Theme park wizards
Just a few years ago, Universal was struggling. Now on an expansion tear led by Harry Potter, the resort is reshaping the theme park world in Orlando.
But Bob Boyd, a managing director at investment firm Pacific Asset Management, says Universal has finally begun luring some of those travelers away. That has helped fuel a boomlet along Orlando's International Drive tourist district, which is close to Universal. A Madame Tussauds wax museum, a 400-foot-tall observation wheel and a 570-foot-tall roller coaster are among the projects that have recently been announced or begun construction along the Idrive corridor.
"Disney was just dominant. But Universal has clearly broken that," Boyd says. "That is a huge change, and it is a huge positive for the market in general and the hotels that are non-Disney. It may lead to a little bit more balanced market."
SeaWorld Orlando, too, has emulated the "themed land" approach, opening "Antarctica: The Empire of the Penguin" in 2013. The marine park struggled badly in 2014, squeezed by the combination of intense pressure from competitors — primarily the newest Harry Potter land — and negative publicity fanned by anti-captivity activists and the 2013 documentary, Blackfish.
"I think it's been healthy for everybody what Universal has done. But it's serious competition," says Joni Newkirk, CEO of Integrated Insight, a theme park consulting business. "People who live in the United States travel in one-week increments for the most part, especially families. How that seven days gets split up has always been the age-old question in Orlando."
Key Architects of Universal's Growth
The magic of Harry Potter and the money of Comcast have propelled Universal Orlando and the rest of Universal Parks & Resorts to record growth over the last five years. But rival executives and industry analysts routinely single out three executives as the key architects of Universal's resurgence.
Steve Burke: CEO, NBCUniversal: When Comcast took control of NBCUniversal in early 2011, it turned to its then- COO to run its new media and entertainment empire. Burke, who has been with Comcast since 1998, is the man most responsible for persuading Comcast management to ramp up spending on Universal theme parks, arguing that previous owners had chronically underinvested and that the business was a powerful source of growth potential. A former Disney executive who once served as president and COO of Disneyland Paris, Burke is also wellschooled in the Disney art of extending franchises across many platforms, from movies and television to theme parks and consumer products. He lives in New York.
Tom Williams, chairman and CEO, Universal Parks & Resorts: A member of the opening team for Universal Studios Florida in 1987, Williams today oversees Universal theme parks worldwide. Industry watchers say one of Williams' strength has been his ability, and willingness, to strike deals for content beyond that owned by Universal's own film and television studios, giving his parks access to popular intellectual property such as Marvel, the Simpsons and, of course, Harry Potter. Williams took a big risk in acquiring the Potter theme park rights, as the original deal, struck in 2007, only guaranteed exclusive rights to Potter within a 250-mile radius around Universal Orlando (Disney management is rumored to have refused a similar demand). The gamble has paid off handsomely. He lives in Orlando.
Alice Norsworthy, executive vice president, marketing and sales, Universal Orlando: When Universal Orlando added a second theme park in 1999, the launch was undermined by a confused initial marketing campaign that branded the overall resort as "Universal Studios Escape." Norsworthy, a former top marketing executive for Royal Caribbean and Disney who joined Universal in 2008, made sure not to make the same mistake when the Wizarding World of Harry Potter gave Universal a global spotlight again. Industry colleagues say Norsworthy has helped Universal Orlando establish a new identity as a destination in its own right, rather than merely an add-on experience for people traveling to Disney World. She lives in Orlando.