Disney World Developing Plans to Fix Its Worst Theme Park

Hollywood Tower Hotel at Disney's Hollywood Studios.
Jeremy Pembrey/Alamy

Walt Disney (DIS) has some big changes in the works for its least-visited theme park in Florida, and the first step appears to be a new name. Disney CEO Bob Iger let the cat out of the bag during last week's annual shareholder meeting when a 6-year-old asked if a new moniker was in the works for Disney's Hollywood Studios.

"We're doing some significant work there right now that I guess will result in a name change," he responded before checking with his fellow executives to see how much he could reveal. "We'll announce that we're changing the name, but we won't announce what we're changing it to. How's that?"

That was enough to send Disney fans and theme park enthusiasts into a frenzy, sifting through the possibilities of what the family entertainment giant can do with the park that hasn't kept up with the rest of its gated attractions in Florida.

The Rise and Stall of a Theme Park

Disney-MGM Studios opened in 1989, themed to the golden age of Hollywood in the 1930s and 1940s. The flagship attraction -- The Great Movie Ride -- would whisk visitors through scenes from "Casablanca," "Singin' in the Rain" and "The Wizard of Oz." Other shows and attractions would celebrate everything from audio engineering to animation.

The park eventually gravitated toward thrill rides, setting itself apart from Disney's first two Florida theme parks with the addition of the Tower of Terror drop-tower attraction in 1994 and the Rock 'n' Roller coaster in 1999. The combination of thrills for teens and live shows for older audiences seemed to make the park distinctive, even if it ultimately resulted in comparisons to Universal Studios Florida -- now owned by Comcast (CMCSK) -- a few miles away.

Disney ended its licensing deal with Tinseltown icon MGM in 2008, changing the park's name to Disney's Hollywood Studios. It was Disney's third most visited theme park in Florida at the time, but two years later it would be passed up by Disney's Animal Kingdom.

All of Disney's parks are enjoying record turnstile clicks these days, but Disney's Hollywood Studios has seen its attendance climb just 5.2 percent between 2008 and 2013, according to industry tracker Themed Entertainment Association. That's significantly slower than the 8.9 percent and 6.9 percent upticks in attendance at Magic Kingdom and Animal Kingdom, respectively, and well behind the 13.3 percent surge at Universal Studios Florida.

It's Going to Get Worse Before It Gets Better

It's not a surprise to see Disney turn its attention to the meandering park, and it won't be a surprise if it continues to suffer in the near term. Disney's Hollywood Studios has closed several attractions in recent months. The Studio Backlot Tour, American Idol Experience, and The Legend of Captain Jack Sparrow have all been shuttered, and Disney has been mum on replacements. Fewer rides and attractions can lead to longer lines elsewhere, so it wouldn't be a surprise if guests duck out early or avoid the park entirely this summer. No major magnetic additions beyond temporary "Frozen" attractions are likely until next year at the earliest.

Speculation is the one thing that isn't in short supply. Disney has spent billions on acquiring Pixar, Marvel and Lucasfilm in recent years, and it wouldn't be a surprise if those properties play a starring role in the park's makeover. Industry rumor hub Screamscape.com has been detailing the chatter of a Star Wars area or an expansion of the Pixar properties. Tack on Marvel and repositioning the park as "Hollywood Heroes" makes sense, but Disney is limited for now in what it can do with its Marvel characters.

Marvel struck a deal with Universal before being acquired by Disney, giving Universal Orlando's Islands of Adventure exclusivity in Florida to the Avengers, X-Men, Spider-Man and Fantastic Four franchises. Those are Marvel's biggest properties, limiting what Disney can do on that front unless a deal is brokered between the two theme park rivals. However, giving Disney's Hollywood Studios a lift by incorporating Star Wars, Pixar, and select Marvel characters could be just the ticket to breathe new life into a park that's been stagnant.

Motley Fool contributor Rick Munarriz owns shares of Walt Disney. The Motley Fool recommends and owns shares of Walt Disney. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. Looking for a winner for your portfolio? Check out The Motley Fool's one great stock to buy for 2015 and beyond.