Universal square off in battle of the theme parks
- 17th August 2015
on Saturday announced expensive Star Wars-themed expansions
at its California and Florida resorts. Getty Images
empire is striking back.
insisting they pay little attention to each other,
America's two largest theme park operators, Disney
and Universal, have lately been locked in what certainly
seems like an arms race. Universal kicked it off in
2010 with a Harry Potter mega-expansion. Disney then
introduced or announced new Cars, Avatar and Fantasyland
attractions. Universal, which is owned by Comcast,
has since upped the ante, spending billions on new
rides and resort hotels.
Disney is rolling out the heavy artillery: After a
few years of aggressive investment in overseas theme
parks, principally the $US5.5 billion Shanghai Disneyland
- leaving an opening in the United States for Universal
- Disney on Saturday announced expensive Star Wars-themed
expansions at its California and Florida resorts.
pair of Star Wars lands, each about six hectares,
will be built at Disneyland in Anaheim and at Disney's
Hollywood Studios, a down-on-its-luck park that is
part of Walt Disney World in Orlando, Florida. Hollywood
Studios will also get a new Star Wars-themed weekend
fireworks show and 4 hectares of new Toy Story rides.
by analysts to cost more than $US2 billion, including
parking and other infrastructure upgrades, the vast
bicoastal expansion - Robert Iger, Disney's chief
executive, described the Star Wars plans as "jaw-dropping"
- marks a long-expected effort by Disney to use its
parks to capitalise on its 2012 purchase of Lucasfilm.
has long dismissed Universal as a challenger. But
the bold building plans were, in part, read by analysts
as a competitive response to Comcast, which is pouring
billions of dollars into its own California and Florida
properties, in particular focusing on wildly popular
Harry Potter-themed attractions.
movie-focused Hollywood Studios, which in some ways
started the Disney-Universal rivalry when it opened
in 1989, has been especially at risk from Universal's
surge. Hollywood Studios attracted 10.3 million visitors
in 2014, just a 2 per cent increase from the previous
year, making it the least visited of Disney's four
major parks in Orlando. Nearby Universal Studios handled
8.3 million guests, but that was a 17 per cent increase
from the year before.
hard for us to recommend spending $80-$100 on a park
that has so little to offer," the new edition
of The Unofficial Guide to Walt Disney World says
of Hollywood Studios, calling a trip to the movie-themed
Universal "the superior choice."
had no comment on competition with Universal.
Niles, editor of the news site Theme Park Insider,
said by phone Sunday that Disney's announcement should
be interpreted as a response to competition in a broad
sense. "Sure, they are looking at Potter, but
they are also looking at anything that can compete
with a Disney vacation," he said. "They
have to create not just a desire to go see, but a
passion to go see."
theme parks unit, a $US15.1 billion annual business
that is scrutinised as a consumer confidence bellwether,
tends to open new attractions four to six years after
announcing them. Disney declined to comment on the
timing or anticipated construction costs related to
its Star Wars announcements.
has recently tried to tap the brakes on expectations
for the upcoming film, Star Wars: The Force Awakens,
which will restart the movie series after a 10-year
dormancy. Analysts expect the film to take in more
than $US2 billion. "We just want to be careful
that the world doesn't get ahead of us too much in
terms of the estimates," Mr Iger told analysts
on an August 4 call. "We have to take a wait-and-see
the decision to move forward with Star Wars outposts
signals both Disney's long-term belief in its theme
park business as a growth engine and its confidence
that The Force Awakens will be a juggernaut both at
the box office and in the retail aisle.
Iger made the announcement before a crowd of 7,800
at a biennial gathering of Disney fans here called
D23 Expo, which attracted 70,000 people over three
days. It was at the last D23 Expo that Disney first
signalled Star War theme park plans; the D23 exhibit
hall in 2013 had R2-D2 positioned with boxes of blueprints
labelled "Project Orange Harvest." ("Blue
Harvest" was the code name for The Return of
the Jedi during production in the early 1980s.)
has been quietly preparing Disneyland and Hollywood
Studios for expansion. Last month, for instance, Disney
won a 30-year exemption on ticket taxes from Anaheim
in return for a pledge to spend at least $US1 billion
on new rides and a 5,000-car parking structure. The
investment must begin by the end of 2017.
Florida, the 55-hectare Hollywood Studios in February
tore down a 35-metre sorcerer's hat (like the one
Mickey wore in Fantasia) that served as the park's
centrepiece. The park - rushed into construction by
Michael Eisner, Disney's former chief executive, to
beat the 1990 arrival of Universal - has also closed
an array of attractions, including a faux studio back
lot tour, the Magic of Disney Animation pavilion and
the Legend of Captain Jack Sparrow exhibit.
Disney-owned Marvel movie brand was conspicuously
absent from plans to rehabilitate Hollywood Studios.
Although Disney bought Marvel in 2009 for $US4 billion,
the Florida theme park rights to Marvel characters
like Spider-Man, the Hulk and Captain America continue
to be held by Universal under a long-term contract.
in an interview in July if Universal would ever sell
those rights, Thomas Williams, Universal's theme park
chairman, answered with one word: "No."
New York Times)