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4 Things the Walt Disney Company Could Learn from Universal

Image - Lall, Flickr

In 1986, Universal announced plans to build a movie-themed amusement park/film studio in Orlando. Long the domain of Walt Disney World, Universal sought to not only grow the tourism market in Central Florida, but to go after some of Disney's enormous and undisputed market share.

Disney's response was incredible: within months, they too announced plans to build a park themed around movies – their first new park since 1982's Epcot – and theirs would also aim to bring in real film and TV productions.

Amazingly, despite starting their project months after Universal, Disney was able to open Disney-MGM Studios (now Disney's Hollywood Studios)  a year before Universal Studios Orlando could open their gates. Using the considerable powers afforded to them through their governmental body, the Reedy Creek Improvement District, Disney was able to cut through any red tape and build as quickly as the laws of physics allowed.

Fast forward 20 or so years, and my, how things have changed.

In the time it has taken for Disney to construct their new parking garage at Downtown Disney (soon to be Disney Springs), Universal was able to announce, construct, and open the technologically advanced Transformers: The Ride-3D attraction at their Universal Studios park. That's right – an enormously complex attraction took less time from page to stage than something as simple as a parking garage.

Why? Well, the answer is actually pretty simple: complacency.

Disney's been at the top of the Central Florida tourism game for decades. Even with increased competition locally, they are still the preeminent brand in the area. Universal's aggressive expansion in recent years has certainly started to change things, but it would take something much more dramatic to make Disney shake off its decades-long slumber.

And that is a shame. For, here's the thing: While Disney has always been and very well may always be the king of Central Florida, there is a lot they can learn from the upstart neighbors next door.

For instance:

1. Build quickly and stay nimble



For whatever reason, Disney has taken to working in long construction cycles for their biggest attractions. The New Fantasyland expansion took roughly five years from conception to conclusion, and the World of Avatar has been in development ever since the film's release in 2009. Universal, on the other hand, has taken to an aggressive schedule, building attractions as quickly as they can in order to reduce the time between announcement and opening day.

In building quickly, Universal has been able to capitalize on pop-culture trends much more effectively. One needn't look much further than Disney's attempts to integrate the blockbuster film Frozen into their parks. While the company wasn't expecting the film to be the smash success that it was, its release back in late 2013 gave the company more than enough time to quickly add the newly-beloved characters and stories to the parks. Instead, the company's steadfast refusal to move at haste resulted in the somewhat-thrown together “Frozen Summer Fun” event, as well as the opening of the new Frozen-themed attraction at Epcot sometime after 2016.

Disney has the infrastructure to build their attractions quickly – they've demonstrated it before – and in being slow to open these new experiences, they fail to capture the excitement while it is still fresh in guests' minds.

And, in the case of the aforementioned parking structure, it causes unnecessary headaches for everyone.

2. Give the people what they want, not what you think they want

 Universal bet big on The Wizarding World of Harry Potter, and that bet paid off just as hugely. It's not a surprise, certainly: Harry Potter has one of the most wide-reaching and passionate fan bases of any entertainment property.

One of the reasons for its great success is that Universal capitalized on something people clearly wanted. They gave millions of guests the opportunity to explore Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. Some guests have been waiting their whole lives to experience that feeling, and Universal recognized that passion and delivered on its promise.

The lesson here, for Disney, is to listen, rather than speak.

Yes, Avatar made a lot of money at the box office, but that doesn't mean it has the same passionate level of support as something like Harry Potter. In building an entire themed area dedicated to the film, Disney seems to be missing the point – people didn't want to visit the Wizarding World of Harry Potter because they saw it in a movie, they wanted to visit because it's something that's captured their imagination for years and years. Avatar was a fad, I think it's fair to say that now, and in constructing a world dedicated to it, Disney is telling guests what they should want, rather than listening to what they actually want.

Even with the Star Wars expansion at Disney's Hollywood Studios, Disney has said that any new attractions will be themed after the new films, rather than the classics. They're choosing to neglect something beloved by millions for generations, and in its stead, build what amounts to advertising for the new slate of films.

That's not to say that the World of Avatar or Star Wars Land will be substandard – I'm actually expecting them both to be wonderful – but they're illustrative of a problem that Disney has in recognizing what their guests actually want, rather than telling them what they should want. 

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There are 29 comments.

Disney has always worked toward quality first, that's one reason it takes longer than other parks. Have they made mistakes-probably, no one is perfect, but I am happy to visit the theme parks and feel safe (as much as possible on any ride).

Do you feel less safe on rides at universal? I disagree slightly with your first point, universals theming, especially at IOA is every bit as good as disney.

Apparently you've never been on Rip Ride Rockit.

Disney world does not take a long time to build, It is extremely careful in what it builds.Universal doesn't even scratch the surface of Walt Disney World. Universal needs to build a park that you can see in less than a day. Universal park is very small, and the food inside the park is aweful.

I can see all of Animal Kingdom in about 5 hours. I can ride every attraction at Hollywood studios in literally under 2 hours on a slow day at opening. Disney really needs to build out their overpriced 3rd and 4th gate so that you need more than a day to see them. Oh, and the food inside DHS is pretty blah with nothing but burgers, sandwiches, hot dogs and pizza for quick service. And it's too bad you have never eaten at either Harry Potter world restaurant, or Mythos, or Lombards, or at your choice on Citywalk, or maybe you'd realize that you're just a Disney homer.

speed is not always best. Yes Universal has expanded rapidly, but they lack in so many areas! Theming is low key and has no finesse: ie, the "owlry" in the Harry Potter portion area of the park-basically an unstated, empty room with a few poorly recreated, molted dusty "owls" hanging from the ceiling. There are woefully few bathroom facilities, and because the park is so understaffed, there is garbage and refuse everywhere. This is clearly a park targeted toward teenagers, a fact reflected in the crowd. Many underdressed and I'll behaved hoodlum types roaming around to the point that I would be uncomfortable bringing my grandchildren to the park. A good thing though, as there is nothing for younger children to do. All in all, nimble response or not, Universal Park is still a cheap rip off of Walt Disney World, aimed at a completely different target audience.

Last I checked, Disney attractions did not have any sort of theming other than their costumes and the queue for each attraction. As an attractions team member at Universal, we are taught the theming of each ride and refer to guests by what their role in our attraction is. Along with that, theming in Potter is thorough and wonderful -- guests are muggles, TMs are wizards, and they act that way.

The park is full of theming and you would realize that if you went to the park open minded and not pouting because you didn't get to spend yet another day at Disney. The Owlry is empty because it is a queu for the store and you were just fortunate enough to go on a day that it wasn't busy and you didn't have to wait in a queu for the store. There are bathrooms everywhere you turn, in every island and section of Universal and Islands of Adventure. Like I said, look around and you WILL see park services changing garbage bags and sweeping leaves and trash. the park is targeted for families of all ages. That's why you see more adults and teen agers, not hoodlums as you call them, because once you reach the age of about 12 Disney gets boring because it's all targeted towards little kids. Go to Islands of adventure and you will find Suess landing and it's rides that smaller kids can ride. Even Hogsmead has a ride for younger kids. Jurassic park has a huge playground for younger kids as well as a ride only for kids. Toon lagoon has Popeye which kids love as well. Once you reach Universal Studios you have Despicable Me and the minions which kids love and can ride. As well as the characters for them to meet in addition to Barney and Curious George and his playground. And don't forget about E.T. There are pleanty of things for kids to do as well as see and meet Shrek, Fiona and Donkey. And don't forget that the children can also meet spongebob and Dora. I can almost garuntee they aren't there for the "hoodlums" or adults. Both Disney and Universal are targeted to families of all ages.

One thing that is vastly different between the two parks, and I love both Universal and Disney, is the customer service and training that Disney offers. I have overheard Universal staff gripping about their schedule and work that had two do etc., three occasions in one day last Fall. You don't hear that at Disney. disney is a magical place.

I have had employees snap at me at Disney & I sat on a bench waiting for a friend & over heard (out of costume) cast members griping about how WDW kept screwing up their schedule over the shift in magic hours. One girl in the Canada store said that she was scheduled the next morning & forced to work late for added Magic hours at Epcot. We only found out about the change when we got there.

We were just at Universal last week and Disney two weeks ago.
The staff at Universal was very much accommodating and into their character. As a matter of fact we were impressed with the casting of just the appropriate person for each role. Especially in Harry Potter areas, but also in the rest of the parks.
As far as themeing goes, Disney could take a lesson from Universal. They have done incredibly in producing a complete experience.
I have great love for Disney. But it is true that they take too long to complete their projects. There is no reason for that as they have all the resources they could need.
The parking situation at Downtown Disney has been atrocious for many many years. Get on with it!
We totally enjoyed our stay at the Cabana Bay Beach resort. The themeing there is perfection without being gaudy. Take a look Disney. We'd rather stay there than at any comparably priced hotel in DW.

I can tell you first hand as I live in the area Disney Cast Members whine in front of Guests also. They are short and curt sometimes and they act like they have better places to be. Neither Universal nor Disney are perfect take off you Mickey blinders and share the real truth..

I think universal is more about people. They tend to allow people to be more real and down to earth instead of expecting the guests to act like fake characters. But also the attractions need to be more of what the people do want. Like the Hogwarts castle and the shops and buildings in Wizarding World. The castle should have a complete walk through to really experience the castle. Maybe a restaurant in the dining hall..More hands on. And all the little houses and shops, including Hagrids hut should be open to walk through. So much wasted space where there could be more little shops and places people could hang out and be comfortable, charge their cell phones and themselves.. People spend more money where they can be be themselves and be comfortable. Universal has spent so much time and money to create Harry Potter. Make it JUST LIKE IT. LET PEOPLE BE THERE...IN THE MAGIC..NOT JUST PUSHED THROUGH. THEY WILL COME BACK TIME AND AGAIN IF THEY CAN REALLY BE THERE.

The problem with Universal is it is not as family friendly. Please, I loved Harry Potter world but selling booze in the line to the ride? really? And the drunks there are a pain. Folks walk into your photos, bump you and are just rude and I don't see any of that at Disney. Disney made some big mistakes like getting rid of Off Kilter and Maelstrom but they are still a better park in my view to visit. People are nicer, parks are cleaner and feel safer than Universal

This really is...the worst list of excuses I've seen posted on the internet. I seriously disagree with every single point on your list.

Have you ever been to this park called Epcot, specifically during this festival called food and wine? Where there are literally hundreds of places to buy alcohol? And there are no rude guests at Disney when there are 40000 people in the parks...REALLY?

Oooh and getting rid of Maelstrom...such a mistake to get rid of that for something that every child literally worldwide is clambering for in Frozen. Honestly, I've been to over 150 parks in the world, Maelstrom was a very average and short flume ride, that also doubled as a weird depiction of Norway and had a poor storyline.

And as Disney corporate treats their cast members worse and worse every year, Universal team members continue to get better and better.

I went to both Universal and Disneyworld a few months ago, of the 2 parks Universal Studios is my favorite, because I like how universal keeps their parks fresh with new attractions like the Transformers and the new Harry Potter section at universal island of adventure, I noticed a new ride being built next to Jurassic park area at universal which I heard was going to be about King Kong can't wait for that one.

One of Disney's problems seems to be their over zealous pursuit of the young princess demographic. Everything now seems to be catered to the 3-9 year old girl. The last great E-Ticket attraction was Expedition Everest, and that was almost 10 years ago! They are so slow and deliberate that Universal has leaped past them with technology and thrills. I still LOVE Disney and would chose their parks any day over Universal, its time for them to get serious about creating new attractions and experiences on the cutting edge of technology. They have plenty of material to draw from. They simply have to get off autoidrive and let their Imagineers go wild.

The new Star Wars attraction will feature a mix of both the old films and the new films. They are not ONLY going to be based off the new movies. Read the Iger quote again.

I have found that Walt Disney World employees are not as friendly as everyone suggests! Iv'e seen them snap at people for various infractions, complain about schedules & act very stressed. 500 IT cast member jobs were recenly eliminated for more contracts over seas. The cast member in Diagon Ally never break Wizarding character & the prices are more reasonable at Universal. Overnight stays are seriously better at Universal. We stayed at Cabana Bay Beach Resrt for $69 in Sept & got a huge room, incredible beds & way more amenities than the budget motel 6's that Disney has named Sports, Music, & Movies!!! Disney feels old, while Universal feels fresh & new! Anyone who say Univesal is not an "all day experience" has to be missing many of the parks attractions. I used to love going to Walt Disney World, but we had 3 awful experiences in a row & so far that has never happend at Universal...

What Disney needs is a value hotel that accommodates six people, and doesn't cost an arm and a leg. Many families are forced to stay outside the park because they have more than two kids and can't afford the outrageous price of these rooms. That's a start. They also need more thrill rides and it doesn't sound like they're coming anytime soon. My 12 and 14 year old grandchildren used to love coming to Disney. Now, not so much. The only ones who will go with we are the 5, 6, and 9 year olds. Come on Disney. Please the entire family. Not just my little princesses.

Doesn't Disney have 4 value hotels. I know Art of Animation has family suites for $200-$300/night that sleep 6.

For me, Universal will always be a theme park, but Disney is an experience.

What people don't tend to realize is that yes Disney is more about pleasing people in any way and fashion however Universal manages to give great guest service while being all about safety. Have you ever noticed at Disney they will NOT check a single lap bar nor restraint because they are told not to do so. Personally if im about to get on a ride I would prefer a trained employee to pull on my lap bar rather than having an employee telling me to do so.

I love going to events that are either fancy soirees (100 bucks for the park+60-100 for dessert party or Food and wine or whatever) or going to things catered to people who are between 4 and 10 years old (everything else Disney does). And I really love it when 4 theme parks are able to add an astounding 1 attraction on average between them per year, an average that every other park chain in the world surpasses with ease.

Or maybe it's also cool when Universal puts on Horror Nights (an entirely new event each year), Mardis Gras, Actual clubs, Real concerts (with people singing their music, not cover artists), and adds a new, incredibly-themed ride every single year now. Maybe that's something worth celebrating for us adults.

I am a Disney Nut have been since it opened but.... lately I have noticed it isn't the same. I have noticed the "I don't care what you want this is what your getting" Attitude. Prices keep going up but quality of food goes down or away all together. No little extra's like from the early days, Flower lei's at the Luau, Turn down service at the nicer hotels and chocolates on the pillow. And who ever thought it was what we wanted when they took away Off Kilter when they replace them with Chain saws and log rolling was out of their mind. Thousands have joined an "Save Off Kilter" Facebook site and have repeatedly voiced their sadness at guest relations only to get back a general mass produced letter. They could advertise a whole " You asked for it and we heard you" Month long celebration Selling Shirts and CD's in EPCOT and Canada pavilion would be standing room only. Yep the Listen to the guest thing isn't happening at Disney anymore. It is very sad I Love Disney and it breaks my heart.

Transformers at Universal Studios was built in that short amount of time because the attraction is simply a redress of the SpiderMan attraction across the street at Islands of Adventure.

You're wrong, they had already built transformers at universal Hollywood so it wasn't just a rehash of spider-man it was the same template as Hollywood transformers, but with an hidden elevator on the track to save space. However I'm pretty sure a parking garage should be finished much quicker than a high tech ride like transformers, which there are only 2 of whereAs there are thousands of parking structures in the world, Disney are just slow and complacent and don't care. You're just a little Disney fanboy buthurt because universal is knocking it out the park.

Disney most certainly did swing for the fences with Cars Land, it just happened to be in Hollywood instead of Orlando. Cars Land, especially it's flagship ride Radiator Springs Racers, is very impressive and was apparently very costly To build. We end up spending a lot of time at Cars Land every time we visit DLR.

It's clear to me that Disney has become just another enterprise, operated by bookkeepers and managers who have no idea what people really want. Raising prices in this way will ruin them eventually.


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