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The growing divide in the theme park industry pits Disney and Universal against everyone else – OCRegister


What is more important to theme parks — roller coasters or video games?

I suspect that most people would answer roller coasters. But if you look at attendance numbers, it becomes clear that thrill rides such as coasters don’t drive attendance the way that attractions based on popular characters from movies, television and even video games do. That’s created a growing divide between theme park chains — one that became even more apparent over the past couple of weeks.

Universal recently kicked off its promotional campaign for the new Super Nintendo World land that it will open this summer at Universal Studios Japan in Osaka. The video game-themed land will open later at Universal Studios Hollywood and then in 2023 with the debut of Universal’s new Epic Universe theme park in Orlando.

In a conference call with Wall Street investors, company executives said that they expect the Nintendo lands to drive attendance the way that Universal’s The Wizarding World of Harry Potter lands brought millions of new visitors each year to its parks in the last decade.

At the same time, the SeaWorld chain of theme parks hosted media tours of a few of the new roller coasters it is building at all of its SeaWorld and Busch Gardens parks across the country this year. The Universal and SeaWorld chains used to attract roughly the same number of visitors to their theme parks each year, but now they stand on either side of the industry’s divide.

From 2006 — when Knott’s Berry Farm owner Cedar Fair bought the old Paramount Parks chain in the last major shake-up in the U.S. theme park industry — through the most recent annual industry attendance report in 2018, Universal’s theme parks worldwide collectively enjoyed a 94 percent increase in annual attendance, followed by Disney’s 40 percent increase.

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Six Flags did the next best, but had just a 12 percent increase in attendance. The Cedar Fair and the SeaWorld/Busch Gardens chains lagged with attendance increases of 5 and 4 percent over the period.

The difference? Universal and Disney are huge entertainment studios with access to hundreds of beloved characters and the billions of dollars needed to create immersive theme park environments based upon them. The other chains are all independent companies that don’t have those resources.

That’s why Universal can afford to develop multiple lands around the world based on the Mario video game franchise that’s made more money than even the Marvel or Star Wars movies have. And that’s why the best that SeaWorld can do to respond is to build more roller coasters.

SeaWorld’s animal shows and exhibits won’t help, either. Zoos and aquariums typically do lower attendance than theme parks, after all. Universal needed Harry Potter to make its attendance leap. But the only magic the rest of the industry can conjure is the thrill of riding a great new roller coaster.

So that’s what they build. As a coaster fan, I am grateful that they do. But when we talk about theme parks, it is clear now that that we really are talking about two different industries. There’s Disney and Universal … and then there’s everyone else.



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