Six big ways Orlando theme parks are changing, aside from coronavirus safety measures

Disney's Animal Kingdom - Photo via princess_megan_marie/Instagram
Photo via princess_megan_marie/Instagram
Disney's Animal Kingdom

When talking about Orlando’s tourism industry, a few things are always guaranteed to come up, like those ever-increasing ticket prices. But there are still plenty of unique things ahead for the industry, once parks fully reopen again after after coronavirus pandemic.

Across Orlando, the tourism business was already quickly evolving. With billions of dollars in new investments, including a new theme park and new rides at nearly every other park, the next few years will forever change Orlando’s biggest industry. In the next 18 months, multiple rides will open with trackless technology, projection mapping, and new ways to queue.

Other factors, like the future of SeaWorld, the convention industry, and Holy Land Experience are still very much up in the air, but a few significant trends seem certain in the coming years.

click to enlarge Six big ways Orlando theme parks are changing, aside from coronavirus safety measures
Photo via Disney

1. The rise of physical ride sets

The past twenty years have seen the increase in screens across the theme park industry. Nearly every single Central Florida ride that has opened in the past 20 years has featured screens in some way. While these newer screen-based attractions have received plenty of pushback, especially when a park has an overabundance of them, most by now consider them inevitable. The past few years, however, have already begun seeing the tide starting to shift. Traditional dark rides like the Haunted Mansion, Pirates of the Caribbean, and E.T. Adventure remain popular, showing the demand for physical experiences that can’t be achieved with a VR headset, Wii controller, or other at-home technology.

While screens will undoubtedly remain an essential part of rides, with improved at-home televisions, motion seats, and lower-cost VR headsets, but to be successful, they must offer more than just shaking guests in front of a screen.

In recent years, both Universal and Disney have tried to find the balance between practical effects and screens. Rise of the Resistance at Hollywood Studios, Na'vi River Journey at Animal Kingdom, and Skull Island: Reign of Kong at Islands of Adventure are all examples of how this balance between physical ride sets and screens can be achieved. Moving forward, fewer rides will be strictly one or the other. Instead, attractions like Ratatouille, Guardians of the Galaxy: Cosmic Rewind, the Spaceship Earth redo, and many of the attractions heading to Epic Universe will all have projection mapping or screens alongside detailed physical sets.

click to enlarge The new multi-level Festival Center heading to Epcot - Image via Disney D23
Image via Disney D23
The new multi-level Festival Center heading to Epcot

2. Elephants say goodbye

This year is the ten-year anniversary of the horrific death of Dawn Brancheau at SeaWorld Orlando. Since her untimely death the conversation around orcas in captivity has dramatically shifted with SeaWorld ending its breeding program. The past decade also saw Ringling Brothers Circus ending a 145-year-old tradition of having elephants being a part of its circus productions. While Ringling Brothers did ultimately shut down not long after they ended their elephant performances (though more recently, there have been rumors that parent company Feld may revive the brand in the coming years), SeaWorld’s rebound has shown that there can be a future beyond an attraction’s signature animals. Now the focus is shifting from performing animals to animals in captivity, including those who are not in performing roles. Some more extreme animal activists argue that no animal should be in captivity, including dogs, cats, and goldfish. While that viewpoint isn’t likely to catch on, it’s clear that public opinion is being to shift on what is acceptable for some larger animals, especially elephants.

Elephants are some of the most dangerous animals many animal care facilities have. Not only do they require some of the largest habitats, but they also demand expansive safety systems including massive gates, specialized veterinarian equipment, and, for many zoos, cause increased insurance costs. Smaller zoos, such as Sanford’s Central Florida Zoo, have already phased out their elephant collections, replacing the animals with smaller, easier to care for animals, in Sanford that was a rhino that was no longer able to stay at its former facility. This trend isn’t anything new, Chicago’s Lincoln Park Zoo phased out its elephants 15 years ago but the next few years will see the remaining facilities who have elephants having to address the topic head-on. Earlier this month The San Diego Union-Tribune addressed the topic after a recent spat of elephant deaths in California zoos. Beyond the ethical concerns, the piece also pointed to the decline in reproductive abilities for the North American elephant population. 

On PETA's website, more than two dozen zoos are listed as having ended or in the process of ending elephant captivity at their facilities. The Association of Zoos and Aquariums lists just under six dozen facilities in the U.S. with elephants.

A few of these zoos have doubled down on elephants; the Milwaukee County Zoo unveiled a $16.6 million elephant facility that includes a 1.6-acre outdoor area and a 20,000 sq. ft. indoor facility. This massive new facility will only house five or fewer elephants. The Cincinnati Zoo recently announced it would be expanding its elephant habitat. The new five-acre facility will be nearly 8% of the zoo’s entire size and by far the largest habitat at the zoo.

Part of the shift is a better understanding of what elephants require. Updated husbandry standards call for no fewer than three elephants at any facility.

AI-powered trip planners, robot butlers, and WestWorld-style, role-playing vacations are all in the cards for Orlando's largest industry.

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The good thing about many zoos phasing out elephants is this allows them to present instead more unique, just as endangered animals. In the past zoos were expected to include the ‘big five’ animals (lions, tigers, giraffes, elephants, and bears) in their collection. More recently some zoos have seen success with easy to care for animals, such as koalas, kangaroos, or via exhibits, like aquariums.

In Central Florida, there are three local facilities with elephants. Disney’s Animal Kingdom has them, but they’re mostly only viewable from the safari attraction. At Busch Gardens Tampa, the elephants used to be a signature part of the Rhino Rally attraction but since that attraction’s closure, they’re only visible from the main pathway. Public documents have confirmed that the park will be adding a new attraction near the current elephant habitat though the elephants are still not much more than a quick sight many visitors see as they race towards the next thrill ride. 

Finally, Zoo Tampa at Lowry Park has four elephants in its care with two of them being the daughters of one of the males in their care. The other female is rather old, meaning the park will likely not see any elephant births anytime soon. The Tampa zoo has been rated as one of the worse zoos in the nation for elephants (Disney's Animal Kingdom has also made it on the same undesirable list in other years) and has been fighting negative press related to its elephants for years. Disney’s Animal Kingdom saw pushback on its elephant habitat even before the park opened but early on the elephants were integral to the safari attraction’s storyline, which has since been entirely dropped.

With the storyline no longer in use and with the controversy around the animals increasing, Disney will likely be the first of the three local attractions to phase out elephants. Mike McBride, who hosts a podcast dedicated to Disney’s Animal Kingdom, Radio Harambe, and who is familiar with Disney’s animal care facilities, noted that while he knows of no current plans to remove elephants from the park, “it certainly is possible. There is a pressure on zoos to get rid of them,” adding that Disney is more likely than other less public organizations to get ahead of negative pressure regarding such items. He did explain that the elephant push is slightly different than the controversy around orcas. “Unlike orcas, a large open field with plenty of stimuli and social interaction should be ok. You can never replicate an open ocean with a pool. But you can replicate an elephant’s territory much better.”

While the controversy around elephants may be different than that of orcas, Busch Gardens parent company SeaWorld Parks will also be likely unwilling to rehash battle is has faced over the past decade, so as soon as elephants become less popular the park may quickly phase them out.

With new veterinarian leadership in place and a new growth plan, ZooTampa has many changes in the works. It’s still too early to see what it will do with its elephants, but the 56-acre zoo struggles with size and the elephant habitat might be an excellent option for future expansion.

3. The rise of WestWorld-style, role-playing vacations

One of the most anticipated upcoming additions to Orlando is the Star Wars: Galactic Starcruiser that is slated to open in 2021. This multi-day cruise-like fully immersive, live-action role-playing (LARP) game resort will usher in the next chapter in themed entertainment. While some less popular experiences have offered LARPing style immersive experiences in the past, the new ‘hotel’ at Disney World will bring the concept into the mainstream. There are already rumors that Disney is looking at other franchises to use for similar multi-day LARP experiences with Indiana Jones, Pirates of the Caribbean, and Avatar all floated as possibilities.
click to enlarge Six big ways Orlando theme parks are changing, aside from coronavirus safety measures
Photo via Disney
Universal and other local companies are also closely watching the success of Galactic Starcruiser with their own concepts assumed to be shovel ready.

With experiences being more desirable to Millennials, Gen Z, and other connected generations, these hotel experiences are just the beginning with other ‘WestWorld’ style fully immersive themed experiences likely to become more prevalent in the coming years. While sexual violence and pillaging will thankfully not be the offerings, the upcoming experiences will offer guests a less stressful, more immersive experience that will be a dramatic shift away from the long lines and constant reminders of the outside world, such as with cash registers and smartphone apps, that modern theme parks are filled with.

4. Artificial intelligence and bundling make travel planning easier causing vacation planner programs to be phased out

There has already been plenty of focus on Disney’s upcoming artificial intelligence backed real-time vacation planning app Disney Genie but as this new app begins to roll out later this year, it will be only the first of many significant AI-backed programs that will launch in the 2020s. One report by on traveler habits found that Millennials spend on average eight hours planning their vacation but found themselves bored with it after just 40 minutes, another study found that half of Millennials enjoy spur of the moment style short vacations that require little planning ahead of time. These findings are far from what an enjoyable trip to Walt Disney World currently demands. With restaurant reservations, half a year before visiting and with the coveted ride reservations require early morning plans at least two months ahead of a vacation, not to mention ever-changing ticket prices, special event offerings, and a seemingly endless amount of upcharge options, a week at Disney World can be overwhelming for even the most seasoned traveler.

One-way Disney has gotten away with this is because of their vacation planner program, where Disney has verified Disney trained planners to assist guests with their vacation plans. This program, while free to guests, does cause lower ticket prices for Disney since a small percentage of ticket sales, reportedly around 10%, go to the vacation planner. Currently, that difference is made up with guests who use planners reportedly being more likely to add upcharge and special ticketed events to their vacation along with reporting more positive vacation experiences. But as Disney invests heavily into AI, the need for these vacation planners will likely decrease. While it won’t happen any time soon, it wouldn’t be surprising to see Disney completely do away with the vacation planner program by the end of the decade.

This may also correspond with Disney offering more all-inclusive vacation packages that will include not only hotel and theme park tickets but also dinner reservations, FastPass reservations, and other stress points. The hospitality industry as a whole has been shifting to the cruise model, where all basic plans are included in one price. Disney already offers free dining packages with room reservations certain times of the year but these specials are typically hard to nab before they sell out, though oddly, the most recent free dining promotion at WDW saw a dramatic decrease in the number of days it was offered. A 2018 study by marketing research agency Resonance showed 45% of Millennials all-inclusive packages as a desirable hotel amenity. When breaking the respondents into income brackets, those making more than $100K per year were actually the most likely to state they desired an all-inclusive resort. Altogether only full-service hotels/resorts and staying with friends/family ranked higher than all-inclusive resorts.

Screens will undoubtedly remain an essential part of rides, but to be successful, they must offer more than just shaking guests in front of a screen.

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With demand for easy to plan vacations only increasing, Disney may be forced to finally address the shit show that FastPass+ and Disney vacation planning as a whole has become. More bundled packages and an increasing role of AI will likely mean the role of the vacation planner will decrease in the coming years. While not as extreme, thanks in part to their far less complicated ride reservation systems, Universal will possibly follow Disney’s path and phase out their own vacation planner programs.

These all-inclusive packages might end up being a good thing for Disney; 40% of Millennial travelers said they’d pay more to avoid having to research ahead of the vacation.

One aspect of this trend to watch will be the impact that phasing out these vacation planner programs will have on social media influencers coverage of the theme parks. Disney took away many of the incentives in DVC resales a few years ago and practically overnight the number of DVC resale sites sponsoring influencers and bloggers dropped. Stroller rental companies quickly filled the void, then Disney cracked down on those as well. Now many influencers and blogs are sponsored by vacation planners. A potential phasing out of the vacation planner program could have the unintended consequence of ending one of the last remaining significant sponsorship opportunities for many local bloggers and vloggers.
click to enlarge Universal Orlando's Savioke Personal Service Robot at its Cabana Bay Beach Resort - Photo via Universal Orlando Twitter
Photo via Universal Orlando Twitter
Universal Orlando's Savioke Personal Service Robot at its Cabana Bay Beach Resort

5. Automation hits hospitality hard

A 2019 study of automation’s impact on the U.S. workforce showed that Orlando was the second-most susceptible metro in the nation with nearly one-in-three local jobs being considered at-risk of being replaced by automation. It should be no surprise that one of the industries that will be the most impacted by this coming wave of automation is hospitality. The industry as a whole has been built on the backs of low paid, low wage workers who clean, cook, and operate the hotels, restaurants, and attractions that make up the industry. While the recent wave of autonomous robots in places like San Francisco was probably overblown, it is clear  that as prices decrease and skills increase, more places will bring in robots and AI-powered computer systems. Both Universal Orlando and Aloft Hotels have already begun testing robotic butlers to deliver small items to hotel rooms, such as extra towels or toiletries. In downtown's Creative Village a robot will soon begin preparing sushi when Vera Asian opens its door. Many of these robots are still novel, like a touchscreen soda machine once was.

The next phase of low-cost industrial robotics will allow for counter service restaurants and housekeeping to dramatically cut back on staff. While at first, this could cause a localized mini-recession across Florida, in the end, these cutbacks in staff would actually help employers increase pay overall since more positions, percent-wise, would be a supervisor or other higher-paid positions, though most of the supervision would be quality control and robotic oversight.

Lake Nona already has an autonomous shuttle bus that winds around its streets, albeit very slow. Soon, the famed Disney bus drivers will likely be replaced by similar autonomous vehicles. A highly publicized though never outright confirmed contract between one autonomous vehicle company and Disney World failed to materialize with the company being left in the dust of the race towards autonomous vehicles. That program would’ve first seen autonomous vehicles transporting cast members around backstage before eventually after it had been proven safe, would begin transporting guests. Bus dedicated lanes, such as those installed near Disney Springs, allow for a smoother rollout of autonomous vehicles.

Along with these robotic advances, the hospitality industry will also see dramatic shifts due to understanding how to use data more accurately. This past decade was all about data collection but the avalanche of data saw many companies struggling to know how to use it properly. With improvements in artificial intelligence, the next few years will see this data finally used to improve visitor experiences in theme parks, hotels, and restaurants. Just as ATMs didn’t end bank teller jobs but shifted what their daily routines included, AI-powered systems will empower concierges, reservation centers, and guest service agents to serve visitors better while possibly allowing for the staff at these various departments to decrease in size. Cashiers, line-cooks, housekeepers, bus drivers, and many of the other lower-skilled jobs will see a rough decade ahead as hourly pay increases and automation costs decrease.

6. Orlando continues to become a magnet for the themed entertainment industry

Even while places like China, southern California, and Abu Dhabi continue to increase their own theme park offerings, Orlando may lose its claim as the city with the most theme parks, but that won’t matter as much in the future. Central Florida already has eight theme parks with another slated to open in the coming years, not to mention the numerous midway attractions and smaller parks that fill the area. All of this means that new parks might not be the works but Orlando’s long history as a leader in the themed entertainment industry paired with the lower cost of doing business compared to places like L.A. and New York have meant that in the recent years multiple theme park related companies have opened offices in the Central Florida region.  The International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions, the leading organization for amusement parks operators, moved from the mid-Atlantic to Orlando last year, opening a massive new custom-built headquarters building next door to Darden’s headquarters. In December, Universal announced they would add 150 new jobs at their in-house design firm, Universal Creative, with an average pay of $95,000. In recent years Dynamic Attractions, Universal Creative, Skyline Attractions, and multiple others have either opened offices in Orlando or dramatically increased the size of their Orlando offices.

This clustering of companies related to the creation and on-going production of themed entertainment has the potential of creating high paying careers in an industry that, at least in Orlando, is more frequently linked to low pay entry-level jobs. With pay that’s more than triple the regional average, it’s a bit surprising that local politicians haven’t done more to encourage these types of high paying careers related to Central Florida’s most famous industry to move to the area. But with more attention being given to how little many other jobs in the sector do pay, that may change in the coming years. Orlando is also uniquely suited for growth in this industry thanks to local events, such as the massive expo that IAAPA puts on here each year and the well-connected airport.

A field of experienced engineers, thanks to Central Florida’s space and aeronautical industries and a blossoming simulation industry have already created unique opportunities for local themed entertainment companies, like Falcon’s Creative Group. As the industry shifts to using more advanced technology in rides that use computer designed graphics having these experts in these industries nearby will help Orlando sell itself as the must-be location for themed entertainment companies.

The coronavirus has taken a brutal toll on the United States, as it has around the world, on the lives taken and damaged, as well as the industries and livelihoods lost. When tourism can fully resume, Orlando's innovations will continue to make the city an international destination for at least another generation.

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