Yesterday numbers for some theme park companies were released, namely Disney and Universal parks.
And of course, with this came the inevitable debate between different factions of theme park fans as to what these numbers actually mean, which quickly became a debate on which parks are better than other parks. Why, as theme park fans do we feel the need to do this?
Written by Gregg Condon
First, lets look at the numbers that started off this most recent wave of "This thing Good ... This thing Bad".
Below we'll try to explain why this isn't necessarily a great thing for Universal and a bad thing for Disney ... it's actually good for both of them ... and most of all GOOD FOR US!!!
There are many different types of theme park fans, there are those that ONLY go to Disney, no matter what, those that are anti-Disney for one reason or another. Others who find Disney boring and then there are those of us who have no loyalty to any individual park or chain, but just love spending a fun day in a theme or amusement park.
If you know where to look, you can find something fun at pretty much any park, and find a way to have a great day. Sure there are different levels of theme/excitement at individual parks, but at the end of the day, having fun at a park should be the highest priority.
We'll start off with Disney ...
Disney is obviously the holy grail of theme parks. The whole theme park environment pretty much became popular with Disneyland in 1955 and has since expanded to 11 parks (soon to be 12 with Shanghai Disneyland) across 3 continents. It's pretty safe to say that without the success of Disneyland we'd have no Universal Studios, Sea World and most likely wouldn't have many regional parks like Six Flags and various Cedar Fair parks.
Sure there'd be some of them, as many parks existed prior to Disneyland, but they certainly popularized the theme park concept in America.
But Disney isn't perfect, many of the common complaints you hear about Disneyland are "No new E-Tickets since Indy", DCA "Had to spend Billions to fix 1/2 a park", WDW "Magic Bands, no new rides", etc.
Disney has figured out how to expand attendance or at the very least keep it's level of attendance without having to add something new every year. This has a lot to do with the Disney "brand". For us theme park nerds, this sometimes causes us to bash Disney, especially when we see other park chains expanding every year and in some cases at a lightning speed rate.
Disney's fan base is so large, has so much disposable income and is more loyal than any other theme park fan base ... and Disney knows this. Year after year people drop thousands on Annual Passes, DVC, RunDisney races, merchandise and movies that simply adding something "large" to each property about once a decade seems to be enough to keep people coming through the turnstiles.
Disney knows how to crank up the nostalgia like nobody else. Where anniversary's for theme parks become huge events in and of themselves. No need to spend $100-$200 million on a new E-Ticket when spending 1/4 of that on a year-long Anniversary celebration will bring in the same amount of people.
No need to build a new dark ride when adding new elements to existing rides (Hatbox Ghost, New effects to existing rides) increase ridership and keep people coming in.
That's not to say these things aren't great, because they are, but obviously Disney knows what they are doing (duh).
Disney fans are also the group of people who are so loyal they'll defend their parks so much that they wouldn't ever admit another park chain has gotten a leg up on Disney with new additions and many of them won't ever set foot in a non-Disney park.
This is the group that seems to be short-changing themselves the most by not going out and experiencing what other parks have to offer.
Which brings us to Universal Studios.
Over the past decade, Universal has really begun to make a splash, and while their numbers have definitely increased, they are still playing catch-up with Disney. Universal having a huge percentage increase while Disney only has a 2% increase doesn't mean it's a "Win" for Universal and a "Loss" for Disney. It simply means Universal is getting a bigger market share because they are adding quality attractions.
Universal started the "Theme Park Wars" in Orlando when they opened Universal Studios in 1990, a year or so after Disney MGM Studios opened at Walt Disney World. This was a direct response to Disney attempting to build a "Studios" park in the same vein as Universal Studios Hollywood and Universal responding in kind with a park of their own.
The fact that Universal Studios Florida has expanded and added quality attractions over the last decade while Disney's Hollywood Studios has remained stagnant (for now) shouldn't be lost on anybody. And obviously the numbers are starting to look more even.
Universal Studios Hollywood has always been a tough sell as far as a "theme park" is concerned. First and foremost, it's a movie studio. For the most part during the 80's and 90's it was a one-day stop for tourists who wanted to see Hollywood in a controlled environment. Because really, if you've been to the real Hollywood, you'd much prefer the stylized version presented at USH.
Locals pretty much would go to the park once a year, or even once every few years. I personally didn't go to Universal Studios Hollywood from about 1986 until 1998 even though for that entire time frame I lived no more than 30 miles from the park.
Universal seemed ok with not trying to compete with Disney on the west coast for most of it's existence and only in the past decade has begun to offer the "Buy a Day get a Year Free" passes that are so popular.
It's also only been in the past 5-6 years where they've really started making a conscious decision to expand to more immersive environments and move away from simply being a "Studios" park.
The current expansion going on at Universal Studios Hollywood is simply unprecedented in the history of that park. The only thing that really comes close would be the expansion of DCA 2.0. So it's definitely going to be interesting to see if the demographics change as far as locals vs tourists are concerned. And really, if they can siphon some people from Disney.
But as a theme park fan, the most exciting thing is to see what kind of response Disney makes at the California parks. Because for the first time EVER, Universal Studios Hollywood has a franchise and expansion that Disney is taking notice of. So while many theme park fans will still avoid Universal for some silly reason, those of us who like all parks should be thrilled at this.
One word of warning though, Universal should take a look at what Disney tried to do when they opened DCA 1.0 and pretty much locked out their loyal/local audience. Obviously Potter is no DCA 1.0 and the people will come, but changing so much of their AP program as far as locals are concerned is something that could come back to bite them.
So lets move on from Disney and Universal and talk about some other park chains.
For many fans of both Disney and Universal any other park outside of Orlando or Anaheim is considered hands off, not worthy of their time and money and generally considered reserved for those who can't afford Disney. This has created a class culture that is very prevalent in the theme park world.
Even for the most loyal Disney/Universal fan, there is something out there for you and you really are short changing yourself by not expanding your world beyond those chains.
Cedar Fair and Six Flags parks aren't "teenage/gang infested dirty parks", they are fun parks that really are deserving of your time.
Many parks such as Knott's Berry Farm, California's Great America, Six Flags Great America, Six Flags Over Texas and others have really been expanding their family offerings over the past few years while adding great family/dark rides, new shows and other things for families to do together.
While the big coasters added to parks like Six Flags Magic Mountain, Cedar Point and other parks tend to grab a lot of the headlines, looking beyond those to see the great events and rides at these parks is something many people tend to ignore.
At the end of the day, if you are limiting yourself to one theme park chain whether it's Disney, Universal, Six Flags, Cedar Point, Sea World ... whatever it is ... you are seriously short changing yourself when it comes to entertainment.
It's hard to think of any other entertainment that has a group of loyal fans that are so against expanding their horizons. I can't think of people who only see movies released by one company. The loyalty people show to certain chains really is only comparable to sports fans who support one team or one sport.
It's confusing and pointless and really makes no sense.
Do you have a loyalty to one chain or another? Will you completely avoid any specific park due to brand loyalty? If so, please explain in the comments below. We'd love to know why.
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