Tuesday, September 25, 2012

The Best Thing Disney can do at the Animal Kingdom

This week, we heard the tragic news of the death of a days old panda cub at the National Zoo in Washington, DC.  The heart-wrenching death was on front pages across the nation, and with good reason.  The Giant Panda is a rare and beloved animal that captures the hearts of people across the world.
Tian Tian from the National Zoo, photograph by Ann Batdorf, NZP photographer

The Chinese Government guards pandas with an intense, and almost fanatical, fervor.  With perhaps less than 2,000 bears left in the wild, acquiring a breeding couple is not easy.  However, in recent years Disney has held a productive and working relationship with the Chinese Government.  And I think it is time for that relationship to result in what I believe would be the single best investment Disney can possibly make into the Animal Kingdom, the introduction of a Giant Panda Habitat.

I often hear Disney fans discussing what they would like to see added to the Florida theme parks that would improve their overall experience.  And let’s face it, the Animal Kingdom has been the biggest target of criticism in these circles over a perceived lack of attractions since it opened.  It is usually agreed that a new “land” or “e-ticket” would do the trick, hence the announced Avatar expansion.  But I think those conclusions are incorrect.  An expensive and cantankerous partnership with James Cameron is not the answer, the answer is the Giant Panda.

Loaning a couple of pandas from the Chinese Government is an expensive and difficult proposition, I will admit.  The cost is reported at around a million per panda per year for a 10 year period.  Bring in two, and that is a cost of roughly $20 million.  Plus, their is the cost for care of the animals, potential breeding attempts, the physical habitat construction and, of course, the gift shop. But that is practically a drop in the bucket when compared to the price of attractions at Disney these days.  Reports put the cost of Expedition Everest at  $100 million alone, and that one doesn’t even work correctly anymore!  The price tag of the new Cars Land area at Disneyland’s California Adventure was somewhere around $450 million.  And I am certain there is more than one Disney bean-counter who hasn’t slept much since the announcement of the Avatar deal.

Bringing pandas to DAK would be cheap in comparison, but would likely yield an attendance and monetary increase similar to that of an e-ticket.  Zoos have reported an increase in attendance of 35% and even more after bringing in pandas, while the National Zoo was estimating upwards of half a million additional guests from just the birth of the cub.

Now, I can not say what exactly I think the attendance figures would look like at DAK after the opening of a panda habitat.  I am not an accountant for Disney.  What I do know is that unlike an e-ticket or land, pandas are a proven commodity.  And what I also know for certain is that nearly every person who comes to Walt Disney World, no matter their length of stay, would make a point of visiting the Animal Kingdom to see the pandas.  And that is something that simply does not happen currently.

And finally, while I am already up here on my soapbox, this is Disney’s Animal Kingdom, and not the Cameron Kingdom!  While I am not against the Avatar project, this is simply better.  Let us get the focus back on wildlife.  As I said before, the Giant Panda is one of the world’s most beloved endangered specie.  If Disney wants to invest in the park to make the turnstiles spin, is there a more appropriate way than this?  Personally, I think not...

by Dave McBride @davemcb1897

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