Universal 'doubling down' on theme park investments, while Disney shrugs
Published: January 8, 2014 at 11:37 AM
"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," Comcast Chairman and CEO Brian Roberts told analysts in Las Vegas this week. Comcast owns NBCUniversal, the parent company of the Universal theme parks. NBCUniversal CEO Steve Burke (a former Disney executive) previously declared Universal's intention to build up to 12,000 additional hotel rooms at Universal Orlando, while investing half a billion dollars a year in its theme parks worldwide.
Diagon Alley, under construction at Universal Studios Florida. Photo submitted by Michael B.
Universal Orlando will open its new 1,800-room Cabana Bay Beach resort hotel later this spring and a second Harry Potter land, The Wizarding World of Harry Potter - Diagon Alley, at Universal Studios Florida, likely in June. Universal Studios Hollywood is working on a billion-dollar-plus "Evolution" makeover of its property, with a new Despicable Me-themed land opening this spring (likely April) and a Wizarding World of Harry Potter also under construction. The Wizarding World will debut at Universal Studios Japan later this year, and a Universal theme park is proceeding toward construction in China, too.
Disney's reaction? To "no comment" to the Orlando Sentinel, when it asked about Roberts' comments. And Disney continues to keep its plans for new Star Wars-themed lands at Disneyland and Disney's Hollywood Studios in Florida on the shelf, according to one online report.
Outside the CEO suite and the PR offices, many Disney cast members are eager to fight back against Universal's efforts. Disney Imagineering Chief Creative Executive Bruce Vaughn said "bring it on" when asked at last year's D23 convention about competing with Universal. Imagineering teased its Star Wars lands at that gathering, and Disney's attraction designers have developed plans for a wide variety of themed attractions to match Universal's new developments.
But Disney's executives haven't yet given their approval to proceed, as the company diverts budget allocations toward making its MyMagic+ initiative work at the Walt Disney World Resort.
Disney's beaten every competitor that's stepped up to fight it since Disneyland opened in 1955, from Six Flags in the 1960s and 70s to Universal today. But those victories have come from great effort. No competitor yet has spent the money that Universal's now devoting to taking Disney's theme park market share. Will a new reservation system for the same old rides continue to allow Disney to protect its market share in Orlando and beyond? Or, at some point, will Disney's executives need to open the budget and spend the money to develop its Star Wars, Marvel and other theme park plans? Theme park visitors will answer those questions by where they spend their money in the year ahead.