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Disney says Fantasyland expansion plans are changing

13 August 2010 by By Jason Garcia

Disney is redrawing the sweeping Fantasyland expansion plans it laid out last year, even as bulldozers clear land for the project inside the Magic Kingdom.

With the revisions, begun under new Walt Disney Parks and Resorts Chairman Tom Staggs, designers are attempting to rebalance the plans, which initially tilted heavily towards young girls by emphasizing attractions and experiences built around Disney’s stable of animated-movie princesses.

“We took a hard look at it amongst a number of us and said, ‘Can we make the appeal broader? Can we make it even better?’ “ Staggs said during an interview this week with the Orlando Sentinel.

The Fantasyland expansion is a critically important project for Disney. The Magic Kingdom, the busiest theme park in the world, now draws more than 17 million visitors a year and needs added capacity to ease pressure on crowds inside the park. The project, billed as the largest expansion in Magic Kingdom history, also comes as Disney World faces heightened competition from Universal Orlando, where the new Wizarding World of Harry Potter has drawn rave reviews — and enormous crowds — since opening in June.

Staggs declined to discuss specific changes to the Fantasyland plans, saying Disney would unveil them “in due course.”

The original plans called for a lavish indoor ride based on the movie The Little Mermaid, a trio of interactive princess character-greeting areas, an elaborately themed Beauty and the Beast restaurant, an expanded Dumbo attraction for young children, and a vaguely defined fairies-themed area.

Staggs said much of what was included in the original plans will be incorporated into the final product and that the changes are “improving it on the margin.” He characterized the revisions as part of any creative project’s natural evolution. As an example, Disney cited Hong Kong Disneyland, where early blueprints included an area dubbed “Glacier Peak” that was eventually replaced with a section themed around the company’s Toy Story film franchise.

“Our process is always iterative and always goes through changes as it goes along,” said Staggs, who was the Walt Disney Co.’s chief financial officer when he switched places with parks-and-resorts chief Jay Rasulo at the start of this year. Staggs added: “I believe one of my most important jobs is to make sure that I’m enabling and challenging our creative process to create the best possible result.”

Disney first announced the Fantasyland expansion plans 11 months ago, with Rasulo personally unveiling them during a convention in Anaheim, Calif., for a company-sponsored, $75-a-year fan club. Staggs is now running the theme-park division and Rasulo is CFO following an executive shuffle orchestrated by Disney President and Chief Executive Officer Bob Iger.

The Fantasyland construction is well underway: Yellow backhoes and mountains of dirt are visible behind temporary construction walls erected inside the Magic Kingdom.

But rumors have been building for weeks that changes were afoot, fueled by reports from a pair of well-known Disney bloggers, Jim Hill of Jim Hill Media and Al Lutz of MiceAge.com.

Company followers say there have been two pivotal developments since the Fantasyland plans were first announced: Staggs was installed as head of Walt Disney Parks and Resorts, and Universal opened the Wizarding World of Harry Potter.

Staggs, who has three young sons, is said to have expressed concerns that the initial plans for Fantasyland were too narrowly tailored to girls. The Wizarding World, meanwhile, has delivered impressive early returns for Universal Orlando since formally opening June 18.

The more than $200 million addition to Universal’s Islands of Adventure theme park powered the resort to a 2 percent attendance gain during the second quarter, its first quarterly increase in two years. Attendance at Disney World sank 2 percent during a similar period.

“I think Harry Potter helped” push Disney executives to revisit their approach with Fantasyland, said Lutz, of MiceAge.com. “I think it had an influence to say, ‘Hey, this is something that can be done on this level, and it’s not at a Disney property.’ “

Staggs said Wizarding World has not been a factor in Disney’s Fantasyland plans. “I don’t see evidence that somehow that has changed anyone’s direction or made them think differently,” he said.

But he said Disney is trying to broaden the project’s overall appeal. For instance, plans for three interactive princess meet-and-greets — where children could dance with Cinderella, celebrate Sleeping Beauty’s 16th birthday or play a role in a story with Belle of Beauty and the Beast — are being altered.

“One of the things that I thought the early design did fantastically was delivered on that princess experience. And that does tend to skew towards girls. … We’ve kept that intact — not exactly, necessarily, the way it was presented, but that appeal is there,” Staggs said. “I think we’ve added some things that aren’t just princess-focused, and that’s a good positive.”

Staggs said planners are also reviewing the Fantasyland expansion with an eye toward blending “aspirational rides” — rides that offer thrills or tension — with attractions designed for guests of all ages. And he said they want to ensure that the additions are flexible and can be updated or adapted over time.

The revisions are not expected to substantially alter the construction timetable; most of the Fantasyland additions are still scheduled to open in 2012 and 2013. Staggs said the project’s price tag will “not materially” change with the revisions, though a slight increase is likely because of certain additions. He would not provide specific figures.

Staggs said none of the changes should be interpreted as an indictment of the original Fantasyland expansion plans.

“We had a number of different people look at it and say, ‘Is it accomplishing what we want to from a guest experience standpoint? Is it accomplishing that in a way that is operationally great? Is it as broad as it can be in its appeal?’” he said. “The answer is, it largely did. But we thought we could continue to play with it and make it better.”



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