750-Acre Rival Theme Park’s Bold Move Puts Walt Disney World on Edge, Millions Brace for Impact

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Mickey mouse holding a magic box in front of Cinderella's castle at Disney World.

Credit: Inside The Magic

Walt Disney World Resort is about to have some serious competition soon, something they seem to be okay with.

Universal Orlando Resort showcasing its newest theme park, Epic Universe, which will directly impact Disney World.
Credit: Inside the Magic

Disney World Should Brace for Epic Universe, and Here’s Why

Next year, the anticipated opening of the Universal Epic Universe theme park promises to introduce a sprawling 750-acre expanse teeming with beloved characters such as Harry Potter, Donkey Kong, and dragons to the conglomerate’s Central Florida resort. This ambitious venture represents a significant expansion, poised to challenge the dominance of Walt Disney’s iconic presence in the region.

A mere 10 miles along Interstate 4 lies Walt Disney World, a cornerstone of Disney’s formidable revenue stream and a perennial favorite destination for millions of visitors annually. The allure of Disney’s enchanting realms has cemented its status as a cherished destination for families worldwide.

The competitive landscape between Universal and Disney underscores the high stakes at play. It’s not uncommon for vacation itineraries to allocate several days to exploring Disney World and perhaps one or two days to experience the offerings at Universal. Should Universal entice families to extend their stay by just one additional day at its parks instead of Disney’s, it will gain a substantial influx of revenue amounting to hundreds of millions annually.

Universal’s strategic timing couldn’t be more suitable. With Disney’s last major expansion in Florida dating back five years and repeated ticket-price hikes, even loyal Disney enthusiasts have expressed discontent. Over the past decade, Disney’s parks division has emerged as a linchpin of its financial success, surpassing the profits generated by its esteemed TV networks division, encompassing ESPN, ABC, and Disney Channel.

An artists rendition of Epic Universe at Universal Orlando Resort, opening summer of 2025.
Credit: Universal

Meanwhile, Comcast, Universal’s parent company, is leveraging its portfolio of blockbuster films such as Despicable Me and How to Train Your Dragon to bolster its theme park offerings. Embracing an assertive approach amid the challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic, Universal has diligently pursued the development of new attractions, positioning itself favorably for the imminent resurgence in consumer demand, as highlighted by Chief Financial Officer Jason Armstrong during a recent investor conference.

Should Universal effectively divert a significant portion of families from Disney’s grasp, Disney’s most lucrative division could be substantially blown at a critical juncture. As Disney navigates various priorities, including leadership transitions, revitalizing its movie studios, and navigating the competitive landscape of streaming services, the potential ramifications of Universal’s strategic maneuvers loom.

Universal Studios’ journey in theme parks traces back to the 1960s, during its tenure as a movie studio under the ownership of MCA. Back then, Universal Pictures embarked on a pioneering initiative to bolster its revenues by offering guided tours of its Hollywood studio lot. These tours, conducted aboard distinctive red-and-white trams, provided visitors with an immersive experience, granting them access to behind-the-scenes glimpses of movie stars and bustling film sets.

Commenting on the evolving landscape, Robert Niles, a former Disney cast member who once navigated rafts at the iconic Tom Sawyer Island attraction in Walt Disney World and presently the proprietor of the esteemed Theme Park Insider website, remarked, “Disney doesn’t have the shovels in the ground at this point to open anything that might directly compete with Epic.”

Concept artwork for Celestial Park at Universal Orlando Resort Epic Universe theme park.
Credit: Universal’s Celestial Park Constellation Carousel

Attendance Is Key

Since its inception in 1990, attendance at Universal’s Florida theme parks has experienced exponential growth. In 2022, Islands of Adventure welcomed over 11 million visitors, while Universal Studios hosted nearly 10.8 million guests, as per data compiled by the Themed Entertainment Association and consulting firm AECOM.

Disney’s Magic Kingdom, the world’s premier theme park, boasted a staggering attendance figure exceeding 17 million visitors in 2022. However, the landscape shifted amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, with attendance at Universal’s Islands of Adventure surpassing that of Disney World’s other three Orlando-area theme parks.

Projections from Moffett Nathanson suggest that the impending arrival of the new Universal Park may precipitate a decline in attendance at Walt Disney World by approximately one million visitors between 2025 and 2026. Conversely, Universal’s trio of regional parks could witness a substantial surge in overall attendance, potentially exceeding eight million additional visitors.

Disney Mickey Mouse standing with hands near his face, looking surprised, with "Epic Universe" logo in the background with a starry night sky.
Credit: Inside the Magic

Disney World may face heightened competition from Universal’s expanding presence in the Orlando area. With Universal’s attendance surpassing certain Disney World parks, Disney could intensify efforts to maintain its market share and appeal to visitors. The forecasted attendance decline, as Moffett Nathanson projected, could impact Disney World’s revenue streams. A decrease in visitor numbers may necessitate strategic adjustments in pricing, marketing, and park offerings to mitigate financial impacts.

Disney may accelerate its plans for innovation and expansion within its parks to remain competitive. This could involve the introduction of new attractions, experiences, or themed lands to rejuvenate visitor interest and maintain Disney World’s allure. Disney may need to reassess its marketing strategy to communicate its unique value proposition effectively amidst increased competition. Emphasizing exclusive experiences, iconic characters, and immersive storytelling could be crucial in retaining existing visitors and attracting new ones.

Enhancing the guest experience may become a priority for Disney World to differentiate itself from Universal’s offerings. Investments in customer service, technology, and infrastructure improvements could be pivotal in fostering loyalty and satisfaction among visitors.

 

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