Disney CEO Bob Iger called the theme parks “a key growth engine” for The Walt Disney Company during the earnings call last month. Now, the company has given more information on how they are going to invest in the theme parks to analysts. This article dives into what was just released and commentary on how this connects with recent announcements.
During a time when other divisions of the company are dragging – cable television is on the decline and rumors are flying that Disney could sell many of their cable channel assets, the Disney streaming division continues to lose money, and the films released at the summer box office have not performed at the soaring levels we have become accustomed to from Disney in years leading up to 2019 – the Disney theme parks continue to perform. The news below represents another step by Disney leadership to direct Wall Street and company focus to the theme parks as a key differentiator and driver of the business.
Disney shared information with investors on Tuesday discussing just how much room for growth they have in their theme parks and cruise line business around the world.
What Investment Is Coming to Disney Parks?
Disney CEO Bob Iger and Disney Parks, Experiences, and Products Chairman Josh D’Amaro are gathered at Walt Disney World with Wall Street Analysts and shared that the company plans to spend roughly $60 billion over the next decade “expanding and enhancing domestic and international parks and cruise line capacity”. That amount is nearly double what Disney spent over the last decade.
Over the last decade Disney has added attractions based on Stars Wars, Marvel, Avatar, Toy Story, and more. They’ll soon have new international attractions opening themed to Frozen. Below is a look at the domestic investment in the theme parks and a reminder of some of the attractions opened. You can see a ranking of all the Disney Parks locations around the world here.
Over the last year since Bob Iger has returned as CEO, he has heavily emphasized the importance of the theme parks for the growth of the company. At the Annual Shareholder meeting he shared that Disney would invest over $17 billion into Walt Disney World over the coming decade. Then, during subsequent calls he has added similar emphasis with statements like the one in the introduction to this article.
All of these statements have been exciting to hear, but many parks fans are waiting for the rubber to hit the road. For the past two years coming out of the 2020 lockdowns, the fan-focused announcements of big expansions have been tenuous with lots of “considering” and “teases”.
At the D23 Expo last year for Walt Disney World they teased the expansion of Animal Kingdom to be themed to Zootopia and Moana and then this year switched course for that teasing that the new area would be Indiana Jones and Encanto themed. Last year they also talked about the future expansion of Magic Kingdom with a potential for a villains area, Encanto land, and Coco land beyond Big Thunder Mountain. This year they echoed again that the Magic Kingdom would be a large expansion pad.
For Disneyland Bob Iger has teased a new Avatar experience coming to the resort and new details are swirling about what the approval of the DisneylandForward zoning changes could lead to. There are lots of question marks.
All of the above “teases” can be chalked up to the fear that a solid announcement could have to be walked back if changes impacted the company’s plans and Disney’s constant hope to excite fans. During the 2019 D23 Expo, Bob Chapek, who at the time was the head of the parks, shared a wide ranging set of announcements for parks around the world. Less than 6 months later, the first international theme park closed due to the virus and plans were disrupted.
Some of the announcements for Epcot shared that day were tabled and quietly went away during the lockdown and reopening phases – I’d still love to see a Marry Poppins attraction though it would be great to see a fully-formed version rather than the spinner that was announced then. This all understandably has led the current parks team to be cautious with announcements that could shift. They don’t want a repeat of overpromising to fans that gives the opportunity for them to say, “but what about INSERT ANNOUNCED THING HERE?” It has to be a balance of promising substance, getting fans excited, and delivering what is actually going to happen.
The filing like this morning is a completely different category from the D23 presentations. This is Disney stating that this investment of $60 billion is going to happen based on current plans today. This is a legal 8-K filing with the Securities and Equities Exchange that needs to reflect what the company’s actual plans today are. The company cannot make knowingly false statements or mislead investors without serious legal implications. So, we can take from the announcement that Disney Parks will spend $60 billion over the next decade.
Separate from the filing, there was also a New York Times story that includes quotes from both Iger and D’Amaro discussing the future of the parks. Iger expressed his bullishness saying “There are far fewer limits to our parks business than people think”. He also referenced new attractions that are not yet open and promised that the parks will be “turbocharged” by “building big, being ambitious, maintaining quality and high standards and using our most popular I.P.”
In the piece Josh D’Amaro talked about how the strong fanbase and interest in Disney stories mitigates the concern about investing in the theme parks. He discussed how the parks bounced back after the lockdown reopenings. He stated that “Every time there has been a moment of crisis or concern, we have managed to bounce back faster than anyone expected”.
D’Amaro wouldn’t give specifics on new projects coming to the parks but mentioned some of the same stories that he has teased for expansions to the fan community. He mentioned Coco, Encanto, and Zootopia as inspiration for future expansions. He also mentioned (and yes, we are back into teasing territory because this was not in the filing) bringing Wakanda from Black Panther to life. At one point the new Avengers Campus Multiverse attraction was going to feature a visit to Wakanda. That story has since been changed so this would have to be in reference to some other project or a blue-sky comment.
During the investor presentation, D’Amaro also said that “Frozen, one of the most successful and popular animated franchises of all time could have a presence at the Disneyland Resort”. This is a prediction that we have been making before the last two D23 presentations. I would be thrilled to get some version of the Frozen area that is coming to Hong Kong in Fantasyland near the Matterhorn.
D’Amaro summarized his look to the future by saying “In terms of bringing the latest Disney-Marvel-Pixar intellectual property to the parks, we haven’t come close to scratching the surface. And we have learned that incorporating Disney I.P. increases the return on investment significantly.” In the slide deck, the investor team highlighted that “For every 1 park guest today there are 10+ consumers with a Disney affinity who do not visit the parks”. This lines up nicely to continue the emphasis on known intellectual property within the parks.
When Will This Investment Begin?
What we don’t know from the filing today is the timeline of the investment within the next ten years and where specifically we will see the money spent. I hope that this announcement means that the purse is now open for the Imagineers to get to work, however the timing of when guests get to see the fruits of this labor likely won’t be anytime soon.
There are a couple of reasons that we likely won’t see heavy investment in the parks resulting from this for the next couple of years. New investment here will be the result of master planning by Walt Disney Imagineering and a financial master plan for the company. There are a number of other issues in the company that will likely take the financial focus in the coming months and years such as buying the remaining piece of Hulu and figuring out how to handle ESPN amid the cable decline. Disney also has a debt load left over from the acquisition of the majority of 20th Century Fox that they will need to carefully manage.
Even once the other financial aspects get in order, Disney will need to have solid creative plans to execute against. There has been quite a bit of turnover at Imagineering at Disney put plans into motion to move the group from California to Florida before earlier this year cancelling those plans to keep the group in California.
For Disneyland in California specifically there is also the DisneylandForward project which is expected to be voted on in early 2024. A similar rezoning measure was put forward and approved in 1993/1994 which resulted in Downtown Disney and Disney California Adventure. That expansion didn’t open until 2001, 7-8 years later.
All of this to say that the $60 billion that is planned to be spent in the next decade will likely be weighted in the second half of the ten years vs the first half. And, once we are talking about 5 years out we get into a territory of uncertainty that could absolutely shift. Before that time Disney CEO Bob Iger’s contract is scheduled to end and we should have a new Disney CEO. The entire company could be different and different Wall Street expectations could be set. All other factors that could impact what is finally built and the shifting strategy of the company.
The earliest we expect we could hear firm plans for this newly promised “Disney Decade” of spending is the D23 Expo in 2024. That event will provide a large stage for Josh D’Amaro to commit the company to some real plans and hopefully some very real dates. For those who have been following this a long time, I can only hope that a Darth Vader-like figure shows up to demand timelines are cut and that openings don’t stretch out too far as he did when Star Tours was first presented. See that fun video below.
We would love to be proven wrong and to have Disney come out swinging with near-term announcements and plans to introduce new attractions in the first part of this promised decade. Taking a page out of Universal’s Epic Universe playbook, it would be thrilling to just have construction begin in Animal Kingdom or Disneyland’s Tomorrowland tomorrow before we even get final details on what the attraction will be.
In summary, our biggest takeaway from the news today is that today Disney wants to invest in their theme parks and today believes that they will invest that amount over the coming decade. This could easily shift and the fact that executives today believe this will likely be impacted by the leadership that comes to power of the next 10-years.
As fans this should be taken as good news but like the DisneylandForward project we just detailed just as another positive data point that the theme parks will continue to be a priority.
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