Florida's number two amusement park isn't such an also-ran anymore.
By Bruce Kluger
Cheese Boy, Universal Studios is gaining on you
fast—at least in the balmy climes of Orlando,
Although the Walt Disney empire’s 30,000-acre
sprawl in the Sunshine State—which includes four
theme parks and 28 hotels—has helped make
Orlando the most visited city in the country,
Universal Studios Florida, located 15 miles down
the road, has been giving the mighty mouse a run
for its money in recent years.
making, began injecting $2 billion into a bold expansion plan. That strategy
culminated two months ago with the opening of Universal’s Royal Pacific Resort, a
1000-room, tropical oasis hidden among lush palmed coves and Balinese artifacts
just off the highway. The addition of the hotel property now brings Universal’s
current tally sheet to include two amusement parks (the cinema-themed Universal
Studios Florida and the leafier Islands of Adventure) as well as three hotels, various
nightclubs and enviable across-the-bridge access to CityWalk, a hopping
promenade of restaurants, shops and carnival-type amusements.
Not that Disney is particularly worried. Still head-shoulders-and-mouse-ears above
even its closest competitors, Disney continues its Florida assault, claiming more
acreage than the island of Manhattan. Its theme parks are still the area’s biggest
draw, and its hotels routinely house ten times the amount of guests who check into
a Universal property.
And yet Universal perseveres, ever closing the gap between its yearly gate receipts
and those of Disney. After the arrival of its Islands of Adventure in 1999, for
example, Universal park admissions shot to 12.5 million visitors two years later, an
impressive 30 percent increase from the 8,900,000 guests it welcomed in 1998.
During this same time frame, the combined admissions at Disney’s two maiden
parks—Magic Kingdom and Epcot—decreased five percent. (One reason for this
sag was the opening of the Disney-MGM Studios Park, which had begun siphoning
guests from its other properties, racking up annual attendance figures in excess of
Yet while Disney still leads overall admissions by a considerable margin, Universal
is steadily gaining, now controlling one-fourth of the combined Disney-Universal
Orlando market, compared to just 18 percent in 1998.
One reason for Universal’s successful climb in numbers has been its aggressive
strategy in latching onto a variety of popular cultural franchises. While the Disney
logo is still among the most recognizable in the world, its family of characters—from
big bad wolves to little mermaids to lion kings—are still reflexively associated with
the man who gave the world Mickey Mouse. Universal, on the other hand, has
invited an eclectic batch of instantly recognizable entertainments to join the party in
its parks, successfully expanding its cultural cache to appeal to an impressive
range of tastes and demographics:
Lights, Camera….Scream!: Those who go to theme parks to strap into thrill-ride
variations on their favorite films have a generous batch of blockbusters to select
from at Universal Parks. Movie fans can queue up for, among others, a Men in
Black extravaganza, as well as an E.T. adventure, a 3-D Terminator 2 cyber-ride, a
breakneck spin through Back to the Future, a “Kongfrontation” aerial tram, Jaws
and Earthquake hair-raisers, and at least four separate amusements in a fully-
operational Jurassic Park.
Green Eggs and Toddlers: Although they won’t measure up to the height
requirements for more grown-up fare, the smallest family members aren’t left out in
the cold. Universal managed to grab dibs on a host of pre-schooler icons, with
amusements that include a live concert starring Barney and his pals; a stage show
featuring the men, women and creatures of TV’s Animal Planet; and the impeccably
designed Seuss Landing, a cozy corner of the park that recreates the good Doctor’
s storybook collection with a Cat in the Hat adventure, One Fish, Two Fish ride and
a handful of perfectly Seussian playgrounds.
Pen & Ink: Walt Disney did not corner the market on animation. Universal, unlike its
main rival, boasts a cross-pollinated cartoon collection that includes SpongeBob
SquarePants attractions, a Hanna Barbera pavilion (featuring the Jetsons, the
Flintstones, and Yogi Bear), Toon Lagoon (with Dudley Do-Right and Popeye
rides), and Marvel Superhero Island, home to the park’s newest and most popular
attraction, a 3D Spider Man adventure.
Other recognizable trademarks that appear throughout the Universal Studios
complex are The Hard Rock Café, which operates both a branch of its popular
restaurant franchise next to the parks, and a full-service hotel just down the river;
and Nickelodeon, which offers tours of its on-site studio, and invites visitors to
watch tapings of its programs, as well as participate in a version of its wildly popular
game show, Slime Time.