In the amusement park industry, there’s magic. And then there’s the force.
While Universal is cranking up its "Harry Potter" franchise of theme parks — set to expand in California in 2016 — Disney is ramping up its "Star Wars" theme.
“It’s a fairly intense rivalry,” said Martin Lewison, assistant professor of business management at Farmingdale State College in New York. Disney still dominates, but Universal is gaining. “They’ve been getting 15 to 20 percent increases in attendance annually in Florida thanks to the Harry Potter attractions. That really woke Disney up."
As each expands, it’s become “a bicoastal arms race,” said Lewison.
Disney also wants to avoid making the same mistake it made with "Frozen," an unanticipated success that Disney could have better leveraged, Lewison said.
“Disney wants to strike while the lightsaber is hot.”
To make room, Disney is clearing out most of its Wild West themed attractions at Disneyland.
In part, this is a response to the reality that many of its customers are repeat, local customers, and switching up attractions is inevitable, especially for Frontierland, which was constructed in the 1980s, Lewison said.
The switch-over between Wild West and space opera also reflects a change in America’s collective imagination.
“Our interest in the West has definitely been cyclical, but it seems to be at a fairly low cycle right now — unusually low,” said Grace Hale, chair of the American Studies program and professor of history at the University of Virginia.
“The Western is a very white-male fantasy and has been historically,” she said.
Retellings are largely for adult audiences these days, and the racialization of sides between cowboys and Indians is perhaps more problematic for modern audiences.
Additionally, the United States’ interest “is certainly more fractured,” said Hale. “There’s less shared popular culture, and there are very few things that cut across all of those niches.”
Fortunately for Universal and Disney, wands and lightsabers do.