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Universal and Disney fight for your Vacation Dollar


We talked last week about how Universal Orlando Resort plans to hold Disney’s feet to the fire by continuing its investment in the parks. Today I want to discuss a way you can tell if Universal is making progress in its quest to steal market share from Walt Disney World.

I have one simple indicator that tells me which park is pulling ahead at the moment — it’s a statistic I believe Disney really cares about, or should at least — how many tourists visit Universal before they visit Disney. It’s pretty simple to observe. Sit at any Disney park where you have a clear view of crowds as they walk by and count how many guests are wearing recently produced Universal merchandise. Every hat, t-shirt, or Harry Potter robe that passes by represents a large sum of money that Disney missed out on. In addition to that t-shirt, that guest also dined at Universal, bought admission media, and maybe even stayed at the resort (soon much more likely as Universal looks to add thousands of hotel rooms).

Although they seldom admit it, Disney doesn’t really care that much if you spend a day at SeaWorld or Universal at the end of your trip. By then you’ve already spent the vast majority of your vacation budget (including importantly your souvenir, lodging, and food budget), with them. Having Orlando internationally known as a family vacation destination benefits Disney (those marketing dollars go a lot farther when its true) so it doesn’t make sense for them to set the phasers on kill when it comes to their competition.

This leading indicator was most obvious right after the Wizarding World of Harry Potter opened. Main Street looked like Hogsmeade during a Hogwart’s school break. The density of Harry Potter merchandise has diminished, but lately, the park has been full of people sporting Minion merchandise. If Universal was paying attention, they’d figure out more ways to spread the Despicable Me love around. Perhaps a stage show or restaurant to go with the 4D motion simulator.

despicable me

Disney needs to put some of that next-gen facial recognition technology to work tracking the volume Universal merchandise in the parks. It tells them directly how much money they’re losing to Universal. They can use this to justify some of the projects they have yet to announce.

Whatever Disney decides to announce, it needs to offer something new and big enough in scope that a makes guests want to stay with Disney first (ie, don’t just do a Star Wars Land, but add a whole Star Wars Resort). Because, based on Universal’s plans for the next few years, it’s going to be Harry Potter (with new movies coming soon too), dinosaurs, the Lorax, and (the big rumor is) Lord of the Rings as far as the eye can see for the foreseeable future. That’s some serious firepower lined up on one side of the theme park wars and, with Comcast as owners, the bankroll to make it reality too.

So after New Fantasyland is completed, what is Disney bringing to the fight? So far, they have announced a new Fastpass system that half the park’s guests can’t or won’t use (no smart phones or international plans only), an Avatar-land that keeps getting delayed whenever the movies get pushed back, and a new shopping mall.

Are you inspired by Disney’s efforts or are you more likely to stop at Universal Studios first on your next visit?

7 thoughts on “Universal and Disney fight for your Vacation Dollar”

  1. I will definitely say that Universal is much more exciting right now and looks to be so over the next few years whereas, so far, Disney has been much more disappointing. Having said that, I can’t imagine a time when I won’t want to go to both of them. I see no reason to decide on only one.

  2. Disney’s efforts? What efforts? Disney is doing absolutely nothing to attract customers right now. The MyMagic initiative is geared toward squeezing more money out of the customers they already have. Universal is competing with Disney, to be sure, but Disney is not competing at all. They’ve basically forgotten how.

  3. I love Disney World, my family and extended family and I will be visiting next fall. I know that for part of the week the intent is to go to Universal. This is the first visit where we will spend time away from Disney property. In the past Disney Vacations not only did we stay on site but we stayed Disney focused. I have to say when the family made this clear to me my stomach sank a bit. To me it was the indication that Universal might already be winning. I was raised a Disney kid so I want Disney to compete and compete hard. I want them to compete Disney hard. I want them to rock some new attractions every single year, I want them to plus exisiting attractions, I want them to reimagine and even rebuild some of the classic attractions. Nostalgia is great but the parks must evolve more quickly to stay competative.

  4. Universal will always have one thing Disney doesn’t have in mass and that loud mouth, rude, littering, queue jumping, pushy, annoying teen ages and college kids. Drinking shouting and making a mess of the parks, sure they visit Disney but due to the lack of ‘big’ rides they don’t stay long. Universal know this and cater to them for a park with many franchises aim at per teens and children ie marvel, Harry potter. It seems very strange to build lands full of rides with high restrictions. I’m from the uk and thought the Wwohp was awful, two roller coasters are not themed rides and the dark ride isn’t suitable for kids! Butter beer is horrible and expensive and the merch was cheaply made and available to but online for less. I am going back next fall and am dreading going to universal, I’m a huge jurrasic park, et, Simpsons, Harry potter and marvel fan but I find it all to loud and brash. The parks also have no respect for the past, cutting jaws, kong, ghostbusters and back to future breaks my heart. These rides were replaced by movie classic the mummy? And twister? Great……. Universal also reminders me of the time IOA was build where every thing had to be extreme, like Popeye you don’t just get wet you get extremely wet. It’s tacky, Disney is classy, timeless, fun in the long run Disney will win.

    1. No one here is claiming that Universal will ever out class Disney, just that they’re busy making inroads into Orlando market share and siphoning off some, albeit a small portion, of Disney’s profit. But even a small portion is a princely sum worthy of investment.

  5. The concept of being data mined makes me feels sick, and a bit violated. I hate that Disney is doing it to us. In the meantime, Universal is getting more and more exciting. We are taking a Disney vacation in January, but have chosen to stay off site to minimize the intrusion of these magic bands. We are already talking Universal for 2014. It may be the last time we choose Disney, and it makes me sad, because it used to be so magical for our family. But seriously, it’s just a vacation. We’ll get over it.

  6. On my last visit to Orlando, I stayed 8 days. Out of those 8 days, 7 were spent at Disney, and only one at Universal. And I think that’s pretty common too, you’ll see people spending more days at Disney than Universal. I went on the off-season, Disney was still moderately busy compared to the last time I went at the same time a few years earlier. Universal, on the other hand, was deserted throughout the entire park, EXCEPT for the Harry Potter area. I think Universal is more than right to invest and try to get more people in their parks, but Disney will still have an advantage. And yes, maybe I spent my first few dollars at Universal, but I’ll still spend MOST of my dollar at Disney, even if I like Harry Potter more, because I’m spending more time there.

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