Skip to content

Does Disney World have an answer for Universal Orlando?

Apparently the New York Times quoted my article published November 28th, 2010 where I was reacting to the news that while Universal Orlando was having a banner year, Walt Disney World actually decreased in attendance. Here’s the full context:

The first was an Orlando Sentinel story on the flat attendance at Walt Disney World. I have to think that given the poor state of the economy, Disney would have been happy to have not lost any ground. But the reality is Disney did lose ground to Universal Orlando (despite their attempts at hiding the figures). Harry Potter is drawing guests away from the mouse house and Disney still has no answer lined up. That’s very troubling.

I then went on to talk about how Osceola County can capitalize on increase in attention that’s coming Central Florida’s way with LEGOLAND Florida and the Orlando Thrill park.

Like Disney states in the NY Times article, I believe that the Wizarding World of Harry Potter is a net gain for Orlando tourism business. Unlike Disney World officials, I do believe that there is a high risk of guests shifting their attendance to Universal away from Disney resulting in a net-loss for Disney. Universal is already siphoning off the teens and twenty somethings and LEGOLAND Florida threatens to do the same for the 6 to 10 year old set.

Look at all the Hogwarts scarfs and t-shirts you see next time you’re at WDW. Those guests all visited Universal before coming to Disney. The money they spent there on broomsticks and Butterbeer will not be spent on mouse ears and popcorn. That doesn’t include the guests who are spending a day or two at Disney and then visiting Universal.  I can’t understand why Disney doesn’t appear to be worried.

Take the typical five day family vacation. Disney has spent the last 5 years strategically arranging the chess board to trap tourists on Walt Disney World resort property using Mickey’s Magical Express, increased DVC hotels, free dining, and Magic Your Way tickets that get significantly cheaper after adding the fourth day on the ticket. The combination of the above has allowed Disney to maintain a much higher level of attendance during the depression when visitors were looking to save that extra $200 on a rental car. The theory was that when families still wanted to justify a vacation they could do it by saying “well, we’ll save by spending the entire trip at Disney.”

What Disney didn’t count on was that they were really playing a game of Wizard’s chess and Universal has Harry Potter (and all his fans) on their side. With Harry Potter, Universal has become a two-day visit (well, one and a half days on its way to a two day) and Universal is selling packages that encourage two day purchases and early admission which is a much lower hurdle than Disney trying to increase a visit from 3 to 5 or 6 days. Turns out that when families go on vacation, the allure of fun and adventure is stronger than the desire to save some money by staying only on Disney property.

Some believe that the spell weaved by the Wizarding World of Harry Potter will only create a temporary bump for Universal. But I think they under-estimate how strong a theme park Islands of Adventure is. After all, it was designed, in large part, by Disney’s own Imagineers many of whom were unceremoniously laid off after Paris Disneyland opened.

Universal is quickly growing a user base they can target for repeat visits. Guests visiting this year will tell their friends who will plan vacations of their own. Add a new Harry Potter ride and boom another group of guests coming back. Add another great franchise to another land and more regular visitors will return. Harry Potter has Disney in check and the next move is Disney’s.

Guest visitation patterns is something that will be revealed over time. Everything anybody says at this point is just a prediction. However my real point is based very much on fact.

The main thrust of my quote in NY Times yesterday is that Disney is at risk of losing their position as the best themed entertainment destination. IOA now has multiple examples of rides (Men in Black, Spiderman), queues (HPatFJ, MiB) and lands (WWoHP) that it does better than Disney. The trend for Universal has been to create Disney quality immersive environments for a smaller budget than Disney appears able to. This is a big accomplishment that has greatly improved Universal’s bottom line.

The trend at Disney’s theme parks, on the other hand, has been a mix of lightly themed off the shelf rides (Dinoland, California Adventure, Hong Kong expansion) and an expansion of very low cost Meet and Greets. It’s a quality drop that even average guests have noticed (hence the need to completely remake DCA). With the exception of the Finding Nemo Musical and Expedition Everest (although that has its problems with a non-functional Yeti and a too swift denouement) Disney has done almost nothing that could be considered at the top of the theme park industry in over 15 years. Instead they’ve been focused on building hotels, riding on the coat tails of memories from previous generations (Disney is counting on the Baby Boomer generation to provide a captive audience via DVC purchases).

[Note: Toy Story Midway Mania is a great attraction that capitalizes on a very successful Pixar franchise with incredibly popular characters. It is also a game you can recreate on your own at home on your Wii. So to me that’s a wash. Mission: Space is a good ride, but the pavilion suffers for lack of anything else to do. American Idol Experience, while good, doesn’t seem to be the draw that Disney had hoped it would be. Don’t even get me started on Stitch.]

What I want Disney to do is to re-assert their dominance atop the theme park industry. Here’s a short checklist:

  • Build a new themed land that knocks the Wizarding World of Harry Potter off his broomstick. DHS would be a good place to stick it.
  • Make Animal Kingdom a full-day park.
  • Fix the Fantasyland Expansion so that it’s more than just Princess and Fairies.
  • Figure out how to get the rides-per-capita measurement up so high that guest expectations are exceeded.
  • Add a new layer of ‘virtual augmentation’ to the theme park experience that revolutionizes how guests experience their vacation. In other words, the NGE project had better be amazing, because for $2 billion Disney could have built a fifth gate.
  • Maintain affordability, but make the resort experience so incredible and guest service so magical that there is no doubt where you want to stay when you visit Orlando.

I know Disney has the talent to answer those needs, they just need to pull the trigger. The question is will they? What else do you think Disney should be doing to answer Universal’s recent charge to the front?

32 thoughts on “Does Disney World have an answer for Universal Orlando?”

  1. Yes they have the talent. But they also have the penny pinching suits who like to sit atop the talents shoulders with their budget reports in hand.

  2. Fantasyland Expansion – Disney needs to be sure to build attractions that we can “RIDE” and lots of them. Scenery and character locations don’t count as a reason to re-visit the park. Just look at the vast selection of attractions, real attractions, at Disneyland vs WDW.

  3. Pingback: PONY!

  4. i read this article to my 11 and 13 year old daughters. Please understand that i myself have visited WDW approx. 15 times in my 36 years…i have taken my girls 3 times (including their first visit when they turned 2 & 4 at WDW in 2000).Needless to say WDW has been a family tradition that started with my father and is on it’s third generation! HOWEVER!!…we have been to orlando 5 times since their first visit & we still love WDW but have grown bored of it!

    You are right Disney has not made any major upgrades in a very long time and as my children are becoming teenagers it really shows! We are revisiting Orlando again this year (we were there last year and in ’09, ’08, ’06 and plan to visit again in ’12….we will not be visiting Disney this time around and have not visited since 2004.

    We DO have major plans to visit Universal Studios (first time for all of us) due to Harry Potter!! My 11 year old has said for many years that WDW NEEDS to update Cinderella’s castle so that it is furnished & designed as a real castle that you can tour (they have done this with minnie’s house) but so that it is like a princess castle! she feels that would be a big improvement. My 13 year old says WDW needs to revamp to appeal to teens or add a whole new world/park geared toward teens! Disney has created some great movies in the last several years that would make excellent rides etc. Lets face it the once called Future World even after its updates is still a real bore…..come on Disney…..can’t you do better that this!?!…..

    I feel that Disney’s new magic your way ticket system is more expensive for those of us that can see and do all there is in 3-4 days!! they must come up with a more budget friendly pass system for the many, many travelers who do not want to stay at WDW! This is why we no longer visit!.

    We figured out this year that we can do Discovery Cove, 14 day passes to sea world, or Busch gardens, Aquatica, 2 day park to park pass at Universal Orlando & stay in Florida for 11 nights at a nicer resort than Disney’s budget/moderate hotels …. CHEAPER than we can do WDW for one week!!! sorry WDW…..our vote lies with the other theme parks!

  5. Pingback: Denise/Mousesteps

  6. Pingback: Jarrod Lentz

  7. They could do a LOT at EPCOT. Future World is almost a wasteland other than standing in line for Test Track (if it’s running and the line isn’t 2 hours) and Soarin. Wonders of Life and Universe of Energy could definitely be used better than an ancient ride with Ellen and a too far away Food and Wine pavilion for 6 weeks out of the year. Journey into the Imagination doesn’t display ANY imagination on Disney’s part. It looks more like someone cleaned out their attic for a garage sale, painted everything purple, ran a track through it and called it a ride. Nemo is barely adequate at The Seas, definitely not something thats a big return trip draw. Sea World built a whole park around the seas, Disney can’t think of something better than Nemo, a manatee tank, Crush, and getting your picture made inside a sharks mouth. How about Innoventions. I don’t even remember the last time I went in Innoventions East, I did do the free Segway intro in West 2-3 years ago. The Siemens “upgrade” to Spaceship Earth wasn’t even worth the amount of time is was shut down, they could have done so much more.

    I also think all of the Lands could provide more, when is the last time any of us regular goers thought, “I’d like to go hang out in Norway and China today” (or fill in the land of your choice? There’s only so many pictures you can take in front of a waterfall in Canada and does anyone not get ticked off when that door closes as you’re getting out the boat at Maelstrom. How many people want to watch a movie on Norway after they’ve held you hostage at a ride exit!?!? I love to go to EPCOT but it’s more the experiences I have there like Food and Wine and places to eat than it is to go ride things.

  8. after reading many disney blogs and boards on this topic – i guess i am in the minority. but i think Universal and IOA are horrible. The Wizarding World of HP was pretty amazing looking, and the one huge ride in Hogwarts was amazing, and aaaaah, the butterbeer. But the “shows” seem like an afterthought, and the layout of the land is horrendous. Not to mention that land’s other rides seem old and nothing innovative, with some HP characters thrown in for good measure. For the rest of the rides in the park – I feel the same, they seem unfinished, squashed together, and not held to the same standards as things in Disney. I did both parks in UNDER a day 4 years ago when I visited, and this summer I did them both in even less time. I can spend 3 days in Epcot and not get bored. Just Epcot – alone! Yes, Disney does need to add new things to these parks badly, and I agree that they need to add attractions, that they spend time on and really bring you to the park – similar to Spash Mountain back in the day. But, when you break it down, in my opinion, its Disney everytime, still. Universal just looks old and unloved to me. I guess im alone in my opinion :/

  9. …Also, Universal was NOT much cheaper! A Park Hopper for one day for all 4 Disney parks is $136, and with that you get “free” fast passes. Universal 2 parks in one day is $112, with no fast passes, you want those its an extra $87, which means you have 4 Disney Parks w/ fast pass for $136 versus 2 Universal Parks w/ fast pass for $200!!!!

    If you stay on Universal property you get the fast pass for free, but, I cant see how you would stay at those parks for more than a weekend. You’d eventually be venturing out, and spending more money. At Disney, most times, you’d be staying on Disney property, with the occasional one day or two day trip to another park. So you’re comparing like, 2 parks to 4 parks, and a weekend vacation to a week or more vacation. I dont understand how its comparable?

    I hope that Disney doesnt try to change their “draw” to bring in teens or little kids. Its supposed to be a place for families, and I think it still is.

  10. VILLAINS!! that should be disney’s next step toward a multi-year expansion. forget fantasy land, its not important at this point and should have been an after thought. DAK has the most space to expand and yet the main rides still are Dinosaur, Everest and maybe the lion king show. Hollywood studios has, really, the 2 true thrill rides of Tower and Coaster! And if they changed up Fantasmic that would be a help too. and EPCOT…well…yea…the name speaks for itself…Every Person Comes Out Ticked! if disney wants to get some of the public back go to the VILLAINS! imagine an entire park filled with coasters and true thrilled rides all based and dedicated on VILLAINS.

    disney has reached the point of “classic.” its a place everyone wants to go, but once you go, you’re set for about 10 years unless something big changes. Its a staple/classic vacation that everyone tries to go at least once. They’re relying on “classic” characters of the past and with WWoHP on the rise i really think that a Fantasy Land expansion isn’t going to do the trick.

    VILLAINS would be the ultimate 5th Gate destination for teens/young adults! true actual thrill rides. I mean come one, disney is still considering Thunder Mountain and Space Mountain as “thrill rides” and those are about as thrilling as the country bears lol! if disney wants to step it up, revamp up some of their classic rides (don’t just stick in a new robot i.e Pirates) and get a 5th Gate with true thrills!

  11. Coming from the UK, we typically spend 14 days in Orlando. The majority of people will split this time between all the parks – Disney, Universal and Sea World etc. While WWOHP will drawn the Brits in, I very much doubt they’ll end up spending any more time at Universal than they would have originally – unlike the US 5 day holiday where there’s not quite enough time to everything, we have a bit longer so its not really a case of having to chose – we tend to do a bit of everything anyway. In the news here it was very much pitched as a Harry Potter Theme Park, as oppossed to just an area within an existing park, so if anything, I think people may well expect it to be more than it is. I’m a big Harry Potter fan and this year (unlike last) we’ll be spending a day at Universal – but the remaining 13 will be at Disney – the service, attitude and better dining means WDW wins hands down for me.

  12. Pingback: Orlando Packages

  13. +1 for leighann’s comments.

    My son turns 4 this year, and our only choice for his first BIG vacation is WDW (this year was a road-trip to the beach). It’s been a little while since I was at either WDW or IOA, but my impression was that no one does Disney like Disney. IOA just seems shallow by comparison. Of course, I haven’t seen WWoHP, but while I like the movies, the attraction just doesn’t, well, attract me.

  14. Today we’re going to the Islands of Adventure and on thursday we’ll be going to Universal Studios. We have tentative plans to add a third day (during our 3 week trip here in Orlando) if we enjoy ourselves enough. I have this funny feeling that i’ll be let down by Universal. I love immersive experiences and Disney usually fits the bill. We’re currently DVC members and staying at the Animal Kingdom Lodge at this moment. Walking around Disney there is a large feeling of nostalgia in the air. Unfortunately there is little excitement. To that we are looking forward to Universal Studios and our primary draw to going there, The Wizarding World of Harry Potter. I’ll update later on what my thoughts are. Tootaloo.

  15. Very interesting article. We have found that about 8 out of 10 of our guests visiting Disney World actually want to spend at least one day at the new Wizarding World of Harry Potter. So, it does not surprise me! Great article!

  16. @ justin: Love your idea of a villians world or kingdom. There is so much that could be done. Especially since Disney has acquired Marvel (although from what I’ve read, I guess they have another 8 or 9 years before they can introduce Marvel attractions to WDW).

  17. As a huge Harry Potter fan, I appreciated the WWOHP. My sister and I attended the Grand Opening back in June and it was a blast. However, we spent only 1 day at Universal just for the Grand Opening and then a week at Disney for our summer vacation. This, I believe, is what many people will end up doing in the future. IOA just doesn’t compare to Disney World.

  18. The fact is that the WDW parks are still just as over crowded as they have always been and maybe even more so!

    I am a local and I visit both Universal/IOA and WDW quite frequently.

    As for WDW, I see no recognizable decline in the crowds. WDW is doing huge business and I still remember with fondness the good old days when you could visit WDW in September or October and enjoy lower crowds. In my opinion now a days, there is NO time of the year when WDW is less crowded. WDW is in a continuous state of over crowdedness!

    As for Universal and Islands of Adventure, the and crowds at Potter are overwhelming
    There is NEVER a time where the Potter area has a low enough crowd level to truly be enjoyable; you cannot casually stroll the land and look at the detail, there are far too many people. Some days we would take the long work to Potter to be turned away because the land is closed due to capacity, not so bad for us locals, but I feel sorry for the family that traveled here for their one and only vacation and are turned away!

    Potter may be taking some money from Disney but from the look of the crowds at WDW, Disney is still in the drivers seat in central Florida. Disney is good at reacting, and I think that the Fantasyland re do is a reaction to Potter. Am I excited by it? No, but I will visit to see it just like all WDW fans will.

    One of the most ingenious things Disney has done was their Disney Vacation Club. Disney has “locked in” their guests for decades to come!

  19. Iv been to Orlando three times and to be honest Universal wins hands down. it is a way better place to be and its way more immersive then WDW

    When you go to a theme park you want to leave the real world behind, in Universal you can. In Disney you are constantly having to watch advertisments for Kodak,Siemens and GM, you even walk into a car dealership after Test Track !!!!. Before my first trip to Orlando I would have thought “yes to advertisments in Universal but never in Disney” but its the other way around like alot of my pre first visit thoughts.

    .The staff in Universal are also way more friendly just try to ask to wait and go in the front row of a ride in WDW and see how you get on. My last trip to orlando was only two months ago and I was shocked by Disney it seems to be worse every time I go. Almost every ride had a fault from the car at test track telling me to turn left for the entire ride to freezing in the pitch dark in Dinosaur for five minutes(no apology) Toy story mania was dirty the steps in the que had not been cleaned in months and mr Potato Heads eyes kept going green etc etc.

    I like Disney its a nice place to go because of the nostalgia you have for it from when you saw it on movies and on tv as a kid but it is just that, to me its like when you watch an old show you used to love like Star Trek the Next Generation its so great in your head but you just end up cringing at the special effects and how dated it looks when you watch it now. Its the same alot of the time in Disney you just get the feeling that sparkle is gone.

    Disney parks are not doing well In Paris or Hong Kong the reason being people are making thier minds up based on the experience not based on a rose tinted view of Disney. If the glasses ever come off in the US WDW will be in the same trouble

    I also find the pro Disney brigade very in your face, you are simply not allowed to find fault…. I got the ” Disney Magic” speech from a Disney fan who heard me comment I thought Universal was better (the Disney fan had never been to Universal) so i left him with the same thought I will leave you. When WDW opened its was designed to blow people away from Pirates to the Jungle cruise from Thunder mountain to Space Mountain it was ment to make you get off the ride with your jaw down simply going WOW iv never seen or done anything like that. That does not happen anymore in WDW .

    The old arguments for the Magic of WDW are stale because the Wizard lives in Universal now and so does the Magic so if you want to experience the same feelings as the original guests of the WDW, you have to go to Universal !!!!!!

  20. I am a fan of all sorts of theme parks and I think that there is a good explanation why Disney seems not to be disturbed. Simply put, there is no real threat here.

    First, lets address the Parks as a whole. They are small. I mean really small. Small enough that as an adult traveling with one adult companion, I was able to experience both Universal Orlando theme parks in less than a day. We began our Universal adventure at Universal Studios park at 9 AM. By 2 PM, we had park hopped to IOA, and by 5 PM we were on our way to the shuttle back to Disney. We weren’t skipping rides either (OK, we skipped the “get you soaked” rides). We were able to experience every major advertized attraction and were content to leave at that point. I don’t know how anyone can spend a week there without being bored out of their minds.

    Secondly, lets discuss this idea that alot of people here seem to have that Disney is old and played out, while Universal is new and fresh. This is a complete fabrication. I agree that some things at Disney are played out and need a makeover, but have you seen what’s still passing for entertainment these days at Universal. There is nothing new and fresh about Jaws, Terminator 2, ET, or Men In Black, the “freshest” of which debuted in theaters in 1997. Twister was never a good movie and had absolutely no fan following, yet the ride has been inexplicably operational at Universal since they built the place.

    Finally, lets talk Harry Potter. Let me first say that I thought that HP and the Forbidden Journey was one of the best rides I’ve ever been on. That being said, every other ride in the section is a retread. Flight of the Hippogriff and Dragon Challenge are simply Flying Unicorn and Dueling Dragons with different names. You know, the same coasters that were in the IOA park when they built it? Then, after you ride all three rides and look at the scenery (absolutely stunning, BTW), the only thing left to do is stand in an hour line to be hustled briskly through the wand shop or candy store. Not my idea of big fun.

    Another thing to consider about Harry Potter is that it’s stealing patrons from WDW right now. 2010-2011. Not only is it brand new, but we’re smack in the middle of Deathly Hallows 1 & 2. Of course people are flocking to see it. But do you honestly think that when this area is still up and running 15-20 years from now (remember that little Twister conversation we had earlier?) that people will still view it as a reason to flee Disney? I think not.

    Universal is an OK place with two decent parks, one of which has a new toy that everyone wants to see. But in the end, Orlando belongs to Disney World. That’s why they aren’t losing any sleep.

  21. Just came back from WDW last week. Went to Universal & IOA for the first time. We hated IOA. Not laid out well, the express past is a rip off, WDW fastpass is a much better system. Harry Potter line was longer than posted because ride wasn’t working well, ET broke down & we had to sit in the dark, 1/2 hr. later we got off it. HP was a great ride but not worth the admisson price for 1 or 2 really good rides. WDW service much better & attendants much more friendly.

  22. Walt Disney World is so much better than the Universal parks! I have been going to Orlando for my whole entire life, and I have been to disney more times than I can count, not just because of siblings, because I was the one who chose to go to Disney World. I have been to Universal and IOA multiple times. I absolutely agree that the Universal parks are fun, but they cannot be compared to WDW.

    The service that you receive at disney is not comparable to Universal. Frankly, I think that the people who work at Universal are rude and have no concern for the well being of the guests. At WDW all of the cast members always have a smile on their face and go out of their way to make their guests feel at home and happy. The WWOHP is a fabulously themed section of IOA, but in actuality, there are only 2 added thrill rides, which aren’t anything new to the parks. They are two roller coasters that were already in IOA. Im sorry, but this is not anything new or exciting. Lets all face it, the WWOHP isn’t going to be a big deal in 5 or so years. All of of us will have moved on from the brand new toy because all of the HP movies are over and they will not be all the rage anymore.

    Also, unlike what others have said, Disney World is not just for little kids. I don’t think that all of these people realize that there is way more to do in disney than just meeting and greeting with the princesses, and way more things for adults to enjoy. WDW is home to 2 of the best water parks, Blizzard Beach and Typhoon Lagoon. Both have great themes and have fantastic water rides and water slides. Most of them being very thrilling and have nothing to do with the Disney characters. Does Universal have anything like that… I don’t think so! WDW also has a wonderful place where adults can hang out after a long day at the parks…Downtown Disney! It is home to many adult only nightclubs that are some of the best in the business. Another interesting thing to do in downtown disney is to go to The Cirque Du Soleil La Nouba. It is a fantastic show with tightrope walkers, interesting dance shows and many different acts that you would not see elsewhere. There is also a golf resort and a place called The Boardwalk with many restaurants, street performances, and boat rides, it is fun for the whole family!

    You can spend a week in Disney and not get bored, if I had to spend a week in Universal, I would have been so ticked off by the time that I left that I would never go to Universal again for my entire life! WDW is just so much more enjoyable. And the comment about how when you go to WDW you cannot get away from your real life, and in Universal you can. That is totally wrong! You think that Men in Black, is going to make you forget your real life? Wrong. In Disney you are immersed with the disney magic.

    Universal is a, quote on quote, fun park that I would love to go to for a day, but just does not leave as many wonderful, lasting memories as WDW does. One memory that I remember in Universal is when my family and I were in one of the fast food stops and we were trying to get something for my brother who is allergic to nuts, dairy, and eggs. They had nothing on the menu that he could eat, so we asked if he could have something special made to accomodate his diet. They were extremely rude to us and we had to wait an hour and a half before they got back to us. They said they could not make any changes to the food for him, so we left very hungry and angry. Those are the kinds of memories that I have from Universal. As we go to WDW every year with my brother and they can always accomodate him.

    Overall, while I do agree that Disney does need to make some changes to some rides and add some new things to the parks, there is so much more that Disney has to offer and it is just better all around. I feel like WDW sells itself. Unlike Universal, who has to keep upping their game to stay close top, while Disney just effortlessly does. KEEP IT UP DISNEY!!!

  23. I agree with Yensid! That was said perfectly! Disney World is awesome! Universal is fun but not the ever lasting kind!

  24. I have been going to Universal for my whole life, when I was a child, my family and I would go twice a year and I thought it was the best place in the world! But, when I went a few months ago to WDW(aka im 20) I was blown away! I didn’t know how I lasted in Universal all of those years! I am planning another trip with my girlfriend this upcoming year. The cast members are so nice and accomodating! I love the rides! My faves are rock’n’roller coaster and the tower of terror! Best themed thrill rides i’ve seen! Yensid said it all, downtown disney is awesome!

Comments are closed.