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Disney World's Top Rival Is Ready to Fight Back

By Rick Munarriz - Updated Jul 27, 2019 at 11:43AM

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Comcast sets up a media event in Orlando on Aug. 1, probably to discuss new park expansion plans for Universal Orlando. There's a lot at stake after recent stumbles at Florida's second most popular theme park resort.

Things are about to get a lot more interesting in the theme park hotbed of Central Florida. Universal Orlando parent Comcast (CMCSA -0.26%) is hosting a media event next week, and the location of the Aug. 1 event -- the Orange County Convention Center -- has many speculating that Disney's (DIS -1.11%) biggest rival is ready to divulge plans for the massive tracts of land that it has been acquiring nearby. 

Comcast has been tight-lipped on its plans for the roughly 575 acres land it has cleared for development about a mile away from its existing resort. The parcel is larger than its currently land-locked resort, so it has enough room to open at least another two theme parks and several hotels. Comcast's Universal Orlando currently consists of two theme parks and a water park, half of the gated attractions at Disney World. Comcast just opened its seventh hotel, less than a third of the overnight lodging options at Disney World. Universal Orlando doesn't need to be as big as Disney to compete, but it certainly doesn't hurt.

A Marilyn Monroe lookalike and dancers entertain guests at Universal Studios Florida.

Image source: Comcast's Universal Orlando.

Rides make strides

Universal Orlando can use a boost. It spent years closing the gap with Disney World after the 2010 opening of The Wizarding World of Harry Potter, but it's been losing steam in back-to-back years. Its theme park revenue has climbed a modest 3.7% through the first half of the year, likely weaker than Disney which reports fresh financials early next month. Unlike Disney with its expanding operating margin for the segment, Comcast's theme park business has seen its adjusted EBITDA grow slower than its top-line results. 

It doesn't help that new rides and attractions at Universal have received lukewarm reviews in recent years. It finally did open a well-received ride six weeks ago, but Hagrid's Magical Creatures Motorbike Adventure family coaster has been cursed with downtime as a result of mechanical breakdowns and weather-related closures. 

Making matters worse, Disney has spelled out the new attractions coming to the world's most visited theme park resort through the next few years. Comcast hasn't even offered up details on the replacement to the Terminator 2: 3-D show it closed 21 months ago. All park goers have to go on is the fall of 2017 promise of an "all-new live action experience based on a high-energy Universal franchise" that was supposed to open this year. It also hasn't revealed details for what is widely believed to be a new roller coaster going up in its Jurassic Park area, despite massive construction that is currently going on in the area. 

We might learn about those two new additions at Thursday's media event, but the real game changer here would be bar-raising theme park plans for the hungry parcels waiting to be developed. Comcast has ripped pages out of the Disney playbook, opening up theme parks and building out hotels. Expanding with more attractions, lodging, and activities could turn Universal Orlando from a place to check out in a one or two day visit to a week-long destination. 

No matter what Comcast announces next week, theme park fans and investors will have to be patient. It will take several years before guests can swing through the turnstiles of any new gated attraction. However, Comcast could get the market excited if it finally provides details and timelines for new experiences. 

Hope has been dashed before. It's been nearly three years since Comcast announced that Super Nintendo Land would be coming to Universal Orlando, but we're still waiting for the groundbreaking on that project. Has Comcast been dragging its feet on that expansion because it will actually be going into a new park? What other proprietary or licensed franchises will it tap to get folks excited about the future? 

Comcast has time on its side. It will probably be announcing its expansion plans weeks before Disney offers more theme park insight at its D23 conference in Anaheim in late August. Comcast will get a chance to show off next week, and this time it will need to make sure that it delivers.  

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