10 ways Disney would have been different without Universal Orlando

September 17, 2018, 12:41 PM · A reader recently asked a provocative "what if?" What would Walt Disney World look like today if Universal Orlando never had been built?

Like many questions about alternative history, this one is — at its heart — absurd. Universal did build a massive themed resort in Orlando, as the result of a long series of decisions and developments, some of which were inevitably given the company's growth in the industry. But what if Jay Stein decides in the 1980s to go open a chain of pizza restaurants or something ridiculous like that? And Tom Williams decides that he really likes managing national parks instead of sticking with MCA/Universal when it gets out of that business? Just for the heck of it, let's consider the notion that, somehow, Universal never committed to Orlando. What happens with Disney then?

1. Disney would not have developed Disney-MGM Studios, which means we might not have Disney's Hollywood Studios today.

No matter what anyone at Disney today might suggest, the only reason that Michael Eisner went all in on developing the studios theme park at Disney World was because he wanted to beat Universal Studios to the Florida market. If Universal isn't building in Orlando, there's no reason for Disney to go ahead with what became its third gate. Likely, the development would have remained in its original form, which was an Epcot Future World pavilion themed to the entertainment industry, and specifically to the Walt Disney Studios and its IP.

Now that we've started down the rabbit hole, let's jump forward and recognize that if there's no Universal Orlando, that means Disney's biggest rival doesn't open The Wizarding World of Harry Potter in 2010 and Diagon Alley in 2014, either. Which means...

2. New Fantasyland doesn't happen.

Again, Disney has been reacting to Universal in Orlando for more than 30 years, despite what any Disney fans might say. Disney developed its New Fantasyland, with the Seven Dwarfs Mine Train, Little Mermaid ride, and Be Our Guest, as a reaction to the original Wizarding World land. Without it, there's no reason for Disney to do anything other than ordinary, incremental improvements to the Magic Kingdom. In addition...

3. Star Wars land remains in its original form as a Tomorrowland overlay based on the original trilogy.

The reason that fans are getting Galaxy's Edge instead of Star Wars Land v1.0 was because Diagon Alley convinced Walt Disney Imagineering and Disney corporate management that their original draft of a Star Wars-themed re-do of Tomorrowland was going to look cheap and uninspired next to Universal's work.

But, wait a moment here, let's back up a second. If Universal doesn't build the Wizarding World, doesn't that mean...?

4. Disney likely gets the theme park rights to Harry Potter

Which means that Tony Baxter doesn't have to go bang his head against a wall every few weeks, bemoaning the loss of a generation-defining IP. Disney gets to build its version of Hogsmeade village, which it developed when it was bidding for the rights to J.K. Rowling's creation.

And not only that, because Universal didn't develop its Orlando project in our alternative history, that means it did not need to negotiate for additional IP to fill it, which means that, in all likelihood...

5. Disney has the unrestricted theme park rights to Marvel.

Now this one can head in another direction, too. Without an infusion of cash from Universal in the late 1990s and the popularity of The Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man endearing that franchise to a new generation of fans, it's also possible that Marvel would have been in much weaker condition in the early 2000s, before Disney bought it and launched the MCU. Could Warner Bros. have bought a weakened Marvel and folded it together with DC? Could Sony or another studio gotten ahold of it? Lots of questions here, but let's just ignore them and assume that Disney ultimately gets its hand on the Marvel rights, without restriction. Now where does Disney build its Potter and Marvel attractions?

6. Walt Disney World's fourth park follows Disney's Animal Kingdom in the late 2000s, based on Potter and its Marvel franchises.

So even in this alternative timeline, the Walt Disney World Resort has four theme parks at this point, anyway. It's just not Disney's Hollywood Studios. It's Disney's Islands of Adventure, instead.

Now let's broaden our view beyond Walt Disney World and consider how the absence of Universal from the Orlando market might have affected others.

7. SeaWorld remains the number two destination in Orlando market, with higher attendance.

Without Universal to pull visitors away from it, and especially without Potter crippling it starting in 2010, SeaWorld Orlando likely continues to grow its attendance in the 21st century. With higher attendance and likely income, perhaps the SeaWorld theme parks are not so quickly dismissed by InBev when the Belgian conglomerate takes over Anheuser-Busch in the late 2000s, allowing A-B management to hold on to the parks. Or, at least, SeaWorld's relative strength allows InBev to sell the parks to a more aggressive owner that isn't facing pressure from Universal and doesn't allow the chain to descend into its current, decade-long slide. (Oh, and one more thing: If A-B still owns the SeaWorld parks in 2014 and threatens to pull its beer advertising from WarnerMedia channels, no one has ever heard of Blackfish.)

8. Even with Disney's eventual expansion to four parks, Orlando doesn't attract as many visitors without Universal.

With Potter and Marvel in hand, Disney might have higher attendance in our alternative 2018 than it does today (can you imagine the wait times? Yikes!), but there's no way that Orlando overall is drawing as many visitors, which means less development throughout the region. Not only that...

9. Orlando has less of a leadership role in the themed entertainment industry.

Without Universal Orlando, there's no Universal Creative headquartered in the region. That leads to a domino effect that leaves the area with a much smaller presence in the global themed entertainment design industry. Ultimately, that might mean that IAAPA is not running its Attractions Expo there every year and does not move its headquarters to the city.

10. Without Universal (or anyone else) pushing Disney, theme parks enjoy less advancement and less development globally.

The opening of Universal Studios Florida in 1990 helped spark a theme park building boom across the nation in that decade. (Remember when Las Vegas was trying to reposition itself as a theme park-driven family destination?) The expansion of USF into Universal Orlando around the turn of the century and especially the opening of the Wizarding World of Harry Potter also drove creative expansion and financial investment in the industry worldwide.

That doesn't happen as quickly without Universal Orlando. A world-class competitor pushing Disney discourages it from settling on "good enough" designs. It entices companies such as Warner Bros. to get into or expand their presence in the theme park business. It expands the pool of creative professionals in the industry, leading to more imaginative and engaging themed entertainment projects around the world, from theme parks to museums to shopping centers.

Yes, without Universal in Orlando, Disney World might have Harry Potter and more Marvel rides. But how good would they be without a Universal pushing Disney management to approve — even demand — bigger budgets and a bigger vision to beat a formidable competitor?

Replies (20)

September 17, 2018 at 1:02 PM

THANK YOU for writing this. It’s true, competition is good for the industry (and fans). No one makes a company innovate and change like healthy competition. All those nay-sayers who prefer Disney over Universal have to think about how stagnant Orlando would look.

I can also add RNRC to that list. It was added quickly as a response to IOA’s focus on more thrill rides (before IOA began construction, there was not a single coaster in a Universal park). That’s also likely the reason Kraken and Gwazi were built. I’m sure there are more examples.

September 17, 2018 at 1:39 PM

Wow! you missed so much there. :) First and foremost without Universal's Islands of Adventure, undoubtedly Animal Kingdom would have received Beastly Kingdom. Pandora was without a doubt a knee-jerk reaction to Harry Potter, so no Pandora at Animal Kingdom. I'm certain that "New Fantasyland" would have occurred in some form or another (they had all that land from the closed 20K ride).
It's true that Universal has pushed Disney to innovate, but remember that Tokyo Disney Sea happened without Universal's Harry Potterland. I agree tourism in Orlando wouldn't be what it is today, so as a result... Lower prices for admission to Disney.

September 17, 2018 at 1:41 PM

God bless Universal and their internal wrangling with Eisner. Otherwise, we'd be getting sub-par excuses for attractions by Disney at the still higher "milk-em-for-everything-we-can" upcharges and pricing increases.

September 17, 2018 at 2:47 PM

How about a world where Eisner is still CEO of Disney? He didn't want to purchase Pixar, thus having all that IP under Disney's umbrella. He wouldn't have purchased Marvel and Star Wars. The odds of licensing Avatar would be low to non-existent. Disney would not have upgraded Star Tours with Eisner still in charge.

Universal should be proud to license Harry Potter, but look at how Universal is lagging in producing family friendly franchises. It isn't. Relying on licenses means it barely has any original IP to create in it's theme parks. So going forward, it has Nintendo as a license, and a bunch of horror franchises that are already showing it's age. It had the audacity to license additional Warner Bros horror franchises like The Shining.

Disney is doing great, but there's a nick in it's armor. Star Wars The Last Jedi and Solo are not how they should be maintaining their fan base. Sorry, they are on the road to ruin. Marvel comics are also horribly compromised. I hope the Comics will not translate to the Cinematic Universe. No one wants to see Spider-Man as Miles Morales or Iron Man as Riri Williams.

September 17, 2018 at 3:11 PM

Thanks Robert – I was thinking Disney would not be able to raise the ticket prices so quickly. Universal raises prices – Disney counters, raises prices. Disney raises, Universal counters and also Raises…

Disney Springs would not be – this would still be Downtown Disney with no updates.

And there is no way Disney would have a fantastic well thought out Flight of Passage attraction.

September 17, 2018 at 4:23 PM

I just don't understand your obsession with Universal creating their own family IPs Anton. Universal just started operating their theme parks under a unified Comcast umbrella within the past decade. They simply don't have the same corporate synergy as Disney, and to expect the actions of the entertainment/film division to bow to the whims of the theme park division less than 10 years after the Comcast acquisition is unreasonable. Disney has been at this for over 60 years, and they still have issues keeping their theme parks and movies in sync.

September 17, 2018 at 4:40 PM

There are so many assumptions here, I gave up reading it halfway through.

September 17, 2018 at 5:53 PM

I'm stating a fact. Why is that so hard for you? And furthermore, they are at a dead end with the Fox and Disney merger. Another licensor is going away. Even Warner Bros is getting into the theme park business. Where does Universal go after every licensor is a competitor and wants to take it back if they have the chance?

Universal Studios Hollywood has been in the studios tour business since 1915. Then the studios tour converts to a park in 1964. Universal Orlando opened in 1990. Exactly when should we take Universal seriously as a theme park operator attached to a serious film studio?

September 17, 2018 at 6:38 PM

I would imagine the best headliner attraction at DHS would still be... TOT.
Animal Kingdom would still have Everest, motionless Yeti & all.
Epcot....
MK....

Kind of like their last decade or so before Potter. I'm glad all theme parks are feeling the need to impress their guests right now, we get a bunch of new attractions from every company.

September 18, 2018 at 5:17 AM

Great article and very thought provoking. It would actually be great subject matter for a small book. Nudge, nudge Robert!

I agree with all of it but I would also add that Universal's residence, coupled with the all out war with Disney and vice-versa not only has driven Orlando area annual visitor numbers upwards but has also driven $billions of investment in the evolution of I-Drive for attractions, retail, dining and accommodation which, in turn, heavily influenced Disney Springs expansion for retail and dining, WDW on-property resorts and CityWalk and its expansions ..................

Let's hear it for Jay Stein and his vision and commitment!

Robert, please add this the book to your bibliography.

September 18, 2018 at 1:26 PM

I was always annoyed about the fact that Disney had the Star Wars licence forever and only they build a mediocre motion simulator with a lame robot pilot. Due to Universal they are putting a ton of money in a Chinese knock off land and I'm still wondering what the hell they are doing.
I'm afraid if Disney had got Potter we would have another simulator with an annoying non canon pilot putting us in a broomstick or something like that.

Anyway, another good thing is Disney overspend billions on Fox due to Universal.

September 18, 2018 at 2:16 PM

Re: Anton M

Universal just digested DreamWorks animation so they have more family friendly IP to work with

They are probably still working on how to make Sing and Secret life of pets into attractions

They could always make a bid for Sony Pictures and Paramount Pictures to acquire more IP for their third gate.

They already have the retail license for Sanrio, now all they have to do it negotiate for the US theme park rights from them.

There is enough IP still out there for them to acquire and not have to contend with Disney for it who are now stretched thin financially digesting Fox

September 18, 2018 at 5:17 PM

OK, I agree that things would be different. But Disney would still have to make changes and additions. They are raising prices as their way to get more money. They don't seem to consider that they need to make changes to handle more people. The crowds are absurd.

I was trying to make reservations and found it difficult to get 7 consecutive days in Pop Century. I ended up with 5 days there and 2 days in another resort. Rides and fast-passes are absurd.

Even dinner reservations are difficult to find.

We need more innovative rides, shows, and other entertainment... Pandora is a great addition, but they can't handle the crowd.

September 18, 2018 at 5:41 PM

iI Would be jobless if Universal hadn’t happened ??

September 18, 2018 at 9:11 PM

@Yeowser: Dreamworks barely a blip, but they really don’t have much anything else like live action movies. No superheroes, no variety. Aside from Harry Potter, the other sections aren’t holding together the park. DCA is Disney’s worst domestic park yet it is significantly better than any Universal park. There’s a lot of work that needs to happen.

September 19, 2018 at 8:01 AM

"DCA is Disney’s worst domestic park yet it is significantly better than any Universal park."

You're kidding right?

September 19, 2018 at 11:50 AM

No.

September 20, 2018 at 10:42 PM

@original blog poster

Why don’t you ask the question...
How has Disney inspired Universal Creative?

— moving parks from thrill to family friendly
— highly themed lands
— lagoon shows
— projection mapping
— holiday snow
— retail/restaurant shopping districts
— fast pass
— etc.

September 21, 2018 at 11:05 AM

You really should get down to Florida, Anton. Some people may disagree, but until AK added the Avatar land and attractions, the Universal Orlando parks were better than all of the Disney parks in Florida except for the Magic Kingdom. For almost 15 years I would have much rather gone to UO than DW simply because I had a better time. I'm having more fun at Disney these day primarily because of MagicPass+ but I still favor the Universal parks over Disney.

September 22, 2018 at 9:55 AM

@anonymous poster above

Asking that question is a complete waste of time since it has been covered ad nauseam by this site and multiple other sites for almost two decades now. As the leader of themed family entertainment, Disney influences everybody in the industry and are the gold standard against which everybody else's parks and attractions are compared. So, there's nothing new to be gained by going the route you propose.

The premise of the thread was to look at how Disney might have turned out if Universal hadn't set up shop in Orlando. Better? Worse? How different? Now, that's an interesting proposition that merits discussion.

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