I read an article on MiceChat recently which suggested that part of the reason Universal’s recent aggressive expansion in theme parks has been working is because fans of Universal are less particular about “thematic intrusions” or the “appropriateness of intellectual property,” than Disney fans, who are far more vocal about such things. There may or may not be an element of truth to this claim, but overall it is reductive and doesn’t really get to the heart of the issue. The heart of the issue, as I see it, is that Universal’s parks are fundamentally different in their intent than some (but not all) of Disney’s parks.
Let me explain. The way I see it, you can fit most theme parks into one of two categories. I fully realize that the “there are two types of X” discussions are always terrible and reductive, but please bear with me for a minute as this is the best way I can think of to make this point. Anyway, those two categories are parks that are driven by a specific thesis and parks that are driven by a more broad idea or aesthetic*. The best examples of thesis driven parks are Disney’s Animal Kingdom and EPCOT Center. EPCOT’s thesis is that advances in technology and the sharing of cultural knowledge will help make the world a better place, and in its early days, this was fully supported by the attractions and environments within the park. It combined the ideals found in earlier attractions like It’s a Small World and Carousel of Progress and scaled them up to an entire theme park. Similarly, Animal Kingdom’s thesis is all about humanity’s interaction with the Earth and its living creatures, explored through science, folklore, and legend. These parks have very specific ideals, and any attractions that are added to these parks should support and reinforce them.
On the other end of the spectrum, we have those parks that are based not on a specific thesis, but more of a broad concept or even just a unified aesthetic. This is the category that Universal’s theme parks fall into, but it also exists in a few of Disney’s parks including Hollywood Studios and California Adventure. Here the attractions can be much more varied in terms of subject and content, as they are supporting broad themes like the golden age of Hollywood, the worlds of motion pictures, or the aesthetic of California in the early 20th century. There’s still a line that can be crossed in these parks wherein attractions and environments contradict the theme, but it’s generally much more inclusive and free in terms of content. It’s okay, for instance, for locations and characters from the movie Cars to be present in California Adventure because it fits with the aesthetic, even if Cars isn’t specifically a Californian story.
That’s the big difference here. That’s the reason why theme park fans are okay with a fantasy version of London replacing a New England beach town, yet are outraged over the generically Scandinavian setting of the film Frozen replacing a pavilion dedicated to the people and culture of Norway. It’s not because Universal fans care less about theme than Disney fans, but because these parks demand a different approach. Frozen does not support the thesis of Epcot, but would be appropriate in a park like Magic Kingdom. Similarly, while Avatar contradicts Animal Kingdom’s thesis, it would be right at home in a park like Universal’s Islands of Adventure.
Unfortunately, this idea of a theme park having a thesis doesn’t play well with Disney’s current franchise model, which is why parks like Epcot and Animal Kingdom are suffering (ironically, the model would fit nicely with Disney’s Hollywood Studios, but they can’t be bothered to do anything worthwhile there). Neither type of park is inherently better than the other, but they require vastly different approaches, and currently neither of the major players seem to be interested in developing content for the more specific, thesis driven parks. The success of environments themed around a single property like Universal’s Wizarding World of Harry Potter or Disney’s Cars Land has led to these types of environments becoming the new standard, but they are better suited for the more thematically broad parks. Hopefully we’ll see a return to thesis driven content in the future, but for now, we should look carefully at these franchise driven environments to ascertain where they would be most appropriate rather than just haphazardly applying them as Band-Aids to failing parks that need more specialized attention.
*In addition to those two, there is a third type of park – a park that is driven by specific ideals and world views of its creator. These types of parks are auteurist in nature and we can see examples in parks like Walt Disney’s Disneyland, Joe Rohde’s Animal Kingdom, and Tony Baxter’s Disneyland Paris, but that is a discussion for another time.