This time, though… I can’t help but wince. Universal is overplaying their hand, I fear, and I don’t like where this is (inexorably?) heading.
Having a multiple-tiered hotel that not only offers (the standard array of) various room types but also various levels of access to the resort’s on-site benefits is a bit, well, much. First and foremost, it represents the very real possibility of shooting themselves in the foot. Early Park Admission for the “moderate-value” rooms but no Express Passes? The former may be icing on the theming cake for enthusiasts, but it’s the latter that really made the deal for most consumers – only by saving $70 per person per day can footing a $300-a-night hotel room be even slightly palatable. And the “valued-price” guest gets neither of these.
Yes, there’s still plenty Universal and Loews offer, including a hotel-key-card-turned-credit-card, priority seating at restaurants, free delivery of packages to one’s room, and, of course, the convenience of being on-property and the delight of staying in-theme. (Well, we’re pretty sure the “value” attendees will receive these perks, though we don’t know for certain yet, which is itself another problem for another discussion.) It’s just that Universal’s partner hotels offer many of these perks, plus a few others of their own – including, of course, the all-important early access to Harry Potter and his new friends, the Minions. This may have been a move to help reach some sort of loose parity with Disney World, but not even Disney actively takes anything away from its guests.
It really gets interesting, though, when taken in conjunction with a little tweaking to its ride reservation service that Universal made just the other month. As if having multiple levels of Express Passes wasn’t convoluted enough, there’s now the Q-bot system, which, of course, represents another mirroring of Disney’s policies (the much-debated FastPass service). The net effect, between different hotels and different parks with different hours of entry and different ways to stand in line, is mind-boggling to the average (read: non-obsessed) consumer. It almost demands Universal Orlando Resort 101, a lecture class, as a pre-requisite to stepping foot on the property.
My background is videogames, so I typically tend to view these things from behind this rather skewed prism. The fundamental reason that console systems – such as, say, the Sony PlayStation or the Nintendo Wii – were able to break away from and thoroughly dominate their PC brethren is due to their elegant simplicity. It’s Bill Clinton’s mantra for the digital class: “It’s simplicity, stupid.” Buy one magic little box that already contains everything you need, from the controller to a hard drive, and shove your game of choice into it. Plug and play, lock and load. Not even grandma, in her mad fervor to play Wii Bowling, can mess it up.
Now PCs, on the other hand, represent a nearly endless array of various configurations and components with which to drown. Just installing a game can be a nightmare, particularly if it’s Crysis and it melts your graphics card just by looking at it. Though the various PC manufacturers have come a long way from the Wild West that was DOS, it’s still an unbelievably daunting undertaking for the casual (read: non-obsessed) consumer and what primarily causes PC gaming to be an eternally walled-off ghetto.
Companies, though, tend to get self-involved, which leads to myopia, which, in turn, usually leads to humility. Microsoft and Sony are great cases in point, as they opted, for the first time in the industry’s 25-year modern history, to release multiple versions of their consoles, typically offering different HDD sizes or the occasional real difference, like built-in wi-fi as opposed to a forcibly-purchased peripheral. (Nintendo, meanwhile, offered just one system that even came with the same pack-in game. It, unsurprisingly, has the best-selling console this generation.)
Universal is most definitely heading down this primrose PlayStation path. When sitting down to help a friend and his fiancée plan their honeymoon to UOR just a few months ago, for instance, it took a little while to go through all their options with them, from normal to partner to on-property hotel, to Meal Deals (with or without the new summer dinning experiences), to Unlimited Express Passes to park-to-park to VIP tickets. Oh, then there’s Blue Man Group and the CityWalk pass and Early Park Admission – it was more than they were ever expecting. And this was before Q-bot and the Cabana Bay Beach Resort announcements!
The bottom line, I suppose, is this: Universal Orlando is an absolutely wonderful area that deserves multiple days in multiple visits to fully explore and experience and enjoy. It has one of the crown jewels of the theming world, the Wizarding World of Harry Potter, and just may be adding one or two more precious stones to the mix in very short order, if rumors are to be believed. Portofino Bay is easily one of the best hotel stays I’ve had in my entire life, offering up a level of service that is just short of what I found during my year-long sojourn in Japan.
But Walt Disney World it is not – nor is it likely ever to be, for better or worse. The best possible decision the company can make is to embrace this difference and develop a vision of its own, one that worships the Japanese-like elegance of simplicity rather than scoffs at it in the typically-condescending Western way. Otherwise, it’s going to end up like Microsoft to Disney’s Apple.
And God knows we could use a few more Googles in the theme park industry.
Marc N. Kleinhenz has written for 19 sites, including IGN, Gamasutra, and Orland Informer. He’s also the author of It Is Known: An Analysis of Thrones, Vol. I, which explores HBO’s Game of Thrones with such guests as Time magazine’s James Poniewozik.Tweet
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