Disney's new family-friendly attraction -- the final achievement of the New Fantasyland expansion that began to open to the public in late 2012 -- officially opened shortly after Memorial Day. It is now the centerpiece of Disney World's television marketing campaign.
The initial wave of reviews hasn't been kind. Many complain that the ride is too short and lacks the thrills befitting a roller coaster. Enthusiast site Disboards.com has an active thread that is now 300-plus posts and 21 pages deep with folks chiming in.
The consensus seems to be that it's a fun and gentle ride, but not the roller coaster ride that many were expecting. That's fine for most guests. There's a reason why they are at Disney World instead of a Six Flags (SIX) park closer to home. However, there's clearly an opportunity here to expand its audience. Disney just prefers to keep its focus on young families.
It's a Small World After All
Disney has never sold itself as a thrill haven. The largest roller coaster in its four Florida parks -- Expedition Everest -- has an 80-foot drop and maxes out at 50 miles per hour. There are a couple of coasters in the country that go more than twice as fast and have drops five times higher.
This doesn't mean that Disney's cutting corners. Expedition Everest was tapped by Guinness World Records as the world's most expensive coaster. The final tab for rich theming and cutting-edge ride systems reportedly came in at $100 million when accounting for the surrounding area, four times as much as Cedar Fair (FUN) has ever spent on one of its famed Cedar Point scream machines.
Is Disney missing out on an opportunity here? Disney does not release attendance figures, but the new TEA/AECOM 2013 Theme Index & Museum Index shows that Magic Kingdom attendance rose 6 percent to 18.6 million visitors last year. That makes it the world's most popular theme park. Why fix what isn't broken?
Still, anyone visiting a Disney park when it opens in the morning knows that there's a mad dash for the thrill rides. Sure, there also plenty of character greeting areas and non-thrill rides that draw early crowds. The longest queue in Disney World these days is a meet and greet chance to take pictures with the "Frozen" sisters. This doesn't take away the allure of a new thrill ride, especially to teens and young adults who may be jaded with the Disney experience that they grew up with as children.
A Marvelous Way to Attract Older Fans
Disney knows this. It has spent billions in acquiring Marvel and Lucasfilm to gain relevance with young moviegoers. No one would turn down a richly themed family ride featuring characters from those studios. But there's also something to be said about giving young families something to look forward to when their kids get older.
One of the oldest rumors involves Disney building out a fifth theme park with an emphasis on thrill rides. It's unlikely to happen, but a first step in that direction would be to at least build a coaster that could win industry records for more than just the largest overall price tag or the most audio-animatronic dwarfs in a jewel mine.
Adding rides with higher height requirements may be divisive, but it wouldn't necessarily be a bad business decision if it leads thrill-seeking kids to want to come back when they grow taller -- and older.
Motley Fool contributor Rick Munarriz owns shares of Walt Disney. The Motley Fool recommends and owns shares of Walt Disney. Try any Motley Fool newsletter service free for 30 days.