Comcast's (CMCSA 0.44%) Universal Studios has always been a clear secondary player in the central Florida theme park market. Walt Disney's (DIS -4.01%) Magic Kingdom had roughly double the visitors as either of the two Universal parks in 2018, and all four of Disney's parks outdrew their rivals.
Universal, however, has been a serious competitor since it opened The Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Islands of Adventure in 2010. That set a new standard for theme park immersion and forced Disney to invest in improving its own parks.
Now Universal has put Disney on notice again by making public its plans to build another central Florida park. Few details have been released, but Universal's Epic Universe will be Comcast's largest investment ever in its theme park business, and it might be enough to make Universal Studios Florida a true Disney World alternative.
It started with a little magic
The launch of the Harry Potter land (and its expansion into the original Universal Studios park in 2014) set off an arms race of expansion. Disney added an Avatar-themed land at Animal Kingdom, built a Toy Story land in Hollywood Studios, and has started work on a Tron-themed roller coaster at Magic Kingdom, as well as a Mickey Mouse-themed ride at Hollywood Studios.
Walt Disney also made its own massive investment in a heavily themed land based on incredibly popular intellectual property with its soon-to-open Star Wars: Galaxy's Edge in Florida. The Mouse House has also begun a major overhaul of Epcot, with multiple new rides, restaurants, and an interactive pavilion planned.
Universal hasn't just relied on Harry Potter. It launched an innovative waterpark, Volcano Bay, and added rides tied to late-night talk show host Jimmy Fallon and the Fast & Furious film franchise. It also added a heavily themed roller coaster to Wizarding World and launched a new King Kong ride.
Both companies have improved their offerings, but Disney has four theme parks and two water parks, along with countless hotels and the massive Disney Springs shopping area. That has made the Walt Disney properties a better bet to swallow up a family's entire vacation.
Ticket prices at the two companies' theme parks get cheaper as you buy more days. That makes it financially advantageous to spend your entire vacation at one company's parks or the others because splitting your time adds considerable expense.
As it's currently set up, a guest could visit pretty much everything in Universal's two main parks in two days (and you can get through much of both in one). Volcano Bay may be worth a day on its own, but it's hard to justify spending a four or five-day vacation at Universal Studios Florida. Adding Epic Universe, the name the company has given its "fourth gate," should make its parks a true contender to claim a family's full vacation.
Should Disney be worried?
Universal has not released any information about Epic Universe beyond its name. It's likely, however, that it will include attractions based on Nintendo's popular characters, as that partnership has already been announced with Comcast (though it hasn't been revealed where the rides would go in its Florida parks).
It's very likely that Universal delivers an impressive new park that's especially attractive to families with older kids. Disney will essentially counter by overhauling Epcot and adding a slew of new rides throughout its parks.
Epic Universe makes Universal a three- to four-day experience for families. Disney might take five to seven days to fully experience if you also want to visit the water parks. The new Universal gate will put pressure on Disney to keep adding new attractions, and it will probably win the company some added market share.
The winner in this theme parks arms race is the public. Both companies have a major incentive to keep adding attractions and continue to improve their parks. That's something that will continue for the foreseeable future, and it's very possible that both companies add visitors and grow revenue as these expansions open.