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Disney World's Top Rival Taps Nintendo to Keep Winning

By Rick Munarriz - Dec 4, 2016 at 8:06AM

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Comcast's Universal Studios and Nintendo team up to build out video game-themed areas at Universal Orlando, Universal Studios Japan, and Universal Studios Hollywood.

Image source: Universal.

When it comes to building out theme parks in Central Florida, no one seems to be playing the game better than Universal Orlando parent Comcast (CMCSA -1.66%). It keeps tapping the "Continue?" option as if it's running out of style, and soon it will be teaming up with Nintendo (NTDOY 1.94%) to add a new layer of playfulness to its gated attractions.

Comcast announced on Tuesday that it will be rolling out Nintendo-themed areas at Universal Orlando, Universal Studios Japan, and Universal Studios Hollywood. There is no firm opening date for the themed lands across Comcast's three parks, beyond the morsel that the parks will open the areas separately in the next "several" years. There is also no mention of actual attractions that guests will experience or the Nintendo franchises that will be tapped, though Super Mario was mentioned prominently in the announcement, as well as the promotional video starring Nintendo legend Shigeru Miyamoto and Universal Creative chief Mark Woodbury.

The partnership itself isn't news. Comcast and Nintendo revealed in May 2015 that they would be working together. The original announcement promised "immersive experiences" featuring Nintendo's most famous characters and games, but last week's update emphasizes that the themed areas will be coming to all three of the Comcast-owned parks. 

Moving Mickey Mouse's cheese

If Disney (DIS -0.11%) wasn't nervous about its fiercest rival before, it may now start gnawing on its fingernails. Comcast's Universal Orlando has been on an expansion binge since the 2010 opening of The Wizarding World of Harry Potter, taking the J.K. Rowling-licensed experience to Japan in 2014 and California earlier this year. 

Attendance at its Florida resort has been on a tear since the Potter-inspired update, outpacing the slower growth at Disney's four Florida parks.

 Feature2009 Attendance2015 AttendanceChange
Magic Kingdom 17,233,000  20,492,000 18.9%
Epcot 10,990,000 11,798,000 7.4%
Animal Kingdom 9,590,000 10,922,000 13.9%
Hollywood Studios 9,700,000 10,822,000 11.6%
Universal Studios Florida 5,530,000 9,585,000 73.3%
Islands of Adventure 4,627,000 8,792,000 90%

Data source: Themed Entertainment Association.    

Universal Orlando has been busy building out new hotels on its property to meet consumer demand. It's also not just resting on its laurels. Comcast has been feverishly reshaping the guest experience. It expanded The Wizarding World of Harry Potter into a themed land spanning both of its Universal Orlando experience, with the brilliant call of adding a Hogwarts Express train experience to transport guests from one park's realm to the other's in a move that forces guests to buy pricier multi-park tickets. 

Comcast opened a King Kong-themed ride at Universal Orlando's Islands of Adventure this summer. It now turns its attention to Universal Studios Florida, where it will open a Jimmy Fallon-inspired flight simulator next summer, followed by a Fast & the Furious auto-racing ride in 2018. It will open its first on-site water park, Volcano Bay, in six months. 

Comcast may be running out of land to build out at the original Universal Orlando site, but it did shell out $130 million for a 475-acre chunk of land less than two miles away that it will probably develop in the future. This has to be giving Disney fits. Disney has invested in crowd management technology as it introduces hard-ticket events and festivals, but it's been delinquent in adding e-ticket attractions. The attendance numbers over the past few years prove that Comcast has taken the superior path. 

Disney's strategy will change. An Avatar-themed land opens at Disney's Animal Kingdom next summer, and in a couple of years we will see Toy Story Land and the much-hyped Star Wars Land open at Disney's Hollywood Studios. Disney doesn't have a choice. Its biggest rival is getting bigger in its rearview mirror, and Disney has to do something to wrestle the game controller out of its hands.

Rick Munarriz owns shares of Walt Disney. The Motley Fool owns shares of and recommends Walt Disney. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

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