Head to head: The Universal/Disney battle heats up
For nearly a decade now, Walt Disney World and Universal have been engaged in an increasingly expensive arms race.
It began in 2010, when Universal opened the $265-million Wizarding World of Harry Potter, which, almost overnight, transformed a struggling, second-tier resort into a true competitor to Disney. Universal, owned by Comcast, has since added new rides based on King Kong, Transformers, The Tonight Show and Despicable Me, along with two new hotels (plus another under construction), and, most important, a second Harry Potter land, built for a reported $400 million and opened in 2014. Disney, meanwhile, has countered with additions such as a $425-million expansion of the Fantasyland section of its Magic Kingdom theme park. It followed that at Epcot in 2016 with an attraction based on the animated movie Frozen.
The escalation has continued in 2017. But this year, both resorts are focusing their biggest investments on shoring up key vulnerabilities.
This spring, Disney opened the 12-acre Pandora: The World of Avatar, a collection of attractions and retail spaces inspired by the 2009 James Cameron fi lm. Announced in 2011 — barely a year after Universal’s fi rst Potter land opened — Disney has spent an estimated $500 million building the attraction at its Disney’s Animal Kingdom theme park.
The choice of the park wasn’t random. The Animal Kingdom, which became Disney World’s fourth theme park when it opened in 1998, has long struggled to keep visitors inside its gates for a full day. Many tourists treat it as a half-day stop, pairing a morning visit with an afternoon stop somewhere else — often at Universal. With Pandora, which will illuminate at night, Disney hopes to keep people around longer to spend money on its own property.
The Animal Kingdom “has always been a good park but has never been a full day experience,” Disney Chairman and CEO Bob Iger told analysts earlier this year. “By adding this, we’re going to be turning what is our fourth gate, the last one to be opened in Orlando, into a much fuller experience. And that gives it a lot of potentials.”
As Disney opened Avatar, Universal Orlando unveiled Volcano Bay, a 28-acre water park whose central attraction — a 200-foot erupting volcano that encloses a water ride — now looms over I-4. A few months before Volcano Bay opened, Universal permanently closed Wet ‘n Wild. But Volcano Bay is much larger, more expansive and more lavishly themed than its predecessor. (Disney World also has two water parks.)
In fact, Universal executives have taken to referring to Volcano Bay as their “third gate,” implying that it is an equal to the resort’s two main theme parks. And they’re hoping that consumers view it the same way, as one of Universal’s biggest challenges over the years have been convincing more people to stay two or three nights.
Universal occupies a relatively compact area: The main property covers about 700 acres. Visitors can walk from the gate of one theme park to the other in fi ve minutes. Disney World, by contrast, sprawls across 25,000 acres. Getting from one of its parks to another can sometimes mean a commute of a half-hour or more. Universal has stuffed more attractions into its two main parks over the past few years and it is selling more multi-park or multiday passes, but there are still many visitors who squeeze it all into a single day.
Volcano Bay, the company hopes, will change that. That’s especially important because Comcast’s growth strategy for Universal depends on getting more of its visitors into hotels. The company says it intends to nearly double the number of its on-property hotel rooms to 10,000 over the next few years.
“We think Volcano Bay will transform the water park experience for visitors when it opens as a third gate,” Comcast Chairman and CEO Brian Roberts told analysts earlier this year. “It looks amazing.”
SeaWorld Entertainment, whose chain of U.S. amusement parks includes SeaWorld Orlando and Busch Gardens Tampa, reported a drop in visits from the United Kingdom during the first three months of 2017, based in part on advance bookings at its limited admission boutique park Discovery Cove in Orlando. The United Kingdom, Florida’s most important overseas market, accounts for roughly 5% of the 22 million people who visited SeaWorld parks last year — though the company’s U.K. attendance is heavily concentrated at its Florida theme parks.
“We have seen some softness in our U.K. visitation,” SeaWorld CFO Peter Crage told stock analysts in May. “We are keeping a close eye on this trend and have taken steps to soften the impact.”
The Cruise Lines International Association says its member companies expect to launch 13 river-cruise ships this year, beefing up the global fleet of river-cruise ships by 7%. The number of ocean-cruise ships is expected to grow just under 5% to 277.
The timeshare industry generated $14.9 billion in economic output in Florida last year, according to the industry’s estimates, roughly four times that of the next largest state (California, at $3.6 billion). More than half of the Florida output was produced in the Orlando market, which now has nearly 90 timeshare properties and roughly 30,000 units.
The industry also employs roughly 45,000 workers in Orlando. And it’s not exclusively service-sector work. The region is home to the headquarters of at least eight large timeshare developers.
Who Buys Timeshares?
60% are white; 20% are African-American;
14% are Asian-American
Their average age is 47.
61% are employed full-time
68% are married
44% have kids
84% own their own home
Their average median household income is $81,311
47% spent less than $10,000 on their timeshare; 26% spent between $10,000 and $20,000; 27% spent more than $20,000