The Disney Empire Strikes Back

Written by Kevin Yee. Posted in Animal Kingdom, Disney Hollywood Studios, Disney Parks, Walt Disney World

Tagged: , , ,


Published on August 27, 2013 at 3:00 am with 155 Comments

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.


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.

transformers 2013-06-01-6804

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!

About Kevin Yee

Kevin Yee is an author and blogger writing about travel, tourism, and theme parks in Central Florida. He is a founding member of MiceAge and has written numerous books about Disney parks (see

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  • AaroniusPolonius

    Honestly, the Mouse made a huge mistake at this year’s D23, by not revealing more of this “strikes back” plan. One of the things they did fundamentally correct with the relaunch of DCA was the revelation of the plan, and the granular plan reveals at Blue Sky Cellar along the way. It made a lot of what they were doing seem more enticing and exciting (notably: “we took these off-the-shelf carny rides and gave them a better skin!”)

    From a purely marketing perspective (which is something Dis usually does so well,) just having Avatar teasers and vague Star Wars “possibilities” didn’t exactly burn up the presses. I think I’d have given them the benefit of the doubt with “Orange Harvest” if the centerpiece of the conference would have been a big Avatar reveal (I mean, how long have they had this license? A decade?) It would have solved a couple of problems: the perceived lack of interest in the Avatar project, and a perceived lack of investment in Florida by Disney.

    I understand why they limit their reveals regarding Shanghai (as mainland China has, uhhh…interesting intellectual property laws,) but they really need the early adopter vote/press whatever here.

  • JCSkipr79

    “”I’m so glad Disney doesn’t put any stock into what the hardcore fans want…”l”

    ^^ Yet, somehow this works at DL and saved DL for the 50th. Hilarious…

  • JCSkipr79

    “”A massively upgraded Dumbo, which for the under 7 crowd is a must see”"

    With the most obnoxious queue. And it’s still a spinner. No dice.

    “”A solid omni-mover dark ride that has one of the few queues done to Tokyo Disneysea standards”"

    Yea, a 2010 dark ride using ride tech from 1967 and show scene tech from 1955. And to say the queue is TDS quality is insulting. It’s at LEAST, Paris quality.

    “”A replacement for that god-awful land known as birthdayland/starland/toontown that was never well themed nor did if belong”"

    - “”Several unprecedented meet & greets between Ariel, Belle, Gaston & the others that will be coming at the Fairy Tale Hall. Even Mickey got a fabulous new meet & greet area. Each and every one of these is a large upgrade compared to their replacements”"

    Yea, and some of us remember when Disney made actual rides instead of passing off rooms of college kids dressed as characters as actual attractions. Waste of space. And taking out a dark ride for a meet n greet? UNPRECENDENTED.

    Storybook Circus is a RETHEME, not a replacement for Toontown and hardly an improvement.

    “”A train station that is a billion times more superior than the tin-can tuff shed that it replaced”"

    A train station retheme is now something to get excited about and plan a trip around????

    “”A few new restaurants that all look great, especially be our guest”"

    Three F&B locations and we got ONE ride. YAY. And BoG is overated crapateria.

    “”A new family coaster with a small dark ride portion and an innovative new train design”"

    A KIDDIE coaster that will have ONE INTERIOR show scene and replace the traditional scary subversive Snow White experience w/ a sing song GGG rated experience this is perfect for 10yo girls and their 400lbs grandmoms.

    • CaptainAction

      Well written. I’d love to read more about the current Disney leadership that have let down the guests the past 10 years at WDW. Really enjoyed your earlier post.
      Feel sorry for these folks that have their thumbs in their ears singing loudly while pretending to love the innovative Dumbo next to the other Dumbo. None of them can address either Potterland compared to New Fantasyland and Immersion at Universal compared to the WORST use of forced perspective we have ever seen at WDW.
      People who are willing to be used as Walking Wallets by current Disney Leadership are riding Jungle Cruise in De Nile. I’m not rewarding WDW Current Leadership for their lazyness.
      WDW won’t learn their lesson until Universal beats AK, Disney Studios, and EPCOT in 2015.

      • AaroniusPolonius

        Just playing business-person here: why? Why would Universal’s increase in visitors past the three other parks provoke Disney (considering that Disney just posted record-breaking attendance, I doubt that’s the case, but I’ll play with your hypothesis.

        If it costs Disney maintenance plus nothing to get 10.5 million people to go to Epcot, and it costs Comcast say $300 million a year over half-a-decade to generate that level of attendance, or maintenance plus $300 million…why would that cause Disney to learn their lesson?

        THIS IS A BUSINESS. If the lesson learned is “people will come whether we invest or not,” then why would Disney alter the paradigm there? Universal Orlando has to actively TAKE business from Disney, and cause the attendance drop to eat into their profits.

        I think the argument that massive investment yields massive returns is certainly floating through the halls of Imagineering in the wake of DCA 2.0, but WDW has learned their lesson: over the past decade plus, they did nothing and didn’t suffer attendance drops (why do you think they’ve been so slow on the uptick?) The “minor” Disney parks at WDW, despite their lack of investment (or BECAUSE of their lack of investment,) demonstrate massive ROI to the company, so much so that the theme park division basically erased massive film and television division losses over the last couple of years.

        They just posted record attendance numbers across the board, except for Disneyland Paris, so I’m sure the powers that be that are on the “people keep coming to our parks with minimal investment” side of the divide have ample ammo for their argument (as are those that recall the over investment made in Paris on launch.) If anything woke Disney up, it was the DCA 2.0 and expansion of HKDL, and the realization that they could have so many MORE visitors to entrap exclusively on their property in Florida, and that massive investment pays off huge for the parks and the company as a whole.

        As a theme park fan and as a Disney fan, their actions…pretty much from Pressler on, have generally sucked until DCA 2.0…maybe TDS. They haven’t gotten my money, outside of a Drink Around The World trek to Epcot in many years (last time, in fact, paired with an IOA trip.)

        But the attendance numbers and the profits generated don’t bear out anecdotal evidence. Numbers are up at WDW, at DL, at DCA, at HKDL…so someone (a whole lot of someones) is going to Disney parks, despite Universal’s efforts and despite their two half-day parks (DAK/DHS.) Math doesn’t lie, it just is.

      • StevenW

        @AaroniusPolonius: Your argument to stay the course appears to be the course that Disney should be taking with WDW, but that isn’t happening. Thus, Disney sees an advantage to improve their offerings.

        Whether the competition from Universal has a real impact or that having a stagnant attractions slate is the problem, Disney previous business plan of going slow appears to not be their plan going forward. Despite all indications of a ramped up attractions development, we are still in the same place of not knowing Disney’s true intentions. We don’t know yet. That’s a shame.

        I see Disney going forward with new attractions in a BIG WAY for both reasons. Even though Universal is still pecking at Disney with no real impact to Disney’s business, Universal has changed the game. A big company like Disney will not sit still. How can it? To intentionally allow this go on another decade doesn’t make sense.

        Disney has been stagnant in revenue and attendance. Unless they want to remain flat, they must increase their attractions slate to invite more people to stay longer in the parks. Their side projects of MyMagic can only succeed with increased attractions to sell. E-Tickets are their selling point. They haven’t done much to make people excited about their marquee attractions.

        With all the DVC and hotel developments, they can only sell more rooms and accommodations by having more things to do. DHS and Animal Kingdom are all underdeveloped as theme parks. EPCOT can use a few more E-Tickets as well in their closed Future World pavilions, and country pavilions.

        BTW, Universal has provoked Disney from the beginning. That’s why Eisner built DHS to derail Universal Studios. I would think Animal Kingdom is Disney’s answer to SeaWorld and Busch Gardens.

    • AaroniusPolonius

      To be FAIR, half of Harry Potter land is also a retheme of prior IOA attractions (and the Simpsons ride was a retheme and removie of BTTF.) To be JUST, those attractions were vastly superior to Disney’s Toontown retheme.

      I can’t defend either company regarding the use of themed spinning rides, however, and that includes Kang & Kodos. No matter how you slice, dice or decorate ‘em, they’re cheap to make, to install and to operate. At least USO only has one, where the MK has FOUR of these cheapies (two Dumbos, one Astro Orbiter, one Flying Carpet.) I mean, we’re talking about two multi-billion dollar corporations installing a ride that one can experience at any traveling fair.

      • AaroniusPolonius

        @SteveW, first of all, I think that the “minimal investment” argument is one of three floating around with regards to WDW, at, at least from a bean-counter vantage point, it makes sense, because visitation hasn’t been stagnant: perhaps the most surprising news regarding WDW is that they’ve gained in attendance and spending per guest (as has Universal Orlando, with the loser being SeaWorld; clearly the “Disney and someplace else” paradigm is still in place.) So, I’m certain that there are people in power from the “old guard” who are pushing this minimal investment push. It’s a cynical view, but if people are happy to go on a reskinned Test Track versus demanding a new ride at Epcot, and we retain or gain attendance numbers, then why push more?

        I think the second argument floating around Disney is the moderate investment level. New Fantasyland reflects this mentality. I love what they did with the area, but it really does feel like it’s missing that one key E-Ticket attraction that would set it apart. For example, imagine if the centerpiece of New Fanstasyland was an E-Ticket “Malificent Mountain” taking the place of the aged and smelly Speedway (the bean counters could even retain that ride as the kiddie component of Test Track, building a course under the outside parking lot section of that ride.) I think that there’s a vein of thought inside the Mouse that’s leaning in this direction: if we create moderate resort improvements, we’ll gain attendance and revenue without going “whole hog,” if you will. Now, while I’d rather them take this track than no track at all, there’s danger here, where Yeti’s mountain is scaled back, where well-themed clones rule the day and so on.

        I think, in the wake of DCA 2.0 and the expansion of HKDL, there’s a third wave of thought, which is to invest a premium amount of money into the theme parks, in order to massively gain attendance and revenue (but where the cost of that massive investment will eat into the profits in the short term.) I suspect that the argument against this level of investment involves WDW history. Remember, unlike DCA or HKDL, none of the gates opened at WDW as an attendance bomb. They may have opened with nothing to do, but people still came to visit them, spend their money and stay at their hotels and resorts. To use AK as an example, they opened as a 3-hour park, at best, and became a 1/2 day park by adding a(NOTHER) spinner, a Wild Mouse dino-coaster and a near-off-the-shelf rapids ride. People still came, despite these pathetic additions.

        If I were in the hallowed halls of Mickey, I’d be arguing that the three non-Magic Kingdom parks are, in fact, not remotely retaining enough guests from the 17.5 million that go to the MK. I’d be arguing for the full investment package for each park, with the goal that each of them: Epcot, Studios and AK get optimum investment to drive attendance at each of those parks to 15 million visitors a year, so that you’re only losing 3-4 million to MK, rather than 7.

        Part of the problem at WDW is a mentality issue; they look at the attendance numbers at their theme parks and note that their long-term guest base is driving attendance outside the MK to 10-11 million guest per year with minimal investment, when they SHOULD be noting that 6-7 million guests per year are choosing NOT to continue their vacations at WDW after spending time at the MK. That’s a huge loss of revenue, no?

        I’m in the latter category: I think they should invest heavily in all four parks, with a targeted goal of 15 million per year for Epcot, DHS and DAK, and a targeted goal of 20 million per year at MK. I think each park should get a bucket of cash: between 1 and 1.5 billion, to accomplish this goal, with at least half of that bucket in each park devoted to E-ticket, premium attractions. I think that the argument to the counters of bean should be that this investment will drive more visitation and more profits. I think, on top of that, it will fully activate the potential of MyMagic+, by making the system more appealing via more appealing attractions (seriously: they have FastPass+ on rides nobody goes on anymore…when was the last time you waited to Listen To The Land? 1985?) Finally, I think that the investment of new, premium experiences as an overlay to those that evoke nostalgia and reverence can only enhance and engage the guest experience, not detract. Or, to put this another way, Space Mountain should be a secondary, nostalgia experience in Tomorrowland, behind a new, awesome, E-Ticket attraction, not the primary Weenie in the land itself.

        I think the debate between these opposing views of thought is what’s slowing WDW down…and I think the VALIDITY of all these opposing views of thought is keeping them from jumping forward in one direction or another with the gusto that Universal Orlando has.

      • StevenW

        “I think the debate between these opposing views of thought is what’s slowing WDW down…and I think the VALIDITY of all these opposing views of thought is keeping them from jumping forward in one direction or another with the gusto that Universal Orlando has.”

        This may be true 2 years ago, but not necessarily right now. I suspect much more is happening recently behind the scenes and they have not announced their intentions. An article about Avatar is posted at JimHillMedia explains that BIG plans are afoot and Cameron has slow walked the project. It would seem like Disney is taking its time with its newly acquired franchises and it will soon be a new Disney decade as they decide the best way to exploit its franchises.

        I do think Disney has overdid it’s DVC and they are premature with MyMagic+. However, occupany at DVC is not wanting, and MyMagic+ appears to gain new interest. To fully exploit such resources, attractions must be added. That is the sad truth. Disney must ramp up its attractions slate or the whole thing will implode. Luckily, I doubt there will be an implosion.

  • AaroniusPolonius

    Here’s a thought-starter, to get us out of either the “bash Disney or bash Universal” mentality and the blissful ignorance of mathematics regarding attendance:

    What would an “Empire Strikes Back” plan look like and cost for all four Disney parks in Orlando?

    What attractions would you add?

    Take out?

    Where would you go full-on DCA 2.0 and where would you just insert better attractions?

  • Not My Real Name

    It’s demographics, guys. Most WDW visitors are families from some other part of the country and globe for whom WDW is a once-in-a-lifetime visit. After coming to Florida on their one trip, they go to Europe or Asia or South America or some USA resort on their next vacation and probably not visit even one theme park. These visitors aren’t going to notice or care if a ride is a relic from an earlier time (POTC, HM, Space, Splash) as long as they have a good time (and those are still good rides). WDW doesn’t really cater to the theme park nerds and locals like us who’ve been to the place umpteen times and want to see something new.17,500,000+ went to MK last year and I’d bet my DLR AP that a full two-thirds of that number were people on that one-time trip.This doesn’t mean, naturally, that WDW will not build new rides. They will, but for the purpose of increasing summer-time capacity.17,500,000 is a lot of people for a park that covers only 100 acres and about 20 of those acres are the open area between F-Land and the railroad. I bet that in the future, that empty space will be used.

    What I’m trying to say is that new stuff will come, but the people who want something on every trip is a small part of the demographic and as long as people keep coming, expansion will happen, but slowly. Disney is not in a rush.

  • Olivier Sanguy

    My personal feeling is that Kevin is right. Disney is reacting slowly because it is a “big machine”, but we could be rather surprised by the magnitude of the upgrades to the parks once they will be done. It takes time? If it is to do it right rather than quickly but poorly, I prefer to wait, even if it is frustrating…

    • CaptainAction

      WDW is LIGHTENING FAST when it comes to RAISING PRICES, TURNING OFF MUGGS so some poor sap doesn’t get an undeserved SIP, BUILDING RESTAURANTS, STORES, and SNACK SHACKS where MONEY can be TAKEN from WALLETS! These WDW guys can stop on a dime and pick it up. They can’t seem to be troubled with new rides or attractions though.
      Anyone seen Scrooge McDuck lately? I think I know where he is employed.

  • Dreamsinger

    It seems to me that one of Disney’s biggest issues is getting stories that have a lasting impact. Star Wars will do this, but Avatar? For example, take the Harry Potter area at Universal. There was already a huge audience base of loyal Potter fans. Star Wars can provide that, but Avatar has no such audience. The Marvel franchise is another good one for Disney, but the problem there is some of that has already been licensed to Universal. I think some people will see a themed Marvel universe as simply copying Universal.

    About the only thing Avatar has going for it is that it’s pretty. The storyline is basically Pocahontas in space. In other words, it’s a story line that’s been done many times over with various theme overlays. Disney is going to have to do much better than that if they want to not only attract consumers in the short term, but also in the long run. They should have picked up Lord of the Rings. Middle earth is another franchise that has loads of faithful followers who would love to visit middle earth, eat the elvish cakes, and drink Hobbit ale. Disney used to understand this, but it seems like they’ve lost the ability to come up with or find material that audiences will love for long periods of time.