Keeping Score between Walt Disney World and Universal Orlando Resort

Written by Tim Grassey. Posted in Disney, Features, Walt Disney World

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Published on June 09, 2013 at 3:01 am with 39 Comments

The bar has been raised. The new level is: Gigantic fire breathing dragon on top of a tower. No word yet on whether or not said fire breathing dragon’s wing flap has a thrust equivalent to a 747 on takeoff.

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It’s probably safer to say the bar was raised back on June 18, 2010 when Universal officially opened the doors to Phase 1 of The Wizarding World of Harry Potter. Since then, Universal has been out for blood. They have the financial support of Comcast, a smaller and more efficient creative team, and a willingness to do things that Disney won’t.

The last new ride announced for Disney World was the Seven Dwarfs Mine Train on January 11, 2011. Since then, they have significantly “plussed” two older attractions (Star Tours and Test Track) and opened part of New Fantasyland. These are all good things, but creatively not particularly innovative.

Universal has long played second fiddle to the Mouse. Since Universal Studios opened, the only time it beat any Disney World park in attendance was in 1998 when the Animal Kingdom opened in April. When Islands of Adventure opened a year later, it barely registered as a blip on Disney’s radar despite a lineup of critically acclaimed attractions.

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At the time, Disney was ready to respond should Islands of Adventure affect their bottom line. However, the only initial damage was a select group of Imagineers taking some loose Beastly Kingdom concepts up I-4 to Universal Creative to be used as part of the Lost Continent.

It wasn’t until the June 2010 opening of The Wizarding World of Harry Potter that the attendance shift began. Since then, Islands of Adventure’s attendance climbed from 4,627,000 in 2009 to 7,674,000 in 2011. During the same time period, Universal Studios’ attendance climbed from 5,530,000 to 6,044,000 (Source TEA Reports). The result of this was Universal’s theme parks moving from 16% of the Orlando theme parks market share in 2009 to 20.67% of that market share in 2011. During the same time, Disney’s share dropped from 74.86% to 71.49% and Sea World’s dropped from 9.14% to 7.84%.

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Universal has proven that constructing a highly themed land around a popular intellectual property will have a greater effect on attendance than piecemeal additions. This concept was reinforced by the attendance spike at Disney California Adventure after the opening of Cars Land in 2012, which saw a 22.6% attendance increase (Source TEA Reports). Currently, Universal is building themed lands and supplementing them with attraction additions elsewhere. The build time for a themed land is substantially longer than a fast tracked single attraction, and when the two are combined it helps keep the parks fresh. This is a strategy Disney has to seriously investigate.

Both Animal Kingdom and Hollywood Studios have larger expansion pads in multiple locations in the parks. Additionally, there are areas were single attractions can be blended in seamlessly to existing themed areas. If Disney doesn’t look at building large themed lands as well as single attractions, it’s more than reasonable that Islands of Adventure and Universal Studios could surpass Animal Kingdom, Hollywood Studios and even Epcot in attendance in the next few years. As a theme park fan, I’m intrigued that Universal doesn’t seem to be resting on their laurels. Rumors have been circulating that other areas of the parks will also see additions after Phase 2 of The Wizarding World of Harry Potter opens in 2014.

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The expectation is that many Disney World projects will be announced at the upcoming D23 Expo in August. The question isn’t if Disney will announce new projects, but how many projects they will announce. It’s nearing the point that Hollywood Studios needs a DCA level makeover, Animal Kingdom needs a new attraction before Avatar (pandas or a nighttime show?), and Epcot needs multiple pavilions upgrades.

As a Disney fan, I’m hopeful that Tom Staggs takes the stage on August 9th and begins a Steve Jobs type presentation. This is Disney’s big chance to respond and if all they have is a Seven Dwarfs Mine Train and Grand Floridian DVC update, fans will riot in the streets. As each day passes, it sounds more and more like Disney is gearing up for several announcements. Some possibilities include attraction details on Avatar, some form of Cars Land, Polynesian DVC, a replacement for Wishes, a replacement for Captain EO, a new film at Soarin’ and possibly even a Star Wars land.

It’s getting to the point where anything less than what’s listed above would be a disappointment for fans. It’s asking a lot, but Disney put themselves in this position. At the 2011 D23 Expo, John Lasseter admitted that Disney California Adventure wasn’t up to Disney standards. It’s time someone else admitted the same of the Florida parks. They can be fixed, and hopefully the pressure from Universal is enough to kick off projects in all four parks.

Things are moving in the right direction after the Splash Mountain refurbishment and replaced laser effects in DINOSAUR. The additional refurbishments scheduled for Jungle Cruise and Muppet*Vision 3-D will hopefully also yield positive results.

Oh, and one more thing… How about a fix for the Yeti?

About Tim Grassey

Three months before being born, Tim enjoyed his first trip to Disney World. Ever since, frequent trips to Disney World and Disneyland have helped feed the obsession. After a three year run as a podcaster, Tim currently co-owns the Disney information site, WDWThemeParks.com. You can follow the site on twitter @wdwthemeparks or follow Tim directly @tgrassey

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39 Comments

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  1. When I saw the concept art, I assumed the fire breathing dragon was pictured
    on top of the tower as an indication of what will be inside the ride, not
    necessarily what will be visible from outside.
    Having him blow fire outside would be disastrous for business in
    Diagon Alley, as even wizards are threatened by dragons ( see HP 4.)

    • As long as several skilled wizards use the Draco Immobulus spell correctly, it should be fine…but all the spells have to hit the dragon right between the eyes at the same time. He’ll still be able to blow fire, but he won’t be able to move…

  2. Star Wars.

    There’s your answer to Harry Potter. Disney won’t rush it, though, they’ll take a long term approach. They’re not concerned about Universal getting a bump in the short term. The press will have some fun poking Universal attendance bumps in Disney’s eye, but Disney will move on the Star Wars front, and that will be that.

    • You are right, Disney is taking it’s bloody time with the Star Wars franchise.
      Do you realise they have the theme park rights from 1987 when star tours debuted at Disneyland! That is 26 years!!! They should get of their stupid lazy buts and start making awesome rides, restaurants, shops and if they really want to throw away money, themed restrooms.
      But I actually hope they do nothing like that. I hope they put in a cheap version of cars land in DHS and an overly expensive Avatar land in AK that doesn’t leave them enough money to fix the Yeti and the tree of like, just to see how the fans react. They probably still keep coming to WDW.

  3. Oh, and one more thing…”It’s getting to the point where anything less than what’s listed above would be a disappointment for fans.”

    Disney message board fans are the most persnickity fans around, and it’s hard – if not impossible – to please them all. Disney could invent technology that beamed guests to the actual surface of the Moon, and someone would text they were disappointed because they couldn’t find a Dole Whip cart.

    • To your first point, Harry Potter isn’t a short term solution. The attendance was sustained, and I would expect it to continue to rise. Furthermore, both Universal Hollywood and Hong Kong saw attendance increases of 10%+ after Transformers opened. While these are more “local” parks than Universal Orlando, it shouldn’t be dismissed.

      As to your second point, not only did it make me laugh, I also agree. Having said that, I do feel that more people that considered themselves “Disney fans” are now regarding themselves as “Theme Park fans”. These people (myself included) are more receptive to seeing what else is out there.

      • I think that’s true. In part because Disney has rested on its laurels, and because other theme park companies are now doing work of equal or better quality, more folks are opening their eyes to other alternatives. And Disney has no one to blame but themselves. Of course, the diehard fans will always defend Disney no matter how far behind they are getting. Sadly, their blinded opinions only give Disney more fuel to do less, assuming that Disney fans are cattle who will pay endlessly increased prices for lower and lower quality year after year. Sigh.

        I LOVE Disney, but they are seriously going to need to step it up quickly. Muted New Fantasyland type additions aren’t going to hack it against Universal’s aggressive expansion.

      • Just a FYI: There is no Universal park in Hong Kong. You’re thinking of the one in Singapore. :)

      • My bad… Singapore not Hong Kong.

    • So true!

      • “I LOVE Disney, but they are seriously going to need to step it up quickly.”

        They don’t need to do anything quickly, they need to carefully plan their response, and the response is Star Wars.

  4. As much as I favor Disney over Universal, Universal wins for one MAJOR reason:

    UNIVERSAL GIVES PEOPLE WHAT THEY ASK FOR while DISNEY TELLS PEOPLE WHAT THEY WANT

    When The Simpsons was at their prime then most fans talked of a Simpsons Land and When Harry Potter movies showed us the HP world then we all imagined of actually seeing it in person. And Universal is trying to deliver. But what about Disney?

    Lets be honest. Try to find a message board post of someone EVER claiming “I wish I could visit Radiator Springs”, or screaming “My biggest dream is to be crotch high to a Navi in Pandora.” In no way am I saying Cars Land, Bugs Land or Avatar Land are “bad” because we all know that the Imagineers are brilliant with everything they touch, but they just weren’t places we ever asked for.

    If you were to poll American Disney Fans on what they want the most then it would be Star Wars, Avengers or some of the better Pixar franchises. And those just arent going to happen any time soon.

    • UNIVERSAL GIVES PEOPLE WHAT THEY ASK FOR while DISNEY TELLS PEOPLE WHAT THEY WANT

      The thing is, Disney has succeeded with this model for so long, however it was blended with the additions of things that guests want as well. Instead we get ridiculous defenses of ticket price increases such as:

      “As we’ve heard from many of our guests, the quality entertainment and attractions and the memorable moments created by our cast make a Disney theme park experience a great value. There’s something for everyone at Disney Parks to make a magical vacation memory.”

      To your point on Cars Land, Avatar Land and a Bug’s Land. I think that in the wake of The Wizarding World of Harry Potter there were really only a handful of franchises that could successfully compete with the fandom and merchandise of Potter: Cars, Star Wars and possibly Lord of the Rings. While Cars’ fans are younger and don’t have disposable income, their parents do. For Disney, that’s still a positive and makes the Cars Land choice a much better one.

      In house, Disney looked at Cars Land as the response to Harry Potter. Apparently they didn’t realize that they forgot to build it in Florida. I think Cars Land would have been a great addition to DHS, had it been built simultaneously on both coasts. Now, with rumors circulating that it will be announced in two months, there will be a 5 year gap between when the two lands open. If everything is direct clones from the California counterpart, it will be hard to drum excitement for something that people have already seen before.

      What fans want is something that they haven’t seen before. Disney used to be good at that, and that brings this back to your initial point. That’s why I’m still optimistic about Avatar. The environment of Pandora lends itself to incredibly theming. I too was indifferent about the movie, but it doesn’t mean the land itself will be bad.

      • While I am not a huge fan of Avatar (I did enjoy the movie), I am still CURIOUS what will come from this new land. For instance, I am not a huge Indy fan (ducks and hides), but I do love the Indy ride at DL. SO, with that same logic, I might truly be amazed by Avatarland. While if I had to pick between SW and Avatar, the choice would be clear— in the end, I hope it’s not something we have to choose. Hopefully, we get both.

        I am (perhaps naively) optimistic that D23 will have some big announcements. If the property is hoping to look its best come the 50th anniversary, now’s the time to start planning and building.

    • I don’t think that’s totally fair…Cars Land and Bugs Land are aimed at a demographic that’s not old enough to communicate via message boards. Polling fans only retrieves what Grown Ups want! Parents are happy if kids are happy…and kids would be happy with an upturned cardboard box for a castle and a tiara from Claire’s.

      Avatar came and went as a cultural blip. Star Wars, on the other hand, stuck. I have a friend who is six who watches the original movies (4-6) repeatedly, and turns every stick or cardboard tube into a lightsaber.

      • I want to see something that we’ve never seen before. Avatar meets that description. I may not be a huge fan of the source material, but that’s irrelevant. I’m not a huge fan of the Cars Land source material yet it’s quite impressive in California. I just don’t want to see a repeat of what’s already been done.

      • Carsland was an EXTREMELY SIMPLE (though expensive) property to develop into a theme park land. Avatar, on the other hand, is a VERY DIFFICULT property to create in reality.

  5. Most people who go to Walt Disney World have not seen Carsland, and will not have seen Carsland, before (and if) whatever version of it opens at the Hollywood studios. Most people who go to Walt Disney World would never think of going to the Disneyland Resort in California.

    • That’s so sad…they’re missing Walt’s original dream! I do hope someday I will see WDW but at DL I can imagine Walt in his apartment over the fire station supervising the building of “his” park… But that represents the theme of the column — as Disney fans turn into Theme Park Fans…more and better entertainment is needed to rock their world and keep their wallets open.

    • Most people that would plan a trip around Cars Land will have already made the trek to California prior to a lesser version of Cars Land opening in Florida.

  6. I’ve learned not to expect much from D23 announcements. The majority of them are stuff that’s already been confirmed on the internet anyway.

    I really don’t want them to clone Carsland at DHS. Aside from the fact it would seem out of place theme-wise in DHS, we already have a car racing ride in the form of Test Track.

  7. Our family will be making the trek from Southern California to Florida this summer. My kids have no desire to go to WDW. All I hear about is going to Universal. So we will stay at a Universal Hotel and visit Universal Parks. WDW just does not offer a compelling theme park product at this time, especially compared to Disneyland Resort. WDW just feels more been there done that as opposed to gotta see and do that. On the other hand, as far as theme parks go, Universal Hollywood does not come close to Universal Orlando. Universal Orlando has that you gotta see this buzz right now. The only place Universal Hollywood wins is the working studio.

    • I’m not a fan of Universal Hollywood, but it’s also been several years since I’ve been. I haven’t see King Kong 360 or Transformers which are both substantial additions.

  8. Universal has a superior resort layout like the Disneyland and TDL Resorts.

  9. Disney will never fix the Yeti.

  10. It’s quite simple – Universal drums up excitement. Even if its quality and atmosphere are a touch below Disney, people get jazzed to visit new Universal attractions.

    Disney has become complacent and hasn’t really wowed us with anything – real or proposed – in ages.

    • I take it you haven’t seen Cars Land at DCA. People get their first look at Radiator Springs, and they stand around in open-mouthed awe like characters in a Spielberg movie.

      • Been to Radiator Springs. It is quite well done, but even that is underwhelming. Racers really isn’t that great of a ride. It is certainly a good ride and better than most Disney offerings, but it’s merely fine when all is said and done.

        And the less said about Luigi’s Flying Tires, the better.

        Aside from that, the entire existence of Cars Land is to fuel more merchandise sales from Pixar’s worst – but most marketable – franchise.

      • I’ve been to Radiator Springs and I was blown away from it. It is miles apart from anything Disney done previously (at least in the USA). The ride was terrific. Certainly, it isn’t as intense as the most ridiculous roller coasters, but the ride is better than the original Test Track. The Cars Land theming is terrific. The places to browse and meander around is unsurpassed including that of Main Street and Fantasyland. I largely skipped the other rides. No surprise there.

  11. Okay, here was my wish for EPCOT when Soarin’ was announced a few years back. I would have added an Australian pavilion with “Soarin over Australia” as the main attraction instead of the Cali version added onto The Land. It could have resided inside a replica of the Sydney Opera House along the waterfront becoming a stunning addition to the World Showcase. Imagine soarin over such icons as Sydney Harbor, Ayers Rock and the Great Barrier Reef. Too costly? Sure, but WOW that would have been beautiful and innovative.

  12. Brilliant article – and right on the money. Universal Creative and Universal management appear to be in perfect sync between creating great attractions and building them. Disney seems to have lost its way.

    • Disney has lost their way? They saved California Adventure, they’ll get going on Star Wars. Some of you guys are too quick with negativity and criticism.

  13. We’ll see. Universal might be winning in the short term, but I’m very curious about the long-term staying power of things that are based on movies. Twenty or thirty years from now will Harry Potter still be popular at all? Probably not, but maybe the attractions will be good enough that no one will care. Star Wars is probably the one franchise that you would think will still be popular in the next few decades, but does that even matter? If something is done well enough, it won’t matter if people liked the movie once they’re in the parks (for example, I loved Cars but didn’t care for A Bug’s Life). I don’t think that Disney needs to build a Star Wars land in order to “keep up” with Universal, because Disney is still so far ahead. I think that the big difference between Disney and Universal in their approach to new rides is that Universal needs to get people in the parks, so they go with Harry Potter because there are enough people who are Harry Potter fans that they will go based on that alone (and in my job in the travel industry I’ve dealt with a number of clients who ask to go to Harry Potter land, and don’t even realize that it’s in a Universal Studios theme park). Up until the Harry Potter expansion, Universal was not widely known as having a really good quality product that was worth taking a trip just to visit (even though they did, but that was not the public perception). People generally go to a Disney park based off of the Disney name and the reputation, so they don’t need to build something like a Harry Potter land in order to get people in the door. They can build a Cars Land or an Avatar Land and know that they already have people coming in the door, so now it’s their job to build quality attractions that are going to meet their guests very high expectations. So in this scenario, Disney really can’t win. Guests to Universal don’t have the same high expectations, so when they go to Islands of Adventure and they see just how amazing the attractions are (not just Harry Potter, but Spiderman, Incredible Hulk, Jurrasic Park, and more) they blown away. Guests who go to a Disney park and find the same quality attractions are merely satisfied because that’s exactly what they expected.

  14. I would love to see Epcot fill out World Showcase with representation from Africa and South America. Perhaps central Asia as well. There are so many wonderful cultural and culinary traditions from the regions, and Epcot could do an amazing job sharing them with their guests. It always felt strange to me visiting such a Euro-centric “world showcase” that left entire continents off the roster.

    Now before everyone shouts, “Morocco!!,” North Africa is more closely aligned with the Middle East than sub-Saharan Africa.

  15. As a fan of both Disney and Universal, but running the Unofficial Universal Orlando Podcast, I found this article very interesting. We have heard many rumours of what Universal are planning next, it appears that after Transformers, Springfield and Diagon Alley, Universal Creative will NOT be stopping chruning out lands and attractions for a few years to come.
    We don’t get over to Orlando very often, which is why we can forgive the Disney parksfor not getting constant upgrades, but looking at it from a theme park fans point of vew, they need to.
    It has been 3 and a 1/2 years since our last visit to Florida, in that time Disney have rethemed Test Track, opened New Fantasyland and redone Star Tours, on the flip side, Universal have opened the Wizarding World of Harry Potter, with one of the most innovative rides around, refurbed Spiderman, opened Transformers, Springfield, rethemed Jimmy Neutron to Despicable me, introduced a new night time show, a parade and a two course mini golf course.
    I’m looking forward to visiting Disney, but I’m much more excited to see what Universal has to offer.
    Overall, all this is good, Universal doing what they are, should spur Disney on to do bigger and better things and then vice versa.
    Great article Tim, thanks.