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?Tweet
This article has been archived and is no longer accepting comments.