Mouse Business 103: The “Pixarfication” of Disney?

With the release of the critically acclaimed Wall-E, Disney has offered another gem from its acquisition of Pixar. When Disney acquired Pixar in 2005 for the sum of $7.4 billion dollars, there was no doubt that creatively it was a great move for the company.Bringing Pixar into the Disney company has also had a great effect on the theme parks. The acquisition has made it that much easier for Disney to use Pixar properties throughout the parks. Look at a few of the many of new attractions that have arrived throughout the Parks worldwide: Toy Story Mania, The Seas with Nemo and Friends, an entire Cars land coming to California Adventure. This activity, though, has drawn some raised eyebrows from park goers who feel that Disney is relying too heavily on Pixar and its movies to develop park content.

Although Disney has created some excellent stand-alone attractions in recent years (most notably Expedition Everest and Soarin’) the basis for content seems more likely to resemble that of “Finding Nemo”: hugely successful movie produces large box office numbers which then produces huge merchandising opportunities (video games, DVDs, CDs, toys) which inspires park rides which attracts more park goers and the money making cycle spins and spins.

Take a look, for example, at the movie “Cars.” The movie performed fairly well at the box office with the domestic and foreign box office totaling $461,982,881. A nice sum but actually quite less than the world wide box office takes of other Pixar movies such as “Toy Story 2” ($485,015,179), “Monsters, Inc.” ($525,366,597), and of course “Finding Nemo” (864,625,978). The “Cars” franchise, however, has been almost unstoppable. In fiscal year 2008 alone, the global sales of “Cars” licensed merchandise is projected to be 2.5 billion dollars. That would bring the total amount of licensed “Cars” merchandise sold since June of 2006 to almost $5 Billion. That’s Billion with a "B". It’s no surprise then, that there is a second “Cars” movie on its way, a new immersive virtual Lightning McQueen world coming to and a Cars "land" opening at California Adventure.

From a business standpoint Disney can’t and won’t ignore those types of numbers. There is a huge market of children and parents who want to see Lightning McQueen and for that matter Nemo, Woody, and Buzz Lightyear.

But this is not necessarily a bad thing. First the practice of incorporating popular characters of the time into park attractions is nothing new. Look at many of the original attractions at Disneyland: Snow White’s Adventures, Dumbo the Flying Elephant, the Mad Tea Party, Peter Pan’s Flight, even Sleeping Beauty Castle. All of these attractions were based on popular characters from Disney animated movies of that era.

The only difference now is that over the past dozen years Pixar has been responsible for creating the characters that have become part of the everyday American culture. People are familiar with Nemo and Crush, they know who the Incredibles are and they know about going “to infinity and beyond". Conversely, most Disney movies during this time period have been significantly less popular, with “Brother Bear,” “Home on the Range,” “Treasure Planet," and "Chicken Little.” Even Disney does not operate on a never ending budget, so when it comes to constructing rides and attractions it makes sense that Disney will want to base them on the most popular characters.

Secondly, Pixar has always put the emphasis on telling a good story and have historically been protective of the quality of their franchises. Content and quality have always been key to the Pixar brand and this philosophy has so far translated into their presence in the parks as well. For example, the production of “Finding Nemo: the Musical” at Disney’s Animal Kingdom Theme Park is at least equivalent if not superior to many off-Broadway productions.

Finally, the recent Disney/Pixar properties have been top notch. “Ratatouille” and now “Wall-E” are two of the most critically acclaimed movies that have bourn the Disney name in recent memory. If you have great content it’s that much easier to create a great attraction. For example, updating the “Pirates of the Caribbean” ride to include Johnny Depp as Jack Sparrow…. good move. If they updated Haunted Mansion to include Eddie Murphy….not so much. It’s all about quality content and Disney/Pixar have been delivering just that.

The point is that from a business standpoint, the practice of creating park attractions and content from popular movies is nothing new. It has been a part of Disney since the opening of Disneyland in 1955 and there is no reason to believe it is going to change. So if you liked Wall-E, good news you may be seeing the character or riding its attraction on your next trip down to Disney World, and that’s not a bad – or new – thing.


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