Disney Is Spending More on Theme Parks Than It Did on Pixar, Marvel and Lucasfilm Combined

Nov 20, 2018, 12:36 AM

The New York Times

There is nothing small about Walt Disney World. It is made up of four separate theme parks in Lake Buena Vista, Fla., near Orlando, with combined annual attendance of 56 million. The resort sprawls across 25,000 acres, an area nearly twice the size of Manhattan. A steel beam needed to build an “Avatar” attraction last year was so massive that Disney had to borrow crawler-transporters from NASA.

Now Disney World — and Disney’s global vacation empire — is about to get much, much bigger.

With its television business facing significant challenges in the streaming age, and lots of popular movie franchises to put to use, Disney is spending billions to supercharge its theme park division, which has emerged as a surprisingly strong moneymaker.

For the 2018 fiscal year, Walt Disney Parks and Resorts had an operating profit of $4.5 billion, an increase of more than 100 percent from five years earlier. For comparison, Disney Media Networks, home to ESPN and ABC, had a profit of $6.6 billion, a 3 percent decline.

Each of Disney’s six theme park resorts around the world is undergoing major expansion, along with Disney Cruise Line. Michael Nathanson, a longtime media analyst, estimates that Disney will spend $24 billion on new attractions, hotels and ships over the next five years. That’s more than Disney paid for Pixar, Marvel and Lucasfilm combined.

“It can’t just be special — it has to be spectacular,” Bob Chapek, Disney’s theme park chairman, said during a hard-hat tour of a 14-acre construction site at Disney World where “Star Wars”-themed rides, shops and restaurants were taking shape. Overhead, crews were sculpting spires designed to look like the petrified remnants of once-towering trees on a distant planet.

Mr. Chapek called the overall growth plan “enhancement on steroids.” Here is a look at what Disney is doing and why — along with the risks involved in such an aggressive undertaking

Disney faces an enviable challenge: Even with steady price increases for peak periods — single-day peak tickets at Disneyland in California now run $135 — visitor interest often exceeds capacity at some properties. “You can only let so many people in a park before you start to impede on satisfaction level,” Mr. Chapek said.

So Disney’s expansion plan is more ambitious than building a “Black Panther” roller coaster here or introducing an “Incredibles” character there. The goal is transformation — adding significant capacity to Disney’s most popular parks (Disneyland, Tokyo DisneySea) and giving others major upgrades (Epcot, Disney Studios Park at Disneyland Paris) to help attract visitors more evenly throughout the empire.

An abundance of popular Disney film franchises makes this kind of mega-expansion possible, Mr. Chapek noted. “Frozen” and Marvel rides are coming to multiple resorts.

In terms of attracting crowds and creating excitement, nothing quite compares to the “Star Wars” franchise.

In 2019, Disney World and Disneyland will open matching 14-acre “lands” called Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge. On one lavish attraction, guests will board an Imperial Star Destroyer, where roughly 50 animatronic stormtroopers await in formation. On another, guests will be able to pilot an interactive Millennium Falcon.

“It’s a personalized intergalactic ride — live your own ‘Star Wars’ story,” said Scott Trowbridge, the Disney creative executive overseeing the Galaxy’s Edge projects. “If you crash into a wall, that’s what you will see out the cockpit window.”

The Millennium Falcon ride will use real-time video rendering technology invented by Industrial Light & Magic that responds to the way guests use 200 cockpit controls.

The theme park business will always be sensitive to swings in the economy, said Jessica Reif, an analyst at Bank of America Merrill Lynch. Disney has greatly increased security in recent years, deploying undercover guards and installing metal detectors, but these teeming resorts could become relative ghost towns ...