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Disney Versus Universal: Two Very Different Strategies For Revealing New Attractions

With the bi-annual D23 Expo on the horizon in Anaheim, I thought it would be a good time to take a look corporate strategy for new park announcements. No doubt, the public will get a more detailed look at projects that have already been announced and under-construction like the Star Wars Hotel or the Marvel additions headed for Disney’s California Adventure. I’m sure we will also see a few surprise announcements thrown in the mix as well.

However, have you ever taken a step back and looked at the difference between how Universal and Disney Parks announce major new attractions? The strategies couldn’t be more different and today I thought we’d take a dive into how announcements are done at both companies and give some insight as to why they are handled so differently.

Disney Strategy

For decades, Disney Parks have made announcements years in advance. In more recent years, D23 has been known as the event where most announcements are made for future park attractions, new hotels, or even transportation systems.

With rare exception, these new offerings are announced before construction even begins. This is not to say these projects weren’t in development for years prior to the announcement, but Disney rarely starts construction on a new project before announcing it.

AT D23 EXPO 2017, DISNEY PARKS CHAIRMAN BOB CHAPEK ANNOUNCES NEW MICKEY AND MINNIE’S RUNAWAY RAILWAY — During D23 Expo 2017, Disney Parks Chairman Bob Chapek announces Mickey and Minnie’s Runaway Railway at Disney’s Hollywood Studios at Walt Disney World. The attraction will be the first ever Mickey-themed ride-through attraction, with a new original story and lovable attraction theme song.

This doesn’t mean that work won’t begin almost immediately after the announcement. Just a few weeks after the 2017 D23 Expo, both The Great Movie Ride and Ellen’s Energy Adventure at Walt Disney World were closed permanently. While their replacements, Mickey’s Runaway Railroad and the new Guardians of the Galaxy coaster won’t open until 2020 and 2021 respectively.

Unfortunately, this strategy for announcing new projects does have some drawbacks. As an example, a new theater that was destined for the backside of Main Street USA was quietly scrapped a few months after being announced at the 2017 D23 Expo.

This follows a long line of attractions that were formally announced in one form or another over the decades and later tossed aside. Sometimes the issue is money, oftentimes it is logistical issues and you can even pinpoint it to differing opinions of Disney executives as the project gets passed from one team to the next.

Ultimately, the overall message from Disney Parks around the globe is pretty consistent. They constantly upgrade and add new attractions virtually every year. Thus, whether you are coming this year, next year or five years from now, you’ll always have something new to look forward to on your next visit.

Universal Strategy

Universal Parks, on the other hand, has a totally different strategy when it comes to announcing new projects. Let’s take the example of when Dragon Challenge closed in September 2017.

The announcement of the closure of the dueling coaster was on July 24, 2017. This gave fans less than six weeks to get their final rides before September 4, 2017 and the trains and track started to get demolished.

Now, when Dragon Challenge closed, did Universal know exactly what was going to replace it? Yes, it absolutely did. Hagrid’s Magical Creature Motorbike Adventure was being built for nearly two years in plain sight with barely a peep from Universal acknowledging any specifics on what was coming.

While a teaser image did leak in late 2018 (oh yes, that was a mistake), Universal officially gave details on Hagrid’s new coaster on March 12, 2019. That’s exactly three months before the actual opening of the new ride on June 13. Regardless of the timeline being rushed (it was) to get the attraction officially open, 3 months is a drastic difference from the over 3 years Disney had to announce Galaxy’s Edge at Disney’s Hollywood Studios and Disneyland.

More importantly, let’s assume that Hagrid’s coaster was running smoothly all summer for a moment. Is three months enough time to plan a family vacation from across the country? Most likely not. If a family had already planned a trip to Orlando, the late announcement of the new ride might not have been far enough in advance to budge families from already locking in their Disney reservations down the road.

Also, keep in mind, this isn’t going to change anytime soon. The new Bourne Identity show replacing T2:3D (“allegedly”) at Universal Studios Florida has been under construction for quite some time. Terminator closed at USF in October 2017 and yet again, at the time of closing, Universal knew that a Bourne show would replace the classic action 3D extravaganza.

Yet, here we are in August of 2019 and not a peep from Universal Parks and Resorts about Bourne being associated with any new upcoming show at Universal Studios Florida. Since the new show won’t debut until 2020, don’t expect to see much of anything in terms of an announcement until maybe late 2019.

By now you must be asking yourself, “why are you like this, Universal Parks? Who hurt you?” Believe it or not, these guys…

While you may find it hard to believe, I’m convinced that Universal felt they got burned when they announced Hogsmeade coming to Islands of Adventure two years in advance. On May 31, 2007, Universal and Warner Brothers trumpeted that a Harry Potter-themed land would be headed to Islands of Adventure slated to open in either 2009 or 2010.

Keep in mind, this is roughly two years before Hogsmeade officially opened. Even now, Universal might acknowledge a new land is coming, but they wouldn’t dream of peeping the IP associated with it or any details. A perfect example? The recent announcement of Universal’s Epic Universe. Sure, they acknowledged it’s existence, but that’s about it. Do they know what rides and IPs are going to be featured in the park? Why yes, of course they do. I digress.

So why did Hogsmeade make Universal Parks change how they revealed new offerings? Islands of Adventure took quite a big hit in attendance between the announcement in 2007 and the opening in 2009.

IOA was down 2.4 percent in attendance versus the previous year and no doubt, guest spending took a bigger dive. While they claim the hit was due to guests waiting for Hogsmeade to open, there were far bigger issues to contend with.

For starters, 2008 was the year the term “staycation” was coined and became commonplace for many families. As gas prices soared about $4 a gallon in many states, theme parks across the country were hit hard with lower attendance. To drive guests in to the parks, many operators were offering steep discounts.

If you recall, this was the year Hard Rock Park opened and closed in less than 4 months and the economy was the main reason why the park tanked so quickly.

Probably the biggest thing to keep in mind is how little Islands of Adventure had changed since opening in 1999. In ten years, before the opening of Hogsmeade, the park opened three small attractions: The Flying Unicorn, Storm Force Acceleration, and the High in the Sky Suess Sky Trolley ride.

These were all very modest investments that were spread out over 10 years because frankly, it took guests a long time to warm up to Universal Orlando’s second park. Thus, it was hard to justify spending lots of money on new attractions at a park that was not performing as well as its older sibling.

At the end of the day, who’s to say one strategy is better than the other? There are clearly pros and cons to both. However, we thought it might be interesting to acknowledge the different approaches and see how things play out in the future.

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