Universal Studios Orlando went to a first rate destination almost over night after the Wizarding World of Harry Potter opened in 2010. Comcast has since purchased NBCUniversal which includes all Universal theme parks and has committed to dumping billions into its domestic parks in order to make Universal the reason you come to Orlando and LA and not Walt Disney World and Disneyland.
Universal still has a good deal of catching up to do so Disney isn't exactly sweating them too much yet. But resting on their laurels will only hurt Disney in the end so acting on a response to Universal's push should come sooner rather than later.
Disney is just finishing up work on New Fantasyland. The Seven Dwarfs Mine Train is set to open in the coming month or so. Likely ahead of Universal's Diagon Alley by a few weeks. The overall expansion was a very nice improvement to what was there before. At the end of the day, however, it's not much more than what we expected. Save for what we haven't seen in the Mine Train. Disney even tried a little catch up to Universal's Butterbeer by introducing Le Fou's Brew to Gaston's Tavern in New Fantasyland.
Disney has also created an incredible themed land in their California Adventure park with Cars Land. In Orlando Avatar Land in the Animal Kingdom is set to make some waves with new innovations.
The only problem with those is that I don't think many adult guests care about Cars at all and the general sentiment of Avatar Land is met with forced optimism at best and disappointment more often than not. Disney has bigger and better moves to make.
So what is it that turned Universal around? I think at the core of it all is highly themed areas with uncompromising dedication to the source material.
I had never seen the Harry Potter series before but after seeing the immersive land Universal had created through pictures and videos I decided to watch the entire series in preparation of our next trip. Whereas before I doubt we would even visit Universal at all if it hadn't been for the Wizarding World.
Disney Strikes Back
Disney has some opportunities to make some game changing or very poor decisions soon. The Star Wars and Marvel licenses have recently been acquired and theme park aficionados have been waiting to see how Disney will integrate them into the parks. Not to mention their unbelievable surprise hit with Frozen.
Initial rumors for Stars Wars is a complete overhaul of Tomorrowland in Disneyland to be almost completely Star Wars themed. Rumors of the Norway pavilion at Epcot, specifically the Maelstrom, being rethemed to Frozen has also been tossed around.
Theses are completely the wrong ideas. Most of the arguments have been against changing those classic areas. I'm all for some demolition. Level Autopia or the Tomorrowland speedway to make room. But the wrong idea is to go half way on any of this.
Disney cannot simply work around existing structures or retrofit existing attraction to take advantage of these valuable new properties.
Disney needs to take a long look at how Universal designed Hogsmeade and Diagon Alley. A themed land or area of Star Wars is a no brainer. Imagine Tatooine in the parks with the same level of theming as Cars Land. With narrow passages to explore, higher end, specifically themed merchandise, an immersive cantina experience and an innovative new attraction. Now imagine Star Wars shoehorned into Tomorrowland and a few structures plopped down in the middle of it. Which would you prefer?
I could sit here all day an toss around ideas of what Disney should do with Star Wars, Marvel and Frozen but what it all boils down to is commitment.
If Disney is going to bring these major properties into the parks they have to do it right if they want to stay relevant. Highly themed and immersive lands are where all theme parks are headed. Just look at 'Antarctica: Empire of the Penguin' at SeaWorld and 'Pantopia' at Busch Gardens. Even the lower end players realize that theme parks are moving toward experiences and not just rides.
What do you think should be Disney's next move should be?