115th Annual Conference - Honolulu, Hawaii
Friday, November 10 - Sunday, November 12, 2017

“I am Groot?”: Place-making and Thematic Integrity in the Disney Parks

Olympia Kiriakou, King's College London (United Kingdom)

This paper considers the announcement and fan reception of the “Guardians of the Galaxy – Mission: BREAKOUT!” attraction at Disney's California Adventure in relation to Disney’s history of theme park place-making and thematic integration, and reflects on the effects such attractions have on the spatial and conceptual identity of the parks.

Proposal: 

On May 27th, 2017 Walt Disney Parks and Resorts officially opened “Guardians of the Galaxy – Mission: BREAKOUT!” at Disney’s California Adventure. Guardians replaced “The Twilight Zone Tower of Terror,” and utilizes the same ride system and infrastructure, but instead is based on Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy (James Gunn, 2014) and features several of the movie franchise’s characters including Gamora, Rocket Raccoon, and Star-Lord. In keeping with Disney’s synergistic corporate strategy, the attraction opened just weeks after Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (James Gunn, 2017) was released in theaters and was met with some mixed reactions from the diverse Disney fan community. The most common complaint from some fans was that a six-month refurbishment of a relatively iconic attraction failed to adequately do the Guardians franchise justice, and that the attraction does not “fit” with DCA’s existent California theming (of which the Disney company spent $1.1 billion to redesign after the park originally opened to negative reviews and below-average attendance projections). 

This paper considers the announcement and fan reception of “Guardians of the Galaxy – Mission: BREAKOUT!” in relation to Disney’s history of theme park place-making and thematic integration, and reflects on the effects such attractions have on the spatial and conceptual identity of the parks. Disney has made their mark in the competitive theme park industry through non-linear storytelling and place-making, the process by which lands and attractions are designed with unique backstories and layers of (in)conspicuous details that, when put together, form a congruous whole. In his 2014 third quarter earnings call, Disney chairman and CEO Bob Iger explained “as we spend money at the parks on new attractions that are based on known intellectual property and brands, the likelihood of their success is greater.” This paper documents how the “Guardians” refurbishment is indicative of a trend away from cohesive place-making in the parks towards a more risk-averse piecemeal approach, in which most park-related decision are measured against short-term profitability and familiarity. It will argue that “Guardians” is more broadly reflective of Disney’s dichotomous corporate agenda, in which place-making and corporate synergy are erroneously thought of as synonymous ideas.