The theme park wars are heating up for 2016 and beyond, as both Universal Orlando and Walt Disney World have announced major additions. Other expansions are not yet fully confirmed, but have become poorly kept secrets that are simply awaiting an official announcement. It’s a good time to be a Central Florida theme park fan, but some upcoming projects are simply more exciting than others. Here are 3 reasons that Universal Orlando’s new plans are more intriguing than Walt Disney World’s.
Editor's Note: Lisa's opinions in no way reflect those of Theme Park Tourist or its staff.
1. Universal is righting old wrongs
Universal Orlando would never have come to be if it weren’t for King Kong. As the story goes, in 1986, Steven Spielberg happened to be visiting Universal Hollywood’s lower lot when his college roommate, Peter Alexander, was putting a new Kong animatronic through its paces. That animatronic was destined for Universal Hollywood’s tram tour, but Spielberg was enthralled. His friend George Lucas had partnered with Disney to create Star Tours, and had told him that Universal could never pull off that sort of attraction. So Spielberg asked Alexander what he could do with Back to the Future.
Kong’s installation caused Universal Hollywood attendance to skyrocket, and Spielberg was impressed by Alexander’s ideas for Back to the Future. The two projects brought Universal’s Orlando plans, once dead and buried, back to life. Although Back to the Future was delayed by almost a year, Kong was one of Universal Orlando’s opening day attractions, and quickly became its signature ride.
Many Universal fans point to September 2002, when Kong closed to make room for Revenge of the Mummy, as the end of Universal Orlando’s classic age. Alfred Hitchcock: The Art of Making Movies and the Funtastic World of Hanna-Barbera closed shortly after. Over the next five years, Universal Orlando also lost the Wild Wild Wild West Stunt Show, Nickelodeon, Back to the Future, and Earthquake.
Since Comcast took over in 2011, public perception is that a lot of old wrongs have been righted. The recent announcement of Skull Island: Reign of Kong, which will bring King Kong home at last, finally brings Universal Orlando full circle.
2. Disney is creating new wrongs
Over at Walt Disney World, it is a completely different story. When Michael Eisner resigned in 2005, following a 2004 no confidence vote of 72.5%, many Disney fans hoped that his successor would bring a new Disney Renaissance. But 10 years of Bob Iger have instead delivered incredibly mixed results packed with plenty of controversy.
When Universal secured the theme park rights to Harry Potter, Disney was left to scramble. But the massive and much hyped Fantasyland expansion was no match for the boy wizard. The Seven Dwarfs Mine Train was yet another example of the head-scratching Disney decision making process that has been the norm since Eisner’s time—not quite a kiddie ride, not quite a family ride, and not quite a thrill ride, it’s not bad, but it’s not truly stunning either, and it is certainly not in the same league as Harry Potter and the Escape from Gringotts, which opened the same year.
Now, Disney is putting a new Frozen ride up against Skull Island, with both expected to debut in 2016. There is no doubt that Frozen has hit unfathomable levels of popularity, and every installation at the theme parks has been a hot ticket. But rather than constructing a ride in, say, Fantasyland, where it would make thematic sense, Disney decided to place it in the middle of Epcot’s World Showcase!
Since 1982, the World Showcase has celebrated real places around the globe. Now a mythical land from a cartoon movie is taking over? Even worse, rather than replacing something like the never-finished Africa area, Arendelle has taken over Norway, ejecting the much-loved Maelstrom attraction.
The timing couldn’t be worse for Disney. At the very moment that Universal fans are experiencing nostalgia overload and a newfound confidence in the company’s ability to forge a new direction while honoring its past, Disney fans are being dealt a blow that shakes their faith at a fundamental level. If Disney can’t hold onto even the tiniest shred of basic theming, where are the parks headed next?