- In a little over a year, Disney's theme parks have rebounded from massive pandemic-related operating losses.
- While not all international theme parks are fully reopened, domestic parks have seen strong ticket sales and foot traffic thanks to new rides and park expansions.
- Tech innovations have made the theme park experience and operations smoother for guests and cast members.
- Disney reports quarterly results Wednesday.
LOS ANGELES – In April last year I took a stroll down an empty Main Street in Disneyland with the head of Walt Disney theme parks, Josh D'Amaro.
The California park was a week from opening after more than a year of being shuttered due to Covid-19 restrictions, and cast members were hard at work putting the last touches in place before guests arrived.
It was a strange walk down the iconic cobblestone lane. It was quiet, a word that has probably never been used to describe a Disney theme park. There was no background music, no bustle of kids clamoring for a Mickey balloon or a soft pretzel, and no parade of colorful characters ready to pose for photos or sign autographs.
As we followed the trolley tracks toward the statue of founder Walt Disney, D'Amaro spoke about the future of the company's parks in optimistic, but practical, terms. The road ahead, he noted, wasn't going to be smooth. Attendance caps, mask requirements and mandatory temperature checks were the cost of reopening. For five quarters Disney's park division had reported a loss in operating income, and that would continue if the gates did not reopen. If D'Amaro was worried, he didn't show it.
While much of the focus of Disney's earnings during the last two years has been on Disney+ and the company's streaming efforts, the resurrection of the theme park industry is critical to Disney's bottom line. On Wednesday, the company will update shareholders on its most recent results and trends when it announces fiscal second-quarter earnings. Disney shares are down about 30% since January.
In 2019, the segment, which includes cruises and hotels, accounted for 37% of the company's $69.6 billion in total revenue. Typically, theme parks account for the majority of this revenue.
New theme park lands such as Avengers Campus and the opening of Star Wars Galactic Starcruiser have enticed guests to travel to Disney's domestic amusement hubs, but more expansions, including new additions to Disney World's Epcot, are on the horizon.
A year after that stroll with D'Amaro, Disney's parks have rebounded significantly. The division, which also includes Disney experiences and consumer products, saw revenues top $7.2 billion during the fiscal first quarter, double the $3.6 billion generated in the prior-year quarter. The segment saw operating results jump to $2.5 billion compared to a loss of $100 million in the same period last year.
The company said in February that its domestic parks have yet to see a significant return from international travelers, which prepandemic accounted for 18% to 20% of guests. Additionally, not all of its international parks have been open full-time during the last quarter. While Paris Disneyland is celebrating its 30th anniversary, Shanghai Disneyland closed its gates temporarily due to local Covid spikes.
"As miserable as the pandemic has been, we had this opportunity not to just reopen those gates again, but to kind of restart, in a way," D'Amaro told CNBC last week. "You don't get these opportunities much in life where the world stands still for you for a moment."
Technology that was put in place or updated during the pandemic remains a big part of the Disney experience. While rides, restaurants and character meet-and-greets are often what bring people through the park gates, shorter waits, faster service and ambiance keep visitors coming back.
Virtual ride queues, which help maintain social distancing, and an online reservation system, which helps with crowd control aren't going away, D'Amaro said. The company relies on the data from these services to help staff high-traffic areas of the park and redistribute traffic to less-crowded locations.
Mobile order and pay, which was available before the pandemic, has become increasingly popular with guests. Before the pandemic, Disney saw single-digit adoption of its mobile ordering system. Now, around nine out of 10 guests opt to use it.
A bonus is that consumers tend to spend more money when making purchases through mobile ordering and payment options than traditional in-person cash or credit card purchases.
A recent addition to Disney's suite of technology innovations is Genie, which is a kind of digital concierge. First announced in 2019 during Disney's D23 Expo, the service creates custom itineraries for guests based on what attractions they most want to experience and restaurants the want to dine at.
A paid version, called Disney Genie+, replaces the domestic park's FastPass, FastPass+ and MaxPass offerings, which were discontinued during the pandemic.
For $15 per ticket per day at Walt Disney World in Florida and $20 per ticket per day at Disneyland, guests can use the new Lightning Lane at select attractions. Visitors can make one selection at a time to bypass the main line at a scheduled time for rides such as Haunted Mansion, Big Thunder Mountain and Millennium Falcon: Smugglers Run.
D'Amaro said adoption rates for Genie, Genie+ and the Lightning Lane have exceeded expectations.
"We did not take our foot off the pedal as it relates to investments," D'Amaro said. "We had a chance to look a lot more clearly at our future and start to lay the tracks for a future that is not bound by what we did prepandemic or what we did 10 years ago or 20 years ago, but is, in fact, boundless."
In addition to smoother operations, Disney has provided guests with new places to explore within and alongside its parks in the last year.
Avengers Campus opened in June 2021. The new area, located within Disneyland's California Adventure theme park, replaced A Bug's Land. It includes the preexisting Guardians of the Galaxy: Mission: Breakout ride at the edge of Hollywood Land.
It is also host to a new Spider-Man attraction, a dining location called Pym Test Kitchen and a portal to Doctor Strange's sanctum. At its center is the Avengers compound, the home to Marvel's mightiest heroes. On the rooftop launchpad is a to-scale quinjet that lights up and revs its engines for guests.
Avengers Campus is a popular destination for Disneyland guests who can catch sight and interact with their favorite heroes, anti-heroes and villains from the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
And for theme park junkies looking for more than just a photo op, Disney recently opened its new Star Wars experience the Galactic Starcruiser. Branded as an "immersive adventure," the Star Wars Galactic Starcruiser blends elements of the company's resorts, cruise lines and theme parks into a 48-hour romp in space.
The experience comes with a steep price tag — around $1,200 per person per day — but has been generally well-received by guests since its opening in March.
The upcoming fiscal second-quarter results will include the first month of these voyages and give shareholders insight into what they can expect revenue wise from this attraction going forward. The two Star Wars Galaxy's Edge land expansions cost around $2 billion, but it's unclear what Disney has invested toward other recent upgrades to its parks.
Disney's next park expansion comes at the end of May. The Wonders of Xandar Pavilion at Disney World's Epcot is the newest piece of Disney's massive transformation of the nearly 40-year-old park, which has long been known for its unique food offerings and annual festivals.
The Wonders of Xandar Pavilion is based on Marvel's "Guardians of the Galaxy" and features a new roller coaster: Guardians of the Galaxy: Cosmic Rewind.
"We have lots going on here at Epcot," Kartika Rodriguez, vice president of Epcot, told CNBC back in February, during a media tour of the new attraction.
Already, Epcot has expanded its French pavilion to include Remy's Ratatouille Adventure, a trackless ride that takes guests through a Pixar version of France. It has also added a new space-themed restaurant called Space 220, which takes diners hundreds of miles up above the park to eat among the stars. Still to come is a "Moana"-inspired walkthrough attraction called Journey of Water.
"I think our [Walt Disney Imagineering] partners have found are really unique way of just assuring that Epcot stays true to what it's about ... it's about growing, it's about being connected," Rodriguez said. "And that's what Epcot is, dreaming about what the world of tomorrow will be."
Refreshing its parks is one way that Disney keeps its parkgoers excited to return and elevates its storytelling and experiences. D'Amaro said the company is far from done innovating.
The company is set to launch its newest cruise ship the Disney Wish this summer and is working to complete Tron: Lightcycle Run roller-coaster at Magic Kingdom.
However, perhaps more exciting is the promise of something new on the horizon. Disney's Galactic Starcruiser is a blueprint that could easily be applied to other franchises owned by the company and innovations in animatronics and AI could bring fan-favorite characters big and small to the parks.
"There are so many things we can do and so many places we can go," he said.