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When Will Disney World Announce a Fifth Theme Park?

By Rick Munarriz - May 30, 2016 at 11:00AM

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Disney World's Animal Kingdom turned 18 last month, but that's not the only reason why the theme park giant should be thinking about adding a fresh theme park in Florida.

Image source: Disney.   

It's now been more than 18 years since Disney (DIS 1.84%) has opened a new theme park in Florida. That's notable, because the world's largest operator of theme parks has never lasted more than about a decade between rolling out new gated attractions at Disney World. 

  • Magic Kingdom -1971
  • Epcot -1982
  • Disney's Hollywood Studios -1989
  • Animal Kingdom -1998

The heady expansion after Epcot could be credited to then CEO Michael Eisner's push to make Disney World a weeklong vacation destination. Between four theme parks, a pair of water parks, a recently revamped shopping and entertainment district, and several on-site hotels one can spend a week at the resort and still not do everything.

However, with 47 square miles of land to play with it's not as if Disney doesn't have the space to keep dreaming. It also may want to start pondering a fifth theme park before its biggest rival catches up.

Universal truths

A couple of miles away on I-4, Comcast's (CMCSA 2.68%) Universal Orlando is gaining ground on the House of Mouse. Universal Orlando's resort consists of two theme parks and four -- soon to be five -- resort hotels. Comcast's Central Florida resort is rolling, growing substantially faster than Disney since the addition of The Wizarding World of Harry Potter in 2010.

 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.    

Universal Orlando is busy with cranes and hardhats. Sapphire Falls will open this summer as the resort's fifth on-site hotel. Next summer will welcome the arrival of the Volcano Bay water park. 

Disney is growing, but Comcast's theme park division is growing even faster. The rub in Universal Orlando's plan for world -- or World -- domination is space. There won't be a lot of expansion space left by the time the new hotel and water park open, but late last year Comcast became opportunistic.

Comcast shelled out $130 million for a 475-acre tract of land. That's enough room for one if not two more theme parks, and more hotels. It's not ideal, located nearly three miles away from the existing resort. However, Disney World's theme parks are also several miles apart. Sure, Disney owns the land in between, but it's not a deal breaker for Universal Orlando's likely expansion.

Comcast's NBCUniversal offers it plenty of fertile soil for theme park lands or concepts. It also has its lucrative partnership with J.K. Rowling for Harry Potter, inking a deal with Nintendo last year. More importantly, if it's able to match Disney with four theme parks it can afford to market itself to tourists as a weeklong destination, too.

Disney knows it can squeeze a week out of visitors, and it even offers shuttle service from the airport so folks aren't tempted to rent cars or rely on cabs to drive them away. If Comcast is able to double the size of Universal Orlando's theme parks, it may force Disney to raise the bar -- and one way that it can do that is a fifth theme park.

Disney may hope that it doesn't come to that. It has ambitious land additions in the works for its two least visited Florida parks. However, Disney World wouldn't have attracted 54 million guests last year with just two gated attractions, and it follows that a new park would help increase attendance. The move would also justify higher resort hotel, multi-day ticket, and annual pass rates.

By the time Universal Orlando announces its expansion plans, Disney -- and Disney stockholders -- better be ready. It's an arms race in Central Florida, and one side is loading up on ammo.  

Editor's note: This article has been corrected to note that the Magic Kingdom opened in 1971. 

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