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More hotels, more rides - NBCUniversal's CEO outlines his vision for Universal's theme parks

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Published: September 12, 2013 at 9:32 AM

Can you imagine a Universal Orlando Resort with more than four times as many hotel rooms as it has now? Universal has done a feasibility study that claims the resort could fill up to 10,000-15,000 rooms on its property, NBCUniversal CEO Steve Burke told stock analysts yesterday.

"We need to get those hotel rooms open and build out the resort," Burke said, according to an Orlando Sentinel report of the meeting.

Cabana Bay Beach ResortThe Cabana Bay Beach Resort, under construction at Universal Orlando earlier this year.

Universal Orlando currently has three on-site hotels, offering 2,400 hotel rooms. Next year, Universal and its hotel partner Loews will open the 1,800-room Cabana Bay Beach Resort, bringing the total number of rooms on site to 4,200. But where would the additional 6,000-plus rooms go? The remaining space around Cabana Bay? The Wet n' Wild property? Into CityWalk, above retail and dining facilities? All of the above?

One of the great benefits of Universal Orlando, as currently configured, is that it is not car-dependent, as much of the Walt Disney World Resort is. You can park your car and never have to go on a road for the duration of your stay at Universal Orlando. (Or, if you get a shuttle from the Orlando airport, you can visit Universal Orlando without needing to rent a car, which appeals to many visitors from Europe.) Everything's in walking distance, or, if you don't feel like walking that far, boats await to take you to and from your hotel. Could Universal preserve alternate, non-road transport options for guests in up to 15,000 rooms?

Universal is developing Cabana Bay to be a lower-priced option that its existing hotels, where rates start at around $200 a night. One could reasonably assume that Universal's additional hotels could appeal to price points both below and above its current properties. Perhaps a budget hotel located over near Wet n' Wild, similar in price and finish to Disney's All-Star Resorts? Or an ultra-luxe, high-priced hotel set in between the two parks, above the shops of CityWalk, a la Disney's Grand Californian Hotel at Disneyland?

What will all those visitors do when they come to Universal Orlando? Burke told the analysts that Universal has increased its capital spending on theme parks to about $500 million a year, and that he expects that to be the company's new normal for annual capital spending. He said that the company's goal is to open a new attraction every year at both Universal Orlando and Universal Studios Hollywood.

Half a billion a year on new stuff in the parks? Every year? This really is a great time to be in theme parks.

Readers' Opinions

From Tim Hillman on September 12, 2013 at 9:54 AM
For all of the folks who made apologies for Disney in the comments on the previous article, this should be a cold splash of water in the face.

Disney plods along in its American theme parks at a snail's pace with nice but not notable attractions while Universal channels its inner Admiral Farragut!

Why do so many of you make apologies for Disney?

From O T on September 12, 2013 at 10:10 AM
Where did you got the impression European visitors don't like to rent cars? We for one have longer vacations. I can't afford to stay 6 weeks at Disney or Universal. We rent a home and visit the parks. But if I would come high season and had just a week I would go for Universal. The hotels look much nicer, the price is more reasonable and the 2 parks have more fun then the 4 Disney is offering together.
Not sure how Universal should expend because they are pretty much land locked. they once had all the land behind the convention centre and in hind sight it would have been a good idea to transport to that location but now it's not an option anymore although if they had some great rides like the Hogwart express going to another resort that would be fine.
From Nick McKaig on September 12, 2013 at 10:12 AM
Just out of curiosity, how much was NBCUniversal's previous annual spending budget?
From Annette Forrest on September 12, 2013 at 10:15 AM
It's great seeing Universal investing money to correct the "good enough" attitude it's always had with its theme parks. To me, the Universal parks always looked kind of cheap and junky...one step above Six Flags and regional parks like Cedar Point. I don't like seeing the steel frames of the coasters and also don't like the fact that Universal has never seemed to care that sightlines bleed from one themed area into another, often very jarringly. Case in point: Hogwarts is seen from Jurassic Park, totally taking me out of the idea that I am "really" in Jurassic Park on an island somewhere.

I know that all theme parks require imagination on the park of the guest and that even in Disney parks you can see Space Mountain from Fantasyland, for example...but at Disney each area of the park just feels more well-themed than anything at Universal. That includes the Harry Potter area at Islands of Adventure...since if you stand at the entrance to Potter you look out into the Lost Continent area and the illusion of being in an English magical village is ruined. I wish they'd find a way to fix this, like making all of Lost Continent into the Forbidden Forest from the Harry Potter books (and stocking it with some spooky attractions for a truly novel "land" unlike anything currently in Orlando).

One of the things that Universal fans and Disney-bashers tend to overlook is the fact that Universal is now spending tons of money to rectify the "good enough" attitude it had towards its parks in the past. To me, this feels like a Holiday Inn hotel receiving funds and energy to make it into a Ritz-Carlton (an industry leader). I love seeing Universal doing this...because it is getting Universal to Disney's level.

Until now, Disney's never had to spend big money on its parks because Universal was at that Holiday Inn/Six Flags level. If Universal spends the cash to make all of the areas of its parks as good as the Potter areas then that will really elevate this to a world-class resort.

The thing is, though, that Universal is not really competition for Disney and I don't think it ever really will be. If Universal attracts people to Orlando, people will still spend time at Disney as well. Just like if Disney builds some big new thing...people will still go to see Harry Potter. I really hope what Universal is doing causes Disney to go all-out with its Star Wars plans, however. The timing on this is great...because Disney executives love to value engineer everything and maybe this spending spree from Universal will cause more sensible heads to win out and approve budgets for something truly epic to be built at DHS.

From Robert Niles on September 12, 2013 at 10:34 AM
I didn't say that European visitors don't like to rent cars. I wrote that not having to rent cars appeals to many visitors from Europe. Those statements aren't mutually exclusive. Some visitors like renting cars. Some don't. But if you're flying to a destination, not having to deal with the hassle of renting a car and driving in a foreign country appeals to many such visitors.

Heck, I drive often in LA, but I never rent a car in Europe or Asia. You couldn't pay me enough to deal with driving outside my home country. Heck, I find dealing with rental car companies in the US a major pain. So I guess I'm talking myself into amending my statement to... not having to rent cars appeals to many visitors, period. ;^)

From Russell Meyer on September 12, 2013 at 11:08 AM
Disney seems to have found a way to avoid the need for cars on their resort. While it's not walkable like Universal, the transportation system is pretty efficient. They've even gone to the extreme of welcoming guests who don't want to be burdoned with rental cars by providing the Magical Express service, which takes guests straight to the parks and their luggage to their rooms. Not only do they get guests in their parks faster to start spending money, but without a car, those guests are pretty much stuck on Disney property for the duration of their stay.

It's great to see the investment by Universal. It's obvious that an entertainment company understands the need for up front investment in this industry much moreso than a financial holdings company. However, they're just nubmers, and $500 million spent on a bad concept can be just as disasterous as spending nothing (see Rip Ride Rocket). This industry is unforgiving when it comes to beating your chest about spending a bunch of money and then underwhelming guests. While I think it was a great additiona and perhaps overhyped, Antarctica at Sea World has been a big problem for the park. You can't just spend money to spend money, and there has to be some long term plan in mind. That appears to be the case in Hollywood, but there seems to be less of a plan in Florida after HP London opens. In fact, even Transformers was a bit of an afterthought, though it has been successful so far. Sometimes it's important to strike while the iron is hot (which is the case for Transformers and HP), but frequently, it's far more prudent to be deliberate and calculating in your decision. Disney has perhaps been too calculating recently, and may be forced to accellerate their plan due to Universal's influx of development.

What I think the big takeaway is that there is some serious competition now for your theme park dollars in Orlando, and Universal hit Disney with a standing 8 count with WWoHP and the Londonverse development. The question is, will Disney actually hit back, or just play defense knowing that they still lead on the scorecard?

From 75.141.200.37 on September 12, 2013 at 11:34 AM
With the addition of the Harry Potter themed lands, our family FINALLY wanted to go to Universal. Living in Nevada, we visit Disneyland several times a year. The last time we went to Universal Hollywood was on our honeymoon in 1999. At that time, that "park" had 32 stores, 29 eateries and 16 attractions. Really? (numbers may be off but that is what we remembered). My hubby does not do roller coasters. I do but how fun can that be to always wait for me to get off of a ride? He can do 3D type rides and I cannot. Disney offers us the ability to do both in a completely immersed experience. He doesn't mind waiting while I ride a coaster and vice versa.

Harry Potter enticed us to take a day out of our Park Hopper and go to Universal. My son's (21) comment summed up how we felt..."Harry Potter was amazing. Everything about it. But, as we traveled through the rest of the park, I felt like I was losing money. I would have been happy spending $85 on just Harry Potter and staying there all day even though there wasn't enough to do." We found the shows cheesy and run down. Even The Amazing Spider Man (which my husband rode and I didn't) was run down, not very clear and difficult to hear. The queues were dirty and the staff was rude at best. It made us not want to go again. We are waiting for Universal Hollywood to finish up with its expansion and we will try that park again. For our family, Universal is a place my son will go with friends but we will stay with Disney as a family. Universal has such a long way to go on EVERYTHING that I am not sure they could ever win our family over.

From Bryce McGibeny on September 12, 2013 at 7:41 PM
"Cheap and junky" Annette? Really? One step above Six Flags or Cedar Fair? Oh please. I don't want to start a debate, but when Six Flags builds a park with the theming that is in IOA alone, will be the day that I skydive naked from a Boeing 747 over Mount Kilamanjaro.

Yes, there is some skyline issues, and seeing Hogwarts from JP does bother me, but how does that justify even comparing the parks to something like Six Flags, where their best attempts at theming is the Batman: The Ride queue which has been done dozens of times over. When a Six Flags of Cedar Fair park has something done on the levels of Port of Entry, Seuss Landing, Lost Continent or New York/Hollywood/San Francisco, please contact me.

Sorry, but that statement irks me. And trust me, I very well know that the Universal parks are not perfect. Neither are the Disney parks.

From Tim Hillman on September 12, 2013 at 12:09 PM
Yes, Annette, I am a Disney basher, and I make no apologies about it since I've been hammering Disney about their cheapskate investment practices on this site for well over a decade, but some of your comments make me shake my head in wonder.

"Universal parks always looked kind of cheap and junky...one step above Six Flags and regional parks like Cedar Point"

Really? Doesn't that comment more accurately apply to the Sea World and Busch Gardens parks (which are fine parks in my opinion) and not the Universal parks? I've always found USF to be comparable in decor to DHS, and the theming in IOA pre-Potter was easily comparable to any of the Disney parks.

"One of the things that Universal fans and Disney-bashers tend to overlook is the fact that Universal is now spending tons of money to rectify the "good enough" attitude it had towards its parks in the past."

Hmm, wouldn't that comment be more accurately applied to DCA version I? Didn't Disney just drop over $500M to fix the problems there?

"Until now, Disney's never had to spend big money on its parks because Universal was at that Holiday Inn/Six Flags level."

Oh, now Universal has gone done from one step above Six Flags parks down to the level of Six Flags and Holiday Inn in just a few paragraphs! So which is it? Better than Six Flags or equal to Six Flags? And since when does Disney base its investment decisions on what the competition is doing?

Let's compare the original IOA, the original DCA, and Tokyo DisneySea which were all built around the same time. DCA falls into your category of just "good enough" with no outstanding attractions other than a watered down version of the "Twilight Zone Tower of Terror." IOA was built as a top notch park with arguably the top theme park attraction in the world, "The Amazing Adventures of Spiderman," and host of other superb rides. TDS is probably the most beautifully themed park in the world with the top ride being "Journey to the Center of the Earth," and several other top notch attractions. Both IOA and TDS were well received by theme park afficiandos while DCA was widely panned. Guess which of the three was built solely with Disney money? Yep, DCA was the only Disney funded project of the three.

So now we have Comcast saying that even after building Potter 1, Potter 2, Transformers, and the new Springfield, they plan on investing $500M in inprovements to the parks annually while Disney drops plans to bring Carsland east and Avatar languishes in the third level of James Cameron hell. To Disney's credit, we did get a new Fantasyland in the MK and the Seven Dwarves Mine Coaster looks to be an enjoyable ride, but for a company that pulls in billions in profit from their Florida parks these improvements are a pittance!

Yet people say that they are glad that Disney dropped plans to bring Carsland to the Orlando parks so they can do a better job on the new Star Wars land, and they just know that Disney is going to knock it out of the park with Avartar once they get done with the plans (and James Cameron).

When does the Kool-Aid drinking stop?

From Bryce McGibeny on September 12, 2013 at 12:24 PM
Yeah Tim, I don't get it either. I love both Universal and Disney parks, but to say that Universal is at Six Flags/Holiday Inn level is just absurd. She argues that since you can see The Lost Continent from WWoHP in Islands of Adventure, that it is basically a Six Flags. I do agree that Universal has some sight line issues, but that is not one of them. You can see the entrance to Tomorrowland from the entrance to Adventureland in MK... Is the MK cheap and is all sense of theme lost because of this?

And yes, both IOA and TDS were received very well from theme park fans and the general public. Too bad that IOA was promoted poorly. DCA, on the other hand, was the joke of the theme park industry.

From Tracy Bates on September 12, 2013 at 1:09 PM
Universal really seems to be on the ball in Florida. I will admit I wasn't impressed with universal studios hollywood other than the back lot tour. that was cool, but pretty much everything else in the park sucked compared to florida.

I do think disney has done OK with new fantasy land other than they've jumbled Beauty and the beast up with the little mermaid by putting them so close together.

From Alex Stephen on September 12, 2013 at 1:32 PM
I'm not usually a commenter, but I do have to rant.

Placing USF/IOA at the level of a "Holiday Inn" or "Six Flags" is completely ludicrous. Everyone has a preference over their theme parks, much in a way people have preferences on car brands, airlines, and TV stations. Why there's a need to battle between the top-tier theme park brands is beyond me. They're the BMW or Apple of their respective industries.

But they're not Six Flags. They're not Holiday Inn. They're billion dollar companies who invest hundreds of millions of dollars in single attractions that astound the entire world. They don't put up dozens of coasters. They don't attract everybody from a 50 mile radius - they attract the entire world and have the product to back it up.

Who cares who's better? This is an exciting time for theme park fans alike. Universal is building attractions at an unheard of pace and Disney is retaliating with new attractions itself.

From Rob Pastor on September 12, 2013 at 1:57 PM
Oh, the fog of pixie dust is sometimes so all consuming. Both WDW & Universal are far above the competition. That's pretty obvious to any reasonable people. And it's surely great that Universal(Comcast) plans to spend a ton of money for new attractions. Universal has a good track record for innovation & quality of attractions. And to make the kind of statement about Spiderman that one of above posters made is just ludicrous. Why do these type of comments usually come from anonymous posters? What's up with that?
From Bryce McGibeny on September 12, 2013 at 2:05 PM
Extremely well said Alex.

And the Spider-Man comment was ridiculous. The anon poster said that they didn't go on it because they can't do 3D, but then commented on the "bad condition" it was in? What.

From 108.38.116.28 on September 12, 2013 at 2:25 PM
The one element missing from Universal's resort hotels is theming. There's a story behind every Disney resort with an accompanying theme where Universal's hotels are just, well, typical resort hotels. Sure the Nickelodeon hotel has some theming with its properties but its tacky vs. themed.

Now with J.K. Rowling announcing a new movie in the Harry Potter universe why not build a Harry Potter themed hotel? The possibilities are endless.

From Robert Niles on September 12, 2013 at 3:37 PM
I love a good rant/flame war, but y'all had me at "skydive naked from a Boeing 747 over Mount Kilamanjaro." Wow.
From 216.81.81.82 on September 12, 2013 at 7:27 PM
This is great news for theme park fans all! 500 million a year from the company that brought us Spiderman, transformers and HP forbidden journey? Yes please!
From Bryce McGibeny on September 12, 2013 at 7:40 PM
Can't tell if you approve, or disapprove of my comment, Robert. Hehehe.
From O T on September 12, 2013 at 8:40 PM
@Robert You are right, renting a car is like having a root canal treatment in the VS. And driving in Florida is wildly different from driving in the Netherlands, Germany, Belgium, UK or France (places I drive/drove) but it's mostly slower so that's ok. The point I tried to make is most Europeans come much longer than 1 week. Non of them are staying for more than a week at a theme park resort. The most popular thing is renting a car in Miami and drive around the state, cross over at Orlando to Tampa and trough the Glades back to Miami. But yes, Disney is transporting heaps of guests to and from the Airport.

For the Universal bashing: IOA was build by Disney imagineers, Universal Orlando Resort is managed by a former Disney theme park manager.
On WDW bashing: Universal wouldn't try this hard when Disney wasn't so successful. And yes they are now sitting on their ass in a puddle of princesses diarrhea...

What'I'm looking forward to is how Universal Orlando and WSH are changing from a (working) movie studio theme park with no land to a movie inspired theme park with lands. I think Universal is doing a great job with Simpsons and Potter but I'm not sure about Transformers but I love the ride so it doesn't bother me.
On the other hand MK's new fantasyland is breaking the continuity of fantasyland and slamming a mish mash of themes next to each other with a European Bell theme, a tropical shore theme, a fantasy mine train theme and a circus in the wood theme. What were they smoking?

From 75.141.200.37 on September 13, 2013 at 12:40 AM
Rob, sorry, I am not really an anonymous poster but my phone does not support the login for this site.

I am neither a basher nor a supporter of Universal. Sharing our experience on the one time that we went was what I was explaining. Now, I do know that Spiderman has since had a facelift with its sound package but the time we went was disappointing. We LOVED Harry Potter and wished that Disney had something similar. Sight lines and foliage didn't come in to play. The question in the article asked whether the changes would make us visit Universal during our Disney stay. The answer for us was an emphatic, No! It isn't designed for us. I love coasters, my husband doesn't. He can ride 3D rides. I cannot- which means Transformers is off the list for me. Since one of us is usually sitting and waiting, we choose Disney's park over Universal. I will check out UH when things are finished and will take a day to go to UO when the Harry Potter expansion is complete but we will never be fans.

BTW, who cares if someone is anonymous or not? It doesn't make them any less of a fan of theme parks. Or is it because someone doesn't share your view? I love reading everyone's comments-good or bad. There is always something to learn.

From 75.141.200.37 on September 13, 2013 at 12:49 AM
One more thing from this anon poster...just to clarify. I said IIIIII don't do 3-D. My husband and son went on Spiderman. My husband has had a bromance with Peter Parker since he was a kid and was looking forward to one of the few rides that he would do. He said it was hard to hear and he was unable to follow the story because of that.

I did ride Forbidden Journey and about lost my entire lunch and was terrified of Aragog so I can say I rode it but DID NOT enjoy it. I loved the Dueling Dragons and my husband could not enjoy that. The food was great in WWofHP and we were completely immersed in the experience. Aren't we glad there is something for everyone?

From Joshua Bixler on September 13, 2013 at 6:51 AM
This makes me extremely happy. While I love both, I have always preferred Universal to Disney. Universal's more adult feel, better rides, and the inclusion of WWOHP have put it at the top of my favorite parks list.

Let's face it though: Disney is not sweating it. While I'm sure they are probably kicking themselves for being unwilling to give into J.K. Rowling's creative demands for the WWOHP, Universal's new spending plan shouldn't have them worried.

Disney is still the unrivaled king of the theme park industry. WDW's Magic Kingdom alone has more than twice the annual visitors that Universal's IOA park has. The only park that Universal has been able to beat in attendance is Disney's California Adventure, which has always had low attendance for a Disney Park. With the inclusion of Cars Land, it is possible that Universal will lose this victory as well in next year's attendance numbers.

Disney has two big things going for it that Universal does not. The first is that Disney and its parks have been around longer and have more popular characters and properties than Universal does. The second is that Disney has much more international appeal than Universal. Universal finally got a leg up with Harry Potter because it gave them a star in both of these categories. Harry Potter though is only one property. They need more than one massively wild property to even give Disney any remotely serious competition. I think NBC-Universal realizes this as Harry Potter is slowly taking over their parks. It might take it over even more when the "Fantastic Beasts" series comes to theatres.

Right now Disney doesn't really need to do anything. They are making heaps of money while NBC is spending heaps in the catch-up game. It is going to take AT LEAST 10-20 years for Universal to affect Disney at all in competition, if ever. All Disney needs to do is sit back and wait a while to see if Universal's plans pay off. If they start to pay off, Disney will still have more than enough time to dump a load of cash into their parks.

From N B on September 13, 2013 at 8:44 AM
Umm, the Universal hotels all have a theme, but not everything needs a back story. That is Disney's way of making things that are lame seem "magical".

"This ride is just a carnival spinner" .... "Yeah, but it has a back story".... "Oooh, now it's awesome".

"Hello, Universal Hard Rock hotel..."

"Um yeah... does your hotel have a back story"

"No sir, it does not..."

"Sorry, I have to stay somewhere else... click"

From 173.66.184.216 on September 13, 2013 at 9:30 AM
The only thing I would not like about Universal building more hotels is if they included the Universal Pass as the 3 currents hotels do. Too many hotel rooms getting that benefit would make it useless at a certain point.

I know that this Cabana Bay will not include that benefit. I would think that they would need to continue to build hotels that lack the universal pass benefit in order to keep that benefit at the level it currently is.

From Rob Pastor on September 13, 2013 at 11:05 AM
To Anonymous: Nothing personal pertaining to your anonymous posting, especially since it's due to your location...The reason that I made the comment concerning Anonymous posters is that it seems that nearly every time Robert Niles does an article that puts a positive spin on Universal, it seems that immediately there are a large number of anonymous negative Universal pro Disney comments. That makes me suspicious that these postings are being directed by a Disney and or affiliated group. In the normal course of articles there aren't usually many anonymous postings. Of course I have no proof of this, but it sometimes seems a lot more than coincidental.
From 108.128.161.167 on September 15, 2013 at 8:10 AM
$500 million per year? I think for a rising Universal Orlando resort it is getting strength for the partial expansions for the returns on investment. Steve Burke is a stud because he did a very smart thing to handle about the useful investments and returns for additional spending management.

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