If Universal Orlando's theme parks don't appeal to your inner thrill seeker, the resort will try to woo you through your sweet tooth. The Toothsome Chocolate Emporium opened for preview audiences earlier this week. The factory-inspired restaurant concept features a wide array of entrees, but naturally it thrives on a massive menu of milkshakes and dessert treats. It leans on steampunk for its industrial whimsy, and it's going to make a ton of money for Universal Orlando parent Comcast (NASDAQ:CMCSA).
The initial reviews have been mixed. A common gripe is that the shakes and treats don't taste as decadent as they appear. However, if the complaints linger it's easier to fix the menu than it is to rework the decor -- and that's where the concept is receiving high marks across the board.
The Toothsome Chocolate Emporium is sitting on juicy real estate within Universal's CityWalk shopping and entertainment district. It is flanked by the iconic Hard Rock Cafe concert hall and eatery on one end, and the entrance turnstiles to Islands of Adventure on the other.
Comcast has been sprucing up CityWalk over the past two years, and that's pretty much what rival Disney (NYSE:DIS) has been doing a few I-4 exits away at Disney Springs. However, while Disney Springs is a stand-alone entertainment district that's miles away from its theme parks, CityWalk is traveled by all guests on their way to Universal Studios Florida or Islands of Adventure. There's an average of roughly 50,000 guests at the parks a day, giving the tenants and Comcast-owned concepts plenty of exposure.
Disney Springs kicked off the battle by opening its own outlet of the famous Sprinkles cupcake-bakery chain in May. Sprinkles came a year after Florence-exported Vivoli il Gelato began scooping up frozen treats in Disney's dining district.
The Toothsome Chocolate Emporium isn't a chain; Comcast's creative staff dreamed it up, though some would argue that Roald Dahl beat them to it with Willy Wonka decades earlier. There's also an Ohio man who filed a $40 million lawsuit last week, claiming that he pitched Comcast execs on a similar chocolate-factory concept. These blurry events likely played a part in Comcast changing the name of the restaurant -- it was originally introduced in May as The Toothsome Chocolate Factory.
A hot restaurant is a pretty big deal, and providing a unique story element with costumed characters roaming around will only add to the mystique. Theme parks are no longer trying to appeal only to young families and fans of bar-raising rides and attractions. Food has become a major component of the experience, something that Disney has been doing for years with its annual food and wine festivals.
Universal Orlando's new restaurant replaces what used to be NBA City, a basketball-themed casual dining establishment that one could argue had seasonal appeal. It just never seemed as busy when it was the NBA off-season. Comcast has replaced it with a more universal -- and Universal -- audience in mind, and with a concept that it owns.
Comcast has spent the past few years successfully narrowing the attendance gap with Disney World down the road. Now it's trying to hold its own in a food fight. If it ultimately draws more affluent guests with more money to spend on meals into its massive parking garages, it will leave the sweetest desserts for its stockholders.