Can Spidey Swing to Islands' Rescue?

The Universal Orlando complex in Florida has been looking forward to this month for some time. Its two adjacent theme parks -- Universal Studios Florida and Islands of Adventure -- are loaded with Hollywood-inspired attractions, so it's only fitting that the Citywalk entertainment center that connects the two theme parks is anchored by a gleaming multiplex.

Why does that make May so special? Well, the marquee ride at Islands of Adventure is The Amazing Adventures of Spider Man, a sensory-altering masterpiece that stands out in a Central Florida playground with pretty high attraction standards. One of the newest shows at Universal Studios Florida is Shrek 4-D, a crowd-pleasing romp that bridges the gap between cinematic releases.

Celluloid is kind to Universal Orlando this month. Spider-Man 3 opens in theaters today, while DreamWorks Animation's (NYSE: DWA  ) Shrek the Third hits the silver screen in two weeks. The theme parks are playing it up. Islands of Adventure is offering a package for passholders this weekend that will treat them to breakfast, a screening of Spider-Man 3, and the chance to go on the signature ride before the park opens. Universal's offering a similar deal for Shrek the Third two weekends from now.

The parks can use the turnstile clicks. Islands of Adventure was the only park in a crowded yet robust Orlando tourist market to suffer a drop in attendance last year. It deserves it, too.

With great power comes great responsibility
Islands of Adventure opened to considerable fanfare eight years ago. It billed itself as "the theme park for the 21st century," and it seemed worthy of the praise. It wasn't just the wonder of the Spider-Man ride that anchored an island devoted to Marvel (NYSE: MVL  ) characters.

A whimsical island devoted to Dr. Seuss thrilled young riders with a whirling attraction that took them into the pages of The Cat in the Hat. An elaborate queue snaking through an abandoned medieval castle led thrillseekers to board one of two dueling coasters that seem to nearly collide several times in mid-flight. Jurassic Park serves as the gated attraction's centerpiece, where guests can watch baby raptors hatch from eggs or escape from a hungry T. Rex via an 85-foot watery plunge

It's all still there, greeting the estimated 5.3 million guests that visited the park last year. Unfortunately, that figure is 5% less than the 5.8 million parkgoers who were entertained there in 2005, and 15% lower than the 6.3 million Islands of Adventure visitors who came the year before that.

How did the park catch the cooties? An awkward ownership transition may be a factor. The park was originally built before General Electric (NYSE: GE  ) acquired the bulk of NBC Universal. Rank Organisation PLC was the original partner with Universal, but now private equity firm Blackstone owns that half.

The end result? A park that seemed to have so much potential at its 1999 opening has failed to add a marketable attraction since shortly after the park's debut.

That's unforgivable in any market, but especially so when you're sited just a few highway exits away from Disney's (NYSE: DIS  ) gargantuan Walt Disney World resort.

Lessons from Mickey
Disney isn't perfect. It, too, has struggled with more recent park openings like Florida's Animal Kingdom and Anaheim's California Adventure. Both of those parks were accused of being half-day attractions, a sharp knock given their costly full-day admission prices.

Regional park operators would never let that happen. Chains like Six Flags (NYSE: SIX  ) and Cedar Fair (NYSE: FUN  ) know that you need to add an E-ticket ride every couple of years to keep the turnstiles going.

Disney and Universal seemed to think that only parks that rely on locals need perpetual sprucing-up. Out-of-towners aren't as jaded, and they're easier to impress with dated attractions.

That plan backfired for both companies. Animal Kingdom opened in 1998, a year before Islands of Adventure set up shop a few miles north, and it proved to be a polarizing park. You either loved the laid-back vibe and animal viewing experiences, or you longed for the rides available elsewhere. The numbers sided with defectors. Animal Kingdom didn't generate its first annual gain in attendance until 2004. Then came the addition of the Expedition Everest roller coaster, and the park hasn't looked back since. (Even if the coaster does, in fact, go backwards.) Last year found Animal Kingdom the fastest-growing park of all of the country's major destinations.

No park is an Islands of Adventure 
It's gut-check time for GE and Blackstone. I have no doubt that Blackstone knows how to run a park. The firm bought the Legoland chain of international theme parks. Earlier this year, it also acquired the Madame Tussauds collection of wax museums. Obviously, it has no problem investing in tourist-trapping industries. It's GE that I worry about, since the parks fell into its lap almost by accident. 

I have taken GE's heart to task before. It's inexplicably letting Islands of Adventure starve to death. The four last major new attractions that went into Universal Orlando have gone into the Universal Studios Florida park next door, and three of those were given the greenlight before GE stepped in. The only thing that Islands of Adventure has gained in that time is a petty transportation ride that was supposed to have opened back in 1999. The next new addition -- an attraction themed to News Corp.'s (NYSE: NWS  ) popular The Simpsons -- will open at Universal Studios Florida.

Things may change this year, with $120 million earmarked for capital improvements. It would be a shocker if a major addition to Islands of Adventure weren't announced soon.

It would put an end to an embarrassingly long dry spell at one of the industry's most iconic parks. Rumors of new rides have trickled in over the years: a Grinch sleigh ride, a thrilling jeep adventure in the Jurassic Park section of the park, and a family-friendly dark ride in Marvel, none of which ever materialized. The scuttlebutt at Lance Hart's Screamscape site these days surrounds an E-ticket Harry Potter attraction. With a few more films in the pipeline, that makes sense, even if the park would be unfashionably late in cashing in long after the seventh and final book is released this summer.

It's a start, at least. If a spidery superhero or a green ogre can't save you, you may as well give a young wizard a shot.

Marvel, DreamWorks Animation, and Disney are all Motley Fool Stock Advisor recommendations. Cedar Fair is a pick in the Income Investor newsletter service. Try any of our Foolish newsletters free for 30 days.

Longtime Fool contributor Rick Munarriz has been to Islands of Adventure dozens of times, spending an entire week there before it was even officially open. He owns units in Cedar Fair and shares of Disney and DreamWorks Animation. The Fool has a disclosure policy. He is also part of the Rule Breakers newsletter research team, seeking out tomorrow's ultimate growth stocks a day early.


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