With the introduction of the new Diagon Alley area, and the Harry Potter based construction currently taking place in Universal Studios Hollywood, do Disney Parks really need to be concerned about attendance numbers and the overall effects of these new Universal lands?
Haven’t You Heard of Universal Studios?
Unless you live under the preverbal rock, you are aware that Universal Studios, both Orlando and Hollywood, have been doing some big things lately. For purposes of this article, we will be focusing primarily on Universal Studios Orlando as they have the most recently completed areas of construction, specifically related to the Harry Potter franchise.
As a disclaimer, I have obviously not been to Diagon Alley, I was not fortunate enough to be invited to the big press events that were happening over the course of this last week or so. (I’m ready for press invites Universal – So whenever you’re ready, send me an email and I’ll be glad to come.)
What’s “New” at Universal Orlando?
Over the past couple of years, Universal Studios Orlando (USO) has added several new attractions and areas to their lineup. These include:
The New Simpson Area – new Springfield themed construction around the Simpsons ride that was there. This construction includes a Moe’s Tavern, Duff Brewery, Kwik-E-Mart, and Krusty Burger. Also there are many iconic characters, and statues/structures that relate directly to the cartoon town.
Minion Mayhem – A conversion of Jimmy Neutron’s Nicktoon Blast. This attraction is one of those where you sit in a moving theatre seats and watch a high definition 3-D movie. As an aside, Jimmy Neutron replaced The Funtastic World of Hanna-Barbera that was first built in 1990, so this is the 3rd overhaul of the same ride. However, they did re-build the queue and exterior to look like Gru’s house.
Transformers The Ride 3-D – Vehicle mounted moving platforms follow a track through the ride, and put you in front of huge 3-D screens, along with physical props and effects. For those of you who know what I am talking about, it’s very similar to the Spiderman Ride, but obviously themed to Transformers.
Updates and Changes to City Walk – The addition of stores and restaurants including Red Oven Pizza Bakery, Antojitos, Cold Stone, Starbucks, Menchies, Cowfish, Hot Dog Hall of Fame, and Bread Box handcrafted sandwiches.
Diagon Alley -It’s obvious that the “Crown Jewel”, so to say, is the New Diagon Alley area. From the Universal Orlando Website:
“All-new thrills and magical experiences await with the opening of The Wizarding World of Harry Potter™ – Diagon Alley™, Summer 2014 at Universal Studios Florida®.
Visit the shops and establishments of Diagon Alley™. Experience the darker side of magic in Knockturn Alley. Then get ready for an adventure on the multi-dimensional thrill ride, Harry Potter and the Escape from Gringotts™.
Plus, guests with a Park-to-Park admission ticket can board the Hogwarts™ Express* and travel from London in Universal Studios® to The Wizarding World of Harry Potter™ – Hogsmeade™ in Universal’s Islands of Adventure®. Guests can also travel the other way from Hogsmeade™ to London for a completely different experience.”
The official opening date has been announced as July the 8th. Many, many pictures have been released of what the public could see, and with the conclusion of the press event, there are also now videos, and even more pictures from places where the public has not been able to see before. A great site to read more about Diagon Alley, and see lots of pictures and video is Ricky Brigante’s preview article found here.
Harry Potter Land and My Experience
So, that being said, I am not here to give some kind of detailed review or rate the new area of the park. I have been to the Hogsmeade area before. I ate at Three Broomsticks, I had Butterbeer, I paid for wands (not for me personally, but I have Potterheads in the family). I got the full experience. It was fine, and that’s exactaly what I mean. It was just…..fine. I am not really a Harry Potter fan, but living in a household that has one, and one that is growing up to be one, I am familiar with the franchise. I thought the theming was great, but overall, I was not really overwhelmed like a lot of people are.
Seeing the video and the pictures of what’s coming up, I am feeling the same way about Diagon Alley. It looks cool, I am definitely going to go. I want to have the overall experience and ride the attractions, but it’s just not some kind of Mecca for me that I have to visit. Keep in mind that I have never read any of the books, and have only seen about half the movies. Honestly, I could drive right by it, and not go, and not feel any worse for the wear. Again, that’s me personally, but if my wife and kid were with me, there is no way I could get away with that.
Diagon Alley looks like some typical Universal construction, based on what they have learned recently. To me, that means that they are building some fantastic sets, immersing you in the environment, making you feel like you are really there, but then cheeping out on certain aspects. For example, why can’t the fire breathing dragon on the roof be animated? (Not like I am a pixie duster, but Disney has had a moving, fire breathing dragon for years in Fantasmic!) Why does every new Universal ride seem to rely so heavily on screens and projections?
Again, this is unfair judgment based on very little information. Sure, the goblins in the lobby of Gringott’s are animatronics, but from what I understand, there are no actual animatronics in the ride itself. (To be fair, Disney does not actually build their own animatronics any more anyway. They haven’t for years now. Garner Holt does them all.)
However, I don’t mean to downplay the ride without riding it. I have heard that it is fantastic, and one of the best attractions there is, so don’t misread my comments as putting down an attraction I have not ridden. Same with the Hogwarts Express, all screen based technology. Sure, it’s cool, and I want to ride it, but again, my point is that Universal seems to be heavily reliant on the use of projection and screens for all their latest attractions. I know that there are also some physical effects in the area, based on the videos I have seen. The interactive wand spots are not all screens, many of them are physical effects. I have also seen the Knight Bus head interacting with the driver, so I know everything is not screen based. Diagon Alley also has several shows and performances that go on during the day, similar to Hogsmead, so the environment seems really immersive, and special; especially for those who know the books and/or movies a lot better than I do.
So…..What’s a Potter Swatter?
Now back to my original question, “Do Disney Parks need a “Potter Swatter”?” First, in case you don’t know, I am using the term “Potter Swatter” (no, I did not make it up) in reference to an area of some park that can directly compete with either, or both, of the Harry Potter themed areas in Universal.
Comparison of Target Demographics between USO and Disney
I guess one of the first things to think about is the target demographic of the respective parks. Disney is known for attracting guests from a very young age to a very old age. Arguably, Universal focuses on a much smaller segment of that market. They seem to be focused on a group that tends to run more like 12-45. Now, I obviously just made up that number, but if you think about the majority of the attractions and rides at universal, there are few rides that the younger, shorter kids can experience, and few rides that older people want to ride. However at Disney, everyone can ride almost every ride, with the exception of some of the big E-Tickets.
Some people tried to argue that Disney World’s Fantasy Land expansion was their direct response to Harry Potter. I don’t think that’s true at all. I think that Disney is working on expanding their offerings, but they are not generally interested in trying to compete with Potter head to head. Meaning, that they have no intention of building some kind of themed area that attempts to lure people in that specific target market, who would normally go to Universal specifically for Harry Potter, back to a Disney Park. They do not need to focus on that limited of a demographic as described above.
Attendance Numbers – Should Disney Worry?
Next, let’s take a look at the most recent attendance numbers for last year. These numbers were recently (like a couple of weeks ago from the time this article was written) released in the TEA Global Attractions Attendance Report; TEA standing for “Themed Entertainment Association” and covers numbers from Theme Parks, Water Parks, Museums and similar attractions from all over the world.
Here’s the numbers for Disney Parks in Orlando from last year:
MAGIC KINGDOM – 18,588,000
EPCOT – 11,229,000
DISNEY’S ANIMAL KINGDOM – 10,198,000
DISNEY’S HOLLYWOOD STUDIOS – 10,110,000
Total – 50,125,000
Here’s the numbers for Universal Parks in Orlando from last year:
ISLANDS OF ADVENTURE – 8,141,000
UNIVERSAL STUDIOS – 7,062,000
Total – 15,203,000
So, Universal’s best park attendance in Florida, Islands of Adventure, is still almost 2,000,000 less than Disney’s worst attendance park in Florida, Hollywood Studios. Islands of Adventure has Hogsmead, and I am sure that there will be a huge spike in attendance at Universal Studios itself in 2014 and on due to the addition of Diagon Alley, however, at this time, Universal Florida has about 30% of the attendance that Disney World does, and that is just comparison of the Florida parks.
If we start to look at the Global numbers, the report is showing huge growth in Asia for all themed parks, Universal included, but they are still not even coming close to Disney.
Walt Disney Company: 132,549,000
Universal Parks and Resorts: 36,360,000
Showing that Universal has about 27% of the attendance numbers that Disney does. If we look at global competition, Merlin Entertainment (Legoland, Alton Towers, Sea Life Aquariums, and Madame Tussauds, to name a few) is coming closer with global attendance numbers of almost 60,000,000. However, 9 of the top 10 parks in the world are Disney. The one exception is Universal Studios in Osaka, Japan at #9, came in ahead of Disney’s California Adventure that had the #10 spot. Islands of Adventure was #11, Universal Orlando was #16. Magic Kingdom was #1, with Tokyo Disneyland a very close #2. If the trend of increase remains consistent, we should see Tokyo Disneyland take over the #1 spot by next year.
There are lots of details and analysis in the report, and a link to that report can be found here if you are interested.
So, Universal Studios, especially globally, is doing nothing near what Disney is doing numbers wise, but Universal is on the rise. The addition of the new attractions is going to help their numbers, and may take away some from Disney, but I don’t think that Disney is required to try to build something to directly “steal” people back from Universal who want to see Harry Potter Land. The addition of these Universal attractions has not made me reduce the amount of time that I spend at Disney, instead it has made me add in a day, or now two, to see Universal. I know that I am not speaking for everyone in every situation, but I do think that a lot of people are now just making extra time to go over to Universal, and that indirectly impacts Disney, but not really enough to make them suffer, or justify trying to build something that will keep people away from Potter. There are too many kids, and many of those kids are now parents, who grew up with Potter, and will do whatever it takes to go see these immersive worlds.
Disney Can Not Be Stagnant or Sit Back and Watch
Disney has many things on the horizon, and even without knowing what they are actually going to follow through with, as long as their parks do not become stagnant, I believe that Universal will never come close. Disney has so many opportunities and rumors flying around right now, it’s hard to know what we will get. Things like what we will get in Pandora (not if we will get it, but what will be there). Star Wars Land in DHS, Cars Land in DHS, or any of the other Lucas properties they now own. What’s going to happen with the area where the American Idol Experience was? What’s going to happen with Tomorrowland, and what could be added if they took out the Autotopia, especially out in California where they can use Marvel in the parks? Renewal of the old Epcot pavilions, specifically Journey to the Imagination, and its possible tie in to the new Pixar movie about the thoughts and feelings in your head. What about the removal of Captain EO? What about Frozen and the Maelstrom, or adding new countries to the World Showcase, like Africa, or Brazil, or any of the others that have been rumored or originally planned? Of course, there’s always the mythical 5th gate theory, but I really don’t want that. I would rather see them improve what they have first.
So – Does Disney Need a Potter Swatter?
So, in summary, Does Disney need to build something that can directly compete for the same target market as Harry Potter in Universal does? In my opinion: No. Disney has little to no reason to attempt to compete directly with Universal for control of that specific target market. No one is going to have absolute control over that market anyway. Disney does not need to get into the business of building ultra-thrill rides like Universal has, just to try to compete. If Potter is the driving force between someone deciding to visit USO and Disney, then let them go to USO. It doesn’t mean they are not going to go to Disney ever, and if they have their heart set on being in the Potter-verse, nothing Disney can build will make them change their mind.
Universal is not even coming close to the numbers that Disney is doing, Potter or not. As long as Disney continues to keep innovating and updating outdated attractions (NOT removing classics); overhauling no longer used spaces like the buildings in Epcot; or using land that was originally intended for park use, but is not; then they will remain the top player in the market. If Disney does nothing, then they will slowly lose market share in all markets, but as long as they continue with new attractions and innovation, and do not become stagnant, there is no way they need to try to build one specific “Potter Swatter” attraction or Land.
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