Comcast's (NASDAQ:CMCSA) Universal Studios theme park in Orlando, Fla., has had a tremendous run of success with its two attractions based on the Harry Potter franchise.
Though the company licenses rather than owns these characters, it secured a long-term deal that led to The Wizarding World of Harry Potter. The rides, shops, and themed areas associated with the boy wizard were a key part of why the company's theme parks brought in $651 million during the first quarter, up 33.7% from $487 million in the same period last year. The parks' operating cash flow also reached $263 million in the quarter, a 54.6% year-over-year increase from $170 million.
This, the company wrote in its earnings report, reflected "higher guest attendance and per capita spending, driven by the continued success of Orlando's The Wizarding World of Harry Potter -- Diagon Alley."
Now, Comcast's theme park division plans to build on its Harry Potter success by working with another set of fictional characters, those made popular by Nintendo (OTC:NTDOY).
What is happening?
Nintendo, which has been quite protective of its characters (well, aside from the awful Super Mario Bros. movie) has licensed its stable to Universal Studios for use in its theme parks. The two companies have released few details about what this actually means, but Universal Orlando executive Tom Schroder announced it on the theme park's blog last week:
I'm thrilled to share that Nintendo and Universal Parks & Resorts today announced plans to bring the world of Nintendo to life at Universal theme parks.
Together, these two storytelling giants will create spectacular, dedicated experiences based on Nintendo's wildly popular games, characters and worlds.
The agreement brings two icons of entertainment together and represents a significant partnership for Nintendo as it expands the reach and popularity of its characters and intellectual property.
Will that mean a life-size Mario Kart game or perhaps a Legend of Zelda adventure? Neither side has offered any specifics, but Schroder promised that it would be big:
Nintendo has created remarkable and imaginative worlds filled with captivating stories and beloved characters.
Now, for the first time, those stories and characters will be brought to life in entirely new ways -- only at Universal theme parks.
The immersive experiences will include major attractions at Universal's theme parks and will feature Nintendo's most famous characters and games.
Access to these characters gives Universal a lot to play with and the ability to create attractions that appeal to wide stretches of the population. Nintendo has always been the most family-friendly of the gaming companies, and its biggest stars should fit in well with the Universal parks, which, in addition to the Harry Potter attractions (in Orlando only), have rides themed to various Marvel characters and movie franchises including Shrek, Men in Black, Twister, and more.
Why does this matter?
Disney (NYSE:DIS) has a major theme park advantage over Universal because it has a seemingly endless vault of characters to use -- aside from the quirk that the House of Mouse can't use its own Marvel characters because Universal licensed them for U.S. theme parks before Disney bought the company.
Disney also owns Pixar, which produces a movie or two each year with theme park potential, and its own animation division riding high on the massive success of Frozen (for which a ride is being built in Orlando's Epcot Center). Add in Star Wars, a longtime Disney theme parks license that the company now owns in full, and it's clear Universal has to play catch up.
Partnering with Nintendo gives the company a new array of characters that are familiar to audiences of all ages and have storylines that lend themselves well to video games. Mario Kart might be the most obvious example, but the Nintendo catalog has many other properties worth exploiting.
Imagine a Wave Race 64 ride at the rumored new Universal Orlando water park, or a Donkey Kong-based attraction at one of the other parks. This deal with Nintendo is not just an answer to Frozen but a good counter to Disney's plans to dramatically increase its Star Wars park content. This agreement builds on the Harry Potter buzz and keeps Universal's parks exciting as fans wait to see which rides are developed and how the company incorporates Mario, Link, and the rest of the Nintendo gang.