Home » All-Star Roundtable: 5 Things That Need to Change in Orlando in 2015

All-Star Roundtable: 5 Things That Need to Change in Orlando in 2015

There’s no two ways around it:  2015 is going to be a quiet year in Orlando.

On the one hand, this is perfectly understandable – 2014 was such an unbelievably mammoth year, with new expansions at the theme parks (The Wizarding World of Harry Potter – Diagon Alley at Universal Studios Florida and New Fantasyland at Magic Kingdom), renovations of the major dining/shopping/entertainment complexes (the beginning of Downtown Disney’s transformation into Disney Springs and the debut of Universal CityWalk 2.0), and new hotels (Cabana Bay Beach Resort at Universal Orlando Resort).  It’s easy to see how anyone would need a breather after all that.

(And this isn’t even taking into account the fact that 2016 is already shaping up to be another large-scale barrage of additions and investments; there needs to be time to actually build all these new attractions, after all.)

On the other hand, however, it’s a somewhat disappointing reality, leaving open a giant window in the calendar in which nothing (major) will be happening.  While it’s doubtful that this will adversely affect Orlando’s tourism numbers, it still leaves all of 2015’s proceedings in the shadow of ‘14’s huge monuments.

All is not completely lost, however.  Trying to fill the void is International Drive, the city’s main tourist strip that has long held a wide and diverse collection of various attractions and other pit stops.  Encouraged by the ever-rising levels of attendance at both Walt Disney World and Universal Orlando, several new companies are moving in and remaking wide swaths of the 11-mile long stretch of road – and the biggest of these new players, Merlin Entertainments, is looking to make 2015 exclusively theirs.

To discuss what should be done to ensure that 2015 is not a forgettable one – and to tackle the question of whether or not I-Drive can truly become the next big destination on the global theme park map – the usual all-star collection of panelists has been convened:

Let the debate begin.

Marc N. Kleinhenz, freelancer:

I’d like to discuss how 2015 is a particularly (suspiciously?) quiet one in Orlando, and how I-Drive is looking to fill that void in the short term and possibly become a major player against the likes of Disney and Universal in the long-term.  Will it be successful, either this year or in the near future?  And will ’15 really shape up to be a rather forgettable one?

1. I-Drive should organize itself as a unified resort

Arthur Levine, About.com’s theme park expert:

2015 is kinda quiet in the theme park capital of the world.  But you have to admit that 2014 is a hard act to follow.  So much theme park goodness!  Parks do need to reinvest and reinvent themselves to remain relevant, but it’s unrealistic to expect something on the level of New Fantasyland and Diagon Alley every year.  Universal has not formally announced its new Islands of Adventure attraction yet.  It’s possible that the company could squeak in before the end of the year with yet another E-ticket winner.

I am intrigued by all the development along I-Drive.  The area is certainly evolving with marquee rides, such as the Orlando Eye and the Skyscraper, and has the potential to become a major player in its own right.  I don’t know if it’s feasible (or, for that matter, already happening), but I think it would behoove the individual I-Drive attractions to band together and market themselves as a group.  Perhaps they could develop something similar to the Orlando Flex Ticket.  Between I-Drive 360, the Skyplex, Vue at 360, FunSpot, and the other attractions, I could see visitors devoting a day to I-Drive — especially if they could purchase a bundled, discount admission to all attractions, and the properties established a shuttle to transport them from venue to venue.

2. Disney needs to speed things up

Tim Grassey, owner of WDW Theme Parks:

I’ve been telling people that are debating a Central Florida vacation to hold off for another year.  I don’t see the Orlando Eye and the other International Drive attractions ever taking a day away from my vacation, let alone be reason enough to plan a vacation. I’m a sucker for a fun Ferris wheel (I’m looking at you, Mickey’s Fun Wheel), but the Orlando Eye appears to be nothing more than a novelty in the same vein as (Downtown Disney’s former) Characters in Flight.  I suspect the traffic it will generate will largely be guests who are spending half a day at a Disney or Universal park and are looking for an escape from the crowds.

While 2015 to 2016 appears to be the calm before the storm for Disney, it really is laughable that it has taken this long for many necessary additions.  Since Bob Iger took over as CEO, he has spent over $40 billion in stock buybacks, but only approved four new rides in Florida (Seven Dwarfs Mine Train, Under the Sea: Journey of the Little Mermaid, and the two rides in Avatar).  As soon as Disney saw the ridiculous crowds at the Hogsmeade opening in 2010, expansions should have been greenlit for Epcot, Hollywood Studios, and Animal Kingdom.  Comcast isn’t turning off the money hose at Universal.  While 2015 may not see any substantial additions, King Kong is just around the corner.

I expect ‘15 to continue the trend of Universal taking guests away from Disney.  The product is fresher, and their resorts are cheaper.

It sounds like budgets have been approved to makeover Hollywood Studios.  Avatar and Rivers of Light construction are underway at the Animal Kingdom.  The Frozen ride and Soarin’ over the World should be a decent one-two punch for Epcot in 2016.  Despite that, Hollywood Studios is five to six years away from being “fixed,” and Epcot is still in need of more than the anticipated ‘16 additions.  I’m more optimistic about the Animal Kingdom changes, but the visuals are ambitious and by no means a guarantee.

For me, the most intriguing thing in ‘15 is the D23 Expo.  It’s Disney’s chance to right the wrongs of the last 10 years and make some of the announcements that should have been made at the ‘11 Expo.

3. Merlin will start to dominate (part of) Orlando

Nick Sim, Theme Park Tourist editor-in-chief:

I agree that 2015 is looking like a pretty barren year in terms of new additions to Orlando’s theme parks, although I suspect that many people held off visiting last year (to avoid the inevitable vast hordes of Harry Potter fans) and will therefore be experiencing many of 2014’s additions for the first time this year.

I think the debut of the Orlando Eye and the associated Sea Life and Madame Tussauds attractions is pretty intriguing.  Merlin Entertainments completely dominates the themed attractions market over here in the UK, and it’s obviously a very large global player now.  It’s also proven that it can build a “hub” of attractions in a major tourist hotspot (London) and be very successful in the process – there are huge crowds down at the London Eye/London Dungeon/London Sea Life Aquarium/soon-to-open Shrek attraction location every day, and Merlin is essentially looking to replicate that model in Orlando.

With three attractions on the same site, it’ll be hoping to carve out a full day from tourists’ vacations, and you can bet it will price multi-attraction tickets aggressively in order to do that.  I doubt that Merlin will have any intention of partnering with other I-Drive attractions like the Skyscraper – it will want to get people to its own site and keep them there for as long as possible.  And probably sell them a ticket to Legoland Florida in the process.

The reason I find it intriguing is that we’re always hearing how Merlin is catching up with Disney in terms of overall size and visitor numbers (albeit spread over a much larger number of attractions), but there aren’t actually that many places where the two companies compete directly.  With a host of Merlin attractions on I-Drive, plus Legoland Florida down the road, it’ll be interesting to see whether people will really give up a day at Disney or Universal to spend at a wax museum, an aquarium that will look pretty small next to SeaWorld, and a giant observation wheel.

I personally wouldn’t bother – I don’t think viewing Orlando from above is quite the same as looking down at London.  But I can’t help thinking that Merlin has done its homework here, and that the numbers will ultimately add up.

4. The start of Animal Kingdom’s evolution

Tim Grassey, co-owner of WDW Theme Parks:

I guess it depends on what their actual goal is here to determine whether or not they’re successful.  Universal is approaching 25% of the market, and I don’t see them losing ground to Merlin.  It’s possible that SeaWorld continues to lose ground, or perhaps a day is lost at Hollywood Studios or Epcot.

For me, the most intriguing thing happening in 2015 are the changes at Animal Kingdom.  We won’t see Rivers of Light or Avatar in ‘15, but we will see the Harambe Marketplace and, quite possibly, the nighttime safari.  That park is evolving, and part of that evolution will take place this year.

5. SeaWorld should sell itself to Merlin

Len Testa, president of Touring Plans:

I think we’re in for a relatively quiet 18 months to two years.  As Arthur said, we’ve just finished a big investment cycle in 2014 with the debut of Diagon Alley and the rest of New Fantasyland.  The next cycle isn’t likely to start opening attractions until 2016 – Universal’s Kong and Sapphire Falls projects, and maybe a water park.  Disney is just now beginning an investment cycle at the Studios.  I’d expect to see some version of Paris’s Toy Story Land open in DHS around the end of 2016.  We’ll have Avatar in 2017 and maybe into 2018, with Star Wars Land at the Studios in maybe 2019 or 2020.  There’ll be relatively minor changes along the way (farewell, IllumiNations!), and I suppose we can all eat and shop at Disney Springs as we talk about it.

It’s very good to see Merlin investing in Orlando and experimenting with different styles of attractions.  I don’t expect them all to succeed, because they’re competing with Disney and Universal here, as opposed to the much smaller players in the UK.  Like Tim, I don’t see them being anything other than the third-place venue for most Orlando tourists.  (Just think about how something like 15-20% of the market is shut off by Magical Express.)  If they can adapt quickly, though, it could lead to a lot of consolidation outside of Disney and Universal, because no one else is going to have the funding to compete.

The one other challenge I see to Merlin in Orlando is this six-year construction project on I-4.  Not sure how many people are going to want to brave that just to see some tertiary attractions.

Nick said something interesting about Merlin’s aquarium.  Yes, it is pretty small compared to SeaWorld, but Merlin runs a bunch of these Sea Life sites across the UK.  SeaWorld also isn’t doing particularly well as a business, whereas Merlin is looking to invest.  Why doesn’t SeaWorld sell to Merlin?  They could rebrand it, get rid of some of the more controversial practices, and then offer one of those all-inclusive tickets, perhaps with a park-and-ride shuttle.

I still don’t think that’d make them anything other than a third-place destination, but the gap between third and fourth would be huge.  It would change the landscape and put some of the other, smaller properties in play, and that would be good for Uni and Merlin.


Previous All-Star Roundtable entries:

The 6 Biggest Developments in Theme Parks in 2014

5 Reasons Why Disney’s Hotels Aren’t Full… but It Doesn’t Care

5 Reasons Why Universal’s Diagon Alley Is NOT a Flop

4 HUGE Changes Coming to a Theme Park Near You

5 Reasons Why Disney WON’T Change to Fend off Competition in Orlando

4 Ways That Universal’s Diagon Alley Will Change Theme Parks Forever