Disney vs Universal

A lot can change in ten years.

Don’t believe us? Just flashback to summer 2013 and you’d find yourself in a very different Orlando… There, you’d marvel at the brand new MagicBand, daydreaming about Disney’s promises of how it’ll eventually personalize the Parks to you; you’d fill your day at Disney’s Hollywood Studios with The Great Movie Ride and The Backstage Studio Tour, wondering what Disney might do with its brand new, $8 billion acquisitions of Marvel and Lucasfilm.

If you visited Orlando in summer 2013, you’d wander through Camp Minnie-Mickey at Disney’s Animal Kingdom, wondering why – three years after announcing it – Disney hadn’t begun construction on its land themed to James Cameron’s Avatar. You had never heard the song “Let It Go,” much less imagined that the upcoming movie Frozen might replace EPCOT’s Maelstrom. And you’d be far too busy with the #LimitedTimeMagic campaign to wonder what Disney would do for its 100th Anniversary a decade later.

Oh, and in 2013, it’s likely that you’d callously spit in the eye of Disney’s generous gifts of Magical Express, FastPass, Extra Magic Hours, and resort transportation to book yourself an Uber to that other theme park resort up the road… After all, Universal Orlando’s Wizarding World of Harry Potter isn’t just the talk of the town; it’s the project around which the whole themed entertainment industry has reoriented itself. The age of the “Living Land” has arrived… And as a construction site at Universal Studios Florida begins to take the shape of Diagon Alley, the battle for Orlando doesn’t seem as clear-cut as it once did… “Could the momentum finally be behind Universal and not Disney?”

Catching Up

Images: Disney & Universal, respectively

Ten years ago, that’s the cliffhanger we were left dangling on. And back then, as a college student and freelance writer, I tried to express that moment in a mini-series I wrote here on Theme Park Tourist called “Universal Rises”. Naive as parts of it may seem now, that article makes for an interesting time capsule as we all wondered what the future could hold… So now, a decade later, it’s worth wondering whether Universal seized the moment, where the momentum in Orlando resides now… and what another ten years may bring…

There’s no question that part of the stories of Walt Disney World and Universal Orlando can be measured by the metric of their attractions over the last decade. But a list of rides alone don’t really tell the story of where Disney and Universal have been, or where they might be going. So to understand where we’re at – and how Mickey Mouse and Mario might finally face off – we have to see the bigger picture and how it plays out in the battlefield of the theme parks…

Disney’s Decade of Highs, Lows, and Bobs (2013 – 2023)

Image: Disney

The Walt Disney Company has been in a continuous state of transformation since the appointment of Bob Iger as CEO in 2005. While his predecessor (Michael Eisner) began Disney’s evolution into the international media giant it is today (though the acquisitions of ABC / Cap Cities and ESPN), Iger’s era was marked by even more radical acquisitions right out of the gate.

In 2007, the still-new CEO gambled big, acquiring Pixar for $7.4 billion. Two years later, Disney purchased Marvel for $4 billion. And of course, back in our decade-ago timeline, Disney bought Lucasfilm for another $4 billion.

Image: Disney

With the astounding catalogue of Disney + Pixar + Marvel + Star Wars assembled, Iger had demonstrated an almost prophetic understanding of the decade that followed: the so-called “Content Wars,” wherein already-giant entertainment companies are gobbled up by competitors in multi-billion-dollar acquisitions, all in the name of bolstering IP collections and streaming services.

Unsurprisingly, that corporate vision has had a major effect on Disney’s theme parks in several key areas since the last time we checked in on the state of Orlando…

1. Disney went all-in on the Parks-as-Products philosophy

Image: Disney / Pixar

And Disney has not been shy about positioning its theme parks as battlegrounds in that larger war of entertainment giants, arming them with those blockbuster IPs. As our look at each park’s most recent, IP-free major attraction demonstrates, Disney has pretty firmly entrenched its position: IP, all the time, with few if any exceptions.

If you ask us, it’s part of a philosophical shift wherein Imagineering and Disney Parks are viewed not as generators of new stories, settings, and characters, but as (to quote Parks Chairman Josh D’Amaro’s bio) “…the global hub where Disney stories, characters and franchises come to life.” As evidenced by the theme parks’ 2018 restructuring into the “Parks, Experiences, and Consumer Products” division, Disney’s resorts are now seen less as producers of new content and more as endpoints for content produced by the studios; brand showcases where Disney + Pixar + Marvel + Star Wars can be ridden, eaten, bought, met, and lived.

Image: Disney / Marvel

That’s reflected in the race to get Disney’s highest earning properties into the parks as soon as they prove themselves as viable franchises – sometimes without much care or long-term-thinking… Our friends at Park Lore dove into the age of the "Disney+ Park," where Disney’s parks are decorated differently, but otherwise have no real message or theme to differentiate them. Moana and Zootopia seem equally as likely to be at Magic Kingdom as EPCOT; Hollywood Studios as Animal Kingdom.

There’s no question that Iger, then Chapek, then Iger again have been unapologetic in their pursuit of Disney Parks-as-brand-loyalty-checkpoints. And given Disney’s $100 billion in acquisitions over the last 20 years, who could blame them? From Seven Dwarfs Mine Train to Toy Story Land; Frozen Ever After to Runaway Railway; Guardians of the Galaxy: Cosmic Rewind to TRON Lightcycle / Run; and of course, both Pandora: The World of Avatar and Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge – each a landmark “Living Land” anchored by a best-in-class E-Ticket…

Image: Disney

Even if fans would do anything to see more balance brought to Disney Parks in terms of Imagineer-made stories and characters, there’s no doubt that the last decade has been both transformative and triumphant for Disney World in terms of investment… But of course, the last decade has also seen some major frustrations. If you could travel back in a time machine and tell your 2013-self about Disney Parks’ problems today, what would be at the top of your list of grievances? We’ll dig into those issues on the next page…


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