Mickey Blinked

by David Koenig, contributing writer

I recently returned from what for me was a very unusual week in Orlando—I preceded my four days at Walt Disney World with three days at Universal Studios Florida's resorts and parks. The difference floored me.

Of course, the Wizarding World of Harry Potter in 2010 was a game-changer, instantly driving up attendance and revenues, and turning Universal into a destination that tourists had to go to, in addition to—or even instead of—Disney.

The philosophy behind it—create fully exotic, identifiable, immersive environments, spending whatever was required to do the job and exceed visitor expectations—was so successful, it convinced Disney to momentarily abandon its penny-pinching ways and follow suit with a no-expenses-spared Cars Land (which has worked similar magic on Disney California Adventure) and for its Avatar and Star Wars lands.

Still, Disney will have a hard time topping Potter, because while Star Wars and Avatar contain great, unique environments, they lack the hundreds of intimate, instantly recognizable details of Potter's universe. I found myself completely engulfed in both Universal parks' Harry Potter areas, their eye-popping attractions, exactingly re-created shops and restaurants, and the clever train that connects the two parks.

The shops are small, meandering, out of the way, with narrow aisles and hidden rooms, waiting to be accidentally discovered. The wand shop sells wands, not Islands of Adventure T-shirts. Remember pre-1980s Main Street, anyone?

I walked right past Diagon Alley without realizing it. The entire land is hidden behind brick facades, with no signs. You have to know it's back there (or follow the constant stream of visitors). I'm fairly certain Disney's version would have had neon signs, miles of stanchions, and an army of cast members waving the crowds through with flashlights.

When I visited, the parks had opened a new headline attraction (Kong: Skull Island) weeks before, were soft-opening another (Hulk) the day we arrived, and were promoting two more (Fast and Furious, Jimmy Fallon) on eye-catching construction walls.

Universal employees were, for the most part, upbeat and engaged. After our Dr. Suess PeopleMover-type ride suffered a five-minute breakdown, an apologetic manager greeted us at unload with front-of-the-line passes and cold bottles of water.

In comparison, Walt Disney World felt tired. Over the last two-plus years, aside from Epcot changing out Soarin' and Frozen-ing over Maelstrom, the resort seemed frozen in time.
The most noticeable changes—Magic Kingdom's reformatted Plaza layout, complete with tacky artificial grass lawns, and Downtown Disney's conversion into Disney Springs—didn't upgrade entertainment; they focused on making bottlenecks more accessible. Like most of WDW's big expenditures over the last decade, from Magic Bands to the New Fantasyland to Fastpass+, the primary impetus was the traffic flow—accommodating more customers and moving them quickly in and out of additional buying opportunities.

Disney Springs, in particular, is themed entertainment malpractice. They added two parking structures, new shopping villages, pathways, bridges, and dozens more stores and restaurants, but excised all personality. Pleasure Island had charm, character, quirkiness; the new Town Center looks like the Irvine Spectrum, a conventional outdoor mall with zero Disney touches.

Disney Quest was the lowlight. It was unkempt and severely understaffed—even for the relatively small number of visitors there. The skeleton crew seemed dispirited. The Animation Academy offered a drawing class at 1:30 and then not another one until 6:30. Attractions were mothballed left and right.

Crowds were also down, albeit slightly, at the Magic Kingdom, although lines—especially at bag check—moved slowly. On Aladdin's Magic Carpet ride, the squirting camels were turned off and the ride's machinery creaked so painfully, it sounded like the arms were going to fall off. On Buzz Lightyear's Space Ranger Spin, I practically needed pliers to squeeze my trigger.

Even pleasant surprises brought suspicion. Every attraction we visited at Epcot had a wait time that turned out to be a third of what was posted on the signs out front. Was Disney pretending its rides were more popular than they really were? After waiting just 20 minutes for Frozen Ever After (the disfigured Maelstrom) instead of the advertised 70 minutes, I informed the attendants out front, who were busy chatting to each other. They shrugged, and resumed their chat.

The ride itself offered little new, besides the Frozen overlay. It's a shame because most of the technology behind ground-breaking Universal attractions like Spider-Man and Forbidden Journey was first offered to Disney. Disney passed.

All that said, Universal Orlando has a ways to go before it achieves Disney-level success. For one thing, Universal lacks the "whole family" rides that Disney's famous for. Almost everything at Universal's parks are either thrill rides or kiddie rides, with no crossover. Also, most of Universal's marquee attractions have a similar feel; Escape from Gringotts, Forbidden Journey, Kong, Shrek, Simpsons, Spider-Man, Minions, and Transformers all place you in a motion-simulating vehicle that interacts with a 3-D movie, usually violently. They're all great individually, but numbingly repetitive one right after the other. Ride types are also clustered instead of spread out; Islands of Adventure's two "shows," Poseidon's Fury and Sinbad, are right next to each other, as are its three flume/raft attractions. As well, Universal's live entertainment is lacking; Poseidon and Sinbad desperately need updating.

Disney also has structural advantages. It owns more than 25 times the land in Florida than Universal. It holds countless more beloved properties to design attractions around. And, of course, it has the Disney name.

But Universal has one overwhelming advantage: it actually considers the continuous creation of great attractions to be a top priority.

Can't Miss at Epcot

It's easy to miss at Epcot, but don't. The Captain EO theater is now playing a "Disney & Pixar Short Film Festival" featuring three cartoons in 3-D—For the Birds, La Luna, and Get a Horse!—all of which I'd seen before, but not in 3-D. The format added a little to the first two, but seeing Get a Horse! in 3-D in a large theater was like viewing a completely different movie. Many of the movie's gags are dependent on the 3-D effects and on being in a theater setting. I now know why it didn't win the Oscar for best animated short—obviously most Academy voters saw the short only on their flat small screens.

Plastic Surgery for the Big Cheese

Rumors abound that the parks' costumed Mickey Mouse and Minnie Mouse might be getting a new look. The new heads and faces, influenced by the look of the CGI children's show Mickey Mouse Clubhouse, debuted this summer at Shanghai Disneyland. The faces are longer (particularly in the eyes) and a deeper tan color. I have to wonder if they were trying to make the mice appear more "international." The site Thrillgeek.com has a side-by-side comparison of the new and old looks.

One source expects the new costumes to debut at Disneyland "very soon… The new heads are already at Disneyland and Entertainment cast members are familiarizing themselves with them," she said. "Entertainment management has been trying to keep when the change is going to occur a secret."



  1. By wdwchuck

    Thanks David, it is sad but so true. What built Disneyland and WDW has now been thrown out in favor of corporate greed. It has been a long time coming but the effects are far reaching and inevitable. Your story describes some of the effects and we can easily read about more and more of them everyday. I feel for the people who are coming to WDW for the first time.
    Corporate bureaucracy sucks the life out of everything it touches. I know. I lived it. Greedy idiots at the top making short term decisions that mainly help the people at the top of the food chain.
    It is sad. Maybe the competition from China and Universal will drive them to giving us back the Disney Magic. Maybe.

  2. By jms1969

    I couldn't agree more with this article, and it hurts so much to admit it. Right now, the pace of change at Universal, and the quality of that change, is far ahead of Disney. In addition, much of the new construction/changes Disney is doing to attractions range from totally out of sync with the parks they are in (Tower of Terror to Guardians of the Galaxy at DL as an example), to having very little appeal to me (AvatarLand at AK is of very little interest). Star Wars has the obvious potential to be a game changer, and I know "you have to break a few eggs to make an omelet", but for right now it's simply resulting in huge disruptions in the parks. After trying out a Universal Florida Hotel for the first time for two nights last year and having a very good experience, the concept of a Universal only (or at least majority) vacation in Florida in the next couple years is more appealing to me than I ever thought it would be.

    We recently returned from a trip to the West Coast, and visited DL, DCA, and Universal Hollywood, for the first time since 2011 (compared to WDW, which we do roughly annually). On the Disney side, our opinion was that CarsLand was beautifully done, and we look forward to seeing the Florida version. However, beyond the very enjoyable RSR attraction and the beautiful theming, there wasn't much new in the park. Sure, DCA looked a bit different and it was nice to see the theming cleaned up a bit, and the new Soarin' movie was impressive, but not much had changed in 5 years, and DL actually took some steps back since our last visit because of all the Star Wars closures. Universal, however, had a vibrant, energetic vibe, with several new attractions and updates that we enjoyed. However, I will say that Universal Hollywood seemed filled above capacity, and it directly impacted the quality of our day. It was an average Summer weekday - not anything special - and ride times were bit high which didn't really stand out. What did stand out was that the restaurants, shops, and walkways felt overcrowded, and over time it took a lot of the fun away. This has never happened to me in a Disney park, and I guess its the argument Disney would make for all of the infrastructure improvements it has been making.

    One last comment on DL, this time largely comparing things to WDW rather than Universal - the number of things not working or just not thought out properly was amazing. Examples that became very obvious on a warm summer day include non-air conditioned Monorails and a total lack of any sort of cooling fans in lines. I understand that 90 degrees was a bit hotter than normal for California, and that the Florida climate is obviously different, but it wasn't so far out of the summer norm to explain these design issues. As another example, we also were amazed as guests at the Grand Californian to arrive 20 minutes early at the resort's gate for our Disney hotel-only early entry morning to DCA and discover a line of about 75 people being held up at the gate, behind security, and watch that line grow behind us to about 200-250 by opening. We listened to workers tell people arriving later than us to go to the main gate because it would "probably" be quicker, since there were only two security guards at the GC gate to check bags. The obvious and simple solution - run security and tickets a bit early and hold people in the area immediately past the GC gate until park opening has apparently never been considered, or been deemed not worth it by Disney, and we wound up getting in the park about 15-20 minutes into our early hour. It was like it was the first time they had ever done this, and they were shocked there were people waiting to get in.

  3. By candles71

    You have 3 hotels worth of people to go through 2 or 3 gates. It is highly recommended to go to the main gate for MM.
    I was worried about the congestion at USH after they opened HP. Like Disneyland, there isn't really anywhere to go landwise. At least up on the hill in the main part of the park.
    I thought Animation Academy at Disney World was gone altogether?

  4. By appsyscons

    As much as I enjoy WDW, I have to admit in your assessment. We have been annual pass holders for over 10 years, and we are choosing not to renew, at this time. WDW has done some things to draw more and more visitors, but not really made and revolutionary changes. The place had just gotten too crowded all year long, and seems same old...same old.

    WDW still has the "Disney" name, the stories and the music, they have an abundance of space, and a large number and variety of resorts, but the parks are lacking and Universal Orlando is coming on strong.

  5. By Jimbo996

    Did Mickey Blink? Either you're referring to the Mickey Mouse costume where the eyes will blink, or you're referring to Disney's competition with Universal where Disney blinked. Neither appear to be true. Disney theme parks are changing, although more slowly. Soon Star Wars and Avatar will appear along with many unannounced and rumored updates to Epcot. They are not the exciting rides at Universal, yet Shanghai has shown what Disney is capable with the new Pirates ride and the Tron roller coaster, both that will serve as models for future state-side attractions. The new Shanghai Pirates is rumored to arrive in the form of the new Avatar boat ride. The Tron ride might serve as the basis for Epcot's new Guardians of the Galaxy roller coaster ride to replace Universe of Energy and the new Marvel roller coaster at California Adventure. Exciting times for the theme park fan.

  6. By cbarry

    I have to say, I just returned from 6 days at WDW and 2 days at Universal. While The Wizarding World is just astonishing - and I have a Top 5 regarding Diagon Alley running tomorrow(shameless plug) - I really think that's all that Universal has to hang over Disney right now. David makes a very valid point, but it needs to highlighted: Universal's rides are just about all the same. I rode their newest attraction, Kong. The setting and exterior is very cool, the Kong animatronic at the end is fantastic, but the ride is essentially Transformers in the Jungle in a safari vehicle. So many of their attractions are essentially the same in a different wrapping. Even Gringotts which I thoroughly enjoyed as a huge Potter fan is strikingly similar to Transformers, Spiderman, Minions, Simpsons and now Kong. They found a formula and they repeat it, video projection with some set pieces overlaid, someone or something is trying to kill you or get you, you're going to plummet, you're going to get "towed" upward by something, you're going to get the bejeebers shaken out of you and then make it out in the end. That's not staggering creativity. The immersive Wizarding World is a game changer in my eyes. The details are amazing, best I've ever seen, but I'm not going to give them points for better attractions and rides. I can't give them that.

    We were traveling with 13 total, consisting of a handful of newbies and some park veterans and all of us were thrilled with Walt Disney World. We've been there annually as a family for the past 13 years and I don't see the decline that so many of you see. I see a lot of change on the horizon and I can't wait. It never feels old to me.

  7. By candles71

    Slightly OT. Simpson's in Orlando. Just like Hollywood and installed into Back to the Future? The cars on the sides throw DH off and cause some motion sickness. We think because they created the film to the existing ride morions.

  8. By mkelm44

    I read this on Thursday when it came out, and decided to reserve judgment for a couple of days. Due to a work relocation to Orlando, I now am a Florida Resident passholder and with two boys aged 2 and 4, frequent guests to Disney. Since it was my older sons birthday, we spent the day at EPCOT on Saturday and were back at Disney Springs Sunday Night (we were at Magic Kingdom last week). This is unfortunately too accurate.

    Epcot is desperate for a grand rehabilitation and possibly a good re-theming. Too much of it is unchanged for the last 20 years, and what has been done has been done on the cheap. I haven't been on the new Frozen, but from what has been described it was a slapdash coverup of the existing ride. The Canada pavilion got a new film, except it was the old film with just some overlaid dialogue from Martin Short, a good comedian who is also 20 years out of date. The Mexican Pavilion boat ride had Donald Duck added, but it was the same boat ride- because my sons like the Donald Duck stuff, I've been on that way too many times and I can tell you I have zero idea what I'm looking at... is it Mexico City, Acapulco, Tijuana, Cancun? No clue because I'm stuck listening to the inane three caballeros music. There is a lot of unused real estate both in terms of giant spacing between things as well as closed attractions with nothing new going in. The Captain EO/Honey I shrunk the audience is horribly misused to show shorts, as amusing as they are, the Wonders of Life Pavilion, and the Odyssey building are unused albatrosses sitting on the landscape. There are also numerous plots of land which could be used to house additional countries (India? Brazil? Australia?) if you so chose, or even temporary "Mini-Pavilions" that could be relatively easily modified so that you could have countries on "Limited runs". After all, you could put in a performance stage/theater for either films or performing arts groups (think China's acrobats), a display area, and a restaurant that basically would just require a re-decoration and "Voila! New Country." Just something to show that Epcot is not the forgotten park that it seems to be

    Working around the park, I agree with your assessment of Magic Kingdom (creaky), gift shops (generic) and Disney Springs, which is obviously targeted at capturing the money of Orlando's very large South American visitor total, many of whom fly to Orlando, buy a suitcase and descend upon the outlet malls off I-Drive as well as the Florida Mall and the Millenium Mall to fill up and return home with a new collection of high-end American fashion.

    However, a visit by a friend of mine from college made me think about perspective. Those of us on this site are frequent visitors and see things a little more critically- not a knock on us, but rather just the result of spending a lot of time anywhere. My friend and her family are doing their first visit to the park, and quite possibly their only visit there. So they are a little more awed by it than we are. Things which we take for granted at Disney are still magical to them. Yes the blasters on Buzz Lightyear are troublesome, but the whole thing is still cool to them. I'm not saying this to excuse Disney Management, which I do believe is allowing the decline to happen in pursuit of more ways to part us from money at the expense of magical experience, but even in decline, Disney still is magical to many.

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