June 29, 2010

Taking a Bite Out of Disney's Animal Kingdom

Disney's Animal Kingdom had better get going on something new! Crank up those Imagineers and loosen that budget! Zoos all over the country are taking giant leaps forward in making the experience for visitors much more like what it is at Walt Disney World. And to a large degree, they are successful. Disney's Animal Kingdom is the park most likely to suffer loss from the competition.

Case in point: The Denver Zoo. (But check out your own local zoos as well and see what they are planning! Or just search "zoo expansion" and watch the results.)

In the last couple of years, the powers that be have transformed this zoo into an amazing experience. First, a brand new entry plaza- totally first class in design and execution. Next, the newly revitalized Africa exhibit, which has been wildly successful and for good reason. The animal habitats really capture the landscape it duplicates. (My sister-in-law and her family went on an extensive three week safari, and I have seen their professional quality video and still photos.)

I couldn't believe what I was seeing when we toured last year. Very high quality exhibits and landscapes beautifully put together. The animal information was relayed in very unique ways, very reminiscent of what you would find at an Epcot pavilion.

Coming soon- the Asian Tropics area (Above. All the images can be enlarged). Now, with limited space compared to what is available for Disney in Florida, this won't be nearly as large as Animal Kingdom's Asia, but the animal exhibit space will compare well.

Take notice of the prayer flags in the rendering above. As with many zoos in the nation, theming is now an important part of the experience. Operators are going paw, hoof, and claw to toe with Disney, fighting for the tourist dollar.

Just as with Harry Potter's Forbidden Journey, Disney may discover that guests find many other ways to spend hard earned money, and as with California Adventure that the name Disney alone does not guarantee business. Tough lessons to be learned in a new and tougher economy.

Driving by the Denver Zoo this past weekend, the parking lot was almost full, and the lines to get in were quite lengthy. I am truly looking forward to going back this summer and definitely as soon as the Asia exhibit is complete. Chances are, I am not alone.

Why should Disney care and compete?

Let's look again at the zoo example. If Animal Kingdom is not a zoo, then it needs to add attractions to differentiate it from those zoos that are truly reinventing themselves into something Disneyesque. In a new market where local attractions are infusing cash and creativity with local bonds assisting (as in Denver), the ante has been raised significantly. The stakes as well! In addition, "Staycations", holidays where families remain at home exploring their own cities and those nearby, are increasing in popularity.

Unlike Disney's Hollywood Studios or even the Magic Kingdom, the suits do not have the luxury of a never ending supply of movies in which to form favorite characters and stories and translate these into experiences that will attract guests. I'd venture to say that Florida's Animal Kingdom is the most vulnerable to guest fluctuation and therefore decreased spending. If this park were a standalone Florida attraction, it would be in dire straits.

Finally, the Walt Disney World parks have grown a bit stagnant. Remaking El Rio del Tiempo into Gran Fiesta and the new (but honestly excellent) Nemo puppet show do not cause guests to book their return flight to Florida. Nor do new animal habitats. Nor do broken effects that are centerpieces of advertising!

How does Disney compete and differentiate Animal Kingdom from the local zoos? It takes stunning attractions that physically move you into the environments- like Expedition:Everest and Soarin'. These will keep visitors from spending their days elsewhere. This is where Disney shines! Showcasing Imagineering's best and brightest concepts brings in the crowds and keep them ahead of the competition.

If the teen wizard at Islands of Adventure teaches The Walt Disney Company anything, it may be that "good enough" no longer isn't. Thank you, Universal and Harry!
(Art copyright The Denver Zoo.)

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