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Changing times at Florida theme parks lure you into other worlds

Pandora's Shaman of Song

An audio-animatronic shaman sings as guests pass by on the Na'vi River Journey at Pandora: The World of Avatar at Disney's Animal Kingdom.
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An audio-animatronic shaman sings as guests pass by on the Na'vi River Journey at Pandora: The World of Avatar at Disney's Animal Kingdom.

When Walt Disney World announced in 2011 that it would create a land based on the movie “Avatar” at its Animal Kingdom park in Orlando, Florida’s theme parks were already being buffeted and reshaped by other changes.

Attendance had dipped for most parks during the Great Recession, and Disney’s parks in particular were slow to come out of it. The expansion of Fantasyland in the Magic Kingdom was just beginning. Meanwhile, the opening of the Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal’s Islands of Adventure the year before put Universal in a position to seriously compete with Disney.

Elsewhere, an orca whale had killed its trainer at SeaWorld in 2010, and the marine park was heading into a tailspin from which it still hasn’t recovered, but that has taken the park in a new direction. And a month after the Avatar announcement, Legoland would open on the grounds of the former Cypress Gardens, 45 miles from Orlando, the first new Florida theme park in 12 years.

How much difference would Pandora: World of Avatar, based on the highest-grossing movie of all time, make to the biggest theme park company in the world?

Pandora: The World of Avatar at Disney's Animal Kingdom is a planet with floating mountains, a bioluminescent forest and exotic plants and animals from the movie "Avatar."

World of Avatar opens on May 27, with the story picking up many years after the events of the movie. The setting under floating mountains and in a bioluminescent forest was created in incredible detail, and its two rides use cutting-edge technology. But the “Avatar” sequels that were expected to boost the popularity of Pandora have been repeatedly delayed, and now the first of them isn’t expected to debut before 2019 — 10 years after the original.

A year after the Avatar announcement, Disney bought Lucasfilm and its Star Wars franchise. Theme park watchers expect it will be a new Star Wars land — scheduled to open in 2019 at Disney’s Hollywood Studios — that will fuel the big growth in visitor numbers that Avatar was once expected to spark.

“Avatar will be interesting in many ways,” said John Gerner, a planning consultant with Leisure Business Advisors. “It’s important in our industry to see if Disney can get the big wow reaction people felt for the Harry Potter attraction. I think Star Wars has the greater potential because “Star Wars” is one of those franchises that is multigenerational. That’s the best opportunity you can have — a universe and characters that people of all generations have an attraction to.”

Avatar and other new attractions illustrate just how much theme parks, their rides and their revenues have changed in the past 10 years.

▪ Technology: Designers of new attractions have taken advantage of sophisticated technology to create an audio-animatronic shaman on Pandora’s new Na’vi River Journey, to let children launch fireballs with hand motions on Legoland’s Ninjago ride, to create frighteningly real worlds on huge projection screens on the King Kong ride at Universal’s Islands of Adventure, and to send riders diving deep under the sea by adding virtual reality goggles to the Kraken roller coaster at SeaWorld Orlando.

Legoland Ninjago hands technology
On Legoland’s Ninjaga ride, guests can launch fireballs and iceballs just by waving their hands. The ride some of the newest technology for theme park attractions. Chip Litherland Legoland Florida

▪ Immersive worlds: With the Wizarding World of Harry Potter, Universal Orlando created not just a ride but an immersive world that includes three rides, the streets of Hogmeade, shops and restaurants from the Harry Potter books and movies, and specialty food and drink — including the hugely popular butterbeer. Now, from the World of Avatar to SeaWorld’s Shark Wreck Reef built around its Mako roller coaster, theme parks are creating as many mini-lands or realms as they are stand-alone rides.

▪ Add-ons: Park guests are drawn to experiences with an element of exclusivity and have shown a willingness to pay extra for them. Orlando’s theme parks have added dozens of extras for a fee, whether it’s a character breakfast, animal encounter, behind-the-scenes tour, a dessert party to watch fireworks or VIP treatment with front-of-line access. “We have had them all along, but we add them based on what guests tell us they want to add on,” said Jim MacPhee, senior vice president of Walt Disney World. “People tell us they want to know more about steam trains, we add that.”

▪ Characters: For many young guests, character meet-and-greets are as important as the rides. Disney, which has more recognizable characters than the other parks, is way out in front in creating opportunities for a hug or a photo with a favorite princess or pirate, and the other parks are following suit.

▪ Lines: Long lines for attractions are one of the most frequent complaints by park guests. All of Florida’s major parks offer some kind of solution, usually timed tickets or front-of-line passes that might cost extra. In addition, some new rides have queues with their own story lines and experiences so that people don’t feel like they’re waiting in line.

▪ Spending: Just over a year ago, Disney instituted dynamic pricing for one-day tickets, meaning the price of admission varies from $99 to $119 ($5 more at Magic Kingdom), depending on demand. Prices are higher during peak visitor times, including spring break and summer weekends, and lower on weekdays. Non-Disney parks still have set prices for admission, but the cost of extras, including some add-on experiences and front-of-line passes, go up at peak times. In addition, in-park spending has increased to the point, analysts say, where some guests spend more on food and beverages, souvenirs and special tours and experiences than on the cost of admission.

▪ Hotels: Although hotels have been an integral part of Disney World since the Magic Kingdom opened in 1971, other parks hadn’t embraced them. But now Universal, which for years stuck to just three hotels, is on something of a hotel-building spree. Legoland opened its second hotel this spring. SeaWorld, moving more tentatively, is planning to build its first hotel at its San Diego park. The reason? Park operators say guests who stay at their hotels are less likely to leave or visit other parks — and their money stays with them.

All these factors contribute to the parks’ bottom lines. The parks are big business — their parent companies report annual revenues in the billions of dollars. Disney and Universal are giant corporations that deal in a range of entertainment businesses that may include broadcast, cable, movies, internet services, and merchandise. SeaWorld and Legoland are owned by companies that primarily run theme parks and smaller attractions.

“Overall, the theme park industry is doing well,” Gerner said. “The industry has recovered from the great recession of the 2000s and is moving into some real growth beyond that. In Central Florida, it is doing particularly well. … The exception might be SeaWorld, but SeaWorld’s issues are company-related, not industry-related. ”

Michael Erstad, leisure analyst with M Science research group, agreed. “SeaWorld has had its own issues, but the market overall, especially if you’re looking at Orlando, has been quite healthy,” he said. “Both ticket prices and in-park spending have been increasing.”

Theme parks don’t make their admission figures public, but an industry group, the Themed Entertainment Association, issues annual reports with estimates for the 20 largest parks in North America, including eight in Florida — Disney’s four, Universal’s two, SeaWorld and Busch Gardens — all but Legoland, whose attendance isn’t in the Top 20.

Between 2006 and 2015, the number of guests at those eight parks increased 22.5 percent, from 66.5 million visitors to 81.5 million, with most experiencing a slowdown in 2009-2010, according to the association. Numbers for 2016 aren’t out yet, but there are indications that theme park visitation in Central Florida may have suffered last year because of the Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando, Hurricane Matthew, the Zika virus and other factors.

“Last year, we were very stagnant,” said Adrian Jones, general manager of Legoland, which caters to more of a niche group — children ages 2 to 12 — than the other parks. “This year, we started a lot better. I think we have snapped out of Zika. We had a very, very good spring break, so we are bouncing back.”

Universal Harry Potter Hogsmeade
The Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal’s Islands of Adventure set a new bar for immersive realms instead of standalone rides. KEVIN KOLCZYNSKI UNIVERSAL ORLANDO

THE HARRY POTTER EFFECT

In 2009, Magic Kingdom alone had about 70 percent more guests than Universal’s two parks combined — 17.2 million compared to 5.5 million at Universal Studios and 4.6 million at Islands of Adventure. But as 2010 started, the steep roofs of Hogsmeade rose above construction fences at Universal’s Islands of Adventure. Harry Potter was coming, and he would change everything.

The opening of Wizarding World of Harry Potter in June 2010 drew droves of people from all over the world to see the village of Hogsmeade recreated at Universal, ride the rides, buy a magic wand and drink butterbeer. From 2009 to 2011, the number of guests who came through the gates at Islands of Adventure grew 67 percent, a dramatic increase. Four years later, a second Wizarding World, this one set at Diagon Alley, opened next door at Universal Studios.

“Getting Harry Potter was the best thing Universal ever did,” said Peter Bordi, an associate professor at Penn State University’s School of Hospitality Management. “That was an amazing move. It could have saved the park. It really forced the growth, in a positive way.”

But it wasn’t just the numbers that had an impact. Universal had built an entire world around the story of the Boy Wizard, and its huge success prompted other parks to do the same.

“The biggest trend that really helps profitability, especially Disney and Universal, has been the potential that the Harry Potter experience gave the industry. They took a chance with the very first Harry Potter area,” Gerner said.

Although many rides had an adjacent gift shop or snack stand or another feature with the same theme, no park had created a themed mini-land on the same scale as Wizarding World, he said. “What Universal realized with Harry Potter was that [the old model] was cutting themselves short, that they could re-theme an entire area and have not one ride but multiple rides, multiple restaurants and shops. Make it totally immersive. It was a risky and bold move.”

Thierry Coup, Universal’s senior vice president for Creative, said Wizarding World was an opportunity to take guests into J.K. Rowling’s storytelling. “We wanted to bring the entire world here — the restaurants, the food, the wands. We kind of reinvented the whole experience. We were very successful with that. … It turned out it was exactly what the market wanted.”

“It’s kind of wish fulfillment,” said Roby Brown, content editor of Undercover Tourist. “We wish we could be in that world and now we can. … We’re able to step into Hogsmeade and have a butterbeer. Getting those in-world experiences, interacting with the characters. Immersion is the big word.”

Since then, most parks have created mini-lands or immersive worlds — areas with at least one ride, food and drink, souvenirs, maybe characters or educational exhibits or another experience, all with the same theme. Universal Studios added a second Simpsons ride, midway carnival games, Duff Brewery and a slew of eateries with food from — or inspired by — the TV series. SeaWorld’s new roller coaster, Mako, is the centerpiece of a shark-themed area. Legoland’s World of Chima, in addition to its water ride, has an arena where players can build and race chariots like those driven by the Chima animals; a 4D movie; and character meet-and-greets.

Disney has created an incredibly detailed immersive world in Pandora. Designers invented plants, animals, even rocks for Pandora, often with their own back story. World of Avatar has two rides, a restaurant, a drinks stand and a shop selling Na’vi cultural items. The menu at Satu’li Canteen is “inspired by the healthful bounty on Pandora,” according to Disney, and decorated with hand-woven Na’vi tapestries.

“We think it’s the collection of experiences that make the park,” said Disney World’s MacPhee. “Escape the real world and step into one that doesn’t exist anywhere else.” At Animal Kingdom, he said, “Walk over the bridge [into Pandora], and you immediately notice you’re in a different world. There is incredible flora and fauna. Much of it is live; some of it you will never know it’s not live.”

TECHNOLOGY

Disney’s pioneering use of audio animatronics in the 1960s used pneumatic valves to make bird figures in the Enchanted Tiki Room turn their heads and flowers wave. Larger figures on other attractions required hydraulic cylinders to move limbs. Movement was stiff, jerky and extremely limited.

More than half a century later, Disney used audio animatronics to create the Shaman of Songs on Na’vi River Journey in Pandora, but now the technology is digital and the shaman’s movements are fluid. “This audio-animatronic shaman will greet you and you’ll think it’s alive,” MacPhee said. “There are incredible electronic sensors, projection that you don’t even think of as projection but life.”

Across the board, advances in technology have dramatically changed theme park attractions. Projection screens are used to create towering action scenes on Universal’s Transformers ride and the movement of the Seven Dwarfs’ eyes on their Mine Train at Magic Kingdom.

Adding virtual reality to a ride can transform the experience — and it’s far cheaper than building a new one. Next month, SeaWorld will launch virtual reality on Kraken, its roller coaster named after a sea monster, that will take riders to the depths of the ocean. It will be the first Florida theme park to use virtual reality on ride.

Legoland’s Ninjago ride uses a sort of mini-laser to measure riders’ hand movements as they fire virtual fireballs and iceballs without touching anything. The hand motions determine the path of the virtual weapons. There’s training in these and other ninja moves in the queue.

Universal Hulk
The new entrance to the Incredible Hulk Coaster, which was revamped in 2015-2016 and reopened with a sleek new ride vehicle, an original ride score, a new storyline and a completely redesigned queue experience. Universal Orlando

The new technology is used mostly on new rides, but sometimes older rides are retrofitted. Universal’s Incredible Hulk roller coaster was updated last year, and the Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man got upgrades in 2012.

“When Spider-Man opened in 1999, it was considered the most cutting-edge technology then,” Coup said. “Of course through the years, projection technology and ride technology improved dramatically. We were able to bring in so much more detail. We were able to finally realize our dream.”

SEAWORLD

SeaWorld Entertainment has struggled with attendance, revenue and public opinion since 2010, when an orca at SeaWorld Orlando — the largest of the company’s 12 parks — killed his trainer. The death raised questions among the public about how killer whales are treated in captivity, and a documentary, “Blackfish,” accelerated the debate.

The infamous SeaWorld Orlando orca that sparked the documentary “Blackfish” died at the estimated age of 36 years old, SeaWorld announced Friday.

SeaWorld defended its treatment of orcas and began stressing the scientific research and rescue work it does with marine animals, but ultimately ended its orca breeding program, said it would phase them out of theatrical shows and use them in educational encounters. Orlando will be the last of three SeaWorld parks to end the theatrical shows, probably late next year.

Even so, attendance dropped from 5.7 million in 2006 to 4.8 million in 2015.

SeaWorld Manatee Rehab Center
Looking to educate its guests about animals, SeaWorld has opened its manatee rehab center to public viewing. SeaWorld

“There’s still room for animal experiences,” Gerner said, “but you have to come at it in a more sensitive way.”

Now the park is focusing on its rides — it opened Mako last year, and will open a whitewater raft ride in the summer of 2018 and a Sesame Street land by the end of 2022. It has opened more of its animal care work to the public, giving visitors access to see its dolphin nursery and manatee rehab center.

“For SeaWorld, the misunderstanding is that the animals in our care were only used for entertainment purposes,” said Denise Godreau, chief marketing officer for SeaWorld Entertainment. “For 50 years, the company has been collaborating with universities and providing scientific grants and collaborating with the government. … All of these things are tied to our mission of helping animals in the wild.”

HOTELS

Many years after Disney World started its aggressive hotel building program, other theme park companies are seeing the benefits of having their own hotels. Customers are less likely to leave their property for another theme park. If they’re within a few hours driving time, they’re more likely to spend the night and return to the park for a second day. It’s easier for the park to establish a relationship with the guest early on, learn about their preferences, and shape their experience.

Theme park hotels “do really well, they have high occupancy rates, they tend to charge more, they have benefits that don’t necessarily cost more, like getting into the parks early,” Gerner, the planning consultant, said.

“The success of the hotel has been incredible,” says Jones, general manager of Legoland, which opened its first hotel in May 2015. “It created a wave of interest in the domestic market, people within a three- to four-hour drive. It’s been hugely effective. Our rates were at times $30 to $40 more than we anticipated because of high visitation.”

Legoland opened its second hotel, Beach Resort, in April, and Jones said the company has talked about building a third.

Universal Cabana Bay
Universal Orlando’s fourth on-site hotel, Cabana Bay Beach Resort, was the first in a series of new hotels built or in the works at the theme park complex. DANIEL LECLAIR UNIVERSAL ORLANDO

Universal built three hotels from 1999 to 2002 and nothing else until 2014, when budget-friendly Cabana Bay opened. Since then, Universal has opened another hotel, built two more towers at Cabana Bay, has another hotel under construction and has filed for permits for what would be its seventh hotel.

Even SeaWorld Entertainment has said it will build a hotel, its first, at its Southern California park.

“You can provide a better end-to-end experience,” Godreau said. “From the moment they make the reservation to the time they check out, you can provide a more personal experience. You can have more of a concierge relationship with them.”

Add-on experiences

Theme parks offer a range of add-on experiences, such as character breakfasts, animal encounters, specialty tours, and full-day VIP guides. Here is a small sample of add-on experiences and their prices.

Universal character breakfast: Breakfast buffet at Universal’s Hard Rock Hotel with characters who are available for photos and autographs. Adults $21, children 10-14 $16, children 3-9 $12, children under 3 are free. The Superstar Character Breakfast at Universal Studios also includes a digital photo and VIP viewing at Universal’s Superstar Parade. Ages 10 and up $34.99, ages 3 to 9 $20.99.

SeaWorld: The Wild Arctic Up-Close Tour is a one-hour behind-the-scenes experience that includes hands-on animal interactions. Prices start at $59 per person. Dine with Shamu is a buffet lunch or dinner next to the orca pool, with an up-close view of performing whales and an informal Q&A with their trainers. Prices: Ages 10 and up $29, children 3-9 $19, children under 3 are free.

Busch Gardens: The 30-minute Serengeti Safari is a truck tour with an opportunity to hand-feed giraffes. Pricing varies by season and starts at $29 per person. During the Keeper for a Day experience (6 1/2 hours), participants work with the mammal experts and feed giraffes and antelopes and care for birds on the Serengeti Plain. Price starts at $249 and includes park admission and lunch.

Disney World dessert parties: Disney World offers a variety of parties for viewing fireworks shows or Epcot’s IllumiNations show, accompanied by desserts and beverages, at Magic Kingdom, Hollywood Studios, Epcot, and from a boat on Seven Seas Lagoon. All include a premium viewing area, but not all offer seating. Prices range from $49 adults/$29 kids at Epcot to $99/$69 for the cruise.

All the parks offer a pricey private VIP tour with a host, front-of-the-line access to rides, and reserved seats at shows. Some include animal encounters, behind-the-scenes tours, valet parking, meals and snacks, and other amenities. Here are two examples:

▪ Legoland Red Brick Carpet VIP Experience: Includes park admission; Model Shop tour, building session and Q&A with Master Model Builder; lunch plus all snacks and refreshment; gift bag; valet parking; unlimited digital photo package; family photo printed on Lego Brick Wall. Price: from $445 per child, $495 per adult. For $100 more per person, includes private cabana at water park, locker and beach towels.

▪ Disney World Private VIP tours: Transportation to and from hotel and between parks. Admission and food aren’t included. Price: $400-$600 an hour, minimum seven hours, for up to 10 people.

Coping with lines

All the theme parks offer some kind of front-of-line or timed tickets. Disney World’s FastPasses are the only ones without a fee, but they are the most limited. At Universal, SeaWorld and Busch Gardens, the price of the pass climbs steeply in summer and other busy periods. Legoland’s price is the same every day.

Walt Disney World: FastPass+ is included with park admission, allows a guest to book three timed tickets for one day, one park in advance, for each day’s admission purchased. All of each day’s passes have to be at one park. After you’ve used three tickets, you can book more.

Universal Orlando: The Universal Express Pass comes in two versions, both offering separate, shorter lines. One version offers unlimited use; the other can be used only once per ride. Neither includes the Harry Potter rides and a few others. Cost depends on the date. One-day prices for the unlimited pass start at $54.99 for Islands of Adventure ($49.99 for once-per-ride pass), $74.99 for Universal Studios ($59.99 once-per-ride), and $84.99 for both parks ($64.99 once-per-ride). Universal is experimenting with timed tickets at its new Jimmy Fallon attraction and will use them at its new Volcano Bay water park.

Legoland: The Premium Play Band carries unlimited front-of-the-line privileges, not valid at water park. Price $85.

SeaWorld: Quick Queue Unlimited, (unlimited front-of-line access for most popular rides) plus Signature Show Seating (reserved seating for four shows, once per show) starts at $28. Unlimited front-of-line access to rides-only starts at $19. Show reserved seating-only starts at $14. Prices increase significantly for busy days.

Busch Gardens: Quick Queue Unlimited with unlimited front-of-line access to most rides (including roller coasters) starts at $20.99, depending on the date; Quick Queue valid once per ride starts at $15.99. Prices increase significantly for busy days.

The players

These corporations own Florida’s theme parks:

The Walt Disney Co. reported revenues of $55.6 billion in 2016, of which the parks and resorts division accounted for $17 billion. Four theme parks, two water parks in Florida.

NBCUniversal, part of Comcast, had revenues of $31.6 billion, including $4.9 billion from its theme parks. Two theme parks, one water park in Florida.

SeaWorld Entertainment, whose primary business is parks, had revenues of $1.34 billion. SeaWorld, Busch Gardens, Discovery Cove and two water parks in Florida.

Merlin Entertainments, which owns Legoland and other theme parks and smaller attractions like Madame Tussaud and the Orlando Eye, had revenues of $1.8 billion. One Legoland park, several smaller attractions in Florida.

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