You might as well get used to it. Until we have a more definitive idea about what exactly Next Generation Experiences is, (if ever), I think we’ll be discussing it and speculating on it for a while. Speaking of which, Kevin Yee at Miceage had quite a few thoughts here on NextGen and it’s possible meanings and impact. Check it out. While reading his article I started thinking about the implications of Disney spending over $1 billion on this project. Sure, to you and I, that sounds like a LOT of money. But, for Disney, it’s not really that much.
WDW saw just over an estimated 47 million visitors in 2008, which was only a slight increase from the previous year. Now, I’m not an accountant, nor a mathematician, but I like to play with numbers and just try to figure these things out. Let’s say that on average, those 47 million visitors were worth $100 each to Disney to keep it simple. If so, then that would mean they had revenue of more than $4.7 billion in 2008. Of course, looking at that makes me think my guesstimate of the $100 is probably pretty far fetched. But, if you start thinking along these lines, you kinda get an idea of just what a billion dollars looks like for Disney, it’s not that big of a deal for them really, considering the ROI could be less just a few years. Sure, it’s still a pretty big investment for them, but one that many would say is much needed. We’re just going to have to wait and see what exactly $1 billion looks like in the “Next Generation” theme park.
Along those lines, I had some thoughts on my own about what I might do if I were in charge of this group/project and given a budget like this to play with. As in Kevin’s article, the rumors are still speculating that it will heavily involve more interaction and guest personalization, which is fine, and in a way does lend itself to what might be considered a “Next Generation Experience”. I’m sure there are many other things they’re looking at too. But, I’ve got my own thoughts on what I would like to see.
Most Disney fans are well aware of Walt’s fascination with trains and transit systems. It’s because of this fascination that most Disney parks feature a steam train, monorail, people mover, and other similar transit systems. And, over the years Imagineering has used several of these in various ways to move and entertain guests around their parks and resorts. However, while Disney has been innovative with these different transportation methods in the past, and were at one time pushing the envelope in some areas, they haven’t really done anything innovative in the past decade. While I hate to try and guess what Walt would’ve done, I firmly believe, based on history, that he would’ve continued to push the envelope of transportation methods, especially at Walt Disney World, where there is a multitude of guests to move, and more than enough land to play with.
One such transit method that has gotten a good bit of attention over the last decade or so, and I believe he would’ve examined is called Personal Rapid Transit (PRT) systems. There are more than 100 different designs and variations on the PRT concept being developed and/or designed around the world. There are even a few that are in operation and very successful. The cost for these systems is reported to be considerably less than monorail expansion, and not to beat up on the monorail, but they’re supposedly safer too, because they’re completely automated which would’ve tickled him all the more I think because it tied into his futuristic concepts and ideas he was always pushing.
One of my favorites is the CityCoaster. Built by a German company, it incorporates roller coaster elements like a track resembling a typical steel coaster and banked turns into self powered, pod-like cars that can carry up to 4 people at a time. Call me crazy, but I think such a design would be fun to encircle Epcot. It could start with a station at the front of the park, then going counter-clockwise, make stops at the Land, front of World Showcase, America Pavilion, back at the front of World Showcase, then maybe somewhere between Mission:Space and the Wonders of Life pavilion and then completing the loop back at the front. The track could run behind the pavilions in a semi-tunnel or open with the right side of the windows covered to block most of the view of key back-stage areas. I know, it’s a crazy idea, but fun too.
Seriously though, while the CityCoaster is a fun concept on the idea, there are numerous others that would seem to be a great fit for WDW and linking the other resorts and parks that don’t have a monorail option. And while it would be neat to see Disney expand the monorail to all of these, I just can’t see them spending the kind of money it would take to do it. The estimates for doing so are all over the board, but the latest all seem to point upwards of $100 million per mile or more, which would eat thru $1 billion really quick. So, the PRT concept would seem to be a much better option considering that most systems estimate their cost per mile around $20-30 million per mile, but that’s considered the high end. Many are in the range of $5-10 million per mile.
So, what are they waiting for? There are numerous universities and major corporations who have been researching and working on prototypes of PRT systems for years. WDW would seem to be a perfect “proving ground” for such a system. And, if successful, a test/trial PRT at WDW would be a major score for the university/corporation whose project was implemented at WDW. Many communities around the world are looking at PRT systems as a way to relieve traffic congestion and pollution. If I were a developer of a PRT, I would be chomping at the bit to try and get Disney into a joint venture to help with the development of my system. If I were Disney, I would be holding open invitations with PRT developers to come and show off their designs and tell why theirs would fit best at WDW.
Admittedly, there are lots of other ways, probably better, to spend $1 billion. They could build a new park. They could overhaul all the parks, and even add a few new attractions. But, think about this. Attendance at the parks over the last decade has grown on average at a steady 3%. That means in 5 years we could be seeing an additional 10 million visitors at WDW, and in 10 years it could be more than 17 million more people or 65 million. For more on this, be sure to check out an earlier article I wrote, Nobody goes there anymore, it’s too crowded with some interesting break-downs of the data. Well, interesting to me at least.
One last thought about transportation and the NextGen budget. Transportation at WDW got a lot of bad publicity last year, due to the tragic accident on the monorail that occured in July and then some other incidents which were minor, but made the news nonetheless. I’m not suggesting that the monorails be replaced, or that a PRT system is necessarily the answer to solving all the problems. However, if they spent money on anything, I would like to see it spent on improving the monorail system(s). Reading some of the various comments across the web, lead me to believe that the system has fallen behind in some of the technology used to manage the trains. Perhaps some of the budget for NextGen could be directed towards upgrading these systems, and maybe even buying some new trains, if needed.
Update: Television station, WESH in Orlando reported today (01/27/10) that President Obama is set to announce federal funding for a High Speed rail project in central Florida on Thursday. Could part of WDWs NextGen plas include linking a new internal transit system to the soon to be announced High Speed Rail? Disney previously stated they would provide up to 50 acres of land for a station in the area believed to be somewhere between ESPN Wide World of Sports and Pop Century, to the south of Osceola Parkway. If a new station is built for the High Speed Rail, they will certainly need a way to move people to and from this station. They could conceivably do it using a PRT or even with a Monorail extension. Regardless of whether they choose any of these, they should probably get started now so they can have this new expanded system ready for when the line is completed.