Comcast's (NASDAQ:CMCSA) thriving Universal Orlando is getting ready to become a bigger thorn in Disney's (NYSE:DIS) side. Universal Orlando overcame a major obstacle this week, clearing the way for even more theme parks and hotels just south of Comcast's existing resort. It also gobbled up some more land in the process.
Universal Orlando had acquired roughly 575 acres of land in the past two years, but a seller was enforcing a private deed restriction prohibiting the property from being used for a new theme park. That claim was settled on Wednesday, and Comcast is buying even more patches of land in the area as part of the settlement. Comcast now owns more land just south of Universal Orlando than the entire size of its current resort, and it's just a matter of time before that larger canvas is put to use with a new theme park or two, and several hotels and retail opportunities.
Mickey Mouse, say hello to your biggest nightmare.
Hoard of the rings
Universal Orlando has been closing the attendance gap with Disney World since 2009, but it remains a distant runner-up in the Central Florida hotbed of theme parks. Disney will likely pull away in the next few years, as the slate of new rides and attractions it has planned between now and 2021, when Disney World turns 50, is very impressive. Universal Orlando additions since the 2014 Harry Potter expansion have generated mixed reviews, and while it has a couple of new rides and attractions on tap for 2019, it'll probably just be shouting into a vacuum, with the debut of Disney World's Stars Wars: Galaxy's Edge attracting all of the attention and turnstile clicks.
With the latter's Tron- and Guardians of the Galaxy-themed coasters, a new skyway transportation option connecting some of the resorts and parks, and even an immersive Star Wars hotel set to open in 2020 and 2021, it will be hard for Comcast to grow at Disney World's expense the way it has for most of the past decade.
The real opportunity for Comcast will come after the 50th anniversary celebration dies down at Disney World come 2022, and that's also around the earliest time that Universal Orlando can have its next theme park up and running. It should be pretty special in terms of intellectual properties available. Comcast has already said that Super Nintendo World will be coming to its resorts in Orlando and Hollywood following the video-game-themed land opening at Universal Studios Japan slated for 2021. (It was widely assumed that a scaled-back version would pop up in the landlocked Universal Studios Florida, but making it a flagship property of the new park makes a lot more sense.) There's online chatter about more Harry Potter, Jurassic Park, and Comcast's own DreamWorks Animation as possible lands for the new park or parks -- and the long-standing rumor of Lord of the Rings is strong -- but Super Nintendo World is so far the only officially announced component of Universal Orlando's future expansion plans.
Comcast isn't going to just phone it in between now and 2022 or 2023, though. It continues to open new hotels every year, and filling up those rooms will require investing in the two existing theme parks and tropical water park. However, the point of the eventual build-out of at least another park and several more hotels and retail entertainment hubs is that, in five or six years, Universal Orlando will be a legitimate weeklong vacation destination. Universal Orlando certainly has its loyal and growing fan base, but for the masses visiting Disney World in any given week, the resort remains a one- or two-day escape from the clutches of Mickey Mouse. This will change when Universal Orlando doubles in size a decade from now. Comcast and Disney will be competing for all of your next vacation, and the theme park war will be glorious.