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Walt Disney World’s Magic Kingdom in Orlando, Florida.Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Sabrina Maddeaux: Beyond money and big dreams, wannabe usurpers have largely yet to perfect the elusive magic

There are few things more American than the theme park. The nation counts over 400 from coast to coast, which are home to more than 30,000 attractions and host over 375 million visitors a year. For decades, the undisputed kingpin of the theme park world was Walt Disney World in Orlando, Florida (and before that, Disneyland in Anaheim, Calif.).

Few could rival the seemingly limitless creativity of Disney’s imagineers, their ability to bring beloved stories and characters to life and their futuristic tech innovation. Today, the park averages 52 million visitors a year, which is twice as many as America’s capital city – a cultural statement in and of itself.

Disney’s dominance was only rivalled by Universal Orlando, which opened in 1990 and focused on the magic of film and entertainment. Where Disney had Mickey, Cinderella, Peter Pan and Winnie the Pooh, Universal touted Jaws, King Kong, Spider-Man and E.T. While Disney’s attractions stayed committed to animatronics, Universal experimented with high-tech simulators and 3D tech. The two behemoths traded jabs with new rides, fireworks spectaculars, intellectual property acquisitions and international expansions, but Disney’s crown was never really threatened until Universal decided to fight magic with magic.

The Wizarding World of Harry Potter, an immersive land like no other where dragons breathe fire down Diagon Alley, shop windows come to life and a large-scale replica of Hogwarts throws shade at Cinderella’s castle, was the opening shot in what’s now a full-on arms race.

Disney answered this May with its much-hyped Pandora – The World of Avatar, which features life-size floating mountains and waterfalls, an Avatar Flight of Passage 3-D simulation ride (which engages all the senses from smell to touch) and their most advanced animatronic yet in Na’vi River Journey. When the sun goes down, the landscape transforms, revealing an entirely new bioluminescent world with glowing footpaths and otherworldly fauna.

Tourists enjoy the rides at Chinese Theme Park “Happy Valley.” China Photos/Getty Images

In response, Universal said, “Hold my Butterbeer,” and opened Volcano Bay the very same week. It’s their first water park to rival Disney’s splashy offerings complete with proprietary technology that aims to eliminate lines altogether. In a show of the biz’s new cutthroat nature, Disney and Universal scheduled advance media previews on the exact same day, forcing reporters to choose between the two.

But Disney might have the ultimate weapon of mass amusement in their artillery with Star Wars-themed lands set to open in 2019 and a Westworld-like, Star Wars-themed resort that will give each guest their own immersive storyline and journey to complete. Meanwhile, Universal plans to open an interactive Nintendo-themed world in early 2020.

But the new era of theme park competition isn’t just limited to Orlando, or even industry titans Disney and Universal. International wealth is helping a new block of nations threaten to actually dethrone the U.S. as the world’s theme park leader.

Take Dubai, which features a potent mix of extreme wealth, available real estate and an insatiable appetite for all things larger-than-life. The emirate is already home to recently-opened IMG Worlds of Adventure (the world’s largest indoor theme park, clocking in at 1.5-million square feet full of Marvel and Cartoon Network attractions), Motiongate Dubai (uniting Dream Works, Lionsgate and Sony Pictures for the first time ever), Bollywood Parks Dubai and Legoland Dubai. The sheer number of attractions is staggering and includes wildly popular properties like The Hunger Games, Ghostbusters, Madagascar, Iron Man and Thor that don’t yet appear in parks Stateside. Impressively, none of these parks existed before the summer of 2016.

Dubai isn’t slowing down anytime soon, either. Plans to build a new 25-million-square-foot park boasting Pokemon, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Hot Wheels attractions are underway with a projected 2020 opening date. The entire property will have a retractable roof so it can operate in all weather conditions.

China’s theme park industry benefits from a similar surplus of real estate, fast cash and a newly-minted middle class with disposable income. Until recently, it was home to Disney and Universal’s biggest rival: Wanda. The firm owned two parks in the country, with plans to open a whopping 15 more by 2020. However, with mounting debt and regulatory scrutiny, Wanda sold off $9 billion worth of hotel and park assets in July.

Meanwhile, other competitors are stepping up to the plate. In early 2017, China Evergrande Group opened its $7.3 billion Children’s World, based on popular Chinese myths and legends. It’s set to be the first of a string of parks. KuangChi Science is building a $1.5-billion Future Valley park that will launch visitors into the lower stratosphere in a high-altitude deep space balloon.

As of 2016, China boasted 2,700 theme parks – dwarfing America’s 400. China’s theme park industry is also set to be the world’s largest market in terms of revenue by 2020. Chinese parks are projected to rake in $12 billion that year, while U.S. parks are projected to clock in at $9 billion. However, dominating in sheer size and revenue doesn’t necessarily mean China will be the best theme park destination.

Disney’s crown was never really threatened until Universal decided to fight magic with magic.

According to the 2016 report on Chinese theme parks, only 10 per cent of the country’s parks are profitable. Many of the park’s quality, tourism value and long-term prospects are suspect. “Disney and Universal will take five or six years to build a park, but some of these developers are looking at building their parks in two or two-and-a-half year time spans, which is very difficult. It’s a major challenge to do high-quality work under those time constraints,” says Brad Caruk, creative director for ITEC Entertainment, which designs theme parks across the globe.

Another major problem is that many new Chinese theme park operators have little to no IP licenses, meaning they have to create their own stories and characters rather than enjoy the built-in audiences that franchises like Frozen, Transformers or Star Wars attract. Even when they draw visitors to the park, they struggle to sell enough branded merchandise to boost their bottom line. There’s a reason why most attractions end with a walk through a gift shop: that’s where the real money lies. Visitors simply aren’t as likely to buy a t-shirt baring the face of random characters as they are items touting their favourite Disney princess or Marvel superhero.

Often, the Chinese theme park industry has different goals than its American counterparts. It’s less a tourism business, and more a real estate one. Most planned sites include apartment complexes to be built nearby. Having a theme park in the neighbourhood raises the value and appeal of residential property. As a result, it’s not uncommon for a park to cease operating once the surrounding land turns a profit.

It’s telling that, despite the recent Chinese boom, the most popular and successful theme parks in Asia are still Disney’s and Universal’s properties in Japan. “China’s very, very strong, but that’s not to say forget the rest of the world,” says Caruk, who alludes to some exciting prospects coming to Europe that aren’t yet public knowledge.

In the meantime, the battle of quality versus quantity wages on in the theme park world. It’s one of the few remaining industries where billions of dollars and the will to compete don’t necessarily equal market domination – or even survival. “Theme parks have to understand that just because you build a cool attraction or put a lot of money into it, doesn’t mean it’s going to be successful,” says Caruk.

Beyond money and big dreams, wannabe usurpers have largely yet to perfect the elusive magic – a mix of wonder, sentimentality and experimentation – that put Disney and Universal on the map. It’s a formula that takes time to exact. Until that happens, Orlando will keep a firm grip on the crown.

LOAD-DATE: April 6, 2018

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