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Disney World's Hottest Park Will Be Its Coldest in 2021

Rick Munarriz, The Motley Fool

Disney's (NYSE: DIS) fastest-growing theme park in 2017 was able to repeat the feat last year. Disney's Animal Kingdom in Florida entertained 13.75 million guests in 2018, according to industry tracker Themed Entertainment Association, a 10% improvement over the previous year. Tack on the 15% jump in turnstile clicks for the animal-themed park in 2017 and we're looking at a 27% jump over the past two years. 

Just a couple of years ago, Animal Kingdom was Disney World's least visited park. Now it's the third most popular theme park in the country and the sixth most visited gated attraction in the world. Things aren't likely to stay that way. Disney investing in new tourist-tugging attractions at its three other Florida theme parks could turn the leader into a laggard in a couple of years. Now it's time to see if the park can rise to the challenge -- or as they say at its marquee Avatar-themed flying banshee ride, "Sivako!"

A family walking through Pandora -- The World of Avatar.

Image source: Disney.

The future is truly in the past

Folks wondering how the Disney World silver medalist can slip its way out of medal contention can start by exploring its ascent. The catalyst to the spike in turnstile clicks (or, in Disney World's case, the illuminated Mickey Mouse scans) was the arrival of Pandora -- The World of Avatar two Memorial Day weekends ago. The Avatar-themed expansion and, more specifically, the bar-raising Flight of Passage ride transformed the park into a can't-miss attraction in the very crowded Central Florida theme park scene. 

Disney has made sure that the ambitious 2017 expansion that turns two on Monday won't fade into irrelevance. Disney acquired James Cameron's Avatar franchise as part of the Twenty-First Century Fox deal that closed earlier this year and, with that, the four sequels that will begin hitting movie theaters starting in late 2021. However, there isn't a lot that is officially planned for the park in the next couple of years outside of small updates to existing attractions. 

It's a different story at Disney World's three other theme parks. Disney's Hollywood Studios will get Star Wars: Galaxy's Edge in August and follow that up next year with the Disney's first Mickey Mouse ride. Epcot is busy erecting a Guardians of the Galaxy indoor roller coaster and a Ratatouille dark ride at its France pavilion. Disney World's original Magic Kingdom park recently broke ground on a Tron-inspired roller coaster that has been the star attraction at Shanghai Disneyland since 2016. Tron Lightcyle Power Run will open in 2021, just as the world's most visited theme park celebrates 50 years of operation. 

Visitor patterns through the next couple of years will be predictable. Disney's Hollywood Studios will overtake Disney's Animal Kingdom by 2020 if it doesn't do so this year. Epcot will follow suit in either 2020 or 2021 depending on the timing of the Guardians of the Galaxy coaster's debut. The Magic Kingdom isn't giving up its crown even before the landscape-enhancing Tron coaster opens, and if it does relinquish the throne, it will only be because Disney's Hollywood Studios making huge upgrades in 2018, 2019, and 2020 did the trick.   

Disney and its investors will be the ultimate winners in this arms race, as the four Florida parks engaging in one-upmanship will drive attendance spikes that will trickle down to benefit the entire Central Florida tourism industry. These are exciting times for Disney's resilient theme parks business. Sivako! 

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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.