Bob Iger Says Disney Can “Build 7 New Full [Disney]lands” Around World & More

Disney CEO Bob Iger spoke at the Morgan Stanley Technology, Media & Telecom Conference in March 2024. It’s the second consecutive year he’s done an interview at the event, which features trends in the media industry–that was Iger’s primary focus, but he also said a few newsworthy things about Walt Disney World and Disneyland.

During the interview, Iger explained how the world’s largest entertainment company is evolving its approach to streaming and movie-making. He spent the bulk of the interview discussing Disney+ and the Hulu acquisition; the company’s wonderful relationship with the NBA, value of ESPN and sports betting; plus a bunch of other things.

Most of this was a retread of what Iger has said during other recent interviews or during earnings calls, but one new tidbit was Iger’s concession that it had been a challenging year for Disney at the box office, and that major efforts were being undertaken to address the “hard times” for the film business. While Iger had previously made indirect comments suggesting an awareness of these issues, he tackled them more head-on during this interview.

“You have to kill things you no longer believe in, and that’s not easy in this business…you’ve got to make tough calls,” Iger said. He noted that despite not being public about it, he has done precisely that, making those tough calls. “We’ve killed a few projects already, that we just didn’t feel were strong enough,” Iger indicated.

Iger added that he has been spending a lot of time with the creatives, watching films, giving detailed notes, and engaging in a respectful process that results in improvement. “Not only do you look at the films you’re making, you you look at every part of that process, who the directors are, who’s being cast, and reading scripts. I personally watch films three to five times with the team and just create a culture of excellence and respect which is really important in the creative community,” he added. “Again, [Disney’s] track record speaks for itself.”

This comes at a time when rival studios have been scrapping projects (most infamously, Batgirl and Coyote vs. Acme over at Warner Bros.) and cutting back on content, a trend that is only likely to continue as streaming services pivot to profitability. The extent to which Iger has nixed projects is unknown, but Disney did have a couple of projects with Jonathan Majors that have been removed from the release schedule.

It was lost amidst the noise of the Iger vs. Elon feud, but last November during the New York Times DealBook Summit, Iger also admitted that Disney’s creators “lost sight of what their number one objective needed to be. We have to entertain first. It’s not about messages.” According to Iger, Disney’s prioritization of messaging over storytelling peaked while he was gone last year.

“We have entertained with values and with having a positive impact on the world in many different ways. ‘Black Panther’ is a great example of that,” Iger said. “I like being able to entertain if you can infuse it with positive messages and have a good impact on the world. Fantastic. But that should not be the objective. When I came back, what I have really tried to do is to return to our roots.”

So clearly Bob Iger knows they have an issue with the studio output and knows some of the source of the problem, and is actively addressing it.

During the March 2024 Morgan Stanley interview, Iger also pushed back on the widespread notion of superhero fatigue, pointedly saying that it was “not an accident” that the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s first 33 films were like a license to print money at the box office.

“It’s not audience fatigue. They want great films, and if you build it great, they will come. There are countless examples of that. Some are ours and some are others,” Iger said. “We reduced the output of Marvel. Both the number of films and television shows they make, and that has critical, but I feel good about the team. I feel good about the IP we’re making. I talked about a lot of the projects. We look years ahead, really. And it’s iterative.”

Iger also highlighted Disney’s upcoming 2024 film slate, calling Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes “one of the better films in the franchise.” He also pointed to Inside Out 2 and Moana 2, and the big Marvel release of the year, Deadpool & Wolverine, which Iger predicted “will be one of the most successful Marvel movies we’ve had in a long time.”

I’ll only add quick commentary here, since movie-making isn’t the focus of this site, but he’s right. With that said, if you’ve read Disney’s Reputation Falls Further, you already know my perspective on “movies with messages.” That it doesn’t much better. Quality will win out, regardless of all else. Lots of vapid blockbusters have been flops; plenty of movies that could have been the subject of culture wars have succeeded. (If you think Barbie or Dune or Avatar didn’t have messages…oh boy.)

Nevertheless, Iger’s previous comments about “messaging over storytelling” or messaging at the expense of storytelling cut to the heart of the actual issue. If the movie is entertaining or enjoyable, most audiences care if there’s a subtext–even one with which they may disagree. That’s been a key feature of art for millennia, it’s only now become an issue in our hyper-polarized times that also, not so coincidentally, feature a cottage industry for fanning the flames on culture wars. But if the movie sucks and it’s preachy…well, that’s a problem.

For me, the bigger issue is whether Iger is right in the sense that he actually “gets it” or just is saying the right things. It sounds like he understands the studio output has been low-quality, a bunch of superfluous and soulless big-budget movies.

However, Iger specifically cited Oppenheimer as a fantastic film and perfect example of audiences not having super hero or franchise fatigue. The only problem? Oppenheimer is neither of those things! It’s an incredible success story and does speak to his, “if you build it great, they will come” statement, but it doesn’t exactly rebut the notion of hero or franchise fatigue.

And honestly, it’s somewhat concerning that the ‘response’ to last year’s box office meltdown via the actual film slate is a bunch more sequels. Maybe it’s purely coincidental, but more Moana, Frozen, Toy Story seem like the ‘break glass in case of emergency’ franchises. It sorta says to me that they know those films will be box office gold, not necessarily that they’re leading with high-quality or creatively-compelling ideas.

Anyway, I really hope Iger gets it and isn’t just saying the right things while still not putting actual creativity and storytelling first. I’m really excited for Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes, and cautiously optimistic about the Inside Out and Moana sequels. Oh, and Shogun has been phenomenal thus far. So Disney hasn’t completely lost its touch!

Turning to what most of you actually care about, theme parks, Bob Iger also had a decent amount to say about Walt Disney World and Disneyland. I’m just not sure how much of it is hot off the presses news. He started by touting Disney Parks as a “wonderful story” and hyped up the anticipated financial results that Walt Disney World and Disneyland would continue to deliver, outperforming pretty much all other aspects of the company.

Iger said that Disney Parks has “entered into a phase where we can start building.” These remarks echoed those from Disney’s company-wide town hall late last year and most recent two earnings calls, so not exactly a new revelation. Iger said the company is poised to begin building its business again, after a year of restructuring to responded to wrenching changes in the industry caused by streaming.

You might recall Iger laying out four building opportunities for the company that included “turbocharging” growth in Parks & Resorts. That was this. (We covered that previously in What Bob Iger Needs to Fix at Walt Disney World & Beyond in 2024.)

During this Morgan Stanley conference, Iger’s comment about Parks & Resorts that has received the most attention from the media and fans was saying that Disney has “thousands of acres of lands to develop, and we could actually build seven new full lands if we wanted to around the world.”

This is the headline quote that everyone is reporting, but the thing is, Iger butchered it! Everyone is focusing on the non-committal nature (that Disney could build if they wanted) rather than that he misspoke! How did no one notice this? The statement is about the potential for that land–thousands of acres! Would you really be impressed if all of that land amounted to only to seven new lands?!

Granted, Imagineering has gotten the habit of building absolutely massive lands with only 1-2 rides, so maybe that tracks. I know Iger misspoke because this is also something he and D’Amaro have touted before!

From the announcement of investing $60 billion in Parks & Resorts from last September: “In fact, Disney Parks has over 1,000 acres of land for possible future development to expand theme park space across its existing sites – the equivalent of about seven new Disneyland Parks.”

That’s right, it’s the equivalent of seven new Disneylands, not seven new Disney lands. One little space, but a world of difference! It should be obvious and go without saying that the company could build 7 new lands. There’s enough space for that in Walt Disney World alone, and probably every other destination once DisneylandForward is approved. (Minus Tokyo, but that doesn’t count since it’s not Disney’s land.)

Of course, Disney is not going to build 7 new Disneylands and even 7 fully new lands is probably a stretch, but it at least sounds plausible. Which is probably why fans are seizing on the (mis)statement? Had he repeated the (correct) seven Disneylands line, people would have (rightly) dismissed it as pointing out what is plausible, not what will happen.

Anyway, just a little bit of proof that Bob Iger is human, and he doesn’t always carefully stick to the script.

Iger added: “This includes the ability to increase the size of Disneyland in California–which everybody thinks is landlocked–by 50%.” (That last bit is a reference to DisneylandForward–see the above concept art that shows how both gates could be expanded into the entertainment and resort district.)

“You can look at every single location that we’ve got–there’s land, but most importantly, we have so much IP [intellectual property] to mine that there’s opportunity there to create experiences that we know people will love to have in our parks,” Iger said.

He continued: “If you look at our IP, you look at the land that we have, you look at the math and demand that exists in the marketplace, and you look at the return on investment capital. It’s a no-brainer to invest that way…growing Parks and Resorts beyond where it already is.”

Then came the portion that is also familiar to fans, where Iger spitballed about what some of these lands could be. He referenced the success of Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge, Zootopia at Shanghai Disneyland, and World of Frozen at Hong Kong Disneyland. This isn’t the first time these single-franchise lands have been highlighted as blueprints for the future.

You might recall that during the grand opening celebration of World of Frozen, D’Amaro made similar comments: “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.”

The big twist here was that Iger also revealed that (maybe, possibly) Pandora at Disneyland will be a fully-fledged land instead of just an “experience.” (Our updated post on the Avatar Experience Coming to Disneyland details why that’s probably still tentative, despite Iger’s offhand, announcement-adjacent comments.)

It’s also worth noting that at last year’s Morgan Stanley conference, Iger made nearly identical comments about “mining IP more effectively,” and talked about building out new capacity in order to service more guests. I mention this not to underscore that not much has changed or happened since (even if true), but because he also added this last year: “opportunity that is almost endless, but we obviously don’t have endless amounts of capital.”

Disney not having endless amounts of capital is the crux of all of this. It’s why Walt Disney World fans have been treated to two years of blue sky daydreaming sessions at D23 events, why there’s been no movement on Tropical Americas and probably won’t until the end of this year or early 2025 when DINOSAUR finally closes.

We’ve emphasized repeatedly how sorting out streaming, linear television, ESPN, etc. are necessary prerequisites to actual investment and construction commencing at Walt Disney World and Disneyland. (Lesser considerations are also the political standoff with the state of Florida and DisneylandForward’s approval.) The good news, as Iger indicated above, is that’s all finally starting to be settled. He’s ready to become Bob the Builder again!

Look, there’s every reason to be skeptical that’ll actually happen and this isn’t just more empty promises. I get it and don’t blame anyone who has a ‘wait and see’ attitude or indifference. But before doubling down on cynicism, look at it this way: Wall Street wants theme park investments. Disney Parks is the one big bright spot. The division has been resilient, even as literally everything else has faltered.

The company has every financial incentive to bet big and invest that $60 billion on theme parks! (And by theme parks, I mean theme parks. Disney Cruise Line is winding down an expansion cycle and given how shipbuilding commitments work, Disney couldn’t spend much of that on new ships even if they wanted.)

The issue isn’t a desire to actually spend money on theme parks. They have that! The problem has been the money part of the equation. They did not have the free cash flow. They do now, or rather, will by the end of this fiscal year. They’re not just making these expansion teases for the halibut, which accomplishes absolutely nothing. Fans aren’t spending money at nonexistent parks, and investors aren’t getting excited over them. As one wise CEO recently put it, “if you build it great, they will come.”

That’s the only thing that actually matters–not the talk, but what they will actually do. It’s also why I’m so bullish on the 2024 D23 Expo, and the likelihood of concrete news for Walt Disney World and Disneyland, and not just more “what ifs” and so forth. From my perspective, Iger and Josh D’Amaro both saying the same things about expansion and future developments for over a year now reinforces that there are substantive plans, and it’s not just posturing or hollow hype. The money has been the issue, not the appetite for expansion.

Nothing new came out of this conference, but consistently repeating the same goals, ambitions, and willingness to bet big on building new lands certainly suggests that there’s something on the horizon. My only hope at this point is that Iger and D’Amaro attend the opening of Fantasy Springs at Tokyo DisneySea before firming up the plans for Walt Disney World and Disneyland. I would love to see that be the blueprint for the future, instead of single IP 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 do you think of Disney CEO Bob Iger’s comments during the Morgan Stanley conference? Thoughts on anything he said–or didn’t say? Thoughts on his comments about movies or theme parks? Are you excited for the return of Bob the Builder and major investments in Walt Disney World and Disneyland, or still in ‘wait and see’ mode? Do you agree or disagree with our assessment? 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!

50 Responses to “Bob Iger Says Disney Can “Build 7 New Full [Disney]lands” Around World & More”
  1. AgentMay March 11, 2024
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