While the rest of the world focused on Comcast Chair and CEO Brian Roberts statement regarding a return to growth in subscribers to their legacy cable network business, the Orlando Sentinel picked up on quotes from Roberts that signal the theme parks wars in Orlando are well and truly on.
Okay, no one is actually declaring a theme park war, but when Roberts spoke today in Las Vegas at a Citigroup event and said, “We’re doubling down on theme parks. We think that there is a lot of ‘there’ there in the theme-park business for many years to come and that we have a low market share — and only one way to go,” that’s a sign that in Comcast and Universal’s mind, it’s game on.
When Comcast bought NBC/Universal, they took on the theme parks with an eye to selling them at some point in the future. But after some small investments in the parks paid off with an sizable increase in cash flow, they were convinced to invest in the larger Harry Potter land, which has been an unqualified success for the resort. Since that point, Universal has been going full speed ahead with other expansions including: The Simpsons, Transformers, a huge new resort, and more.
While it’s true that Disney’s four Orlando parks are consistently leaders in attendance, but if they have a little dip in numbers and Universal has great numbers when the second Harry Potter land opens in Orlando, it’s possible that one or both Universal parks could leap ahead of Disney’s Animal Kingdom and/or Disney’s Hollywood Studios in attendance. If Universal Orlando’s growth is similar to what occurred in 2010-2011 when the first Harry Potter area opened, then the above scenario is likely.
The question on the minds of many Orlando theme park observers is when will Disney wake up to this challenge. It’s true that Disney has announced an major expansion for Disney’s Animal Kingdom with the Avatar project, and a slew of new night time entertainment options. This will no doubt add to the number of hours guests spend in DAK, but as Avatarland won’t open until 2016 at the earliest, that gives Universal two years to build their attendance and pass DAK’s yearly visitor count. That’s just one park, nothing has been announced for the very stagnant Disney’s Hollywood Studios. Given the length of time it take Disney to open new attractions these days, it might be well past 2017 before any growth is seen at that park too.
If Universal does pass one or two Disney World parks, it will be quite a shock to Disney’s shareholders who are used to being unchallenged at the top of the theme park heap. With the Wizarding World of Harry Potter, Universal has shown it can challenge Disney in more ways than one. Why do you think Disney has, so far, left Universal’s growth mostly unchallenged? What do you think Disney should do in response?