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Theme Park Battle Between Disney and Comcast Will Be Glorious

By Rick Munarriz – May 25, 2017 at 2:20PM

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Universal Orlando's Volcano Bay is open, and despite the initial hiccups, there's too much at stake as it grows closer in Disney World's rear-view mirror.

The fight for tourists in Central Florida has become a sea battle this morning as Comcast's (CMCSA -2.00%) Universal Orlando officially opened its Volcano Bay water park this morning. The tropically themed water oasis offers a large collection of attractions, with bar-raising technology to enhance the guest experience. 

Comcast is billing Volcano Bay as its third theme park, and while it's always a good idea to temper expectations -- water parks historically draw much smaller crowds than amusement parks -- there's no doubt that unveiling its first new on-site water park is a spirited shot at taking on Disney (DIS -0.15%) and its industry-defining resort a few miles away.

Beach shot of Volcano Bay's signature volcano with a waterfall trickling into the wave pool.

Image source: Universal Orlando.  

Making waves

Comcast's Universal Orlando now has exactly half as many parks as Disney World. Volcano Bay joins Universal Studios Florida and Universal's Islands of Adventure to offer two theme parks and a water park at the resort. Disney World offers four theme parks and two water parks. 

Universal has been ripping pages out of Disney's playbook for a while now, and in recent years, it has perhaps been doing too good a job for Disney's comfort. Comcast has been opening on-site hotels at a faster clip than Disney since 2014, and its attendance gains have been stronger. Comcast is closing the gap in terms of turnstile clicks and available rooms, and the one-upmanship is going to work wonders for theme park enthusiasts as well as the local economy.

Volcano Bay is a water park, and we have to size it up that way. If it's able to attract an average of 7,000 guests a day, it will become the world's most-visited water park. It's never going to match the daily average of roughly 25,000 guests at each of Universal Orlando's theme parks.

There will certainly be days when Volcano Bay surpasses that mark, and that will likely be the cast this weekend. Opening on Memorial Day weekend is going to be a magnet for swimsuit-wrapped thrill seekers. Naturally, crowds will be a lot smaller when the weather turns nippy in the winter, and when school's in session.

There will be some hiccups this weekend. The ability to virtually reserve wait times will naturally make the actual time that one will have to wait longer. Lines were as long as four hours shortly after this morning's opening at the more popular attractions.

The upshot is that guests won't have to stand in those lines. The wearable tech handed to every guest allows them to hold their spot in line while they coast along the lazy river, survive the wave pool, or grab a bite at one of the restaurants or bars. When their time comes, it will be a short wait of 15 minutes -- or more than likely far less -- of actual standing in a line. It's a perk, but right now there aren't enough attractions to account for the fact that folks aren't wasting time in actual lines. You also can only reserve one of the rides eligible for this feature at a time, so we'd be talking about a wait of more than seven hours to experience Ohyah and Ohno -- probably longer than the average guest plans to stay. If you think Thursday morning is bad, imagine what will happen over the holiday weekend, or later in the summer.

Volcano Bay's odd transportation system will also be tested, as guests park in the Universal Orlando garage complex but then have to be shuttled over in buses. All of the other area water parks have parking that is adjacent to the front gate.

Comcast will overcome the initial setbacks. It has enough favorable momentum on its side, the means to correct the initial transportation and capacity limitations, and Disney in its crosshairs. 

Rick Munarriz owns shares of Walt Disney. The Motley Fool owns shares of and recommends Walt Disney. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

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