Monday, July 29, 2019

Speculation On Universal Orlando's Epic Announcement

On Thursday, August 1st at 10am Comcast will host a press event at the Orange County Convention Center to announce major news and changes to the Universal Orlando resort. Comcast leadership has not been shy in stating their goals: increasing on site hotel rooms, aggressively expanding the resort, and investing more money than the competition to build out a week long vacation experience.

As with any tight lipped media event and vague promises expectations easily skyrocket to include everything and anything imaginable. I have already seen people say they need to show expanded Nintendo concept art, a hotel, and more. The fandom's anticipation has reached a boiling point where even the loftiest announcements could be met with disappointment. I reject these pie-in-the-sky wishes because they quickly become expectations. Instead I want to take the time to pontificate, based on Universal's own words and actions, on what could be discussed on Thursday.

Disclaimer, this is speculation and should be treated as such.

First, let's start with Alicia's January 2019 leak of Fantastic Worlds documentation and a follow up article about Classic Monsters land. The presentation highlights some general concepts of the land: Super Nintendo World, multiple lands, a hub-and-spoke style design, along with the name Fantastic Worlds. In addition to Alicia's column make sure to read our break down of several rumors of lands coming to Fantastic Worlds.

On August 1st I believe we will be left with more questions than we came into the event with. I do not expect we'll find out every land in the new park let alone the attraction concepts. Parks like Shanghai Disneyland did not show their attractions until closer to opening and Universal Studios Beijing still has not discussed its additions. Islands of Adventure's preview center, opened in 1997, featured general themes and broad attraction concepts without diving into details. Do not come into Thursday expecting details of the third park.

Second, there are a lot of outstanding news items Universal can cover while they have the attention of the media: Halloween Horror Nights 29 announcements, the T2:3D replacement attraction still slated for 2019, entertainment announcements like the Dark Arts at Hogwarts show, and Jurassic World enhancements in IoA for 2021. It would make sense for Universal to include at least one of those announcements in a "current state of the parks" opening overview.

Third, I want to focus on two quotes. One, is this quote from the leaked documents Alicia posted:
"Our major competition in our theme park segment had been [given a] "free ride" due to a lack of aggressive competition in stepping up. Over the next five years Comcast is increasing this competition, through investing [more] in our theme park segment than it spent to acquire Universal."
The other is from the Comcast investment call on July 26th, 2019:
"Just looping back to Parks, which was part of your question, Jessica. We continue to remain very bullish on the Parks business and obviously we're investing in Beijing. We're investing in our domestic parks. We think there is a lot of opportunity down in Orlando. We've built a lot of hotel rooms we will be talking more about investment in the state of Florida and it's now about a third of NBCUniversal's total operating cash flow and we continue to love the business and think it fits very well with our animated movie business and other things that we're doing."
Universal isn't mincing words here: they are investing significant amounts of money into Orlando due to Disney's Blue Ocean strategy of My Disney Experience/FastPass+/MagicBands over rides. Universal sees their position as weak competition now flush with guests and cash that can take advantage of their unique position. Disney's weaknesses are complicated planning, poor value, and, up until recently, a lack of new attractions comparative to attendance. Universal so far has attacked at those weaknesses: a focus on relaxation over reservations, on site room deals and ticket promotions, and yearly major additions.

I speculate Universal Orlando will now move to chip away or remove the last remaining pillars of Walt Disney World's lock on the market. Now, I know Universal will never, ever, be able to compete with the animation and movie history Disney now has. Nor will it compete with Haunted Mansion, Pirates of the Caribbean, World Showcase, or Animal Kingdom. Nor the decades of Disneyana fandoms and preserved history. All of these are nearly impossible to hurdle and core pillars of Disney fandom.

Instead Disney has set up several monumental programs and infrastructure in place that keep guests returning and locked in. The primary of those programs is Magical Express, the "free" bus transportation from Orlando International Airport (MCO) to Walt Disney World resorts (in 2013 over 2 million guests rode the Magical Express). By removing the cost of transportation on the ground from the equation guests are more likely not to spring for a rental car, taxi, or Uber to explore the rest of Orlando. 

Walt Disney said it best, Walt Disney World has "a blessing of size". Large resorts, entertainment districts, and the ability to build custom facilities was not available to the landlocked Universal Orlando property. Look at what WDW built so far this year: conference space, convention hotels, and transportation infrastructure. While Royal Pacific does offer some convention space it is severely limited compared to WDW's.

With the new land acquired Universal can expand the resort but they're in a unique location to form partnerships in the community. As speculated on Inside Universal a large part of the announcement could focus on Universal partnering with the Orange County Convention Center, local hotels, and one of the major rail projects to drive attendance to the resort. Partnering with the OCCC can bring in over 1.4 million guests as part of Universal hotel/park packages. Working with local hotels will let Universal focus on their new park and premier resort while the vast majority of accommodations will be handled by others (with that likely being reduced as more Universal hotels are opened).

The bigger news would be partnering with an in development Orlando rail line to transport guests from Orlando International to the parks. Over 44 million guests fly through MCO yearly with over 2 million of those using Magical Express, by offering an alternative low cost or free transportation solution to Universal would dislodge Disney's hold on large chunks of the market.

So, what will be announced? At this point here's what's likely:

  • New Universal theme park
  • Overview of the park
  • Partners with local businesses, OCCC, and rail
  • Vision statement
Here's what I'd bet a beer on but am not sure about:
  • Updates on the state of the resort including Bourne announcement
  • Hotel updates, focus on Endless Summer
What I'm betting won't be covered:
  • Halloween Horror Nights 29 announcement
  • Jurassic World coaster or Jurassic Park land overhaul
  • Other attraction projects for USF and IOA
We will know all this by lunch time on Thursday, August 1st. We will be recording a special emergency podcast that evening to cover all the news, so stay tuned for that on Friday, August 2nd.

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