Theme Park Insider

Art isn't sport: Why Disney fans can embrace Universal, too

June 4, 2017, 10:03 PM · More than a few Disney fans online have been expressing anger with the recent TEA/AECOM Theme Index theme park attendance report, apparently because it claimed attendance declines at all Disney theme parks in the United States, while reporting strong attendance gains at rival Universal.

Look, if you want to be a fan of Disney's theme parks and no one else's, that's fine. Same for fans of Universal, Six Flags, or any other chain. Love what you love. But here's the thing: Being a fan of a theme park isn't like being a fan of a sports team. Rooting for one park doesn't mean that you have to root against all others. Arts and entertainment aren't zero-sum games like sporting events are. A win for one does not necessarily mean a loss for another.

Sure, it does seem to work out that way sometimes. Take a look at how Universal's success in Orlando this decade has come at the expense of SeaWorld's attendance. But if you really do the math, you can see that Universal's attendance has gone up more in the past decade than SeaWorld's has gone down. Universal's success in Orlando has helped attract more people to the market. The supply of theme park fans is not limited the way that, say, NFL wins are.

The Colts moved to Indianapolis when I was in high school there, and I've rooted for them ever since. I can't imagine rooting for another team in the Colts' division, and every loss the New England Patriots suffer brings joy to my heart. (Atlanta, I feel your pain.) My wife grew up a Denver Broncos fan, and we had Broncos season tickets when we lived in Denver. When Peyton Manning signed with the Broncos, I joined many Colts fans in rooting for Denver... but only when they weren't playing Indy and when a Denver win wouldn't hurt the Colts' playoff chances. My wife, on the other hand, couldn't care less about the Colts, and the only team other than the Broncos she will cheer for is whichever team is playing the Raiders this week.

If you wanted to root for multiple teams, there's no way to avoid a situation where you end up rooting against yourself. Only one team is going to win the championship at the end of the season. Rooting for multiple teams to increase your chances of supporting the eventual champ is the way of the weasel. No one respects that.

But with theme parks? Loving what Universal did with Harry Potter in no way diminishes my love for Epcot's Impressions de France. Being blown away by the sensation of flying on Disney's Flight of Passage doesn't prevent me from adoring a ride on Volcano Bay's Krakatau Aqua Coaster. A win for Universal does not mean a loss for Disney, or vice versa. Competition, such as it is, in the theme park industry doesn't work the way that it does in the NFL.

If anything, a win by one theme park makes being a fan of another park even easier. Disney fans: Do you love Pandora? Are you looking forward to an even more amazing Star Wars land? Then you ought to be thanking Universal for what it did with The Wizarding World of Harry Potter, instead of smack-talking it.

Disney never licenses Avatar for Disney's Animal Kingdom without Universal's attendance and revenue spiking after the first Potter land opened. And Disney's board of directors probably would have gone ahead with significantly less ambitious plans for Star Wars land without Universal's Diagon Alley raising the standard for what a theme park land could be.

This goes both ways. Disney's Blizzard Beach and SeaWorld's Aquatica raised the standard for water parks in Orlando, eventually leading Universal to abandon Wet 'n Wild to build Volcano Bay. When someone gets a win in this business, everyone else wants to match it... or top it. That's great for fans of all theme parks.

The Walt Disney Company has promoted Disney as a lifestyle brand to its fans, with its theme parks providing the most intense point of contact between the brand and its loyal fans. Lifestyle brands are designed to symbolize or express an element of their fans' personality, effectively becoming part of their identity. So it becomes natural for fans to see something that reflects badly upon their beloved brand as reflecting badly upon them, personally. That's why many fans stand ready to defend their brand against any real or perceived attack.

Again, if you feel that strongly about supporting a brand... great! I love to see people finding joy in their lives, especially from theme parks. All I ask is that Disney fans consider this... that a success in another company's theme parks is not a threat to Disney, deserving of attack. The Wizarding World of Harry Potter does not hurt Disney. Justice League Battle for Metropolis does not hurt Disney. Volcano Bay does not hurt Disney. Surging attendance at Universal theme parks does not hurt Disney.

It, eventually, helps Disney. Because so long as Disney's management chooses to remain competitive in the theme park business, escalations from Universal, Six Flags, and others will spur Disney to invest and innovate even more in its parks, giving fans more to love. (And if Disney were to choose not to step up when others do, then your beef would be — and should be — with that Disney management, not with the company's competitors. Just set the Wayback Machine for 1999.)

Spending a few days at Universal Orlando to enjoy the attractions there doesn't make you any less of a Disney fan. It just makes you another person on vacation who's looking for a good time. And as Universal begins to take steps to promote itself as a lifestyle brand, the flip side holds, too. Universal fans shouldn't rule out taking a trip down I-4 to enjoy some time at Disney, either.

This isn't the NFL. It's more like Broadway, classical music, movies, or reading. Theme parks are entertainment — and at their best, a form of performing art. Sure, they're businesses, and they would love to drain every last dollar from your wallet so that you have nothing left to spend elsewhere. But, ultimately, they know that's not going to happen. The more realistic path forward is to expand the market for themed entertainment, by getting more people excited to get off their sofas and out on the road or in the air to visit a park.

So if some other company is doing that, don't attack it. Go check out what they're doing, instead. Open your mind and heart, and give it a chance. If you end up not liking it, fine. Of all the rides I've been on around the world, I've yet to go on one that someone, somewhere, didn't hate. Nothing's perfect.

But if you do discover you like something new at another park... hey, who doesn't want more enjoyment in their lives? Theme parks aren't sport teams. Disney fans can be Universal fans, too.

Replies (39)

June 4, 2017 at 11:07 PM · Was TEA/AECOM supposed to fudge their numbers, just to make these silly fans happy? How ridiculous to get angry over that.
June 5, 2017 at 12:11 AM · Well said!!

You can be both a fan of Disney and Universal

It's like asking one to choose six flags and cedar fair not either or.

Or expecting people to choose between hershey park and dollywood but not both.

Absolutely ridiculous and absurd to expect people to choose one or the other but not both!

June 5, 2017 at 12:27 AM · Here's a theory I've heard in the world of video game systems...most people can only afford one for themselves or from their parents. So most of the arguments you hear regarding my system is better than yours equates to the person defending/justifying the money they spent on that system. I think the same thing applies to theme parks as well.
June 5, 2017 at 12:47 AM · If you build it they will come. It looks Universal is building the stuff that attracts guests who normally didn't go there. The other way around, Sea World and Disney don't. It's a simple mechanism that forces theme parks to build stuff people want.
June 5, 2017 at 1:16 AM · Fanboyism is good for all of us. Painful to say that. Fanboys represent the all in customer that brings significant money to the table allowing reinvestment. They know the story, the backstory, and and all of the proposed and rejected backstories that keeps the creatives on their toes. They are the high volume Twitter/Facebook noise that escalates the competitive environment. Word of mouth sells. Twitter and Facebook fanboys drive today's word of mouth. Delivering to these fanboys actually drives business. Business allows the latest big thing.

Disney has the bigger fanboy base. Universal has the adolescent/young adult fanboys that influence buying in their market more. But Universal's market must be fed constantly. Like a good theme park ride, conflict sells.

June 5, 2017 at 1:58 AM · Well said, RN!
June 5, 2017 at 4:01 AM · Who was angry about the numbers? Where was the outcry? Certainly not the folks on this site. We may question the numbers and the calculation methods, but that's just our nature to question things - especially when some of the numbers seem a bit inflated and don't match our experiences with how the parks "feel" when we are in them.

As for DvU, most of us TPI regulars have been ready with equal parts praise and criticism for both brands for years. We're quick to love them when they do something right (Hogwarts, Cars Land, Gringotts, Pandora) and blast them when they struggle (Fastpass+, New Fantasyland, broken Yeti, Fallon, Tapu Tapu, upcharging guests $55 to ride a train). We're a critical bunch, yeah, but that's only because we care.

On the other hand, I am a little miffed that SeaWorld keeps getting blasted, especially since they are the only Orlando based park still building big boy roller coasters. We need to rally around this beleaguered brand, not pile on.

June 5, 2017 at 4:24 AM · Mr. Niles is correct on all points; I would emphasize the point that the market will grow for the theme parks.

Over the next 40-50 years, Florida's population will grow by roughly 50%; the entire Southeast Coast (up to Virginia/Maryland) will see similar gains.

If you put all of that into context (along with foreign visitors now making Orlando the #1 tourist city in America, even above New York City), it means that there will certainly be a large enough tourist base to support all of the theme parks/attractions in Orlando, whether Disney, Universal, SeaWorld, or others.

Now that Universal has a corporate parent willing to spend to at least attempt to take a larger share of the future market that will exist over the next few decades, this is a great time to be a theme park fan.

@James Rao; I think SeaWorld will eventually be fine, but most likely it will need help through a merger/sale to a corporation/conglomerate willing to give it the financial power to get past debt issues.

June 5, 2017 at 5:00 AM · Very well written article. I didn't really see the complaints anywhere, but I bet they were there!

As for the numbers, this day was eventually going to come. There are only so many people with so much money in the world that can visit a Disney park. Sooner or later, the increase was going to stop. Sure Disney slipped, but it still is head and shoulders above the next resort's (Universal) numbers.

Robert wrote a very interesting business piece a few months ago with what is Seaworld's problem. The issue at hand is that Universal went all in with new lands and became the "second choice" for the Disney fans that want to take a break from a day at Disney. That is where the meat of the story is!

In the end, Harry Potter, Avatar, New Fantasyland, Star Wars Land,etc are made by the exact same people (Imagineers/creative)

June 5, 2017 at 6:40 AM · The same argument can be (and has frequently been) made in a plethora of other realms, such as DC vs Marvel, PC vs Console, Star Wars vs Star Trek, Apple vs Android, etc. The idea that you can only be a fan of one competitor is ludicrous. And yet, that idea still seems to be pervasive. An argument like this shouldn't ever have to be made, but since it is, I'm happy to see it made so intelligently and clearly. Well done.
June 5, 2017 at 6:50 AM · "Lifestyle brand?" Popular culture preferences are a lifestyle now? It's a bit scary when people begin to identify themselves by their entertainment choices instead of their personal accomplishments. Interests are great, but at the "lifestyle" level, it's a brag about disposable income.
June 5, 2017 at 6:55 AM · You clueless losers must have forgotten to put on your tinfoil hats this morning! Of course this is a conspiracy! Universal probably paid the Russians to hack the TEA/AECOM database and make it look like Disney has slipped in attendance while Universal's attendance went up. Get real!

Who in the world would want to go to a park where the castle is named after a viral growth on a pig's butt? C'mon, Disney is magical! Universal is just meh! Disney represents the American dream while Universal is the dream you have when you eat the bean burrito with extra chilis right before going to bed. No comparison whatsoever!

Jeez! It looks like the whole lot of you got brain damage from too many rides on the Incredible Hulk coaster!

June 5, 2017 at 7:13 AM · Great article! Thank you.
June 5, 2017 at 7:21 AM · I didn't read one single comment expressing anger or frustration.

I saw/read several blog sites that promoted the numbers as fact without any qualifier as to data collection. I even saw/read several blog sites that clearly stated in their post the numbers are factual without offering factual data.

TEA/AECOM, the organization that released the estimates, itself highlighted the numbers as, at best, a guesstimate.

And, the numbers were not a Disney vs Universal contest. Again, they were just a guesstimate.

June 5, 2017 at 8:11 AM · Let's be honest: it's not about attendance numbers that puts one park above the other, it's about PROFITS. While the attendance gap has closed slightly between Disney and Universal, Disney is chasing a more upscale clientele with all their Deluxe resorts, fancy dining, and new upcharge events. So while the number of people who attend Disney may be down, the amount of money that each of those people spend is rising, thus increasing profits. That is what makes Disney the big winner.
June 5, 2017 at 8:24 AM · I blame other Disney fan sites and social media influencers, who prattled on and on last year that "people didn't like Kong" and that Potter at USH was "underperforming." Then, when IOA and USH showed big increases last year even as Disney parks declined, the fans of those sites complained that the TEA numbers must be fudged. After all, Universal's additions being wildly popular wasn't the story they'd been told for the past year.

Oh, and TwoBits, Universal's profits are rising, too. They're BOTH winning.

June 5, 2017 at 8:28 AM · I agree James, seems like piling on SeaWorld attractions when in fact they are still a grade or 2 higher than anyone other than Universal or Disney, but have a fraction of their budget. They also have an attraction cycle every 2/3 years and quite frankly their event programs are really fun and easy. I think you have to look at the parks from an out of town visitor and a regional A&E dollar. SeaWorld in my opinion has turned into a value regional park (Tampa/Orlando). I personally avoid Disney because the attractions are in my opinion very dated and stale (others call it "classic"),the crowds and the $ (am I really going to go with a group of friends to long-lined food events at Disney and spend $100 plus per? ). You just don't pop in as a local anymore to Disney parks in Orlando - you only go because out-of towners or a big new attraction has been open for a year or more, which has been far and few between in the last decade. Universal however, is a bit easier to visit and enjoy for a few hours, adds significant attractions, centrally located and competes very well for local $. Locals are going to be a lot more selective on A&E $ (it is a zero sum game) and this is where SeaWorld is losing (to Universal), whereas, the Disney mass is about to lose its monopoly with both Universal and Disney being full vacations unto themselves, thus the rising tide of one may not necessarily help the other anymore.
June 5, 2017 at 8:39 AM · HERE, HERE! I've never understood the fan base who blindly follow one brand or another (except when it comes to Coke and pepsi).
Every step forward one brand takes is encouragement to the others to do the same. We all win. Why do some Mouseheads feel so compelled to poo-poo and belittle the success of others. No matter how big and successful the UO Theme Parks become, there really is no way to ever dethrone the Disney Theme Park machine, Universal just offers another place to go for outstanding entertainment. Anyone who can't see past that is shortsighted and missing out.
June 5, 2017 at 9:10 AM · This should also shut down the argument that Universal is mistaken to do mostly screen attractions. Both Universal and Disney are winning by doing their strengths.

I'm now reading at other sites that Guardians Mission Breakout isn't art in comparison to Twilight Zone Tower of Terror. Even when it's in your face, there's the constant denial of new ground being broken for even I didn't predict the success of Guardians of the Galaxy.

The only real fear is SeaWorld for they seemed to misjudge their new submarine attraction and the Orca Encounter show. Oh well.

June 5, 2017 at 9:32 AM · There is only one person I know who legitimately gets upset annually over THese numbers... and ultimately dismisses them as complete nonsense when they contradict his / her narrow minded, fanatical opinions. I look forward to THese rants every year since Potter came to town.
June 5, 2017 at 10:05 AM · Now, now-- we don't need to point fingers and try and troll other TPI commentators.

Meanwhile, thank you again Robert for always being a level-headed theme park writer. You're very right. I liked your sports comparison and how that competition isn't the same within the entertainment industry.

June 5, 2017 at 10:09 AM · I honestly dislike it when we get into name calling. The point of the article is very well taken. A win for one park is a win for all. Anything that pushes the medium forward (and that is an intentionally choice of words) is a win for all. Without the success of Disneyland there never would have been a Six Flags Over Texas, and so on until the Star Wars land opens and the other parks push the fun even further into the future.
June 5, 2017 at 10:36 AM · " Now, now-- we don't need to point fingers and try and troll other TPI commentators." - I agree, except one of THe writers for this page publicly referred to one of the commenters as an "idiot".
June 5, 2017 at 12:03 PM · I do not want any theme parks to fail or loose attendance. I was just kinda confused how DHS, a park that did nothing but remove attractions last year, could possibly increase in attendance.
June 5, 2017 at 1:41 PM · Thank you, Robert for this text! I'm really sick of this "Theme Park War" in the comments section. I love both Disney and Universal, and I wanna see SeaWorld getting better. And I agree that this competition just benefits us, the customers.
June 5, 2017 at 2:22 PM · Disney is a family friendly park. Universal is one that attracts a more edgier crowd as onie Universal employee told me.

So if you're into being forced to pay more money to try and get on the rides you really want, and then have the parks close at 6 PM Universal is for you.

June 5, 2017 at 2:26 PM · Jaiden, it is easy to me. While it should not happen, the reality is that the vast majority of vacationers simply are not that knowledgeable of what is happening, or it does not matter to them. Disney has gotten to the point that for many families, it is the ultimate vacation. Many see it as a once in a lifetime trip with their kids. I never went as a child. It was not until I could take myself that I went, now my family are regular theme park visitors all over the place. So when a coworker who is a huge Harry Potter fan was going to Orlando, they had no idea of the park hopper requirement for the Express and the fact that it was located in two different parks. Many families save up for a huge trip to Orlando not fully knowing what it all entails. That is why it kind of peeves me when the parks have systems in place that do not benefit the guests (FP+, parking surcharges, etc.). Anything that takes away from the fun should be excised, but those that do go should really be encouraged to pick the best time or seek advice.
June 5, 2017 at 3:48 PM · Actually, some of the responses here have made me realize that I need to do another purge of the accounts I'm following on Twitter. I'm reading too much bad stuff. :^)
June 5, 2017 at 10:32 PM · In the case of sports vs. theme parks, yes you make like the rides that Universal has to a point where you don't care about anything else and will go to both Universal and Disney regardless. That's really my opinion on the matter as well, however there are those who would prefer Disney and always will prefer Disney over Universal and it could be based on a number of reasons(ex. service of the staff, cleanliness of the park, variety of attractions, types of attractions, etc.) and depending on which company takes care of most of those reasons, some patrons will prefer to strictly visit one company's theme parks over another. Those who stand strongly against Sea World's Orca captivity issues may never set foot in a Sea World/Busch Gardens park ever. Some teens may refuse to visit Disney because they may feel its too kiddie for them. Some elderly folks might only visit Disney because of Epcot. It's anyone's game as far as the reasons behind why they might want one over the other as well as there are still a ton of people who don't care and go to a theme park to just go to a theme park as something fun to do. If people want to praise one company and at the same time express their dislike for another, who cares, as long as everyone is happy with their own choice.
June 5, 2017 at 10:45 PM · RE: James Rao

Regarding your comment about why Seaworld Orlando still keeps getting blasted.

Orlando is not about the big boy roller coasters unfortunately, roller coasters are primarily the domain of Six Flags and Cedar Fair.

Orlando about immersive escapes from reality, high quality dark rides, fireworks, parades, character interactions and of course the resort experience, all areas which Seaworld is severely lacking.

June 6, 2017 at 4:40 AM · Now that I'm thinking about it, I kinda realize why the attendance for DHS is still over 10million. The country thinks Star Wars is already open. My uncle was planning a trip to Disney and asked me if he should see Star Wars or Avatar. I told him Avatar because the current extent of Star Wars right now is just a nice gift shop.
June 6, 2017 at 5:31 AM · Great article, Robert!
June 6, 2017 at 7:41 AM · To be fair to the ardent fans (of either Disney or Universal,) aside from their being an "us versus them" mentality built into the human psyche, the lifestyle brands themselves promote this. Disney (obviously,) got their first. There's a fascinating study from Georgetown where they talk all about this phenomenon--how an ardent fan can't change brand loyalty despite empirical evidence that the brand isn't "the best."

June 6, 2017 at 8:16 AM · "Orlando is not about the big boy roller coasters unfortunately, roller coasters are primarily the domain of Six Flags and Cedar Fair."

That's true Yeowser, but the closest Six Flags or Cedar Fair to Orlando is in Atlanta, GA. Between SW and BGT, the chain has 7 or 8 of the 10 best roller coasters in Florida. Sea World Parks needs to highlight that and start really targeting that audience. They need to realize that with the marginalization of Shamu, they cannot compete directly with Universal and Disney, and instead need to go hard after thrill seekers. They have the hardware to do it.

June 6, 2017 at 9:29 AM · James Rao said: On the other hand, I am a little miffed that SeaWorld keeps getting blasted, especially since they are the only Orlando based park still building big boy roller coasters.

This is THEME park insider, not amusement park insider. If you want unthemed and uninteresting "big boy" coasters, this isn't the place to lobby for them.

I have my theme park criticisms, but would take any theme park head and shoulders above any dumb old amusement park ride.

June 6, 2017 at 10:46 AM · That's really short sighted DBCooper. I don't think there's any doubt that Sea World is a legitimate THEME PARK. It has a very distinct theme with attractions that fit within it. Just because their roller coasters do not have themeing elements along every linear foot of track does not discount the entire park from being categorized as a theme park. SW and BGT have some of the most intricately themed large roller coasters in the world and are head and shoulders above many local amusement parks where coaster themeing is limited to a sign and maybe a statue at the ride entrance (even that some would argue is enough to constitute a theme elevating above a nondescript roller coaster like the Coney Island Cyclone).

SW's three "big boy" coasters blow the pants off anything at WDW, especially DHS's lamely themed Rock 'n Rollercoaster and its black light highway signage. I think you need to ride It's A Small World a few dozen more times to re-calibrate your perception of reality DBCooper. Meanwhile, I'll go ride what is STILL the only trackless dark ride in Florida that transports me to a very convincing replica of a continent nearly 10,000 miles away.

June 6, 2017 at 6:29 PM · Thanks, Russell. I have nothing further to add.
June 6, 2017 at 8:53 PM · I've never really understood the way that fans put their foot down and refuse to even consider the fact that both places could be great. I want all the parks to do well and kept stretching creative boundaries, and that's more likely to happen if Disney and Universal (plus others) are working at the highest level. I think we're heading in that direction.
June 6, 2017 at 9:41 PM · Coming in late but really, I'm a Disney nut, been to Disney World about 30 times in my life. But last time I was there (2012), I worked in Universal too and also loved it. I didn't feel I was "betraying" Disney by going to Universal and was able to enjoy both parks equally. Really seems silly to be in this "you HAVE to like one or the other" when both sides offer a fun experience.

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