Universal Orlando versus Walt Disney World is nothing new. It’s a debate that has played out between the two fandoms for decades. The recent twist is how Universal is “winning” or “eating Disney’s lunch” or going to “destroy” Walt Disney World once Epic Universe opens. Perhaps most interestingly, this sentiment is increasingly coming from diehard–albeit disenchanted–Disney fans and not exclusively Universal loyalists.
Let’s start with our familiar refrain: this debate is dumb. This isn’t war or religion or politics or sports or whatever. You do not have to take a blood oath to one theme park complex and swear off visiting the other. This ‘rivalry’ is mostly an artificial creation of theme park fans, and there’s absolutely no need to be loyal to one at the expense of the other. Enjoy both. Comcast will not be upset; the Walt Disney Company won’t feel betrayed. We promise.
Of course, today’s everything-as-team-sports mentality isn’t easy to shake, so some of you will be reflexively anti-Universal or anti-Disney. If that’s your perspective, look at the debate selfishly. Competition is good for consumers. Even if we were Walt Disney World diehards with zero interest in Universal’s Epic Universe and never planned to visit, we would selfishly want it to be as awesome as possible. Universal being better and having more drawing power incentivizes Disney to likewise improve.
To be clear, that is not our personal perspective. We cannot wait for Epic Universe, and plan to be there for day one. You don’t get many large-scale theme park grand openings anymore, and we wouldn’t miss it. There’s something about the spectacle, fanfare, and communal energy that we love.
For us, Universal Studios Florida, Islands of Adventure, Magic Kingdom, EPCOT, Hollywood Studios, and Animal Kingdom are all like children. We might secretly have personal favorites, but we more or less love them all. We’ve been Annual Passholders at multiple Universal parks (Orlando, Hollywood, Japan) and every Disney parks & resort complex (except Shanghai). Obviously, we enjoy them all a lot.
However, we’ll also be the first to admit that we spend far more time at Disney. Just want to get all of that out of the way before the inevitable accusations of bias. We probably are biased–everyone is to some extent–but we very much want to see Epic Universe and everything else at Universal Orlando be a massive success.
If you’re a theme park fan, it’s in your best interests for all of these parks–even the ones you don’t visit–to continue getting stronger. A better and more resilient industry means future investments, talent entering the field, theme parks being taken more seriously by investors and their corporate overlords, and so much more.
We’ve already mentioned Universal’s Epic Universe, which is essentially the elephant in the room and what inspired this article in the first place. Epic Universe is the third theme park being built in Central Florida by Comcast (assuming you don’t actually count Volcano Bay as a theme park, which we do not–it’s a water park).
On earnings calls over the course of the last year-plus, Comcast executives have praised the success of their parks in their post-reopening recovery. This is a big reason why Epic Universe is full steam ahead, and slated to open by Summer 2025. Many fans want Walt Disney World to have an “answer” to Epic Universe, and the only thing that can really compete with a new theme park is a new theme park.
If Walt Disney World started work on Tropical Americas at Animal Kingdom tomorrow (they won’t) that land probably wouldn’t be done by Summer 2025. In all likelihood, Tropical Americas is the next major project on the horizon (outside of ride reimaginings) and it’ll start in late 2024 and be done in 2026.
It appears increasingly likely that Walt Disney World is going to “sit out” 2025 and not try to compete with Epic Universe. (I remain of the belief that a reimagined Rock ‘n’ Roller Coaster will be the tentpole addition of 2025. That plus maybe a couple of redone things in EPCOT. Enough to be marketable, but not to actually compete with Universal.) In reality, Disney won’t have any official answer to Epic Universe. They won’t acknowledge the project as a threat or Universal as a bona fide competitor.
This lack of an “answer” to Universal’s Epic Universe is probably a big part of why disillusioned Walt Disney World diehards are now claiming that Universal is “winning,” “going to destroy,” or “beat” Disney. Fans are frustrated at Walt Disney World’s seeming complacency or arrogance, and want to see them “punished” for it as a result.
There’s also the reality of how Walt Disney World has alienated its most loyal supporters over the last several years, with cutbacks and the removal of on-site perks. Fans are still angry about the loss of Disney’s Magical Express, free FastPass, the underwhelming 50th Anniversary, nickel and diming, catering to the affluent, crowds and long lines, and a laundry list of other complaints about Walt Disney World. (Not to mention Disney’s falling reputation, which is based on all of the above plus other issues.) We’ve discussed all of this at length–no sense in belaboring the point here.
The bottom line is that guests feel taken for granted, and want to see Walt Disney World “taken down a notch” as a result. I suspect this is the crux of why so many current and former fans want to Epic Universe to be a “Disney killer.” (By the way, all of these quotes are things we’ve actually heard fans say about Universal and Disney in the last year.)
It’s not so much because fans believe all of this to be true–it’s because they want to believe. After being mistreated by Disney and having their loyalty taken for granted, there’s a strong desire for schadenfreude. At least, that’s my theory. There has definitely been a sea-change in attitudes towards Universal among Disney fans. There used to be some of this sentiment, but mostly dismissiveness towards whatever Universal was doing. Not anymore. Now fans are actively rooting for Universal’s success and Disney’s demise.
I’ll preface this next section by saying that I can understand where many disenchanted Walt Disney World fans are coming from and agree with plenty of that sentiment. As a longtime fan, one of my fears for a while has been that Disney is inflicting long-term brand damage for short-term gain.
I don’t agree with all of the complaints. Citing high crowds as a reason for Disney’s downfall is basically a Yogi Berra quote, expressed unironically. I also don’t agree with the volume or intensity of the frustration. Nevertheless, there’s a reason guest satisfaction scores have been down, and also why Bob Iger is working to undo damage and lure back former fans.
With that said–and this is probably where I’m going to lose many of you–I think a lot of the above is very much wishful thinking on the part of disillusioned Disney fans. We’ve been down this road before, and these types of predictions or sentiment have been wrong time and time again.
This time is different. Except, it never is.
Prior to the Epic Universe excitement, this occurred most recently when the phased reopening began a few years ago. In case you don’t remember, Universal made an aggressive play to lure locals and fans to its parks–deals on tickets and Annual Passes, seasonal offerings, quickly restored entertainment, even Halloween Horror Nights houses open to day guests. Meanwhile, Walt Disney World made a bunch of guest-unfriendly changes, suspended the sale of new Annual Passes, etc.
Admittedly, we thought it was a brilliant approach that would pay dividends for Universal–and at the expense of Walt Disney World’s standing among the growing population in Central Florida. We were wrong, at least about the last part.
In the end, it didn’t impact Walt Disney World negatively at all. When Annual Passes returned for the first time after a lengthy absence–more expensive than ever–they quickly sold out. Both parks soared during the period of pent-up demand, doing record revenue and per-guest spending numbers.
With the exception of weekends (likely an artifact of suspended AP sales and blockouts), the crowd trends at Walt Disney World and Universal fairly closely mirror one another. There’s absolutely no reason to believe Universal’s success has come at the expense of Disney. All of the effort Universal put into attracting guests and everything Disney did to alienate them did not matter in the end. Honestly, not the outcome I was hoping to see.
There are probably ways to explain that away or contend that it’s still too early to make a judgment about the long term impact of the disparate approaches. That due to pent-up demand, people made up for lost time but now that’s done and word of mouth has soured on Disney. Maybe there’s some truth to that, but if so, it hasn’t happened yet–and that’s even despite all of Disney’s controversies outside of what’s happened with changes at the parks.
Looking back even further to the last time Universal Orlando debuted a game-changing addition is also instructive. Back when the Wizarding World of Harry Potter (WWoHP) opened at Islands of Adventure in 2010, the fan dynamic was somewhat similar–but not nearly as pronounced–to what it is now.
I remember living through that era, from when the Harry Potter land was first announced in 2007 until it opened in 2010. Walt Disney World fans at the time were starved for new attractions, as the period between the 9/11 tourism slowdown and the Great Recession had been pretty dark. There were high hopes for a “Potter Swatter,” and radio silence from Disney for almost two years.
Finally, we got the New Fantasyland news. For many fans, that wasn’t enough. It didn’t originally include Seven Dwarfs Mine Train–and instead had a bunch of next generation meet & greets (like Enchanted Tales with Belle, but more of them). It was also slated to open after the Wizarding World of Harry Potter.
Publicly, Walt Disney World’s position was that “a rising tide lifts all boats” — that a stronger Universal was beneficial to Disney because it attracted more people to Central Florida. In actuality, Universal Orlando’s attendance soared by 1.7 million guests the opening year of WWoHP, with Islands of Adventure seeing 30% growth. Three of Walt Disney World’s parks dropped by 1-1.5%, while Animal Kingdom increased by 1%.
The following year (2011), 3 of the 4 parks at Walt Disney World were up by 1% each, while EPCOT was flat. Islands of Adventure once again surged–another 29% increase–but both Universal Orlando parks had lower overall attendance than any Walt Disney World park. In 2012, Walt Disney World’s parks each increased by ~2.2% (New Fantasyland began opening on December 6, 2012–likely too late to have a meaningful impact on that year’s numbers, especially since all 4 parks were up fairly evenly.)
As it turned out, Walt Disney World was correct: Universal had significantly increased its attendance by attracting an entirely new audience to Central Florida, which in turn benefited both (but Universal far, far more). Fast-forward over a decade, and both Universal and Disney have experienced tremendous growth, to the tune of millions of guests per year each. The market for theme parks in Central Florida has gotten larger.
The Wizarding World of Harry Potter was “only” one land back then, but it was a revolutionary one with a massive built-in audience. Epic Universe is an entirely new park, so the scale and scope is different–bigger. Disney has probably concluded that the only way to “win” is to not play the game–to fall back on the “rising tide lifts all boats” mantra.
No new ride or land is going to meaningfully compete with a brand-new theme park. Sitting out this round of the theme park wars and conceding the spotlight for a year might be the best hand that Disney can play. No Disney fan wants to hear this, but might be the smarter move than trying to steal Epic Universe’s thunder. Nothing Disney can do will top Epic Universe. (It also doesn’t help that they have to sort out streaming, ESPN, linear, etc., and reduce their debt load.)
It should also go without saying, but there are multiple different types of guests who attend Central Florida’s theme parks. If you’re reading this, you’re more inclined to be a frequent visitor. There’s a better chance that blockbuster new additions are the most compelling draws, and a brand-new theme park is going to be of more interest to you than ones that are unchanged and you’ve experienced several times before.
That brand-new park would trump just about anything for you, and that includes a new land at Walt Disney World. If your time is limited, you’re still allocating it towards the new park over whatever Walt Disney World would add.
But you’re not the only type of visitor. For most guests, the new additions from a single year or two do not exist in a vacuum and aren’t the only selling points of the theme parks. Most people visiting in 2025 aren’t going solely on the basis of what’s brand-new.
Even for fans who visit semi-frequently, there are a lot of other recent, new-to-them additions. Everything from Hagrid’s and Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge to Tiana’s Bayou Adventure will still be “new” to some fans in 2025. That’s a wide range of offerings spanning several years, but not everyone visits annually. Most people–even those who would self-describe as enthusiasts or fans–do not.
Then there’s the biggest demo of all: first-timers. For this group, everything at every theme park in Central Florida is necessarily new. When choosing which parks to visit, they aren’t simply picking the brand-new additions, although those probably are granted more weight thanks to marketing. They’re looking at the full menu, and what looks most appealing.
It shouldn’t be contentious to say that Walt Disney World is the more mature theme park complex (meaning that it’s been built out over the course of 50+ years, not target age groups) and has more to offer as a whole. Even after Epic Universe, Walt Disney World still has one more park, a dozen-plus additional resorts, and more recreation.
And regardless of how you feel about recent movies, it also probably isn’t controversial to contend that the Disney’s stable of characters created and acquired in the last ~100 years is more popular and enduring. (Universal has made tremendous strides with popular character intellectual property in the last couple of decades, though.)
These demos are where things get more interesting in terms of competition for 2025. Both Walt Disney World and Universal Orlando have been aggressively adding in the last several years. Many of Universal’s newest attractions are fantastic–Hagrid’s and VelociCoaster are two of the best roller coasters anywhere. Despite this, Walt Disney World has inarguably spent more money on new attractions and lands. (More debatable is whether that’s all been money well-spent. We’d say it has not, but that’s sort of beside the point.)
Most interesting of all is whether Super Nintendo World (in Epic Universe) will have the same drawing power as Wizarding World of Harry Potter over a decade ago. Much like Harry Potter, Nintendo has a massive fan following. In all likelihood, that will be the big selling point of Epic Universe–and what gets an entirely new audience to Central Florida. (Worth noting that it’s the third version of Super Nintendo World, but Orlando is the theme park capital of the world, so we’d still expect that dynamic.)
It’s undeniable that the bump will disproportionately benefit Universal Orlando. It may be true that a rising tide lifts all boats, but it does not do so equally. Percentage growth for Islands of Adventure and Universal Studios Florida will outpace all four Walt Disney World parks in 2025-2026. If history repeats itself, Disney’s parks could see slight decreases–but the losses will not be commensurate with the growth at Universal.
Stated differently, Super Nintendo World and Epic Universe as a whole will grow the audience for Central Florida theme parks, even if theme park diehards (like you!) visiting Universal and skipping Disney lead to a slight drawdown in attendance.
I wouldn’t even necessarily bet on Walt Disney World seeing a drop in 2025. Super Nintendo World has all-ages appeal (probably a lot like Harry Potter in 2010), from elder millennials who grew up on the SNES to their kids who are getting Switches for Christmas this year–and a ton of people in between.
While its audience is undoubtedly diverse, I would hazard a guess that the land skews towards families. The argument could be made that, as a whole, Walt Disney World does a better job of catering to this crowd than does Universal Orlando. In fairness, Universal has broadened its appeal for families with small children in the last few years–and there’s more to come between now and the opening of Epic Universe (and within that new park, outside of Super Nintendo World).
But the reputation still exists that Universal is the place for teenagers and thrill seekers, and Walt Disney World is more family-friendly. Accordingly, I would hazard a guess that many of the families planning 2025 trips to see Universal’s “new Nintendo park” will also include visits to “Disney World” (Magic Kingdom) and “Star Wars and toy park” (Disney’s Hollywood Studios). Definitely not more than they visit Islands of Adventure and Universal Studios Florida–convenience is huge, as are vacation packages–but possibly enough that at least those two parks (and maybe even EPCOT) don’t lose attendance at all in 2025.
Beyond that, I hesitate to make concrete predictions. We don’t have full insight into demographics or the measures Universal will take to keep people in its parks. (Even the larger version of Super Nintendo World will be small–it seems safe to assume Universal will offer tremendous access advantages to its on-site guests and those who book longer multi-day tickets.)
On that note, on-site guests are where I think things actually are most interesting, even if this is the least “sexy” part of the so-called theme park wars. Nearly 15 years after the Wizarding World of Harry Potter first opened, the theme park landscape has also evolved in Orlando.
Universal has built a half-dozen hotels in the intervening years at a range of price points, and there’s also the difference that 3 theme parks plus a water park makes. For many visitors, Universal will be a destination unto itself, and no longer “just” a diversion from Disney. Universal has been laying the groundwork for this moment for years, overbuilding on hotels, attracting conventions and youth events, and rounding out the slate inside its parks.
While attendance certainly matters, the bigger fear I’d have if I were Walt Disney World management is losing overnight hotel guests to Universal. Those are its most lucrative visitors and highest per guest spenders, and if Universal is able to siphon some away–even just 10%–that’s a huge blow to Disney. With Universal offering more affordable accommodations and on-site perks for a brand new park, that’ll be a given come 2025. And a totally different dynamic from when the Wizarding World first debuted over a decade ago.
Ultimately, we do not believe Universal is “beating” Walt Disney World or vice-versa–and don’t think that’ll change in 2025 even as the former further comes into its own as a bona fide theme park destination resort. There is space in the Central Florida market for both to exist and thrive, and that’s doubly true when expansion is centered around intellectual properties–like Mario, Harry Potter, Star Wars or Marvel–that expand the audience for theme parks, rather than reallocate existing guests and do nothing to grow the market.
Honestly, my dream scenario for Epic Universe is it being fantastic and envelope-pushing, while expanding the audience for theme parks even further and eroding some of Walt Disney World’s market share for hotels. In my view as a long-term Walt Disney World (and theme parks) fan, that’s the best of both worlds.
It puts Disney back on their heels and feeling the need to be more competitive, while also justified in doing so because it demonstrates that there are ways to grow the pie–not just fight over the same sized pie. Finally, it puts downward pressure on resort prices at Walt Disney World and (possibly, hopefully) discourages further construction of those. Our view is that this is also the most likely scenario…minus that part about less hotel/DVC development at Walt Disney World. It should be exciting to watch over the next decade, but one thing is for sure: it’s an exciting time to be a fan of Orlando theme parks!
Do you think Universal is “beating” Walt Disney World or that the opening of Epic Universe in 2025 will lead to the “demise” of Disney? Or do you generally agree with the perspective that a rising tide lifts all boats? Think growing the market for Central Florida theme parks is an ‘everyone-wins’ best case scenario? Do you agree or disagree with our assessement? Any other thoughts or commentary to add? Any questions we can help you answer? Hearing your feedback–even when you disagree with us–is both interesting to us and helpful to other readers, so please share your thoughts below in the comments!