I think it’s fairly safe to say that, for the past three years, the theme park industry – here in Orlando, at least – has belonged to Universal.
Yes, yes, attendance has continued to be dominated by Walt Disney World Resort, and it will continue to do so for – well, probably forever. And, obviously, Disney World has an infinitely larger number of attractions, hotels, and activities, not to mention those pesky theme parks, which are the heart of it all. In terms of sheer numbers – particularly those preceded by dollar signs – it’s Disney that has always reined supreme, and nothing short of a miraculous, divine intervention will ever change that.
Universal Orlando 2.0
Universal, as such, has been forced to do what insurgents in guerilla wars all throughout time and across all businesses have resorted to: stealing away buzz (even in the mainstream media – no small feat!) and, even, picking off the prestige of its larger, more well-entrenched opponent. The key to this has been Harry Potter, which kicked off the company’s current round of blitzkrieg construction projects three years ago, and which will continue to propel Universal Orlando Resort’s expansions for the next three. Transformers, the Simpsons’ Springfield, Harry’s Diagon Alley, a Jurassic Park rollercoaster, a new hotel, and, perhaps, King Kong’s reappearance – not to mention a number of much-needed upgrades to pre-existent attractions, such as the Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man, Terminator 2 3D, The Simpsons Ride, and, most excitingly of all, Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey – are all strictly thanks to that little 20-acre slice of land called the Wizarding World.
And just as Hogsmeade has managed to up the ante in terms of theme park design and overall immersion, making gift shops and quick-service cafeterias into key parts of the guest’s overarching experience, it seems that what can best be described, really, as Universal Orlando 2.0 will take that initiative and once again bring it to the next generation: Diagon Alley, with its rumored second and third stories, looks to bring the themed experience into a whole new dimension (literally), while the purported Kong attraction combines dark-ride and outside environments, 3D effects and KUKA-powered audio-animatronics to create just what might be a whole new wrinkle of thrill ride. The fact that such experiences will more than likely be made available within the next 24 months makes it all the more exciting – and impressive.
This leaves Disney in something of a lurch. While its economic apparatus can never be directly outperformed, Universal sure can ride its profit margin – propelled by the likes of butter- and Duff beer – and the hype train uncomfortably close. And thanks to the Disney Company’s institutionalized decision to proceed with construction at an even pace that typically spans no fewer than two or three years, this means that Universal will continue to capitalize on its fast-turnaround projects at Disney’s expense in newspaper headlines and, increasingly, consumers’ wallets.
Until 2017, that is. That’s the year that everything changes.
Disney strikes back
Even if Universal were to indefinitely continue its souped-up spending levels – something which is entirely up in the air, as the current rate of investment in its theme parks is more akin to a “surge” – Disney’s slow-but-potent development rate will have finally reached its first level of completion. Star Wars Land, which looks to expound on the achievements the corporation has generated with Cars Land over at California Adventure in Anaheim, will (more than likely) debut at Hollywood Studios by holiday 2017. Disney has been expected to cook up speeder bike rides, a Mos Eisley cantina restaurant, and a whole bunch of other goodies, which should prove to be every inch as captivating as Universal’s dual Wizarding Worlds. And even if the initial wave of Star Wars attractions here in Orlando only ends up being glorified kiddie rides, as has been rumored before, that’s still a sizable media coup that will be hard to drown out, even with dinosaurs and giant-sized apes running rampant.
And that’s not even taking Pandora: The World of Avatar at Animal Kingdom into consideration, whose first phase is also due to open sometime in ’17. The licensing footing here is nowhere near as sure as is Harry Potter and Star Wars’s, but, quite simply, it doesn’t have to be; all three of the upcoming Avatar sequels can bomb catastrophically but still provide more than enough material for Disney to mine into effective, quality-laden attractions for years to come. Indeed, Pandora already promises to be one of the most immersive lands ever deployed, possibly even taking one of the most abundant resources already freely available at any park – light – and transforming it into the next frontier of Imagineering, utilizing it in crazily inventive ways. Expect Universal Creative to be put firmly back in the scrambling-to-keep-up category once more, starting the cycle over anew.
There’s even more to the story, of course. New Fantasyland at Magic Kingdom is set to (finally!) be completed by the end of next year, while there is still a whole swath of real estate left to be (re)developed at Hollywood Studios, whether that does get transformed into an East Coast Cars Land or not. At this rate, Universal may find itself not only at a pre-2010 level, before Hogsmeade arrived to light the way to a new and more expansive future, but perhaps at a pre-1999 level, when Universal Studios Florida was a solitary park left to fend by itself against the behemoth that is Walt Disney World. Just how much money can NBCUniversal continuously shell out, anyway? And how long until every last square inch of Universal Orlando Resort is built upon twice over?
Of course, as a theme park enthusiast, this is precisely the situation we want to be in. With an industry in its greatest level of competition since its inception nearly 60 years ago, the amount of innovation and technological breakthroughs – let alone the huge array of new attractions to be unleashed – looks to be increased at an almost exponential level. If Universal forces Disney to speed up its construction timetables, and if Disney, in turn, makes Universal push the theming bar even further once again, the outlook for 2025 or, even, 2040 is downright giddy – forget about 2017.
We just may well be entering the golden age of theme parks.
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Very interesting thank you! !
Can’t wait to see what both (Universal/Disney) do next. I think (and hope) you are correct about the competitiveness of both! V excited now (even more than before) I’ve read this
Imo Avatar is not going to have the same impact that Harry potter has had for Universal.
Personally I think the Star Wars stuff could put a dent but I don’t think Avatar has a chance. The rides for Avatar just don’t seem that exciting and I don’t think there’s enough of a geek crowd for the property yet. And I don’t think there ever will be. Though, luckily for Disney, people are more into Pandora than they are into the characters or story (warmed-over Dances with Wolves), and that kind of stuff works perfectly for the people who are already geeks for Disney World. But there’s little there that will excite people who are into the… Read more »
I also herd USO is looking into making a hobbit based theme park
God no. They will have to pull out something extraordinary
Avatar was an ok movie but it just have a cult following like Harry Potter does. Sure it made lots of money lots of movies made lots of money doesn’t mean every movie that made lots of money should have a section in a theme park.
Harry Potter is only intresting to those who are fans which im not! as far as King Kong id love to see that happen!
King Kong would be nce then after that return JAWS
All these Disney announcements don’t amount to a lot if they continue to be a park for 6 year olds. They have to stop limiting who they appeal too.
Disney really needs to step I yup as far as construction too.
I am beginning to get bored with the constant criticism Disney receives. Universal is doing some good stuff at the moment but we waited long enough for them to actually do something. The comment that
Disney needs to appeal to a wider audience goes to Universal too! What does it offer to anyone under the age of 8 years old. A Barney show and a lame Cat in the Hat Ride. Wake up people.
When guests grow older than 6 is about the time they want to start moving toward Universal now. There are a lot of folks who are over 6.
Boys have had it tough at WDW too. WDW is mostly for little girls.
How about an OZ themed section or a tron ride, they seriously need to up their game, I’m not much of a fan of harry potter bit at least it appeals to both kids and adults.
Some people like Disney some people like Universal its just the way it isk
star warsland could be awesome (& cars land)
Disney is building an Avatar-land in Animal Kingdom. I can’t imagine that would appeal to many 6 year olds. BTW, we LOVE Disney and everything they do!
It’s a great big beautiful tomorrow! As they say
Can’t wait!! Guess we found our next date to go to Disney!!
Disney parks are a magical place. They should stay true to walts dream. There is no other place like it.universal lost its lustre fr us when they got rid of the back to thr future ride.WHY? The ride itself is still there everything about it is bttf just the animation is Simpson’s:-)
Naw, WDW will cheap out like they have been doing the last 10 years. Star Wars Land, whenever completed will be mostly stores, snack stands, and meet and greets. WDW has resorted to pushing guests to go to old lame attractions with their armbands. Nobody needed fast passes for Imagination, Spaceship Earth, Muppet Movie, etc. WDW has become more about pushing timeshares than E ticket attractions. They spend 3-4 years building a kiddie coaster and only after everyone went berserk that they ripped out Snow White and added the lamest dark ride of the last 20 years in Little Mermaid.… Read more »
CaptainAction I was wondering how long it would take for you to show up.
Trying to encourage WDW to become a better park for you.
If Universal gets close to or passes Epcot, AK, or Studios in attendance in 2015 – then maybe some heads will roll at WDW and we can have a real competition for the guests.
I certainly would like Disney to move a little faster building new attractions. I am a huge Star Wars fan and can’t wait to see that added to the park.
That said, it is highly unlikely that either UOR will pass AK or DHS in attendance even without the expansions in those parks. That would require the UOR parks to obtain 2-3 million more visitors. I understand that you are a huge UOR fan, but do you seriously think that either park could surpass Epcot? That is a 4-5 million increase. Possible? Maybe, but I wouldn’t hold my breath.
@Cassy CaptainAction As long as Universal is making enough revenue to keep their current track record going, I wouldn’t want attendance to increase by four to five million. I like how there are definitive busy and slow times at Universal. As I mentioned awhile back, I just stopped going to Magic Kingdom this year because it’s basically always busy. I appreciate classic attractions as much as the next guy, but I’m not going to wait an hour for Pirates, etc.
It isn’t always busy at MK. I was there two months ago and the Pirates ride always had a wait time of 5-15 min when I went by except for during the MNSSHP night. In fact, I don’t think that I waited more than 15-20 min for any ride at WDW other than Toy Story. The wait times were comparable to the times I had at IOA during that same week.
@Cassy When were you there?
I was in Orlando from 9/18-10/1. I went to MK four of those days and never had to wait in a long line. I actually was really lucky on my Day at IOA. It was overcast, which kept a lot of guests away, but it didn’t actually rain.
Well, we just have to see if a significant momentum is reached with guests finding themselves having to explore Diagon Alley, London, Hogwarts Train and station, Gringott’s coaster, Transformers, Diagon Alley, Simpson’s Land, etc.
Guests who haven’t visited Universal may find themselves wanting to try a bunch of new stuff that all sound fairly unique.
“speeder bike rides, a Mos Eisley cantina restaurant…, which should prove to be every inch as captivating as
Universal’s dual Wizarding Worlds”- Are you kidding me??? Disney better be putting a heck of a lot into Pandora, because this SURE isn’t going to come close to matching what Universal has. Disney is fine if you have young kids, but they seem to either be giving up on or not caring about their audiences once they hit teens, or even preteens.
This is off by a year but above you said Star Wars Land, whenever completed will be mostly stores, snack stands, and meet and greets….sounds rather much like diagon alley. I found this VERY underwhelming and disappointing. Great if you are an avid HP fan and want to buy overpriced merchandise…if not it is basically just a walkway.