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Universal Creative's very, very, very good year

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Published: June 30, 2010 at 3:02 PM

It's the last day of June and - wow! What a month for theme park premieres. I can't remember a string of such impressive debuts as I has the good fortune to attend this month, starting with Disney's World of Color, followed by The Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal Orlando and wrapping up yesterday with the King Kong 360/3-D here in Los Angeles.

Being this positive freaks me out a bit, to be honest. What happened to Robert the Theme Park Curmudgeon? Am I getting soft?

No, I don't think so. (Okay, I hope not!) What's happening this year really is just that good.

While Disney's Imagineering team deserves praise for developing World of Color, I want to pay extra attention in this post to Universal Creative, which, in addition to developing Harry Potter and Kong, earlier this year oversaw the debut of Universal Studios Singapore - the company's fifth theme park. (The other four? Universal Studios Hollywood, Universal Studios Florida, Universal's Islands of Adventure and Universal Studios Japan.)

What Universal Creative's opened this year is simply stunning. Universal used to be known for movie-themed parks that looked like, well, movie studios. The design esthetic imposed by the needs of Universal Studios Hollywood's production facilities led Universal to develop theme parks that looked as much like studio backlots as they did the more immersive themed environments built by Disney.

Universal began to break out of that mold with the opening of Islands of Adventure in 1999. But in 2010, Universal Creative obliterated what was left of it.

In Singapore and in the Wizarding World of Harry Potter, Universal Creative has designed facades that not only meet the design standards set by Disney's Imagineers, but elevate them.

The Mummy's Tomb in Universal Studios Singapore
The Mummy's Tomb in Universal Studios Singapore. Photo courtesy Resorts World Sentosa.

Far, Far Away Castle in Universal Studios Singapore
Far, Far Away Castle in Universal Studios Singapore. Photo courtesy Resorts World Sentosa.

Hogwarts Castle at Universal's Islands of Adventure
Hogwarts Castle at Universal's Islands of Adventure

As I wrote when I visited Universal Studios Singapore in February: "There's no pretense of being a movie studio in this park, freeing Universal Creative's designers from having to dilute thematic environments by exposing them as mere movie or TV sets."

But complete buildings are of little use to theme park fans if they don't house great attractions. Universal's delivered on that standard, as well, with Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey winning raves from fans and from website editors, as well. Harry Potter's become the greatest hit in years in the theme park industry, packing fans into Islands of Adventure.

Universal's Singapore park has become a hit as well, with many weekends selling out and demand for tickets remaining high throughout the year.

And while King Kong doesn't boast the immense facade that you'll find in Islands of Adventure's Hogsmeade (Kong is just one element in Hollywood's signature Studio Tour), the show breaks new ground as the world's first 360-degree, 3-D movie with coordinated motion effects. We'll soon see its affect on USH attendance, as well.

Mark WoodburyCredit Mark Woodbury and his team at Universal Creative for these successes. I don't buy into the "Disney vs. Universal" narrative promoted by some other fans I've heard. This isn't a zero-sum gain, with each Universal success creating a Disney failure, and vice versa.

No, I agree with the true insiders within the theme park industry, professionals who know that the best thing for Universal and for Disney is for both companies to be on top of their work, creating engaging new attractions that draw millions of new fans to their theme park markets each year. What's good for Universal is good for Disney, and vice versa.

Universal Creative's had a very good year. That's great news for theme park fans and great news for the entire theme park industry.

Update: I've not yet seen it, but friends suggest that Universal Creative also should get some points for the new indoor roller coaster at Universal Studios Japan: Space Fantasy: The Ride. Anyone care to comment on that?

Readers' Opinions

From Joshua Counsil on June 30, 2010 at 3:45 PM
One ideology I never understood is brand loyalty. Just as with Universal and Disney fans, it exists in other markets. They tear at each others' throats over how their company is superior. I try to purchase products based on what is on top at the moment, and at the moment it seems to be Universal. Last year, it was Busch Gardens and Cedar Fair. The year before, it was Disney.

The more competitive they get, the more we benefit, so why argue about who is better? Challenge them to do more.

From James Rao on June 30, 2010 at 3:52 PM
FWIW, I agree on all three points:

1) It has been a great year for themed attractions
2) It has been a great year for Universal Creative
3) It has been a great year for theme park fans as Disney and Universal continue to push each other to the limit (although lately, Universal has been doing most of the pushing).

From 86.28.128.196 on June 30, 2010 at 4:10 PM
I think universal have done an outstanding job this year and don't forget that Disney are working on some big projects right now. This doesn't create a uni vs disney mentality as I would assume that it just fuels the likelihood of returning customers to both parks - if they both up their game I would be more likely to visit both on my next Florida trip rather than just universal, however, with Harry potter I am likely to go primarily to visit islands of adventure, but will go to typhoon lagoon or epcot again.

It's in both of their interests during a recession to maximise attendance otherwise people wouldn't visit either. The only thing I think they are missing in Florida is a full multi-park ticket for Disney and universal - at a competitive price, say £275 for 2 weeks, I and most of my theme park friends would be very tempted so then you can go where, when and how often with less fuss.

From 76.168.75.55 on June 30, 2010 at 4:28 PM
I agree its been a great year for universal. I love both theme parks but im always root more for the underdog which in most cases is universal. I think this year will bring in record crowds to IOA and maybe USH. Tomorrow i shall attend the grand opening of kong and also check out the new special effects stage show which has had great reviews but little mention in the theme park buisness. Wizarding world will remain ontop till disney opens there first area devoted to one movie (at least here in california) "CARS".
From Tyler Bell on June 30, 2010 at 7:17 PM
Universal is my favorite company ever,i hope to be on UC one day.Dont get me wrong I still love disney,but universal has always shared a special place in me.
From Manny Barron on June 30, 2010 at 8:52 PM
I can't wait to see the new Kong at USH and World of Color at DCA. I've already seen Harry Potter and it was worth the wait and lived up to the hype. June 2010 was a great month for theme park fans.
From Brian Emery on July 1, 2010 at 7:16 AM
Let’s not forget they also raised prices… All of those folks at IOA paying more $$$.
Really good year for them…. They deserve all the accolades they receive…
From 173.148.253.116 on July 1, 2010 at 1:42 PM
Just a quick correction to a previous post.
Cars land isnt the first land disney california adventure has devoted to one movie.
A bugs land is.

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