Comcast (NASDAQ:CMCSA) is starting to let Universal Orlando park guests kick the tires of its newest ride ahead of the official opening in two weeks, and the early prognosis isn't very promising. Fast & Furious: Supercharged is drawing largely negative reviews on social media since "technical rehearsals" began over the weekend.
There's a lot riding on the new attraction. It's the only new ride that Universal Orlando is opening this year, and it will have to hold its own come late June, when Disney (NYSE:DIS) opens Toy Story Land. A ride based on The Fast and the Furious franchise is a big deal for the media giant: Comcast's Universal Pictures has been the distributor of all eight theatrical releases, and a spin-off is in the works for next year.
Shifting into reverse
Theme parks generated just $5.4 billion of Comcast's $84.5 billion in total revenue last year. With only 6% of the revenue, the business isn't the needle mover that we see at Disney, where theme parks and resorts account for 33% of its revenue and 26% of its segment operating profit. However, a media giant with a magnetic theme park is doing more than just running a tourist destination.
Having a popular theme-park attraction is a win-win feat when it's proprietary. Roughly 10 million visitors go through the turnstiles at Universal Studios Florida every year, and rides based on Comcast theatrical properties help promote those franchises to guests. A well-received ride or attraction can stand for decades, elevating interest in the franchise along the way. Judging by the initial online reactions, Fast & Furious: Supercharged is falling short.
The ride whisks guests through pre-shows and a richly themed queue before loading them into high-capacity party buses, which eventually whisk them away into a tunnel where they're surrounded by screens depicting action sequences filmed with franchise stars. The storyline is enhanced with fog and other special effects as you virtually race through Los Angeles. It's the kind of immersive experience that the park's earlier "ride the movies" tagline promises. But the early reviews have been harsh.
Many of the complaints voiced by early riders center around using the nearly identical ride system that Universal Orlando introduced in 2016 at the adjacent Islands of Adventure park for Skull Island: Reign of Kong, another ride where reviews fell short of the initial hype. Others were hoping for a roller coaster -- something that Universal Orlando won't open until next year -- or a dark ride where folks aren't crammed into a 50-passenger bus craning their necks to watch another ride that plays out on screens.
A popular complaint among pass holders is about rides relying mostly on screen projections, as that's the basis of all of the recent additions to Universal Orlando. It's an ironic gripe: You're in a movie studio theme park! However, Comcast removing roller coasters and rides where customers experience simulated earthquakes and tornados, to make way for the new experiences, does seem like a bit of a downgrade despite the high-tech gimmickry.
The good news for Comcast investors is that most guests won't hate the ride as much as the first wave of disappointed park regulars. The out-of-towners who will will descend into Central Florida this summer aren't there for the white-knuckled scream machines that they can find closer to home. They come to a movie studio-themed park to "ride the movies," something that Fast & Furious: Supercharged -- flawed as it may be -- delivers.