacations. Since Disney is trying to rebound from their own losses, we’re seeing price increases (due to supply issues, labor shortages, and an attempt at profit recovery), which makes it even harder for people on a tight budget to vacation in Disney World.
Another lingering effect of the pandemic is that more people want to stay at home. According to the Economist, Americans spent about 5% of their time working from home before the pandemic. In 2020, that number jumped to 60%. Some businesses discovered that working from home was much more possible than they previously thought, and they decided to continue to work remotely even when it was possible to return to the office.
Although it’s clear that people still want to travel, it also seems like Disney will need to find more ways to reach people in their homes as well. How is Disney planning to reach people who are no longer comfortable with or interested in visiting theme parks or movie theaters? The most obvious answer is their streaming service, Disney+.
In Disney’s recent Q3 Earnings Call, they reported increased numbers of subscribers for Disney+ as well as an increase in ad revenue. Despite the optimistic report, some analysts are still concerned about Disney+’s future.
This streaming service will need to increase its growth rate significantly if Disney wants to achieve its long-term goals for subscribers and revenue. According to some analysts, the growth levels of Disney+ are too slow to compete with other big streaming services like Netflix.
Recovering from the pandemic is an unprecedented challenge for a lot of people and companies. Disney will have to adjust its approach and get creative in order to get back to the normal levels of profit for the theme parks, movies, and streaming service.
As we learned from the pandemic, there are some challenges out there that we can’t possibly predict but these are challenges that we can foresee in Disney’s future. If their history is any indication, it seems like Disney will be able to adapt and continue its legacy of creative content and wonderful guest experiences. We’ll be reporting on all kinds of changes and news, so keep following DFB for all the latest information.
Join the DFB Newsletter to get all the breaking news right in your inbox! Click here to Subscribe!
Don't Miss Out on Any Disney Fun!
Preorder Your Copy of the 2022 DFB Guide to Walt Disney World Dining Today!With more than 750 pages, the 2022 DFB Guide to Walt Disney World Dining is full of tips and planning tools developed by Disney World experts over 30+ years of visits. We've done the research for you, so you'll know just which spots will uniquely suit your family's needs!
With mini-reviews of every single restaurant, bar, lounge, kiosk and more; an entire chapter on the best snacks in Disney World; full Disney Dining Plan analysis (and how to get FREE dining); and a full chapter on discounts and deals; you'll have everything you need to plan your best vacation yet.
Click here to preorder your copy of the 2022 DFB Guide to Walt Disney World Dining E-book with code WDW2022 to save 25% off the cover price today!
Use code WDW2022 at check-out for 25% off the cover price today!
What other challenges do you think Disney might face in the coming years? Let us know in the comments.
The post 10 BIG Challenges Disney Will Face Over the Next 10 Years first appeared on the disney food blog.