Nintendo and Disney: Two giants fixing massive belly flops

I’m a patient Nintendo fan. I forgive their occasional blunders, confident amazing things will eventually materialize. Much of that patience comes from also being a lifelong Disney fan, watching the Mouse veer from greatness (Space Mountain, Beauty and the Beast) to failure (Black Hole, Mars Needs Moms) over and over again.

Nintendo and Disney share rare qualities. Using top talent to mix technology with likable characters and thrilling ideas, they’ve become synonymous with the fields they’ve perfected. When they debut something great, stocks soar. When they fall on their faces, the whole world notices.

Both companies are, right now, smack in the midst of trying to fix gigantic headaches. For Nintendo, the problem lies in weak 3DS sales. For Disney–and this is a problem they’ve been wrestling with for a decade–it’s Disney California Adventure (DCA). When you take a look at both situations, amazing similarities become clear. And, sadly, a lot of it can be blamed on past arrogance.

Take a look at how DCA’s history curiously reflects what’s happened with 3DS:

Disney designed DCA as a different kind of sister park to next-door Disneyland. They filled it with nice restaurants, lots of shops, and–oh, yeah, a few rides. As opening day approached, one big iceberg loomed that, in retrospect, seems so obvious: The park suspiciously lacked the big-budget, elaborate, must-see attractions Disney had become famous for.

The then-confident leaders thought the park would do just dandy without a big roster of AAA rides and attractions. They seemed to honestly believe the public wouldn’t notice, and predicted the Disney name would be enough to pack ’em in. They thought they could charge full admission for the place.

The park opened. Insert sound of chirping crickets here. While 50-year-old next-door Disneyland continued to perform splendidly, DCA was so under-attended that cutbacks and closures at the new park began in record time. Some suits blamed the internet, and, certainly, it was amazing how quickly word spread among Southern California locals, Disney fans and travel agents: DCA was a two-hour park and not worth its admission price.

When you compare DCA’s opening offerings to 3DS’s launch line-up, things get weirdly familiar:

Everyone agreed the new place had three good attractions. It had the beautiful Soarin’ hang glider sim (Pilotwings Resort), classic retro thrills in the Screamin’ coaster (Street Fighter 3D) and the beautiful-looking, family-friendly Grizzly River Run (er…Nintendogs plus cats?) There were a bunch of generic, unmemorable thrill rides (insert most other 3rd party titles) and some pleasant diversions like Muppetvision 3D and the Art of Animation (Face Raiders, AR Games). But it didn’t add up to a day’s worth of park. Local passholding fans (early adopters) enjoyed quick visits–and then blogged about what was wrong with the place–but the desired audience of vacationing masses (casual gamers) stayed away.

Disney, as quickly as possible, bolstered the park’s lineup by porting over one of their established big-thrill crowd-pleasers: Tower of Terror (Ocarina of Time). It helped a bit, but not nearly enough.

Finally (and, in Disney’s case, it took several years, a huge corporate shake-up and a leadership change) the company did the unthinkable: They publicly admitted DCA had major problems. The new company president actually called it a mediocre park. They embarked on a one BILLION dollar makeover to turn DCA, once and for all, into the park it should have been from day one–a place of spectacular rides, great theming and lush landscaping, making it a worthy sister park to Disneyland.

Nintendo has tackled their 3DS problem with a welcome price reduction and the generous Ambassador program for early adopters. One can only hope they’re throwing as much money as possible into the rapid creation and development of outstanding games–the key to the the system’s future.

In the summer of 2012, DCA will complete its five-year metamorphosis, and it looks like the end result will be worth the wait. What will 2012 bring for 3DS? Nintendo’s made a wise, necessary choice with the price cut. They know they need to add big, must-experience rides…er, games, as soon as possible. They have to innovate, surprise, and exceed expectations.

I think they can pull it off. They are, after all, one of my two favorite fantasy factories.