GE's Burnt-Out Theme Parks

Darkness fell over Universal Studios Florida as the park neared its 7 p.m. closing time on the first Saturday night of 2007. My son and I decided to head out through the side exit to grab a bite at the adjacent Hard Rock Cafe.

It was dark as we left the crowds behind us and walked along the dilapidated production lot that once housed the Nickelodeon studio tour attraction. Just before we got to the obscure exit, which had already closed for the night, a pair of black cats darted past us.

Live cats? In a theme park?

I've seen some pretty wild things over the years. I consider myself blessed to have visited roughly 50 regional amusement parks all over the world. I just can't recall ever seeing cats in a gated attraction.

It led me to wonder whether General Electric (NYSE: GE  ) knows what it's doing. GE owns 80% of NBC Universal, which, along with private equity firm The Blackstone Group, runs the Universal theme parks.

Amusement Business had attendance at Universal Orlando's two theme parks dipping by 8.5% in 2005. The industry publication went out of business this past summer, so we don't have the 2006 figures, but most indications suggest that it has once again failed to keep up with Disney's (NYSE: DIS  ) competing attractions a few miles away. You can't blame it on a general tourism malaise outside of Disney, because Anheuser-Busch's (NYSE: BUD  ) Sea World Orlando and Busch Gardens Africa parks appear to be doing just fine.

The neglect is apparent. Islands of Adventure opened to critical acclaim eight years ago. However, beyond a pair of kiddie attractions that opened the following year, the park's owners have failed to invest in adding a new marquee attraction to a park that had so much initial promise. Its neighboring Universal Studios Florida has been fortunate to get updated attractions, yet it, too, is starting to feel stale by association.

How is it possible that a company as gargantuan as GE can let a turnstile magnet go stagnant? The regional players are always on the move. Over the past year alone, Six Flags (NYSE: SIX  ) has sold off some of its underperforming parks, while Cedar Fair (NYSE: FUN  ) has expanded its empire. If GE isn't willing to commit to keeping its theme parks competitive, and using them as the ideal launching pad for its fledgling NBC Universal businesses, I'd advise them step aside and let a dedicated operator take over. If you're closing your Florida parks at 7 p.m. on a weekend, it seems like you've thrown in the towel already.

From turbine engines to financial services to light bulbs, GE's got its grubby little fingers everywhere. If there's a reason why it's been seven years since a new ride has gone into its Islands of Adventure theme park, let's hear it. If not, then maybe GE really should stick to the good things that it knows how to bring to life.

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Longtime Fool contributor Rick Munarriz enjoys taking his family on coaster treks over the summer. He spent a few days in Orlando with the family earlier this month. He owns units in Cedar Fair and shares in Disney. He is also part of the Rule Breakers newsletter research team, seeking out tomorrow's ultimate growth stocks a day early. Disney is a Stock Advisor selection, while Anheuser-Busch is an Inside Value pick. The Fool has a disclosure policy.


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