Disney World's Worst Park Hit Rock Bottom Last Year

Even in a rising tide, Disney's Hollywood Studios finds a way to sink. All but one of Disney's (NYSE: DIS) dozen theme parks worldwide entertained more guests in 2017 than 2016, according to Themed Entertainment Association. The industry watcher put out its annual estimates for attendance levels at global attractions on Thursday, and Disney's Hollywood Studios took a small step back.

Most parks without a mouse for a mascot would kill to draw 10.722 million guests over the course of a year, but for Disney World's least visited park it's a 0.5% decline from the 10.776 million visitors it welcomed in 2016. Disney's Animal Kingdom used to be the least visited theme park out of Florida's massive resorts. It overtook Disney's Hollywood Studios in 2010 and it hasn't looked back. The flip side to that observation is that Disney's Hollywood Studios hasn't looked ahead, but that's about to change.

Woody, Leia, and Mickey to the rescue

It's not a surprise to see Disney's Animal Kingdom leading the way with a better than 15% surge in turnstile beeps last year. The wildlife-themed park scored well with audiences when it added Pandora -- The World of Avatar, featuring not just a lush tropical recreation of James Cameron's Avatar, but also the most high-tech ride that Disney has ever created.

It was widely assumed that Disney's Animal Kingdom would draw at the expense of Disney's three other parks in 2017, but with the resort's overall theme park attendance increasing 4% there was always the hope that the rising tide would lift all four gated attractions. Magic Kingdom posted a marginal uptick despite not adding a new ride in years, and Epcot came through with a better than 4% gain on the strength of its expanding slate of festivals. Disney's Hollywood Studios wasn't as fortunate.

Theme Park 2017 Attendance 2016 Attendance Year-Over-Year Change
Magic Kingdom 20.45 million 20.395 million 0.3%
Animal Kingdom 12.5 million 10.844 million 15.3%
Epcot 12.2 million 11.712 million 4.2%
Hollywood Studios 10.722 million 10.776 million (0.5%)

One can argue that Disney's Hollywood Studios deserves to be the outlier. The park has been shuttering rides, attractions, and even eateries over the past few years. We're now down to just four rides since last year's closing of the iconic Great Movie Ride. The park has ramped up the number of character greeting areas and kept its stage shows going, but reasonable guests aren't paying Disney's annually increasing prices for a full-day at what Disney's Hollywood Studios is in its present form.

Things should start to get better as soon as the end of next month. Toy Story Land will officially open on June 30, introducing a pair of new family friendly rides, a lunchbox-fashioned counter-service restaurant, and several opportunities to get close to characters from Pixar's original feature film. Toy Story Land will be Disney World's only major addition in 2018, so it won't be a surprise to see what is now a half-day park serve up the resort's biggest attendance percentage gain this year.

Toy Story Land is a fairly modest addition compared to what Disney's Animal Kingdom rolled out last Memorial Day weekend, but this is just the beginning. Star Wars: Galaxy's Edge and Mickey and Minnie's Runaway Railway will be even bigger drivers when they open next year, and Disney's already expanding its parking lot to account for an expected spike in guests in 2019. Disney will then turn its attention to bringing new marquee attractions to Epcot and the Magic Kingdom, but the expansion wave hitting Disney's Hollywood Studios in 2018 and 2019 will redefine the guest experience at the formerly neglected park.

Disney's Hollywood Studios may not be much of a tourist draw now, but good luck elbowing your way through the crowds by late next year. Disney's Hollywood Studios is ready for its close up, and there won't be any looking back now.

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Rick Munarriz owns shares of Walt Disney. The Motley Fool owns shares of and recommends Walt Disney. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.