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Comcast Won't Catch Up to Disney World Now

By Rick Munarriz - Jul 22, 2017 at 9:00AM

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Comcast's Universal Orlando has been gaining ground on Disney in recent years, but that game will change in the coming years.

These are exciting times in the theme-park industry, and things are red hot in Central Florida, where six of the world's 10 most visited theme parks reside. Disney's (DIS -0.11%) been the market darling for decades, but an odd scene is taking place in Orlando, where Comcast's (CMCSA -1.66%) Universal Orlando has been gaining on Disney World since 2010.

This brings us to last weekend's D23 Disney fan expo, as the media giant announced several new attractions and enhancements that will spruce up Disney World in the next four years. Comcast may be getting bigger in Disney's rearview mirror, but the leader's about to step on the accelerator.

The upcoming Tron coaster adjacent to Space Mountain.

Image source: Disney.

It's a big world after all 

Disney was largely phoning it in when Universal Orlando raised the bar by opening The Wizarding World of Harry Potter within its Islands of Adventure theme park in 2010. The event triggered a surge in attendance for Disney's rival, and Universal Orlando responded by building out new hotels and creating another Potter-themed realm at its adjacent Universal Studios Florida park in 2014 -- brilliantly connecting the two lands with a Hogwarts Express experience. 

We've seen attendance at Islands of Adventure more than double in that time, with Universal Studios Florida also taking a big step up in guest counts. Disney World hasn't been as fortunate, offering up only modest growth over the past seven years according to industry tracker Themed Entertainment Association.

Park 2009 Attendance 2016 Attendance Change
Magic Kingdom 17,233,000 20,395,000  18.3%
Epcot 10,990,000 11,712,000   6.6%
Animal Kingdom  9,590,000 10,844,000  13.1%
Hollywood Studios  9,700,000 10,776,000  11.1%
Universal Studios Florida  5,530,000  9,998,000  80.8%
Islands of Adventure  4,627,000  9,362,000 102.3%

Data source: Themed Entertainment Association.

Last year was another year of ground gaining for Comcast's rapidly expanding resort. Its two parks gained a combined 983,000 visitors, according to Themed Entertainment Association. Disney World entertained 307,000 fewer mouse-donning guests than it did a year earlier. 

Some argue that Disney World's languishing growth is the handiwork of its perpetually increasing prices, but that's just one tile in this larger mosaic. Comcast has actually had recent stretches where its admissions and annual passes have grown at a heartier clip than the House of Mouse.

The real reason for the disparity in growth since the economy bottomed out in 2009 is that Universal Orlando has made big investments in updating its properties. Disney is finally getting around to its long overdue makeover. 

May's opening of Pandora-The World of Avatar at Disney's Animal Kingdom is a game changer. The flagship attraction is Flight of Passage, a sense-tingling banshee-flying simulator that does what Disney World hasn't been able to do since 1999: raise the bar on Islands of Adventures' Spider-Man dark ride. 

Disney's just getting started. Next summer's Toy Story Land will be an appetizer ahead of the feast of new experiences being plated in the years to come. Star Wars Land, Mickey & Minnie's Runaway Railway, Tron Lightcycle Power Run, Ratatouille, and the as-yet unnamed Guardians of the Galaxy ride will complete Disney's busiest expansion stretch in recent memory. 

Comcast, on the other hand, seems to be falling into Disney's former complacency trap. Its latest new offerings -- last year's Skull Island: Reign of Kong and this year's Race Through New York Starring Jimmy Fallon -- have opened to mixed reviews. Its The Fast & The Furious-themed ride that will open next spring isn't generating any kind of buzz on fears that it will be a meager update to the experience that's already at its Universal Studios Hollywood sister park.

Disney and Comcast appear to be switching places. The next needle-moving addition for Comcast likely won't come until after 2020, as Super Nintendo World will open in Japan that year ahead of a similar expansion at Universal Orlando. 

Comcast has acquired large tracts of land outside of its current resort, but Disney will be basking in the turnstile clicks generated by its new projects before Universal Orlando starts breaking ground on new off-site hotels and attractions. 

Disney is waking up, finally. Comcast is doing many things right, but it's no match for a fully caffeinated Mickey Mouse. Universal Orlando is about to start shrinking in Disney's rearview mirror.

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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