Comcast (NASDAQ:CMCS.A) has been conceding defeat to Disney (NYSE:DIS) lately. It bowed out of the bidding war for Twenty-First Century Fox's content assets earlier this week, and Comcast's Universal Orlando fell behind in 2017 in terms of attendance after years of gaining ground on Disney World. Universal Studios Florida and Islands of Adventure saw their combined attendance rise 2% last year, according to industry tracker Themed Entertainment Association. Disney World's four theme parks saw their overall audience counts grow by nearly 4%.
With Disney now a lock to close on its purchase of fresh entertainment properties and big investments at its Florida theme parks, one might conclude that the next few years are Disney's to lose. However, Comcast's Universal Orlando is gaining ground when it comes to water parks, an area that Disney can't afford to keep neglecting if it wants to keep dominating the busy central Florida attractions landscape.
Erupting on the scene
Comcast's Volcano Bay opened in late May of last year, and it's been a game changer. The high-tech watery oasis runs circles around Disney World's older Blizzard Beach and Typhoon Lagoon attractions in terms of thrills, queueing up for rides, and immersive diversions. Guests are given wearable bracelets as they arrive that they use to reserve wait times for the more popular slides. Volcano Bay's signature Krakatau water coaster weaves in and out of the park's flagship volcano structure, putting Typhoon Lagoon's old school rendition to shame. Comcast is beating Disney at its own game.
Volcano Bay had a fair share of hiccups when it initially opened. There were crowd control issues, lulls between attraction return times, and the park often had to turn away guests on capacity constraints. The first wave of reviews was brutal. Despite the challenges, its abridged rookie year was a success. Volcano Bay attracted 1.5 million guests in 2017. Disney's Typhoon Lagoon and Blizzard Beach clocked in with attendance of 2.163 million and 1.945 million, respectively, despite being open for nearly five more months than Comcast's debutante.
Attendance at Disney World's water parks declined a combined 6% last year, a sharp contrast to the increase at its larger theme parks. Weather wasn't always kind, but clearly Volcano Bay had a gravitational pull away from the established water parks. It wouldn't be a surprise if Comcast's Volcano Bay overtakes Blizzard Beach and possibly even Typhoon Lagoon in turnstile clicks in 2018, its first full year of operation. It will definitely overtake each of the Disney parks in revenue, as Volcano Bay tickets cost more, and there's a wider array of food and beverage options available once inside.
Disney will have to decide if it wants to concede the sea battle. It's been years since Blizzard Beach has added a substantial new ride or water slide. Typhoon Lagoon added a tame family raft ride last year, but it came at the expense of removing a popular and unique snorkeling attraction. In short, Disney's been phoning it in with its water parks, just as it did with its theme parks until Comcast began gaining ground following the 2010 debut of the Wizarding World of Harry Potter. Disney World finally raised the bar last year with its Flight of Passage flying banshee simulator, and it will likely do the same when Star Wars: Galaxy's Edge takes off in late 2019.
Volcano Bay needs to provide the same kind of wake-up call to Disney's two water parks that it received with its theme parks following Comcast's Harry Potter-themed rejuvenation. Comcast isn't going away, and it has already started developing a tract of land that is larger than its entire existing resort. Disney has a window, but it may only be open for a couple of years. It's time to take its water parks to the next level.