On the surface, Orlando theme parks seem to live in harmony. Behind the scenes, though, competition is fierce and every company has their private strategy to grab a larger share of tourist dollars.
In this reporter’s opinion, Universal Orlando is the team to keep an eye on over the next few years. While Walt Disney World continues to post steady figures, Universal’s annual attendance increases have doubled, if not tripled, over the Mouse’s these past two years. Plus their guest spending has shot through the roof – making Universal the envy of the industry.
Universal made some very smart moves to get here. Starting with a series of employee meetings they held in 2003…
Every year at the end of football season, I get nostalgic for an event that Universal Orlando held for its Team Members. Called “We Will Win!” it was held for several years, right around Super Bowl time. The first was in February of 2003 and took place in a soundstage behind the New York Public Library facade. “We Will Win!” was a combination pep rally and State of the Union address, with just a dash of friendly ‘jabs’ at the expense of the other Orlando theme parks.
The rally was the brain child of Universal Orlando President Bob Gault. Bob was a people person: innovative, approachable, open and honest. He was brought into Universal Orlando in February 2002, six months after September 11th. Things had never things been that rosy for the resort to begin with; now, with a public understandably reluctant to travel, every tourist destination in America was suffering from the after-effects of 9/11.
Plus, there had been a lot of confusion about what Islands of Adventure was exactly. In 1999, when IOA opened, Universal decided to name their entire resort “Universal Escape” which encompassed everything including Universal Studios Florida, Islands of Adventure, CityWalk and the resorts. Gault’s mission was simple: to get each family that was planning a primarily Disneyfied vacation to spend some time – and money – at Universal. And while there, to have a vacation worth telling their friends about and come back for.
“We Will Win!” became the battle cry for every Universal employee determined to win the theme park ‘wars’ in Orlando.
The theme of that first pep rally in 2003 was ‘The Super Bowl’. Team Members were greeted by Universal managers wearing bright blue ‘UO’ football jerseys and handing out free sodas and bags of popcorn. The atmosphere was that of a football stadium. Bleachers lined the presentation area: a field of green AstroTurf with white yardage lines painted on it. Traditional stadium songs like Queen’s We are the Champions were blasted over loud speakers while the managers encouraged folks to sing along and threw foam footballs to the crowd.
The Pep Rally started with a video of the Universal mascots – Woody Woodpecker, Scooby Doo, Feivel, Dudley Do-Right and about a half-dozen more – playing a football game in the nearby Dr. Philips High School stadium. The film was set up like a commercial for Monday Night Football. A gravel-voiced narrator set the scene while the characters huddled together in a circle on the field:
“One amazing team. Two incredible theme parks. The goal? To be the best entertainment destination in Orlando.” The video then cut to various characters running across the field, throwing, catching and even a few of them diving across a goal line. But as the video progressed, it became clear they were not playing with a pigskin. Each shot showed just a tiny glimpse of what they were tossing around…
It was a plush doll. Big black ears. Yellow shoes. The final shot was of Dudley Do Right down on one knee and the object was snapped back to him – then it came perfectly into frame: they were playing football with a Mickey Mouse plush.
Popeye took a running start and kicked Mickey square in the face and through the goal post as the graphic ‘Universal Orlando Wins!!!’ filled the screen. The crowd went berserk, cheering their ‘team’ to victory. It was gutsy, but brilliant.
The rest of the presentation was given by the top Universal executives; Bob called them his “winning team”. After sharing the latest attendance figures for Universal, Disney and Sea World, each one talked about their division, the challenges they faced in the Central Florida market, and their plans for meeting those challenges…
One major problem was that the public didn’t really catch on to Universal’s marketing plan. The entire point of adding a second gate, hotels and a shopping/dining district was to get people to come for two or three days. But most folks thought that Islands of Adventure was an addition to the Studios – not an entirely new park. So they still only allotted one day to visit Universal instead of two. Universal had spent billions of dollars on this gamble, but bad marketing combined with 9/11 left them scrambling to reboot the entire property’s image, which started with the “Universal Orlando Resort” name change that they still use today.
Another company-wide goal was to “Bring back the Brits”. The number of British tourists had been sliding at UO and they are coveted in Orlando because of their vacationing style. Typically speaking, when the British tourists come to America, they do it right – spending at least 2 weeks in the states. If they spend that time in Central Florida — that’s a lot of potential time for theme parks. The executives showed several commercials that would only appear across the pond. They announced their plan to open a “U.K. Guests Welcome Center” during peak times to make the Brits feel more at home.
They also revealed they were working on a new night time entertainment show in CityWalk to encourage guests to stay on Universal property longer into the evening, and to put CityWalk on the map as a major night-time destination. No specific details were given at the time, but in 2007 the Blue Man Group premiered in one of the old Nickelodeon sound stages. A 3-minute preview of Shrek 4-D was also shown to employees, which was going to open later in June 2003. All-in-all it was an engaging, informative and fascinating presentation.
Bob Gault retired as President of Universal Orlando in December of 2006. He had a unique approach to delivering important messages: do it yourself. Bob and his “winning team” gave the presentation six times over the course of two weeks, including weekends and even during third shift. He got to look ALL of his workers in the eye and get them excited about working for Universal Orlando without resorting to bribery, or promising better work conditions or raises. Impressive and inspiring.
So here we are in 2013 and look at what Universal Orlando has accomplished. Their attendance has sky-rocketed because of better marketing, opening new attractions such as Rip Ride Rockit, Universal’s Cinematic Spectacular and the Wizarding World of Harry Potter. Not only are guests staying more than one day; many are now going to Universal Orlando first, driven by the new Harry Potter additions to the park.
Most importantly? Universal now gets to be the first place many guests spend their hard-earned souvenir and food money, which means a huge increase in revenue for the resort. And with all the additions coming down the road — including the new Transformers attraction and an entirely new Harry Potter-themed section of Universal Studios Florida — Universal Orlando is smelling like a rose and has many theme parks around the world envious of what they have achieved and their potential for the future. The game has changed.
What do you think of the presentation? Do you think Bob Gault did the right thing in getting every employee on board with his vision for the future? Or do employees who flip burgers, operate attractions, and scan tickets not need to see pie charts about attendance figures? After all, it doesn’t affect their pay or job (or does it?). Leave your comments in the section below.