x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Disney expands the magic in Orlando

Dumbo the elephant no longer has to use his ears to keep excited kids cool while they wait to board his ride at Walt Disney's Magic Kingdom.

One of two Dumbo the Flying Elephant rides at the themepark in Florida. Marjie Lambert / Miami Herald / MCT
One of two Dumbo the Flying Elephant rides at the themepark in Florida. Marjie Lambert / Miami Herald / MCT

Dumbo the elephant no longer has to use his ears to keep excited kids cool while they wait to board his ride at Walt Disney's Magic Kingdom.

The company yesterday opened its expanded section of the theme park in Florida with the aim of drawing more visitors to the Orlando attraction battling stagnating attendance for the past five years.

Disney World employees at the Dumbo the Flying Elephant ride now hand out pagers to guests, who can take children to an air-conditioned play area until their turn comes. Customers are also able to relax at a new restaurant modelled after the animated movie Beauty and the Beast.

The changes to the Fantasyland area, estimated by Sanford C Bernstein & Co to have cost US$300 million (Dh1.1 billion), mark the biggest expansion in the 41-year history of the Orlando attraction. They are part of a wider effort by the world's largest theme park company to find high-tech ways to shorten lines and boost sales.

"With new technologies, we've got greater capability to immerse people in stories," said Thomas Staggs, the chairman of Disney parks and resorts.

"The food can come out sort of magically and appear. In the Little Mermaid queue, it's not so much waiting as playing a game and interacting with the crabs. That's technology that wasn't there when Walt was first envisioning the park."

Jay Rasulo, Disney's chief financial officer, said last month investments in the company's resorts unit, including the remodelling in Orlando, will lead to approximately $500m in added revenue this fiscal year - and a similar rise in costs.

"Bulls like me say, 'Yes, you are managing this asset for a lifetime and you must do periodic projects like this,'" said Todd Juenger, an analyst with Sanford C Bernstein in New York.

"Bears look at the same situation and say, 'That's why I don't like the parks business, it's a capital sinkhole.'"

During the two-year-plus construction, Disney closed Mickey's Toontown Fair, a 1988 addition, and built an Enchanted Forest with waterfalls and castles tied to The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast animated films.

The additions include Beast's Castle, where parents can dine on thyme-scented chops as fake snow falls outside the windows nearby.

"It is a quantum leap forward in atmosphere for a Disney restaurant," said Kevin Yee, a former employee who blogs at Ultimateorlando.com. "They've obviously spent a ton of money."

While the Magic Kingdom remains the world's most popular theme park, attendance has been little changed at about 17 million visitors annually for the previous five years, according to a report by the Themed Entertainment Association and the consulting firm Aecom.

Universal Studios' nearby Islands of Adventure boosted attendance 66 per cent to 7.6 million over the past two years, after opening the Wizarding World of Harry Potter in 2010, according to the report. Universal Studios is owned by Comcast.

"The broader [Disney] strategy is to meet Universal head-on," said John Gerner, a theme-park consultant in Richmond, Virginia.

That should have more ears than just Dumbo's flapping.

* Bloomberg News