Disney World Wants to Turn EPCOP Into EPCOT

By Markets Fool.com

Image source: Disney.

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Disney's (NYSE: DIS)slowest-growing Florida theme park will be getting a makeover. Imagineers may be hard at work getting Pandora -- The World of Avatar ready to open next summer at Animal Kingdom and breathing new life into Disney's Hollywood Studios with Toy Story Land and Star Wars Land in the coming years, but Epcot appears to be the theme park giant's next target for rejuvenation.

"We will be doing some major transformation atEpcotin the future," WaltDisney Parks and Resorts chairman Bob Chapek announced last weekend during the Destination D conference for theme park enthusiasts.

The statement isn't really a surprise. EPCOT could use the attention. Disney World's second theme park is an acronym for Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow, but for some it feels more like EPCOP, Experimental Prototype Community of the Past.Many of the park's Future World attractions are ironically dated, and the World Showcase section of the park has been slow to add new country pavilions.

Attendance trends don't lie. EPCOT has always been the silver medalist in terms of attendance when it comes to Disney World's four theme parks, but it's also the one that is growing at the slowest clip. EPCOT is the only Disney World park that hasn't grown its turnstile clicks at a double-digit clip over the past six years.

Park 2009 Attendance 2015 Attendance Change
Magic Kingdom 17,233,000 20,492,000 18.9%
EPCOT 10,990,000 11,798,000 7.4%
Animal Kingdom 9,590,000 10,922,000 13.9%
Hollywood Studios 9,700,000 10,822,000 11.6%

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Data source: Themed Entertainment Association.

Making of a makeover

Disney did show EPCOT some love this summer. It updated a pair of attractions, turning Norway's Maelstrom boat ride into Frozen Ever After. It gave the Soarin' hang gliding simulator a worldwide spin, trading in clips of California for global vistas in Soarin' Around the World.

The moves aren't insignificant, but they also fell short of being game changers. The Frozen-themed ride was held back by downtime. Soarin' Around the World is a challenge for guests sitting on the sides to enjoy because some of the images are warped, unless the Eiffel Tower is method acting to be the Leaning Tower of Pisa.

Chapek's "major transformation" will likely focus on the Future World section that makes up the front half of the park. There's been a rumor percolating among Disney enthusiast blogs, suggesting that Disney will transform its sleepy Universe of Energy attraction into a Guardians of the Galaxythrill ride. The adjacent Wonders of Life pavilion is rarely being used outside of festival stints, giving Disney a wide footprint to crank out a head-turning e-ticket addition. The World Showcase half of the park can use a few more countries, but the real crowd magnet would be adding more country-specific rides and attractions to draw visitors to the back of the park where the big-ticket meals and drinks are sold.

EPCOT is the only Disney theme park in the U.S. without a roller coaster. Purists will argue that it doesn't need one. EPCOT's charm has steered in the direction of foodies and oenophiles that flock to its libations-fueled festivals and Disney die-hards who wax nostalgic over its quaint throwback attractions. However, as Disney World's slowest-growing theme park, it's where the biggest opportunity rests.

Change is coming. It will take a few years, but Chapek's not going to retract his promise. Rival Central Florida parks are growing faster than Disney's four parks, and EPCOT's bringing up the rear. Theme parks represent Disney's second-largest business, and after years of neglect, it's time to start making up for lost time before shareholders begin feeling the market share pinch.

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