This is going to be a huge week for Central Florida's theme parks, and the first shot gets fired on Thursday morning, when Volcano Bay opens at Comcast's (NASDAQ:CMCSA) Universal Orlando resort. The next-generation water park will introduce some features that envious rivals will try to copy, but it has to prove that it's a hit first.
I went over some of the things that may go wrong with Volcano Bay's opening a few days ago. Now let's look at the many things that can go right for both Universal Orlando and Comcast shareholders.
1. TapuTapu reinvents the guest experience and monetization
A major component of Volcano Bay -- and why it's justifiably pricing its admissions higher than established area water attractions -- is its use of wearable tech to enhance the visit. Guests receive what Comcast is calling TapuTapu bracelets as they enter Volcano Bay, and these bracelets can do things like reserve return times for popular slides, set off interactive park features, and even open lockers and pay for stuff.
Most of the media attention that TapuTapu is garnering centers on virtual queuing, guests' ability to tap a bracelet against a ride's totem and be able to wait virtually anywhere else -- floating on a lazy river, sipping a frozen cocktail, or collecting rays by the wave pool -- until a bracelet alert allows them to experience the reserved ride.
For a couple of years now, Comcast rival Disney (NYSE:DIS) has armed visitors to nearby Disney World with MagicBand bracelets that can be used to access expedited queues that can be reserved on mobile apps as long as 60 days out. However, Disney doesn't currently incorporate FastPass ride reservations at its water parks. Disney's platform also doesn't send out alerts, an important distinction between the two platforms.
However, the key feature that really should be exciting investors when it comes to TapuTapu is that guests can tie the bracelets to digital wallets, allowing them to spend freely across the park. The ability to order a coconut-crusted chicken sandwich or a signature drink without having to trek back to the locker should dramatically increase in-park spending. Disney's MagicBand allows resort hotel guests the ability to charge purchases to their rooms, and even SeaWorld Entertainment (NYSE:SEAS) offers cashless wristbands for transactions at its Aquatica water park. The key here is that TapuTapu is making spending money seamless -- especially for those who pre-register for their digital wallets -- and attached to a device that guests will be leaning on all day long to set off water cannons, reserve slide return times, and other goodies. Eyes will fixate on wrists wrapped by a tech plaything that screams to be used at every turn, and that includes the register.
2. Volcano Bay will be an all-day affair
An important difference between Comcast's new park and the competition is that Volcano Bay is built to stay up late. The park will routinely close at 10 p.m. this summer, three to four hours later than Disney and SeaWorld options. Universal Orlando has invested in illuminated eruptions for its namesake volcano, so it may as well make the most of it by letting guests have some watery fun after dark.
Guests may not stay all 12 hours at Volcano Bay to enjoy it from open to close. Even water park enthusiasts have their endurance limits. However, the long hours will on the one hand justify the stiffer admissions and on the other attract different waves of guests to generate healthy attendance levels. There could be morning, early afternoon, and early evening arrivals, allowing the park to cash in on its real estate more effectively than the area parks that call it a day before the sun even starts to set.
3. A third park changes everything
Universal Orlando used to own a perfectly operating and popular water park. It acquired the Wet 'n Wild Orlando attraction that opened 40 years ago, just outside of its resort. It closed it down five months ago. It could've saved a ton of dough by transforming Wet 'n Wild into a worthy third gate. It could've shuttled folks from the Universal Orlando parking garage in buses, just as it will do later this week. It could've included admission for annual passholders willing to pay a premium for a three-park pass, just as it's doing with Volcano Bay.
Comcast chose not to go that route, choosing instead to build a state-of-the-art attraction from the ground up, on its own resort, surrounded by its growing number of on-site hotels. You can't raise the bar by merely remodeling an old facility in an imperfect location.
Universal Orlando is now billing itself as a three-park resort. It's no longer a destination that can be seen in a weekend, or a place where folks spending a week at Disney can cheat for a day to check out that Harry Potter stuff they've heard so much about when they're not donning mouse ears. Comcast can hand off that tired crown to SeaWorld now. Universal Orlando's theme parks are closing the attendance gap with Disney, and they've been growing their on-site hotel capacity at a faster clip. A worthy water park was necessary, and the company will have it in Volcano Bay once it gets through any of its initial potential hiccups. It may seem to be merely a collection of water slides and a forward-looking nod to wearable tech, but it's ultimately what could transform Universal Orlando into a one-stop shop in the country's hottest tourist destination.