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Amusement Law : Theme Park Trends in Central Florida and the Game of “What-If?”

Opinion

For this entry, I’ll share with you some points from that exchange.  (I’ll get back on the regulatory issue in the near future.)

What started off as an unrelated discussion about Tropical Storm Fay – we here in Alabama, as in Florida, have been experiencing the brunt of flooding rains and frequent tornado sirens – turned into an exploration of how the face of Central Florida, long considered ground zero for the amusement industry, seems to be changing in major new ways.

Let’s take a look…

Since opening in 1971, Walt Disney World has been the undisputed king of Florida theme resorts.  With four parks, 20+ hotels, and a host of other entertainment options, Disney World has been in a near constant state of development for more than three decades. 

During that time, other heavy hitters like Universal and Busch have also opened major theme park complexes, literally within miles of the Mouse’s sprawling resort. However, while these parks have introduced award-winning innovations such as Universal’s Spider-Man dark ride and Busch’s Discovery Cove, they’ve never been able to achieve theme park supremacy over Disney. 

One of the main reasons is Disney’s continual development and reinvestment – the regular addition of new rides, new shows, and even new parks.  Indeed, the company’s investment in the Florida property during the 1990s alone (the time frame that former CEO Michael Eisner termed “The Disney Decade”) has been estimated at over $2 billion—with nearly a billion of that spent on Animal Kingdom.

That’s not to say the other parks haven’t invested in their product.  Universal opened the well-received Islands of Adventure, CityWalk entertainment district, and three themed resorts during a three-year period beginning in 1999.  Busch added significant attractions to both its Tampa property and SeaWorld in Orlando during this time.

But, even with that, Disney World remained the undisputed top investor in Central Florida. 

Is the picture now changing?  Consider these facts:

•    Currently, Disney World has officially announced only one major new attraction, based on the popular “America Idol” television show. Slated to open in early 2009, the budget of this new Hollywood Studios offering has been estimated in the $50-$75 million range (Note:  none of the three companies releases official budgets for its attractions—these estimates are based on research and unofficial statements from industry sources).

It would be naïve to think that Disney is not planning any other new additions beyond this stage show.  In fact, rumors of new coasters, mini-theme parks, and dark rides continue to abound.  However, only the single American Idol attraction has been announced.

•    On the other hand, Universal Orlando currently has a major new coaster announced for its Studios park as well as the highly-anticipated Wizarding World of Harry Potter park-within-a-park set to debut in 2010 at Islands of Adventure.  Unofficial estimates peg the Studios roller coaster above $75 million with the Harry Potter land budget easily reaching into the hundreds of millions of dollars. The net result is that Universal Orlando has officially announced attractions totaling nearly 10 times more (in dollars) than Disney World.

•    Meanwhile, Busch recently opened Aquatica, an entirely new waterpark adjacent to its Orlando SeaWorld. Then, in May of this year, the company announced construction of, “Manta, ” a Bolliger and Mabillard-designed flying coaster set to debut at SeaWorld in 2009.  Unofficial budget estimates for this custom steel coaster have also come in above $75 million.

All of this means that, for first time since the parks opened, both Universal Orlando and SeaWorld have more new attractions pending than Disney World – at least, more that have been officially announced. This seems to indicate that both Universal and Busch, on a scale previously unprecedented, are making major plays to attract guests away from Disney World.

While Disney has apparently reduced the rate of reinvestment in its Florida property, the company is investing upwards of $1 billion in a massive remake of its California Adventure park on the other coast. Perhaps the entertainment giant is simply marshalling its resources toward the resort it deems least likely to be affected by current economic conditions.

Regardless, Disney is a huge company that has the wherewithal to also invest major amounts in its Florida resort were it interested in doing so. Perhaps the company is merely hanging fire and we will soon hear announcements that prove some of the current rumors of new rides and attractions in the works to be true. 

The promise of Potter World and the new coaster in development at Universal do make the possibility of major growth at Universal Studios and Islands of Adventure appear quite likely. But this is hardly a foregone conclusion. Take note of Disney’s recent recruitment of Universal’s former top creative exec, Scott Trowbridge, to the Disney Imagineering group.

The massive scope of Disney World makes it unlikely that either Universal or Busch could ever truly unseat it as Central Florida’s leading operator. However, with both of its primary competitors focusing on compact resorts (for instance, at Universal, nearly 100% of its on-site guests walk or use boat transportation within the resort—a major difference from Disney’s expensive, bus-heavy transportation network) as well as increasing guest per capita spending, one line of thinking is that, in a potentially long-term and deep recession that includes high oil prices, Disney’s biggest asset—its expansive size—could become an operational liability.

So, now might be the time to dust off your crystal ball, take a deep look at some of these interesting trends happening right now in central Florida and play another round of the endless, speculative game of “what-if” concerning Disney and its competitors. Between Pixie Dust and Harry Potter, will there be enough magic to go around?

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