I was driving around Miami, hours removed from the theme park hotbed of Central Florida, when some familiar sights appeared just feet away from my windshield. I saw Harry Potter, wielding his wand promoting Universal Orlando's The Wizarding World of Harry Potter. I saw Optimus Prime pitching Transformers The Ride: 3D, one of the newer high-tech attractions at the same resort.
It wasn't a billboard. It was merely a Comcast (NASDAQ:CMCSA) (UNKNOWN:CMCSK.DL) repair tech van with ad-wrapped windows. It may seem like an odd pairing -- a beloved theme park resort that's closing the attendance gap with Disney's (NYSE:DIS) iconic Florida attractions and a despised cable television provider that was Consumerist's Most Hated Company in America last year -- but it makes sense. Comcast acquired the park when it snapped up NBCUniversal.
The fast-growing resort that's been posting double-digit spikes in attendance in recent years is owned by the company that's losing video customers with every passing quarter. It's a stark contrast in brands, but it's brilliant when you think about it. Given Comcast's Xfinity outages and notorious customer service reputation, there have to be a lot of repair technicians driving around to right the wrongs. Turning them into rolling billboards for its best-performing subsidiary is a no-brainer. Making the Comcast brand seem cooler in association can only help.
It's hard to deny the success that Comcast has had in the theme park business. The addition of The Wizarding World of Harry Potter in Florida -- and next year in California -- may have been spearheaded by the former regime, but Comcast has not dropped the baton by committing to new rides, attractions, and resort hotels.
It's a legitimate threat to Disney. The success of Universal Orlando may have delivered a record number of tourists to the area -- Orlando recently overtook New York City in terms of annual visitors -- but instead of spending all week at Disney World, a lot of folks are coming just to do things outside of the House of Mouse.
We see it in the financial statements. Comcast's theme parks posted year-over-year gains of 26% in revenue and 45% in operating cash flow in its latest quarter. A 21% spike in attendance at Universal Orlando and an uptick in per-capita spending helped drive the impressive showing. That compares to a mere 4% year-over-year advance in revenue at Disney's theme parks division during the same period.
The Universal Orlando revival has been as fierce as it's been stunning, and it comes at a time when Disney World has been spending more time adding Starbucks locations than new rides and attractions. That will change. Disney will be spending the next few years adding the E-ticket attractions that it should have introduced years ago. However, until we begin to see the same injection of effervescence at Disney World that Universal Orlando has accomplished in recent years, we will continue to see the smaller resort growing faster than the larger one.
Two weeks ago, I compared how attendance at Disney World's four parks and Universal Orlando's two parks have fared over the past five years, contrasting the dramatic impact that The Wizarding World of Harry Potter has had for Comcast with how taking it easy has kept Disney's turnstile clicks in check. I had someone comment that it wasn't fair to use 2009 as the springboard since Disney held up better than the competition during the global recession.
OK. Let's go all the way back to 2006 then, before there were any whiffs of the inevitable financial crisis.
|Universal Studios Florida||6,000,000||8,263,000||37.7%|
|Islands of Adventure||5,300,000||8,141,000||53.6%|
The disparity isn't as dramatic as it was with 2009 as the starting point, but once again, we find Universal Orlando growing substantially faster than Disney World since 2006. Comcast once tried to buy Disney. The unsolicited 2004 offer for $54 billion was rightfully shot down by Disney. However, the rejection could be what has prompted the spurned Comcast to work on its own theme park empire.
It's doing pretty well on that front, and now it has an army on wheels of service vehicles to do its promotional bidding. Well played, Comcast.
Rick Munarriz owns shares of Walt Disney. The Motley Fool owns and recommends Starbucks and Walt Disney. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.