Comcast's (NASDAQ:CMCSA) big push to double the size of its Universal Orlando resort in Florida is taking another big step to becoming a reality. The media giant has filed development plans with the county for a 541.5-acre parcel of land just outside its current resort. It's only a matter of time before Comcast builds at least one more theme park, a few more hotels, and several other tourist-drawing attractions.
Universal Orlando trying to catch up to its neighbor Disney (NYSE:DIS) a few I-4 exits away isn't a surprise. Comcast has been gobbling up land over the past two years, and earlier this year was able to negotiate its way out of a private deed restriction that was getting in the way of developing an additional theme park. This is going to be a dogfight for market supremacy in the coming years, and while there's certainly room for two or more winners here, an operator doesn't stand a chance if it's not playing to win.
This ride goes in circles
Comcast has been closing the attendance gap with Disney in recent years, but now it's the industry leader's turn to step on the accelerator. Average attendance at Disney's theme parks grew at a faster clip than at Universal Orlando's offerings last year, something that we haven't seen since Comcast raised the bar with the 2010 debut of its Wizarding World of Harry Potter expansion.
Another thing that has been a rare sighting since the Potter infusion at Universal properties is a decline in revenue, but that's just what we saw last week. Comcast's theme parks segment experienced a 1.4% year-over-year decline in revenue for the third quarter, and an even larger slide in the division's profitability. Comcast blames the shortfall on adverse weather and natural disasters near its park in Japan, but its stateside parks used to be more than enough to lift overall performance for the segment positive when there were hiccups overseas in the past.
There won't be a point in catching up to Disney in the next three years. After two decades of playing it safe, Disney is making major Disney World additions an annual thing as the resort approaches turning 50 in 2021. Universal Orlando has what seems to be a slick and heavily themed family-friendly coaster opening next year, but 2019 will belong to Disney with its Star Wars-themed expansion and the debut of the resort's first Mickey Mouse ride. Other major additions tied to Guardians of the Galaxy, Tron, and Ratatouille will open in the following two years. Throw in a couple of new hotels and a new way for guests to get around the resort via aerial gondola, and anything that Comcast does in the next three years will be like screaming into the wind.
Comcast is playing the long game here, and that means likely conceding defeat until 2022 when Disney stops to catch its breath. This also happens to be the first feasible window for Comcast to put some of its new projects in action on the currently undeveloped land. Between now and then, it will have to come up with a compelling and efficient way to get guests from one parcel to the other. There's a lot of Orlando between the existing properties at the moment, but there's also plenty of time to figure that out when so much is at stake in the never-ending Central Florida battle for tourist dollars.