Why is Islands of Adventure leading theme parks' recovery?

June 21, 2023, 11:45 AM · Let's take a closer look at the numbers from the latest TEA/AECOM Theme Index report, which dropped last week. In particular, I would like to look at why one of the nation's theme parks appeared to do especially well in driving attendance last year.

As the travel industry continues its recovery from the pandemic, one park reached a major milestone in 2022, according to the report. Universal Orlando's Islands of Adventure last year was the first major theme park in the United States to draw more visitors than it did in 2019, before the lockdowns. TEA/AECOM reported that Islands of Adventure attracted 11.03 million visitors in 2022, compared with 10.38 million in 2019.

Five other U.S. parks were within 5% of their 2019 attendance last year, with another seven within 10% of their pre-pandemic numbers. But only IOA got over the top, with a 6% increase in 2022 over its 2019 attendance. So what factors helped Islands of Adventure to lead the industry back to recovery?

I can think of two big ones: Jurassic World VelociCoaster and Hagrid's Magical Creatures Motorbike Adventure. Hagrid's opened in the summer of 2019, with its neighbor VelociCoaster debuting in 2021. Ranked numbers one and two in our coaster rankings, both have proven their enduring appeal with fans - an appeal that only seems to be growing with time.

While Hagrid's drew queue-busting crowds when it opened in 2019, many fans who decided to wait to visit got caught out by the lockdown and ensuing slow travel recovery. But when Universal threw the widely acclaimed VelociCoaster into its attraction mix, that combination became too tempting for many fans, who have opted to visit Universal Orlando over other potential destinations.

Including Walt Disney World, but I will get to that issue in a later post.

Universal Orlando ultimately did not abandon its attraction development during the pandemic. Nor did it skimp on discounting, as it has brought back two- and three-days-free ticket promotions that the resort ran frequently before the pandemic. Add two new budget-friendly hotels in the Endless Summer properties, and Universal has created an enticing vacation destination that appeals to a variety of families at multiple price points.

And that shows in the fact that Islands of Adventure's sister park Universal Studios Florida welcomed 10.75 million visitors last year, according to TEA/AECOM - less than 2% off its 2019 number, making it the second-best performer among major U.S. theme parks in getting back to pre-pandemic attendance. Universal Orlando's one-two combination clearly led in the domestic theme park industry in the United States last year.

In short, that's because the stuff that made theme parks popular before the pandemic remains the stuff that makes theme parks popular now.

Coming up next, I will look at the two biggest losers in the TEA/AECOM report: Six Flags and... believe it or not, Walt Disney World. For more theme park news, please sign up for Theme Park Insider's weekly newsletter.

Replies (7)

June 21, 2023 at 12:30 PM

I don't think it's as simple as debuting two popular new coasters. Disney opened a d-ticket and e-ticket in EPCOT (Ratatouille and Guardians), and increased its attendance 29% year over year, but still lags its 2019 peak by nearly 20% - granted the EPCOT comparison is tricky to make given the continuing construction in the park.

So while adding 2 big attractions over the 3 years of pandemic-affected attendance resulted in similar increases, Disney's additions were not enough to get their second Florida park back to pre-pandemic levels.

That's where I think Robert is correctly attributing pricing as a big driver for Universal to more quickly and efficiently close the gap created by the pandemic. WDW continued to increase prices as if nothing changed from 2019 to the present, and then unleashed Genie+/ILL, which has likely put more money into their pockets, but has left a sour taste in the mouths of guests returning to the resort after last visiting under FP+. Perhaps taking Disney's more measured/tempered approach and maximizing revenue will work out in the end, but I think it's pretty clear that Universal is pretty happy right now getting back to 2019 levels in 2 short years, and will look to continue to build over the next 2 years until Epic Universe opens in 2025.

Meanwhile, Disney might be seeing better per cap data, but they can't be pleased that they have yet to fully recover from the pandemic and additional damage that Chapek unleashed with his poorly received initiatives.

June 21, 2023 at 4:18 PM

At Universal, you buy a ticket and walk through the gate and you have fun.

At Disney, you buy a ticket, you make a reservation for the park, you buy an upcharge ticket, you get in a virtual queue, you get in a physical queue, you stare at your phone constantly, and maybe you have some fun.

June 21, 2023 at 4:29 PM

More than anything, I think Universal was the quickest of the parks to return to full operation, and I think that's really the biggest reason they've recovered attendance the quickest. Second would be the fact that they embraced their customers and made changes to benefit them rather than simply capitalizing on every new revenue stream possible, which attracted those who felt burnt by the mouse. New attractions help for sure (especially when based on extremely popular IPs), but I'm doubtful Hagrid's or especially VelociCoaster are the drivers between the resort's rapid recovery.

June 22, 2023 at 10:34 AM

I agree with AJ on this one. I don't think we can attribute the increase to Velocicoaster and Hagrid's. Families who aren't following theme park websites aren't choosing Universal over Disney because of Velocicoaster and aren't planning a big trip just for that. Similarly for Hagrid's hard core Potter fans who haven't yet been would go to see Diagon Alley and Hogsmeade regardless of if Hagrid's was ever built. Obviously it doesn't hurt but I think the biggest thing is how hard and complicated Disney has become.

I've been saying this for years but Disney for me has completely lost its appeal and "fun". Too much planning is required now to go and since we don't have kids we've always found the rides at Universal to be better anyways. (except F&F).

June 22, 2023 at 11:43 AM

Two great coasters definitely help, but it’s those 2 and 3 days free deals that are the real attendance drivers. Disney’s closest ticket deal is their 4-park, 4 day ticket for $396, but that isn’t really that much of a deal unless you have never been.

I will say that we should enjoy those discounted Universal tickets now. Those deals are to entice people to come NOW instead of waiting until Epic Universal arrives in 2025. Not only will the free day deals disappear, the price of a multi-day ticket is likely to increase by 50% to account for the new gate.

June 22, 2023 at 3:00 PM

This is rather anecdotal, but another thing I've noticed is the sheer volume of Universal ads I get, especially compared to Disney. USO ads pop up while scrolling through social media (mainly Instagram and TikTok), as well as showing up as banners on a lot of websites. In contrast, I can count on my hands the amount of Disney parks ads I've seen in the past three years.

June 22, 2023 at 3:18 PM

Agreed! I doubt very much 2024 will have any deals in the Orlando area and I'm sure Universal will increase ticket pricing dramatically!

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