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Disney World's Top Rival Is Losing Ground

By Rick Munarriz - May 23, 2019 at 2:30PM

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Disney's theme parks grew slightly faster than Universal Orlando's dry theme parks last year, and the gap is going to widen in 2019.

Things are heating up in Central Florida's never-ending theme park war. Comcast's (CMCSA 2.32%) Universal Orlando will open its biggest attraction in nearly five years -- a Harry Potter-themed roller coaster -- on June 13. Two months later, Disney (DIS 3.29%) will debut its most ambitious expansion in two decades with Star Wars: Galaxy's Edge.

Momentum matters as we head into the peak summer travel season, and on that front, we got a taste of how things played out last year when Themed Entertainment Association put out its annual attendance report for 2018 on Wednesday. Disney smoked Comcast on a worldwide basis. Disney's global collection of theme parks saw its turnstile clicks climb 4.9% to an estimated 157.3 million guests last year. Comcast's Universal Studios attractions rose at a more modest 1.2% clip to entertain 50.1 million visitors.   

Things weren't so bad for Comcast in Florida, as its global results were weighed down by a sizable decline at Universal Studios Japan. Disney's results were actually padded by the success it had last year at its Asian parks. However, even if we focus on the Sunshine State, we see that Disney's four parks combined to grow at a higher pace than Universal Orlando's two theme parks for the second year in a row.

A Mickey Mouse garden sculpture at Disney World's Epcot.

Image source: Disney.

It's getting crowded in here 

Park 2018 Attendance 2017 Attendance Change
Magic Kingdom 20,859,000 20,450,000  2%
Animal Kingdom 13,750,000 12,500,000 10%
Epcot 12,444,000 12,200,000  2%
Hollywood Studios 11,258,000 10,722,000  5%
Universal Studios Florida 10,708,000 10,198,000  5%
Islands of Adventure  9,788,000  9,549,000  2.5%

Data source: Themed Entertainment Association and AECOM.

Disney World's four gated attractions saw a combined increase in attendance of 4.4% to 58.3 million. Universal Orlando's two dry theme parks' guests counts climbed 3.8% to 20.5 million. The math gets kinder once we include the water parks at both resorts, largely because Universal Orlando's Volcano Bay didn't open until late May of 2017. On that front, we see Comcast's three parks rising 4.6% to 22.2 million visitors with Disney's six gated attractions climbing 4.3% to 62.6 million guests. In terms of actual guests, Disney World still added 1.6 million more visitors across its offerings than Universal Orlando in 2018. 

It used to be Universal Orlando riding this way. We had a seven-year run -- from 2010 to 2016 -- with Universal Orlando growing faster. The renaissance at Comcast's resort was the 2010 introduction of The Wizarding World of Harry Potter, but after a few poorly received new attractions in recent years, we're seeing momentum shift back to the House of Mouse, just as Disney World is investing in bar-raising attractions.

There's a lot riding on Hagrid's Magical Creatures Motorbike Adventure when it opens at Universal Orlando's Islands of Adventure in three weeks, but it will still be no match for the deluge of Star Wars fans who will be descending to its rival a couple of months later.

With Disney's rich pipeline of new rides and experiences coming to Disney World through the next two years and Comcast tight-lipped about its upcoming additions and plans for a new park, momentum will continue to be in Disney World's corner for the next couple of years. Both companies can still win. An uptick in tourists flocking to Central Florida is a tide that will lift all ships, but for now, it's Disney World making the most of its growing lead.  

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