Universal has awakened the sleeping giant, and that giant has a big one aimed right at the theme park industry. Since 2010 Universal has led the charge in the theme park world with their game changing theme park and vacation experiences. Disney either didn’t care, or were biding their time. That time has finally come, and the entire industry is on notice.
Universal pushed envelopes and boundaries with The Wizarding World of Harry Potter. That new land did something that Disney hadn’t attempted in a very long time. It built a world. Instead of being reminded that you were in a theme park, Universal transported you into a magical village that was unlike everything guests had seen before. From the steps on the streets, and the souvenirs guests would buy, all the way to the food that they would eat. This magical world transformed how people saw theme parks. It transformed the way Universal booked vacations.
Fast forward to four years, a new hotel, another Wizarding World and several huge profits later, and Universal confirmed what they said in 2010. Completely immersive entertainment was the future.
Disney, again, didn’t seem phased by any of this. They had announced a new land based on the film Avatar, but was dragging it’s feet in getting it opened. The other new attractions tried to do a little bit of that immersive themeing, especially New Fantasyland, and Carsland. While sometimes they would get it right( Carsland), other times they would fall short (New Fantasyland). Still, the level of themeing just wasn’t enough to keep guests there for more than a few minutes to ride the latest rides, and then leave.
Meanwhile Universal not only made the attractions more immersive, but they made the lines more immersive, and with their latest attraction, removed it altogether. Jimmy Fallon has guests reserve their time like FastPass, and then come in to mingle around a museum and studio experience. The idea was a hit, but the line system seemed to have some kinks in it. Universal needed more time to work those kinks out, because they were about to open an entire waterpark with that same system.
While Disney revolutionized spending and ticketing with MagicBands and My Magic+, Universal was busy creating rides and attractions that could bypass lines altogether. When Volcano Bay opened earlier this year, they were plagued with huge lines and major guest complaints about their ride skipping system, and the “play while you wait” idea that worked so well with Jimmy Fallon. The park has faced major negative reviews, and it’s been made clear that Universal needed to go back to the drawing board.
But, at least they were rolling out these new ideas and pushing the envelope while doing so. Disney had yet to open something so immersive, at least in the United States.
Shanghai Disneyland opened in 2016, and though it was also plagued with opening day problems…such as people pooping in bushes, the park itself was a breakthrough. The park had taken the classic Disneyland model and made it innovative with complete worlds that would keep guests playing and exploring all day. The biggest example was Pirates Cove, the huge Pirates of the Caribbean land.
Then, Disney rolled up their sleeves and said “hey, watch this” as they announced more details for Star Wars Land, now called Galaxy’s Edge. Guests will be immersed in the land, and their actions on rides will affect what happens to them in the streets. How they interact in the street will effect how the rest of their visit within Galaxy’s Edge goes.
Then came D23. While many sites were spilling rumors and calling things confirmed, the general consensus was that Disney would keep things quiet. The whispers were wrong.
Disney announced a whole slew of new rides, and attractions. While the attractions at all the parks sounded amazing, it wasn’t until a hotel was announced that Disney’s true intentions were revealed. A Star Wars Hotel.
Disney unveiled how they would take the idea of a cruise ship, and land lock it, Disney style. Everything you want or need will be in this hotel, you won’t have to leave. Instead, you will take excursions into the park, especially in Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge. The hotel itself will be an attraction that never sleeps. Instead of walking into a hotel, you’ll walk into a starship. Instead of hotel staff, you’ll interact with starship staff, fleet command, and characters from all edges of the galaxy. Your choices in the theme park will also follow you back to your hotel. It will be non-stop Star Wars from the time you check in until the time you check out.
So, how will Universal answer? Well, they’ll most likely up the ante and change the way that people theme park altogether. If Disney is setting the standard, with an immersive land and hotel to match, you can probably expect Universal to beat it, and change the industry in one sweeping motion. Who knows that that motion will be, but it’s going to be big and fast.
What about other parks? The regional parks like Six Flags and Cedar Fair parks will change a little, but they’ll be fine. They aim for local visitors within a few states, and aren’t aiming to be the worldwide destinations that Disney, Universal and SeaWorld are. A few of the Cedar Fair parks already have onsite, and partner hotels like Cedar Point, and Knott’s Berry Farm. A few more Cedar Fair parks like Canada’s Wonderland and Carowinds have hotels and other amenities on the way. But again, they don’t really seem to be in it for the huge destination vacations, they’re more interested in the weekend trips, and the summer getaways than a two week all inclusive destination.
And if we’re talking immersive entertainment, Knott’s Berry Farm has broken the glass ceiling with its Ghost Town Alive experience. Guests can live in a real life “Westworld”, just not as violent, as they pick a side and interact with the people of Ghost Town.
But what about places like SeaWorld? Well, the keywords are “all inclusive”. Where Disney has that nailed down, and Universal is right behind them, SeaWorld and Busch Gardens parks are kind of in the dark. Mostly, because they’re dealing with other issues right now. But, if SeaWorld is to survive the theme park war to come they need to get with the program, and fast. Immersive theming is one thing they kind of do, but they really need to step it up, or get out of theming altogether and push more of the animal aspect. Who’s to say what will work? Before the parks did great with just sticking with animal attractions, but the company is trying to change to avoid more controversy. However, one thing they desperately will have to change is their lack of onsite hotels and entertainment districts. While SeaWorld Orlando, and Busch Gardens Tampa have great options, the area around them has better options. With a CityWalk or Disney Springs like area close to, or surrounding the parks, guests will more than likely stay longer. Instead, they ditch the typical theme park prices for dinner at Mellow Mushroom, or Taco Bell. SeaWorld has already announced plans for hotels at their parks, they have yet to do any construction or announce managing partners.
Disney has made the first move, but how they execute the plans, and how fast the other parks react will determine who gets the upper hand in the theme park wars. It’s going to be an amazing new world for vacationers, and fans alike. We won’t be surprised if the theme park industry as we know it changes forever, making a richer and more immersive experience for guests. In the end, we all win.