Theme Park Insider

Will Disneyland's 61st Year Bring its Greatest Challenge Yet?

July 6, 2015, 3:28 PM · In my Orange County Register column this week, I look at the increased competition that Disneyland will face from Universal next year: Universal casts its own magic with Harry Potter to take on Disneyland.

In the column, I look at the effect upon attendance that the Wizarding World of Harry Potter has had in Orlando and Tokyo and crunch the Southern California theme park numbers to suggest that Universal Studios Hollywood could catch Disney California Adventure in annual attendance by the end of 2016, unless Disney offers a response beyond the current 60th anniversary offerings.

The Wizarding World of Harry Potter, under construction at Universal Studios Hollywood
The Wizarding World of Harry Potter, under construction at Universal Studios Hollywood

But what's good for Universal doesn't have to be bad for Disney. If Potter brings more tourists to Southern California, that influx almost certainly will help Disney, too. The companies have coexisted well in the past in Southern California.

Disney and Universal weren't always adversaries, said Sam Gennawey, a Los Angeles author who wrote Universal versus Disney: The Unofficial Guide to American Theme Parks' Greatest Rivalry.

"Disneyland and the Universal Studios Tour started out as complementary entertainment activities. Disneyland was the ultimate world of fantasy where you become a player in the show. Universal was set in an authentic working studio with guests experiencing the world's greatest industrial tour with attractions designed to scare you into laughter," Gennawey said.

"That changed in the 1980's when Universal wanted to export their formula to Florida [for Universal Orlando] and new leadership at Disney fiercely resisted. Jay Stein at Universal fought back and modified his plans to beat Disney at their own game. It took 25 years but it seems to be working. Now that formula is being applied right here in LA."

Disney, of course, tried to secure the theme park rights to the Harry Potter franchise but lost them to Universal in what Tony Baxter, the former senior vice president of creative development for Walt Disney Imagineering, called the company's "biggest misstep."

"There are people who have come of age between 2000 and now for whom the world of Harry Potter was incredibly influential," Baxter told me in a 2013 interview. "In the end, what [Universal has] done is link that park with one of the major demographics that go to theme parks today."

Disneyland has spent 60 years working to make its name synonymous with magic. But next year will bring a new brand of magic to town. If Disneyland wants its 61st year to be as successful as its first 60, it will need to cast a new spell or two to match the ones it will soon face from Universal and Harry Potter.

Replies (24)

July 6, 2015 at 4:21 PM · My family grew up going to Disney World regularly, but started gravitating toward Universal even before Potter got there. The years since have made us loyal Universal fans, with Disney World being an every three or four years thing now. (And that's with most of my family living in Tampa now!) We go to Uni 4-5 times a year.

That being said, everything I've read has suggested that Disneyland Resort is light years beyond Disney World these days, and seems to have more attractions in two parks than WDW has in four. If I were to visit California, I'd probably check out Uni just to see the backlot tour, but my first theme park priority would be Disneyland Resort. Seems like it has all of the qualities we miss about old school WDW and then some.

July 6, 2015 at 4:21 PM · Considering how big the crowds were for Fast & Furious, the prospect of how big crowds will be when Harry Potter opens frightens me.

Hey, Disney, you wanna draw the crowds towards Disneyland instead of Universal Hollywood? Two tips:

1. Star Wars

2. Marvel

Make it happen!

July 6, 2015 at 4:34 PM · I still am not sold on Harry Potter in Universal Hollywood.

It is a WAY different game between USO and USH just like it is a different game between DLR and WDW.

I liked USH, but that was because it was an actual movie studio. Outside of Waterworld, it is a weaker copy of USO.

July 6, 2015 at 4:53 PM · It will be very interesting to see how Potter affects SoCal tourism. FFSupercharged already seems to have impacted Universals attendance.
The biggest difference imo between SoCal and Orlando is distances. Universal is an hour away from disneyland, and 3 hours away from Sea World/Legoland/zoo San Diego. In Orlando potter has wreaked havoc on Sea World and it will be interesting to see if it had a similar affect in San Diego.
Also in SoCal locals make up a much larger part of attendance than orlando, something that all the parks benefit from.
July 6, 2015 at 5:56 PM · Disney is useless for a family like mine...all teenagers. We tried Disney when my kids were younger. It costs us the same amount for a one day ticket to magic kingdom as it did for three days at universal and islands (before Harry Potter). My kids and I hated Disney. We've been a universal and islands family ever since. We're also a huge Harry Potter family. If Disney had won the rights to Harry Potter I would have been furious. If we visit California (from New York, I don't know if that makes sense for us, but if we did) we would never go to Disneyland. Nothing will compare to universal and islands...and given that universal in California doesn't have onsite hotels like Florida does, I highly doubt it would make sense for us to give up the Hard Rock hotel and universal and islands of adventure for just one little section in California.
July 6, 2015 at 6:03 PM · There was no reason to hang out at Universal Studios Hollywood before and soon there will be. Every Harry Potter fan will linger for hours. This will definitely impact park capacity. Annual Passes will skyrocket. This is another reason more people that live above the 10 freeway will choose Universal instead of Disney. I love the new competition. Disney will have to respond so the parks will get better fast.
July 6, 2015 at 6:33 PM · USH already feels like a completely different park than what it was just two years ago. As Anon said, it wasn't a place where you felt like hanging out. Today, with Springfield and new plaza... it is. Add Hogsmeade and it will become addictive for many local fans.

The Wizarding World West isn't designed to appeal to visitors who might otherwise go to Universal Orlando. It's designed for locals and LA-area visitors who don't have Orlando on their radar. And there are enough of them to keep USH filled for a very long time.

July 6, 2015 at 6:49 PM · The next 3 years are going to be crazy for the U.S. Theme Park industry. I think every one is getting ready for the longest ping-pong volley in theme park history beginning with D23 next month. A $3billion strong serve from Disney, or nothing but air and meet-n-greets for the next 2 years.

I'm still not sure if Uni will pull attendance from DLR. Some may have an experience similar to me -- after visiting Hogwarts for the first time, I quickly questioned why I was paying Disney $500/yr. But, the Pixie Dust in LA is very strong.

I have a feeling there is a "post-princess" teen market waiting to be tapped. Disinterested in Six Flags but too old or too cool for Disneyland. I'm sure Uni will have a huge boost in attendance, but I'm not sure how many of the new visitors have already tossed their Disney AP.

July 6, 2015 at 6:49 PM · The next 3 years are going to be crazy for the U.S. Theme Park industry. I think every one is getting ready for the longest ping-pong volley in theme park history beginning with D23 next month. A $3billion strong serve from Disney, or nothing but air and meet-n-greets for the next 2 years.

I'm still not sure if Uni will pull attendance from DLR. Some may have an experience similar to me -- after visiting Hogwarts for the first time, I quickly questioned why I was paying Disney $500/yr. But, the Pixie Dust in LA is very strong.

I have a feeling there is a "post-princess" teen market waiting to be tapped. Disinterested in Six Flags but too old or too cool for Disneyland. I'm sure Uni will have a huge boost in attendance, but I'm not sure how many of the new visitors have already tossed their Disney AP.

July 6, 2015 at 7:38 PM · I don't know that USH will draw away loyal Disney fans, but I have a feeling those on the fence about retaining their Disneyland pass may switch to USH next year. No, USH doesn't offer as much as Disneyland does, but when you're paying approximately $200 for USH or around $800 for Disneyland the former option looks a lot more appealing. Add in the fact that USH will finally be worthy of a full day once Wizarding World of Harry Potter opens and I think many will start considering it a viable alternative to Disneyland.

For day visitors, I don't think Disneyland's attendance will drop significantly but I do think growth will be pretty much negligible until the next expansion occurs. Disneyland is at the point where they need to improve the experience in order to keep raising prices without losing visitors. On the other hand, I predict a huge attendance increase at USH. We probably won't see the craziness that occurred in Florida, but I do think a growth of 20% is a safe bet for 2016.

July 6, 2015 at 8:26 PM · I may be in a minority here; but I actually think 'Harry Potter' will have an even greater impact on Disneyland than it did on WDW. My reasoning for this is that WDW attracts a much larger international market. Most of the families that come to Orlando; especially from outside the U.S. come with one main itinerary...and that's to visit WDW. In the past if families had any time, money and energy left after WDW they might throw in a token day for Universal. SeaWorld or Busch Gardens. I can say that from experience because that's what my family would do. But with all the improvements to Universal and the arrival of 'Potter' on the scene that has changed the game completely...even for our family. So for Disneyland which relies more on a local market for attendance I really think the impact of the arrival of 'Harry Potter' will hit Disneyland harder than WDW. Other than 'Carsland' the southern California themepark visitor hasn't seen anything with the appeal, quality and total immersion that 'Potter' will offer and I truly believe it's going to raise some eye-brows...even from the die-hard Disney fan base. As someone else commented and I agree I think the attendance at Universal will really boom while the attendance at Disneyland Resort will just flatline where it's at until Disney decides to respond. As a themepark fan and lifelong Disney fan I can only hope and pray that it will force Disney management to finally get off their rear ends and offer something awesome and innovative for their fans. New Tomorrowland...new Star Wars land...something. Which ultimately would be wonderful for us all. I hope, I hope!!!
July 6, 2015 at 10:29 PM · Potter won't have much of an effect on DLR's numbers, but I'd be nervous if I were Sea World. What does Sea World have on the horizon? A bigger tank for Shamu? That's not going to bring in any visitors. Sea World is the Kodak of theme parks living in the past while in a slow death spiral.
July 6, 2015 at 10:30 PM · There is no way that USH will catch up with Disneyland in the near future. Universal Orlando's attendance is still far behind WDW's, even with their attendance boost as a result of both Potter lands.

USH will gain some ground, of course, especially with nothing in the pipeline at DLR. Of course, any strong attendance boost at DLR, with no new capacity, would be a crowd control nightmare.

July 7, 2015 at 1:59 AM · Universal has already made me a passholder for life with bringing Nintendo to the parks next.
Bringing characters more well known then Mickey Mouse will be a huge boon to Universal.
July 7, 2015 at 5:47 AM · I think the California expansion only helps Disney, but they will lose some attendance, but regardless, the California scene is dominated by both venues lack of real estate, and many people go to Disney for more than attractions. That being said, I think Disney is about to make a second big mistake: not making Star Wars its own dedicated park but just a corner of DHS in Orlando. Harry Potter is great, and I looooove it, but where will it be 25 years from now? Star Wars will always have rabid fans. To relegate it to a corner of a park that already is overcrowded is a huge misunderstanding of the popularity of that IP. Also, Universal has shown that Disney has been riding on its laurels since about 2000, and it is time for the park management to wake up and remember what matters is for the customer to be the most important factor in every equation, something they may have forgotten somewhat.
July 7, 2015 at 6:12 AM · USH will effect DLR, but it won't be a major dent until USH expands to include Diagon Alley... then USH will be a 2 day park and THAT will effect DLR. They know that and that's why there SLOWWWW moving plans are amping up. Should be a good time for theme park fans... in five years both parks should be significantly improved.

Also... I would totally go to SeaWorld if the killer whales (and other sea animals) had larger, more natural tanks and observation points (and did away with their stupid firework animal circus dog trick shows).

July 7, 2015 at 10:38 AM · Universal did the smart/necessary thing, and stopped selling its annual passes which would be valid past March 2016 this past March. They also risked the ire of their annual passholder community by no longer selling the parking add-on for their passes (Disneyland has constantly raised their annual pass prices and phased out parking add-ons and the Southern California pass for NEW purchases, but Universal stopped allowing existing passholders to renew their no-blockout passes or their parking add-ons, as well as new purchases). It was a smart move, if a little risky in terms of alienating their passholder base, because these steps will be necessary to prevent overcrowding once Harry Potter opens next spring.

All the same, I think the biggest challenge for Universal in 2016 is the relatively small size of the park. Universal Studios Hollywood is just too small to accommodate large crowds like other parks in greater Los Angeles like Disneyland, DCA, or Knott's Berry Farm. Not only are there only about a dozen total rides and shows (Jurassic Park, Mummy, Transformers, Simpsons, Despicable Me, Studio Tram Tour, Waterworld show, Shrek 4D, animal show, special effects show), there isn't as much physical space to accommodate those crowds.

Once the huge crowds descend on Universal in late spring or summer for the opening of Harry Potter, I expect the park will have huge challenges with managing the crowds, in terms of parking, entry, and distribution of crowds. They might even have to go with a limited number of advance tickets sold for each date, with reserving a certain number for walkup sales on the same day.

July 7, 2015 at 10:58 AM · @162.192, "To relegate it to a corner of a park that already is overcrowded is a huge misunderstanding of the popularity of that IP."

By the time they are finished with Star Wars, it will be one-thirds of the DHS park, not a mere corner. Star Wars is not big enough to be a full park. It still needs to have other IPs to fill out the park so DHS is a good fit for Star Wars. If you're not convinced, look at all the rides closing in DHS. Also, the former studio backlot tour areas will be opened for expansion. This is where Pixar is going and it will be another one-third of the park.

Disney World's four parks are in the state of deterioration. There are enough upgrading to keep them busy. Plus, attendance capacity has not reached their full potential for a long time. Animal Kingdom and DHS were half day parks for almost forever. They don't need to add a fifth park anything soon. Increase attendance to be at parity with the Magic Kingdom. They can increase attendance an extra third with their remaining 3 parks.

On the other hand, Universal can benefit from a third park because they are pretty much built out. There are some additional land on the south east corner. I haven't heard what they will do with this land.

July 7, 2015 at 12:10 PM · I know this may be a crazy idea, but is it possible that USH thee park expands it's footprint by closing down more of the actual studio (e.g. sound stages, office buildings, bungalows, etc.)? I'm not sure of the actual economics, but I am wondering what is ultimately more valuable to the bottom line of Universal-- the space for making the movies or the theme park lands. In the not too distant future I could see them bulldozing some of the existing working studio to make way for Diagon Alley/Ministry of Magic or other new lands and attractions if it made economic sense.
July 7, 2015 at 1:14 PM · I'm thinking that instead of stepping up its game, Disneyland Resort will gladly lose some business to Universal Studios Hollywood. In fact, I wouldn't be surprised if there isn't any Star Wars or Marvel expansion there for awhile. My guess is that year 61 will be spent researching how to reduce crowd levels short of ending the AP program or modifying the Magic Band for DLR use.
July 7, 2015 at 7:26 PM · Universal Florida is building a new water park, looks to be very good!
July 7, 2015 at 8:16 PM · Anon, I am sorry, but I have to disagree. The other three Disney Orlando parks already enjoy massive crowds. They are not Magic Kingdom levels, but they are still high. They certainly enjoy as many people as Universal. The problem is Disney made some missteps with crowd management. I do not see the armbands shortening wait time, and, for better or worse, they refuse to go the surcharge route that Universal has in front of the line access. That means when and if they shoehorn Star Wars into DHS, it will be next to impossible to ride anything in there. The Star Wars IP will be on a level of demand never before seen, and I do not think the crowds can be managed. Universal has shown them how to respect an IP, and I think the only way that happens is with a dedicated park. I will agree with you on another point, they need to spruce up the other parks. I will also say that Animal Kingdom may be my favorite, and our family easily gets two full days in that park each visit. We would spend more time at DHS, but the lines are simply too long. At best, we get Aerosmith, Twilight Zone, and Star Wars each once, and cannot ride Toy Story due to crowd levels. I am afraid of what will happen when Cars Land and Star Wars are added. If they decide to add it all into DHS, then I think it is imperative they make a fifth park to add Mystic Manor, Center of the Earth, and many more to better manage the massive influx of people they will get.
July 8, 2015 at 12:51 AM · Star Wars, or any other IP for that matter should not be it's own park. That is putting way to much limitation on the themes and stories that a park can be about. If Star Wars Land is a hit, the answer is not building it's own park, but instead build another land in another park or resort. Universal already blazed that trail with Hogsmeade/Diagon Alley and it works beautifully.
July 9, 2015 at 7:26 AM · I'm feeling a little curious...what would you guys think if Harry Potter doesn't boost up USH's attendance? I'm not saying that will happen, if anything, it will be the exact opposite, but what will you guys think if it doesn't boost attendance? And more importantly, how will it affect the theme park industry?

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