Universal has been on such a tear lately, it’s easy to say that they have momentum on their side in Orlando for perhaps the first time ever. But Disney can come roaring back, and there are indications that they are rising to the challenge to compete directly with Universal’s newest offerings. Disney has always been the 800-pound gorilla in the industry, and when they want to get serious, the resulting outflow of cash and quality attractions often are literally breathtaking.

Even a casual observer will have concluded by now that Universal really wants to emulate the “resort destination” status currently enjoyed by Disney. This week, some Universal passholders were asked on a survey if they would be interested in a shuttle between the Universal parks and Wet & Wild, their water park. That same water park was recently brought all the way into the Universal fold when the company finally bought the land it stood on (they were renting all those years?!)

Kang and Kodoss spinner now open.
Kang and Kodoss spinner now open.

Once upon a time, the land across the freeway from the water park (in other words, back on the Universal side but right next to the Interstate) was slated to be the new home of the water park–i.e., to move Wet and Wild here. The idea always excited me–Universal could use movie themes to make a highly themed water park to rival the Disney themed water parks. And Universal always understood about thrills. Now that the Wet & Wild land has been purchased, I’m not sure what became of those plans. Maybe Universal could build yet another hotel on this expansion pad. Or I could go for a second water park!

But the water park is only a corner of this resort mentality. You’ve got all the expansion in the parks driving most of the external interest: Transformers, Simpsons expansion, and of course the second phase of Harry Potter as the true behemoth in the industry. These park additions are driving enormous traffic toward Universal. It doesn’t hurt that many of the most lucrative Orlando visitors – British tourists – might have a predilection for the Harry Potter universe since it began in Great Britain.

Following a recipe laid out by the Mouse a few decades ago, Universal is now giving all those new tourists a place to stay. They’ve long had three hotels directly on site. To my mind, these are somewhere between Disney Moderate and Disney Deluxe hotels in amenities, but are priced more like Disney Moderate hotels. In other words, they are a bargain to someone hunting Orlando hotels via websites from a distance. Universal hotels also have perks like Disney hotels do, chief among them the free (included) Express pass to skip the lines. This is an amazing perk. In some ways, Disney’s FastPass+ can be seen as a response to Universal’s Express perk for hotel guests (especially if Disney resort guests get additional FP+ reservations, as many expect). For once, Disney is chasing Universal. Or at least recognizing that Universal has caught up to them and needs to do something different to distinguish themselves again.

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The Cabana Bay resort at Universal is a fourth hotel currently under construction. I’m not certain folks have grasped yet just how huge this budget hotel will be. It looks like the size of Pop Century in my mind. Part of me is disappointed Universal didn’t combine this parcel of land with the empty zone where the water park was supposed to move; they could have built a full-sized third gate here (though they’d have to move a road that accesses I-4 and maybe that wasn’t allowed?)

Cabana Bay will further round out Universal’s offerings and make it even more attractive as the place to treat as the “home base” for the Orlando vacation. I’ve heard many tourists proclaim they now treat Universal as the primary destination on their Orlando sojourn, and Disney is either second fiddle or not on the agenda at all.

Clearly, that won’t sit well with Disney. The conventional wisdom is that Disney isn’t really responding much to the Universal build-out. “They’ve got their heads in the sand,” sniff some fans. The somewhat limp New Fantasyland is a weak competitor to the first Harry Potter land, they scoff, and has almost nothing to do. Once the final ride opens, it still won’t compete with Potter. And it’s taking FOREVER to build, in contrast with Universal, which has something new every week (case in point: this week the Kang and Kodoss spinner opened at Simpsons). Disney doesn’t seem to have an answer to Transformers, and as for the upcoming Potter expansion, Disney will counter with… wristbands that let you do everything you used to be able to do before? (at a price tag that could have paid for a new park, they hasten to add)

But the conventional wisdom listed above employs a combination of selective memory, biased prejudgments that assume the worst of Disney (when in reality we only SOMETIMES get the worst), and old-fashioned heckling of the empire builder while rooting for the underdog. When you take the 10,000 foot view of what’s going on at Disney, the picture is not nearly so dire. And when you consider the projects that MIGHT happen (or are not yet announced), you will realize it’s not only a level playing field, it might even be tilted toward Disney. Consider the following possibilities:

  • Seven Dwarfs Mine Coaster. I’ve said from the start this thing will be halfway between Barnstormer and Big Thunder, and that’s true enough in terms of size. But it will be a fully-themed mountain and Disney ride, and Universal can rarely compete on this type of attraction. Factor in the swinging cars (if they can get it to work right) and you might get a very solid D-ticket attraction. Maybe not an E-ticket in thrills, but a big draw on its own.
  • Avatar-World of Pandora. This project is not dead, despite what you may have heard. The construction is well underway for a new theater in Africa to hold Lion King–something they would not spend money on if Avatar wasn’t coming to the Camp Minnie-Mickey area. The new theater is rising where Wild Africa Trek used to meet (in other words, behind Tusker House). I’ve said from the beginning that Pandora has the chance to really wow us. A very large, indoor, nighttime-themed arena that is air-conditioned to the hilt would be a standout success in DAK no matter how good the rides or shows are that accompany it. And knowing Cameron, any ride or show will have eye-popping special effects. This has got to be at least as good as Transformers (and would have the advantage of being original, rather than a clone of something in California). A complex of work trailers recently appeared behind Kidani Village at DAK Lodge–this is the forward operating base for the team of Imagineers working on Avatar. So hold onto your pants; this baby is coming.
  • Carsland. The rumored expansion of DHS was conceived as a replacement for Backlot Tour and Lights Motors Action, and would feature Radiator Springs Racers at a minimum. This project is possibly on hold for now. One reason mentioned is because they realized the water table is so high in Florida that the ride cannot simply be cloned from California without modifications. It’s equally plausible that it would be delayed (or cancelled) to create money for another expansion (see below).
  • Star Wars Land. The entire corner of DHS from the Indy theater/Echo Lake area, over to Star Tours, and then BEHIND Backlot Express into the present-day car entrance to the parking lot could become a new land for Star Wars. Imagine moving the car entrance to the road where Pop Century is, maybe even adding two additional surface parking lots on either side of this central (and now straight) lane from the road to the park entrance. If you did that, the entire side of the park could be pushed outward pretty far, creating room for several rides and buildings. Star Wars Land is, and has always been, the only real Potter-Swatter. That’s only true if Disney truly delivers an immersive, transportive experience. The place has to DRIP details and EXUDE authenticity. Some Disney projects do this; others don’t. This one is crucial to the theme park wars. Disney needs to spend SERIOUS cash on this to make it work. Simply phoning in a performance will solve nothing.
  • MyMagic+ and FASTPASS+. The much-maligned wristbands and ride reservations systems look to some folks like a billion-dollar boondoggle. For me, the jury is still out. We haven’t seen yet what the system can do. Can it identify that I seem to like riding PeopleMover and also buy high-end park figurines… and thus send me invitation-only opportunities to buy a detailed PeopleMover figurine? Will it sense my love of Space Mountain and offer me a chance to buy extended ride time for an hour of Space Mountain for just me and a few hundred folks if we pay an upcharge? The thing about Disney is, I do still love the product. If their data mining can suggest ways to get me to pay more, I probably will. That goes triple for those who visit once per year (unlike me with my weekly habit). When people go on a once-yearly vacation, they are often willing to pay more for convenience, for certainty, or for increased access. If all that is included for free simply for choosing Disney over Universal, well, it’s not absolutely certain that people will think Disney is old hat, even if they don’t have new rides to compete with Universal just yet.

My six year old asked me this weekend why the Optimus Prime statue at the entrance to Transformers had so many details. “People won’t notice that!” he exclaimed. I pointed out to him that this leaves things for people to discover on future visits, and besides, having rich details and expensive theming isn’t a waste of money–it’s what renders the experience so believable in the first place. The math is exponential on topics like this: a half-hearted attempt does not yield half as much awesomeness, but rather maybe only a quarter. You have to go whole-hog. Go big or go home.

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With luck, Disney may finally be going big. And we customers are glad for it. When competition like this rears up, we visitors are the true winners. It may look like Universal has the momentum for now, but if Disney gets serious, they have the clout and the cash to return to the fight screaming. The Empire strikes back, indeed!