There are a lot of major new additions coming to the Central Florida landscape in the realm of theme parks this year. Disney (NYSE:DIS) will be introducing Pandora -- The World of Avatar, the Avatar-themed expansion at Disney's Animal Kingdom in May. SeaWorld Entertainment (NYSE:SEAS) is upgrading its dated Kraken roller coaster with virtual reality headsets and introducing a new nighttime show. Legoland Florida is adding its second hotel, and Kissimmee's Fun Spot America is adding the Southeast's first wooden coaster featuring a 360-degree barrel roll.
However, perhaps the biggest single attraction this year -- from a synergy perspective -- is Race Through New York Starring Jimmy Fallon at Comcast's (NASDAQ:CMCSA) Universal Studios Florida. The Tonight Show-themed attraction that sends guests on a simulated trek through New York City officially opens on April 6, but the ride began entertaining guests yesterday as it kicked off a soft opening.
To be fair, Race Through New York Starring Jimmy Fallon isn't topping the list of most theme park enthusiasts most anticipated attractions for 2017. Comcast itself would much rather nudge the attention to May's opening of Volcano Bay, the high-tech boutique waterpark that Universal Orlando is billing as its third theme park.
However, let's not sell the ride, which unofficially opened for test runs on Thursday, short. It's going to be a big deal for Comcast, even if doesn't set the world on fire the way that Volcano Bay or Disney's Pandora -- The World of Avatar will when they debut during Memorial Day weekend.
Brand on the run
Race Through New York Starring Jimmy Fallon is replacing the Twister tornado-simulator attraction, but it's more than just something shiny for park guests to enjoy. The building that houses the attraction is a recreation of 30 Rockefeller Plaza, the iconic NBC building that is home to Saturday Night Live, Fallon's Tonight Show, and several NBC programs.
It's at this point that it's worth remembering that Comcast owns NBCUniversal. There's a big old Comcast and NBC sign on the building, but it doesn't seem as if it's blatant self-marketing. The building and recreated lobby where guests wait until it's their time to ride make this the perfect place for Comcast to not only promote The Tonight Show but the entire NBC lineup.
Millions of people -- the park entertained nearly 9.6 million guests in 2015 according to industry watcher Themed Entertainment Association -- will be exposed to the Comcast building every year. It doesn't matter if the ride itself isn't mind-blowing. Social media's first wave of riders were giving it mixed reviews yesterday.
The one thing that matters is that this building that fits perfectly into the Universal Studios Florida landscape is a monument for all things Comcast.
Disney doesn't own the intellectual capital behind Avatar, and it's not even the studio putting out the upcoming sequels. SeaWorld Orlando may see a spike in interest for its forgotten coaster with Kraken's VR update, but it won't be a surprise if all it does is make folks disoriented and queasy or irate about the slow load times. Volcano Bay is a much bigger investment for Comcast than this new ride, but as a water park, it will be lucky if it draws a quarter of the guests that Universal Studios Florida does. Race Through New York Starring Jimmy Fallon is a brand-building experience that no other theme park attraction in 2017 will match. If you can package promo in a family-friendly thrill-ride wrapper, you've won this year's fight.