Image source: Disney.   

Last year was lucrative for theme park operators and their investors. Shares of four of the five publicly traded regional amusement and national theme park operators posted double-digit percentage gains last year. The lone holdout was Universal Studios parent Comcast (NASDAQ:CMCSA) (UNKNOWN:CMCSK.DL), held back over concerns of its larger cable operations in an era of cord-cutting millennials. 

It's ironic that Comcast stock was the only stock to take a step back in 2015, because its theme parks led the way in terms of growth. Industry tracker Themed Entertainment Association is out with its annual update on global park attendance. Most theme park operators don't publish tallies of their turnstile clicks, leaving it up to Themed Entertainment Association to tap its sources and resources in assembling its estimated attendance counts. 

Disney (NYSE:DIS) remains the global and national leader, and it helped fuel a strong year for the industry. The 20 most visited parks in the U.S. saw their guest counts rise 5.9% to 146.3 million park goers. Disney experienced strong gains at its California parks, but the upticks were more modest at its larger Disney World resort. Just one of its theme parks topped the national average, and barely at that with the Magic Kingdom's 6% advance. It topped 20 million guests for the first time, a new attendance record.

Disney World's second-most-visited attraction -- Epcot -- managed a mere 3% advance in 2015. Animal Kingdom and the shell of a park that Disney's Hollywood Studios has become clocked in with 5% gains in attendance. 

No one would classify that as a failure, but a few exits down the I-4 highway Disney World's biggest rival keeps killing it. Attendance at Universal Studios Florida soared 16% in 2015, fueled by the 2014 expansion of The Wizarding World of Harry Potter into its gated realm. The adjacent Islands of Adventure park entertained 8% more guests than it did a year earlier, and it did so despite a lack of a major recent attraction and its most popular roller coaster shut down for a lengthy refurbishment during the final few months of the year.

Mouse hunting

This isn't the first time that we've seen Universal Orlando eat Disney World's lunch. It's been happening for several years now. If you go all the way back to 2009 -- just as the global recession was weighing on the tourism industry and Islands of Adventure was about to reinvent the game with the original Wizarding World of Harry Potter buildout -- the race isn't even close.

 Feature2009 Attendance2015 AttendanceChange
Magic Kingdom 17,233,000  20,492,000 18.9%
Epcot 10,990,000 11,798,000 7.4%
Animal Kingdom 9,590,000 10,922,000 13.9%
Hollywood Studios 9,700,000 10,822,000 11.6%
Universal Studios Florida 5,530,000 9,585,000 73.3%
Islands of Adventure 4,627,000 8,792,000 90%

Data source: Themed Entertainment Association.    

It's certainly true that Universal Orlando is drawing fewer guests than the House of Mouse, making it easier to post larger gains on a percentage basis. However, even if we look at the sheer growth in guest count we're seeing Comcast's theme parks closing the gap. Universal Orlando's two parks entertained 8.2 million more people combined last year than they did in 2009. Disney's gain is 6.5 million despite having twice as many parks and a much larger ecosystem of resort hotels. 

Everything can change once Disney upgrades its theme parks, but it also wouldn't be a surprise to see Universal Studios Florida and possibly even Islands of Adventure overtake Disney's Hollywood Studios in total attendance in a few years -- at least until Star Wars Land raises the bar. 

Both theme park giants have big attractions opening in the coming weeks. Islands of Adventure will finally be getting its first new attraction in years with its King Kong-themed ride that should open in late June. The highly anticipated return of the park's iconic Hulk coaster is slated for late summer, but it began going through test runs on the new track a few days ago. 

Disney, on the other hand, will be providing a boost to its slowest-growing park when Soarin' Around the World and Frozen Ever After open at Epcot next month. With dramatic price hikes at both resorts, the new additions need to deliver. Disney can no longer ignore when it sees Comcast's Universal Orlando in its side-view mirror. Objects in the mirror are truly closer than they appear.