Is Anyone Surprised Disney’s $60 Billion Park Investments Will Be ‘Almost All’ IP?

During a recent interview, Disney CEO Bob Iger said the “turbocharged” $60 billion investment into Parks & Resorts will be almost entirely existing intellectual property. This post shares what he had to say plus what he and Josh D’Amaro have said in the past, discusses the approach, and why it’s controversial with fans.

The latest news comes via a question-and-answer session that Bob Iger participated in at the MoffettNathanson Media & Communications Summit in mid-May 2024. During that, Disney’s CEO once again discussed a range of topics, including how the company plans to spend $60 billion on theme parks in the next decade, as well as competition for Walt Disney World from Universal’s Epic Universe.

Iger also highlighted the performance of Parks & Resorts in the most recent quarter: “We had record revenue in all of our parks, record per capita spending, and record attendance in every one of our parks except Walt Disney World, which was still strong.” (As we’ve discussed countless times, pent-up demand arrived and subsided at Walt Disney World earlier than all other destinations. See Disney ‘Warns’ of Attendance Slowdown for more from the most recent earnings call about this.)

Turning to future growth, Iger explained that Disney’s bullishness on its Parks & Resorts business was thanks to it being a bright spot for the company that yields both results and stability. He said that the return on invested capital in Parks & Resorts over his tenure had been “extraordinary.”

Iger added that once Disney made the necessary changes to fix problem points and put the company in a position to turn things around from a free cash flow perspective–which is now happening–they had an opportunity to invest in future growth. “Why not invest in the in the business that has the highest returns?”

From there, Iger went through the international parks (that Disney owns) and praised recent and upcoming additions. He hyped up Shanghai Disneyland becoming the #1 tourist destination and boosting brand affinity in China.

He said that the new Zootopia land was built because it’s the number one animated movie in China, and that awareness for the addition is very high. He called the Zootopia land tremendous and successful. “Almost 90% of the people who show up [to Shanghai Disneyland] are aware that Zootopia is there. We built a big enough land…about 50% of the people who visit actually go through Zootopia land.”

Iger also discussed the tremendous success of Hong Kong Disneyland, which recently opened the World of Frozen land for which he’s previously offered effusive praise. Likewise, he gushed over the Walt Disney Studios Park overhaul, saying they’ve been investing in the soon-to-be-renamed park and that “there are a lot more attractions being built that will open in the next two to three years.” It wasn’t clear whether this is referring to the World of Frozen there, or a yet-unannounced replacement for Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge in WDSP.

His comments weaved all of this together, explaining how the future of the theme parks will utilize Disney’s famed flywheel to highlight stories from the studios and Disney+ streaming service. Iger said that Disney is “starting to lean into investment” for Moana, which is perhaps the most notable thing he said (in my view) because…no they aren’t. At least, not officially or publicly.

This cannot conceivably be about Moana’s Journey of Water at EPCOT, because that investment isn’t starting–it’s over. As you might recall, version one for the Dino-Rama replacement included a Moana boat ride and the concept art (above) for that was very clear. Not impressionistic like you might see for a concept that had yet to crystalize.

Given the popularity of the original Moana movie on streaming (even after all these years) plus the sequel coming out this year plus early rumors about that ride finding a home elsewhere at Walt Disney World…I think that comment was Iger letting slip that there are plans for more Moana at Walt Disney World and beyond. Pretty much everything else he said during the interview was a rehash of past comments–this is the closest to new news that we got from the interview.

Iger also spoke about “leaning in more to Star Wars” and mentioned that Mandalorian film in 2026. (Not so coincidentally, there are rumors of a Mandalorian roller coaster.) He then mentioned Toy Story 5 and how that franchise already has a presence at every park around the world. (I sure hope this was pointing to a past example of using the flywheel effectively and not foreshadowing more Toy Story in the parks. Please no, there’s already more than enough.)

He concluded that if Disney gets things right with its film slate, “that should start to pay off more in terms of combining it with the turbocharge concept that I described at the theme parks.”

While the specific franchises differed, both Iger and D’Amaro (and Chapek before them) have made countless comments like this over the last several years. I’ve honestly lost count of how many times Iger has invoked Pandora or Toy Story Land or Cars Land or Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge as success stories. He’s also started to do that with World of Frozen, and I’d expect to hear a lot more about that (and Zootopia) as those are clearly big wins for Disney.

Iger further explained that all of the biggest returns for Parks & Resorts have been “all about the IP.” He said that “for quite a long time, new attractions and lands at the parks were based on either very old IP or no IP–you know, just an attraction. Starting with Cars Land and Toy Story Land and a few others, I can’t remember this all the specifics, we decided that almost all of our investment in the parks for attractions and lands would be using IP. It’s very, very clear what that delivered.”

This has become a controversial statement among diehard Disney Parks fans, and I can appreciate the why of that. But honestly, the first time I heard this quote, I didn’t think anything of it. This is absolutely nothing new. Iger, D’Amaro, Chapek, and other Disney executives have been making comments like this since at least 2019. I’m pretty sure I remember hearing similar sentiment around the time that Toy Story Land and Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge were announced, and that continued when those lands and Pandora opened–and on earnings calls after they proved fruitful.

Allow me to refresh your recollection with this quote from a January 2019 interview Iger did with Barron’s: “The acquisition of these brands and the creation of intellectual property behind them have had a tremendous impact on growing our returns at the parks. When you have Star Wars to market at the parks…Avatar is a good example, Cars Land, we’re building a Frozen land…the interest among the potential audience is higher. It’s not like “I’m going to ride some nondescript coaster somewhere, that maybe is [themed like] India or whatever.” No, you’re going to Arendelle and you’re going to experience Frozen with Anna and Elsa. Or you’re going to fly a banshee into Pandora. Go to Cars Land. (Emphasis added.)

Almost beside the point, but I don’t think Iger was taking a deliberate dig at Expedition Everest with that offhand comment. I think he forgot about Expedition Everest, and that just so (ironically) happened to be the last original non-IP attraction built at Walt Disney World. I’m not sure whether that’s better or worse, but I just cannot conceive of Iger taking a shot at his own attraction. Now Chapek, on the other hand…

Turning to commentary, is anyone surprised by Iger’s most recent comments about IP attractions and lands? Really? If I were forced to comb through old interviews (please don’t make me do it), I could easily find a dozen references to intellectual property that Disney hopes to build. Could you go back and find a single instance of Iger, D’Amaro, Chapek, or anyone else from the c-suite saying they’re excited to tell original stories with new attractions?

During a presentation to investors when pitching the $60 ‘turbocharged’ investment plan, D’Amaro said, “We have a wealth of untapped stories to bring to life across our business. Frozen, one of the most successful and popular animated franchises of all time, could have a presence at the Disneyland Resort. Wakanda has yet to be brought to life. The world of Coco is just waiting to be explored. There’s a lot of storytelling opportunity.”

That’s a fairly representative quote about what Disney plans to build in the coming decade. Sometimes the IPs change (Encanto gets mentioned a lot), but that’s the general idea. The whole DisneylandForward pitch deck was a ‘greatest hits’ list of IP attractions. (A bit of an aside, but I think one reason why there’s been so much domestic coverage of World of Frozen and Fantasy Springs at HKDL and Tokyo DisneySea is because Disney wants to gauge the American fan response to them to see whether Frozen and Tangled should be leveraged more in the US parks.)

Honestly, even when I stopped and re-read Iger’s IP quote, my reaction wasn’t surprise or feigned outrage. It was that he said it’d be almost all IP. Meaning there’s actually a chance they’ll build something original!

To be sure, I’m not endorsing this almost all IP approach–just that I’m not surprised by it. I very much do not agree with it.

Unlike many other fans, I don’t think “synergy” is a dirty word. To the contrary, I think it’s both necessary and important to the parks. I also agree with D’Amaro and Iger that there’s a lot of untapped potential in IP at the parks. As I’ve mentioned before, it’s wild to me that so few movies from the Disney Renaissance have rides at Walt Disney World.

Those are now time-tested classics, and resonate with both millennial parents and childless adults. They should get rides! Ditto the modern hits (like Moana) that clearly have staying power. Disney spent a lot building Star Wars and Marvel lands and attractions over the past several years–it’s only logical to turn towards the animated movies. (Especially as those prove to be huge hits at the international parks.)

Perhaps my perspective is shaped by this being a planning-centric site, so I hear from a lot of first-timers. And I know that, as a practical reality, nothing gets people to visit Walt Disney World like characters and stories that their kids already love. Hugging Mirabel, hearing Elsa sing “Let it Go,” being interrogated by Stormtroopers–those are the experiences they want to have. That is “Disney” to them. It’s what gets them in the door, so to speak.

That’s not Disney to me. There’s a good chance it’s not to you, either, if you’re a longtime fan. I’m a parks fan first and foremost. While I enjoy the movies and Disney+ shows to an extent, I mostly just watch them at this point for awareness. (Even so, I skip a lot because so much of it just isn’t very good.)

While it might’ve been the characters and movie stories that got me in the door in the first place, it was the unique experiences of Walt Disney World that got me hooked. Haunted Mansion. Pirates of the Caribbean. Country Bear Jamboree. Space Mountain. Big Thunder Mountain Railroad. Carousel of Progress. Pretty much the entirety of EPCOT Center. I wouldn’t be a fan–you wouldn’t be reading this–if not for all of that. Things that probably wouldn’t be built today, for the most part.

Just as I get why fans are upset by Iger’s comments, I also get why this is Disney’s approach. Using an established IP is essentially a “cheat code” or shortcut. The attraction or land doesn’t have to be as good, because there’s already built-in appeal. It doesn’t have to succeed as much in resonating emotionally, because it can reference moments from the movies that tug at the heartstrings.

Attractions and lands based on intellectual property are lower risk and higher reward. They’re easier to market. They have colossal pre-existing audiences. They are very clearly what the general public wants. From a business perspective, it makes complete sense to create an Arendelle or Radiator Springs land as opposed to a ‘generic’ Scandinavia or Route 66 area.

Not to get too far afield, but you could even extend this to IP lands. Galaxy’s Edge is, obviously, based on the Star Wars franchise. But it’s also an original location and the closest thing to a non-IP IP land (a dumb but accurate term). Disney bet big on that, only to have it surpassed in some ways by the totally unambitious Avengers Campus, the whole conceit of which is basically just “here are characters in an average place.”

I would argue that the IP-centric approach is at least somewhat short-sighted. Not just because Figment or Big Al or Sonny Eclipse have turned a lot of us into diehard fans. That’s definitely a big part of it–but also because the Disney flywheel cuts in both directions.

Pirates of the Caribbean is one of the studio’s all-time biggest franchises. Haunted Mansion has had multiple movies (sure, they weren’t good…but that’s not the ride’s fault). The Society of Explorers and Adventurers is getting a Disney+ show that’ll kick off a “Magic Kingdom Universe.” Films are in development featuring Figment and Space Mountain.

Fan-favorite attractions can inspire movies and shows…it’s not simply one direction. There are many other attractions that have become pop culture fixtures or brands unto themselves. “it’s a small world” doesn’t have a movie or series (yet?), but it has a board game, books, ornaments, household products, etc–not to mention a beloved/reviled song. Is it not a valuable IP for Disney at this point?

Ultimately, I want to see established IP at Walt Disney World. It’s absolutely wild that there are no real rides for Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, The Lion King, Pocahontas, Hunchback of Notre Dame, Hercules, Mulan or Tarzan. That list could be extended to include Lilo & Stitch, The Emperor’s New Groove, The Incredibles, Tangled, Up, and other animated movies, as well as Disney Villains. It also makes sense to add Moana, Coco, Encanto, Inside Out, Frozen, Zootopia, and more recent releases from the Disney+ era. Walt Disney World won’t possibly get all of that in the next decade–it’d take way more than the $17 billion earmarked for Florida. Maybe more than the whole $60 billion for all of Disney Parks!

I also want to see original attractions at Walt Disney World and beyond. And honestly, I don’t think that’s a particularly unreasonable request. Yes, it’s riskier and doesn’t have as much of a built-in audience. But you know what? New franchises and brands have to be born somewhere. I’ve seen some of the output from the studios and entertainment divisions in the last several years, and it’s not like all of their big creative risks are exactly paying huge dividends.

Maybe instead of investing $200 million into some half-baked CGI fest that no one asked for (and about as many people will pay to watch), that money could be spent on a “risky” original attraction at Walt Disney World that could someday inspire a movie or series? By Iger’s own admission, Parks & Resorts is the one division that has proven itself time and time again. When you give the Imagineers a healthy budget and creative freedom, there’s nothing they can’t accomplish. While I have respect for the studios…I don’t think their recent track record is nearly as strong. So why not build both types of attractions and lands?!

Planning a Walt Disney World trip? Learn about hotels on our Walt Disney World Hotels Reviews page. For where to eat, read our Walt Disney World Restaurant Reviews. To save money on tickets or determine which type to buy, read our Tips for Saving Money on Walt Disney World Tickets post. Our What to Pack for Disney Trips post takes a unique look at clever items to take. For what to do and when to do it, our Walt Disney World Ride Guides will help. For comprehensive advice, the best place to start is our Walt Disney World Trip Planning Guide for everything you need to know!

YOUR THOUGHTS

What are your thoughts on “almost all” new attractions and lands coming to Walt Disney World and beyond being based on popular intellectual property? Think the Walt Disney Company will follow through on its purported plans to “turbocharge” investment and double CapEx to $60 billion on Park & Resorts in the next decade? Which IPs would you like to see better represented at WDW and DLR? Anything you’re hoping does not end up coming to fruition? Do you agree or disagree with our assessments? Any questions we can help you answer? Hearing your feedback–even when you disagree with us–is both interesting to us and helpful to other readers, so please share your thoughts below in the comments!

56 Responses to “Is Anyone Surprised Disney’s $60 Billion Park Investments Will Be ‘Almost All’ IP?”
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