A Paradigm Shift in Theme Parks?

It goes without saying the Mouse is the 800 pound gorilla in any discussion on theme entertainment or amusement parks. Their dominance of the market is impressive. I can’t think of another company that dominates in an entertainment field quite like Disney does for the top travel dollars of tourists bound for Orlando or Anaheim.

The biggest threat to Disney is obviously Universal, now owned by Comcast. They are flush with cash and emboldened by the huge success of one boy wizard taking up residence at one of their parks.

In the past Universal was a nice one day detour for the throngs of people streaming through Main Gate toward the Disney kingdom. Even through big multi million dollar moves Universal Orlando has never been able to wrestle the focus or the first dollar away from Disney.

No longer. The Wizarding World of Harry Potter’s huge draw has swung the public interest clearly toward the Universal Orlando Resort. Universal is doubling down too with big expansions planned for the future. They smell blood for the first time, and it isn’t some aberration.

Since 1999, when Universal’s Islands of Adventure opened they have been leading the industry in innovative attractions. Disney hasn’t even attempted to wrestle the creative crown back either. They have instead rested on their loyal fan base to keep returning based on nostalgia and clever marketing campaigns.

There is a real long term danger for Disney in Orlando. All young children love Disney, but that has to be more than a childhood connection for someone to become a fan. At some point later in life someone has to make that connection and fall in love with the place. For me it was my teenage years. Universal existed, but no IOA. This was the early nineties and Disney was amazing to me. Truly magical, not just a corporate greeting. We went every year, sometimes twice and were always amazed by the new attractions, resorts, and areas opening at a faster pace than our frequent visits.

Herein lies the real danger. If kids today grow up thinking Disney is stale and Universal is magical then not too far down the road those “kids” bring their kids to the resort that gave them the real magical experience. Just like we return to Disney with our kids today. The paradigm can shift in a big way and a cultural shift like that is nearly impossible to recover from in the short term.

I live and work amongst young professionals with families. I can’t tell you how many are planning Universal trips, not just because of the boy wizard, but because “the rides are so awesome.”

Attendance goes flat. Then starts slipping. Then never recovers. The once giant is left to wonder why their new attractions dont change the cycle.

Perhaps they recognize this or perhaps they are so caught up in the corporate machine they are blind to the real danger.

This would be a common narrative of once industry dominant American corporations. I hope it doesn’t happen to my favorite company.

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