Which company is winning the theme park business right now?

November 14, 2019, 2:13 PM · It's been an... interesting year in the theme park business. A year ago, 2019 looked like it was going to be the year of Disney's Star Wars land. Well, that did end up being the big story of the year, but not for the reasons that Disney had hoped.

Disappointing attendance left the door open for Disney's competitors in 2019. So who took advantage? Which of America's top theme park companies has the best momentum going in the theme park industry right now?

Universal never cedes anything to Disney, and this year delivered no exception. The Universal theme parks brought two of their biggest franchises to compete against Disney's Star Wars: Galaxy's Edge land, with Jurassic World in Hollywood and Hagrid's Magical Creative Motorbike Adventure in Orlando's The Wizarding World of Harry Potter. While both opened to rave reviews, Hagrid's suffered from operational problems that continue to see the "story coaster" running at less than full capacity. But Super Nintendo World opens in Japan in 2020, and there's an entire new park coming to Orlando in 2023.

SeaWorld seemed to be bouncing back with strong attendance gains in 2018, but the company reported another slip this year. Its CEO carousel kept spinning in 2019, too, with the departure of yet another corporate chief. But SeaWorld is going all in on coasters next year with an ambitious line-up of new thrill rides in Orlando, Tampa, Williamsburg, San Antonio, and San Diego, including a record-setting RMC conversion at Busch Gardens Tampa.

While attendance fell at Disneyland, neighbor Knott's Berry Farm picked off many of the defectors, reporting record attendance this year to lead the Cedar Fair chain. Knott's is hoping to ride that momentum in 2020, when it celebrates its 100th anniversary with the return of Knott's Bear-y Tales to the park. Will the rest of the chain keep up?

Six Flags has been killing it financially for several years now with its emphasis on selling memberships over day tickets. With a new CEO and another fresh crop of thrill rides at its parks across the country - not to mention licensing cash from Asian expansion - can Six Flags keep its momentum building?

Legoland's owner Merlin got a new owner this year when the owners of the Lego company took control of the entertainment chain. Legoland Florida opened The Lego Movie World last spring and that land is coming to California next year. But the big news is the opening of Legoland New York on July 4, 2020. Merlin already ranks second behind Disney in overall global attraction attendance, according to the TEA/AECOM Theme Index report. With new parks and rides in the queue for the year ahead, can Legoland and Merlin step up?

Oh, and then there's Disney. Forget the dips in attendance in Anaheim, Shanghai, and Hong Kong. (Okay, it was more than a dip in Hong Kong, but that wasn't Disney's fault.) Mickey and friends remain the far-and-away leader in the theme park business and even its "down" year would be the envy of any other company in this business. With new Marvel lands coming to Anaheim, Paris, and Hong Kong, there's much to look forward to from Disney in 2020 and the years ahead, too.

So let's put this to a vote. Then tell us in the comments which company's current and upcoming work has you most excited for the future.

Replies (19)

November 14, 2019 at 2:39 PM

I'd like to say one of the other companies has the most positive momentum, but no one can match what Disney has done over the past few years in addition to what they have in store over the next 2-3 years. Maybe if we stretch it out to 5 years, you could give Universal a fighting chance, but with ZERO concrete details available for Epic Universe, it's impossible to discern whether the new addition to UO will be anything out of the ordinary (granted ANY new US theme park is by nature out of the ordinary).

I think Disney severely miscalculated the natural draw of Galaxy's Edge, and the corresponding admission price increases and restrictions (along with the marquee attraction still not open yet) scared a lot of guests off. I think Disney will slowly dial the land in as we head into 2020. As TH would say, Disney is then set to unleash a torrent of new projects that will simply overwhelm all competition. In addition to RotR, they have no less than 4 e-ticket attractions coming online in just the US between now and the end of 2021 with dozens of other smaller additions planned as well. No other company can come close to the level of investment and anticipation for what's to come from Disney, and that doesn't even include any plans for WDW's 50th Anniversary.

Everyone else can only hope to tread water for the next couple of years and then hit back after 2022 when Disney's current spending spree faces the accountants. This appears to be what Universal is counting on.

November 14, 2019 at 2:51 PM

Disney's overconfidence in Galaxy's Edge was its failing. Russell Meyer already hit all the key points, but it is clear that Disney thought that nothing would scare people away from attending SW:GE. And they were wrong. Blackouts and Price increases to visit only Phase I of a new land, and they stumbled out the door. And got to suffer a years worth of bad press because of it.

I hope Rise of the Resistance is as amazing as advertised, and it brings back some of the excitement for the land (which sounds like it is excellent in quality) - and along with Mickey's Railway in 2020, breathes full life back into the Hollywood Studios.

November 14, 2019 at 7:06 PM

I’m on the fence between Universal and Disney. On the one hand, it feels as if Universal is maintaining, rather than growing momentum at this exact moment, where Disney is dive-bombing its parks with new lands, attractions, etc., sequentially. They’re certainly generating a genuine buzz outside of fandom and marketing mastery.

On the other, it feels as if each of these Disney park steroid injections is maybe 65-70 percent of what they needed/need to do.

-The Epcot redux is clearly missing an Imagination Pavilion upgrade/rework/demolish and replace, as its current state best aligns with Closed JCPenny at Dead Mall.

-DCA 2.0 didn’t remotely fix Paradise Pier’s structural problems—that it never transports you anywhere but a Disney-themed Six Flags in a parking lot; that the lake takes up waaaaay too much space for an acreage-challenged plot of land.

-Speaking of parking lots, DAK still has Dino-Land, despite proving everyone wrong about Avatar being poor IP, despite the ambitious and bonkers Rivers of Light.

-Probably the best of the Disney park injections is New Fantasyland, in that I think they got the right mix of attractions and were positively brilliant with the themeing, the blending of the old and the new. But, even with New Fantasyland, they’re missing that one standout, signature attraction that launches it over the top.

I’m going to notch it to Disney, but with Universal a mere nose behind at the dog track. If they pull off four or five self-contained lands at Epic Universe with the same level of quality and detail that they’ve brought to London/Diagon Alley—along with more hotels and integrated resort mojo, they have a real opportunity to change the paradigm.

November 14, 2019 at 7:36 PM

Personally, I'm inclined to say none of the above at the moment, but if we look at the surrounding years rather than just 2019 it probably goes to Disney. All the shortcomings of Galaxy's Edge and delays associated with Rise of the Resistance definitely qualify as a blunder on their part, but they've got so many projects lined up over the next several years that it will mostly be swept aside as long as Rise of the Resistance doesn't disappoint. However, should the new attractions fail to live up to expectations, Disney could be brought to a screeching halt very quickly and might have trouble getting started again.

As for the other chains:

-Universal had a lackluster year in 2019, with two highly-advertised rides both suffering from significant operational issues. I think what happens in the next couple years will be largely dependent on how impressive Nintendo World ends up being. If it delivers, Universal has a good chance of overtaking Disney should the latter slip up, but a lukewarm response to it could potentially sour everything else they've got planned (including Epic Universe).

-Cedar Fair struggled in 2018, but seems to have recovered a bit in 2019. They look to be taking a more conservative approach moving forward, which will hopefully work well for them but doesn't make their parks particularly exciting to watch.

-Six Flags blew their opportunity to go big in 2019 by having significant delays with more than half of the new for 2019 attractions (including one that has yet to begin testing), and based on my experiences with the chain this year they've been highly inconsistent. On good days, I've enjoyed their parks more than I have in the past few years, but there have been a couple really bad days that made me consider not renewing my pass.

-SeaWorld is going all-in for 2020, and if their gamble works they could be the regional chain to watch closely for the next few years. However, if giving every park a coaster in the same year doesn't pay off, I wouldn't be surprised to see the chain dissolved by 2022, especially with how unstable management seems to be there.

November 15, 2019 at 5:25 AM

Disney has to win this over Universal. While, they messed up the constroct of RotR in California and opened Galaxy Edge early at WDW. Universal has had tons of pronlems with Hagrid's roller coaster. Cedar Fair and Six Flags had improvements in attendance but are not moving up on the attendance rankings. However, the real reason I put Disney above Universal on the momentum list is that 2019 is the year Universal drops out of the top 3 companies in attendance. Anytime a company moves down the list, it is impossible to say they are gaining momentum rather than lose it. Also. Epic Universe eill not open until we 2023 or 2024. if there are any delays, look at the I4 issues.

November 15, 2019 at 5:41 AM

I'd say Disney has the momentum right now going in to the next 5 year period. If Universal can pull off Epic Universe without gutting it during the race for the arbitrary finish line, it will be a head to head showdown between Disney and Universal.

Universal swung and missed with Fast and Furious last year. Hagrid's is great … if you can ride it. I've been 4 times this fall, and only managed to ride it once. Yesterday, for example, it closed at 2pm and remained closed for the rest of the day (none of it having to do with weather.) Not to mention, even on days when it does have a "full" day of operation, it closes 3 hours before the park, regardless of attendance. Park closes at 6pm? Better ride Hagrid's before 3.

SeaWorld Orlando - I've seen the Ice Breaker construction site, and the first thing that comes to mind is "wow, that's WAY smaller than I imagined from the concept art.") Besides, SeaWorld is relegating themselves to the bargain basement of theme parks in Orlando. Constantly cutting staff and eroding the guest experience. Good luck getting something to eat an hour or two before park closing. And that final hour of park operations ... the push brooms are practically hitting the back of your feet. They've literally had to buy their attendance by constantly throwing free tickets and monthly spending credits to their annual passholders (of which I used to be for many years up until last month.)

November 15, 2019 at 6:30 AM

Sea World Orlando had a great addition with Sesame Street and their next project looks fun and their ticket prices are on par. Numbers are up but the ever changing CEO is a problem.

Disney has been picking up slack but they are behind and lives on the promise of the "next big thing" but never seem to deliver on that promise. From failed butter beer wannebees to disappointing/decisive rides and the failure to provide something as simple as shade make you wonder what is going on with imaginering. Upkeep and customer service is for Disney at a low point. The public seems to agrees with me because they didn't think the price hikes are worth it at the moment.

Universal failed massively with Fast and the Furious, one of their biggest ip. Fallon gets mixed reviews but the opened Hagrid coaster gets rave reviews despite the technical problems the ride has. Universal is notorious for opening rides and hotels too soon but always get it fixed and their latest budget hotel is doing very well unlike Disney's new offering and is seemed to but open when it was ready.
With both of their parks getting new attractions the coming years and a new theme park and resort in 2023 I think Universal is "winning" if they keep listening to their customers.

November 15, 2019 at 6:46 AM

I am not sure Disney miscalculated anything...yet. RoR is not open, and reasonable people will not drop $10,000 or more for an incomplete experience. What Disney fans have been experiencing, and what the park owners have to grapple with, is the parks are simply not as fun as they used to be. You cannot do as much as you used to could, and the arbitrary rules are making the experience unbearable. That is making people go elsewhere. But here is where they can turn it around: SWGE has shown them they do not need those systems. Keep the armbands but repurpose them. Remove FP+ but make it a day of system where you can access the reservation at the kiosk with the band (like the old system) or within the park on the app. I agree with OT in that Universal seems to be listening to the customers. It is actually fun to be there. Granted, many of the rules in the Potter area were not initially set up by them, but I believe they learned from it. The customer service there is what Disney parks used to be. Right now going to a Disney park is all about finding ways around the system, running from point A to B on a schedule, and looking at your phone all day. Does that sound like vacation???

November 15, 2019 at 8:43 AM

Disney just seems to be a retail mall for food and gifts. It does have some great rides, but every time I go there, it has more retail places than ever before. Galaxy's Edge is no exception. So far there is only one ride open there. I pay the price of admission to ride the rides, not for the privilege of shopping and paying high prices for food and gifts.

But I guess that's the way of all theme parks.

November 15, 2019 at 9:16 AM

@jeremygary …. a little harsh on SWO. Considering how they were doing a couple of years ago, they have made a great recovery. It remains to be seen if the people keep going once One Ocean moves to a more educational show. The new screen is nice though, although anything would have been better than the old one !! I’m always staying to close now the pass member dining plan is back, and as long as you eat before 5pm, you can find plenty to choose from. Seafire grill is now the only one that opens till park close …. and I think that’s the worst restaurant in the park. Ice Breaker is meant to be a family coaster, so I never expected to see a Mako type structure, especially when you consider the footprint they are building it in.

Disney wins it for me. I’m not a fan of Universal I will admit, and even when Epic Universe opens, Disney will have forged ahead with even more new content and rides. They have their noses in front, and have no intention of letting Universal take that top spot. Hagrid’s is still a mess, and I’ll put it as a bigger mess than SWGE. It’s a mediocre coaster at best, and absolutely not worth any more than a 30min wait time, after the first ride. The single rider line is a joke, as you have to go thru the regular queue until you start to enter the building area. Tuesday it stretched all the way to the outside, which from that point would put it way longer a wait time compared to the regular queue.

SWE undoubtedly is the front runner for new coasters, even the likes of 6 Flags and Cedar Fair, are not close to what SW & BG are offering in the next couple of years. It’s a big gamble on their part for sure, but in a market where people are looking for more thrills and bigger rides, they may just have hit that home run. As always, time will tell.

November 15, 2019 at 9:51 AM

Anyone been to Disney lately? Although I am really looking forward to the updates at Epcot and the other parks, Epcot especially is a mess. I go frequently, but I will put it off another year, or at least until the flower festival. Universal is way ahead with the opening of Hagrids (delays are not as big an issue as reported, I have ridden 12 times) and the new things they have opening on a regular, yearly basis. We can only hope Disney's Tron coaster will approach what universal has done and is doing with thrill rides. That Jurassic Park coaster is looking like a monster! i do love all the parks, but for my money, Universal is WAY ahead

November 15, 2019 at 10:13 AM

Six Flags

hahahaha jk
(unless you count being laughed out of Cedar Fair's board room as winning)

November 15, 2019 at 10:42 AM

@makorider Yes, I know I was harsh on SWO. But honestly, it no longer feels like a premium experience that sits side by side with Universal and Disney (like it did 5 or 10 years ago.) The bean counters are dismantling the guest experience, one cutback at a time.

Remember the excitement that used to fill the stadium during One Ocean? Yeah, me too. Until the fun police gutted it …

I was very vocal supporter of SWO during their hardest years. But here lately, it gets more and more difficult to defend the direction they are steering the park. When they have to (month after month) throw free money and free tickets at what should be their most loyal fanbase - passholders - there's a problem. SWO's new slogan should be "We're the cheap option in Orlando." Which is fine, for those that want that experience at that price point.

November 15, 2019 at 12:05 PM

@jeremygary - I think you bring up an interesting point with Sea World. Their Orlando park is in a tough situation. TPI has discussed this at length and the source of Sea World's troubles. I think when WWoHP opened in 2011, followed by Diagon Alley in 2014, it was not only a direct shot at WDW, but was a killing blow to Sea World. These years were the height of Blackfish, while Sea World was trying to fight the protests and still promote what was then their ICON (Shamu). Imagine if WDW was forced to market itself without Mickey Mouse or UO had to give up their profitable boy wizard because of social backlash against those icons. Sea World was in deep trouble, and instead of continuing to fight, they eventually pivoted away from Shamu. Unfortunately, they also made a number of other poor decisions during that time (tens of millions invested in Antarctica and designs for expanding their Orca habitats), which meant that even when they did start to turn things around, they were doing so from a significantly diminished position.

SWE realized that because of their position in the market, they could no longer compete on the same level as UO and WDW, so the smartly changed their tactics to create more value for their passholders and tourists that were willing to spend a day at Sea World if it were a significant savings over WDW or UO. So far, that strategy has appeared to work, but has created an expectation of the park continuing to be the "value choice" in Orlando. That means Sea World either "stays in their lane" or they go back trying to compete with UO and WDW, which I think would be suicide. They appear to be staying in that sweet spot just below UO and WDW, trying to capture that value market and luring more locals looking from thrills. We'll see how it works out for them, but I think they've done a reasonable job weathering the Blackfish storm and the competitive Orlando marketplace.

@the_man - You couldn't be more right. It's a chicken or egg scenario, and I think some people complain just for the sake of complaining. I hate crowds as much as the next person, and I'm probably as frugal as they come when I plan a theme park vacation. However, I still find value in a visit to WDW, even though I've been dozens of times. If the increased prices, expanded hours, and more restrictive AP rules keeps crowds manageable, I'm all for it.

November 15, 2019 at 11:33 AM

@dougjenkins, you must have caught it on a good time, heard Hagrid's has been hit by numerous issues and delays. Not reported as much as Galaxy's Edge but never a good look when a new T-ticket attraction barely seems to operate at an efficent pace.

I will lean toward Disney even with GE let down (which is nowhere near as bad as the places claiming it's on the verge of being closed down totally). They still have good stuff on the plate coming and should be able to provide some major fun while Universal is busy on the third gate and other projects. SeaWorld we'll have to see while Six Flags had issues. 2019 was just a weird year for the industry but hopefully is better in 2020.

November 15, 2019 at 11:37 AM

SWO always has been, and always will be, looking up to Disney and Universal, but the powers to be have decided on the coaster path, so we will see if it saves, or sinks, them in the up and coming years. They are more akin to a regional park these days, but as long as they act that way (with admission and/or season pass prices) they will be OK. Although of late it's been a worrying sight to see staff manning the vehicle entrance booths until 5, in order to scrape a few more $$ from the visitors. It's always been they let cars in for free 2 hours before close. Now it seems it's only an hour. Penny pinching like this will, in the long run, harm them.

Since the end of EEMH at DHS, the lines for MFSR have been greater for longer periods of the day. That will no doubt change when RotR opens in a few weeks. But then again, how repeatable a ride will RotR really be? Will it be a one and done? We'll find out come Dec 5th.

November 15, 2019 at 12:36 PM

I've gone with the unpopular choice Merlin. I think they understand just fine that they run for the most part "Me Too" Attractions, and have been killing it with their expansion. Sometimes its the less showy car that runs the best overall.

November 15, 2019 at 5:41 PM

I also voted for Merlin, only because they're the only chain whose parks weren't plagued with stories of underwhelming attendance or technological issues for new rides. Heck, they've had a lot of good buzz this year, between The Lego Movie World opening in Florida (and coming soon to California) as well as announcing their new park in New York.

November 18, 2019 at 10:45 AM

I see a lot of 'splaining going on that Disney is winning, but the votes clearly speak otherwise. Currently, Disney gets 32% of the vote and Universal beats the cheese out of them with 46%.

I think Disney is doing well, but as always I think they are just trying to be reactionary to Universal. We all know they would have continued to stagnate without the competition. Universal/Comcast just seems to love the theme park business as they state on many occasions, and they are driving innovation and, like it or not, they are driving Disney.

So, it's clear Universal is winning. The new hotels beat anything Disney has in their respective classes. The water park beats anything Disney has designed in that regard. Wizarding World has been a primary driver of new land design, and now with the new park Nintendo will drive design further and set a new standard. IP like Pokemon and How to Train Your Dragon will flesh out the offerings for younger kids.

Here is how I see it: What Universal does is great for Universal fans, and what Universal does is also great for Disney fans (because it makes Disney actually do work).

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