Image: Universal

The House of Mouse might have good reason to be concerned…

The theme park rivalry between Disney and Universal Studios is nothing new. Disney’s Hollywood Studios (then Disney MGM) was largely developed as a response to the arrival of Universal Studios Orlando on the theme park scene. When Disney missed a golden opportunity to utilize Imagineer concepts for the fantasy-themed Beastly Kingdom at Disney’s Animal Kingdom, Universal swept those same creatives up to produce The Lost Continent. Disney builds Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge and ups the theme-park immersion game—Universal turns around and produces some of its best coasters yet and announces something we’ve all been waiting to hear for years…

A long-awaited third mainline park: Epic Universe…

For years, many fans (myself included) have felt that Disney has maintained a safe lead in the battle of the theme parks, particularly excelling in overall theming, guest service, family-friendliness, resorts, and dining. Universal’s strongest high points have generally been their thrill rides and appeal to teenagers, their lower costs, and the ultra-immersive feel of The Wizarding World of Harry Potter.

More and more, however, it’s looking like Universal is changing that conversation. While Disney has become something of a controversy magnet, Universal Studios has steadily taken ground in the arena of public opinion, and excitement surrounding the construction of Epic Universe is definitely helping. From taking advantage of Orlando’s new Brightline train to the way they’ve kept a smart pulse on intellectual properties, Universal is here to do business.

What in the battle-of-magical-worlds is going on? Here are seven areas that stand out where Universal is slowly eking out a lead against their longest competitor…

1. Universal is sticking to what they do best

Diagon Alley Dragon blowing fire at Universal Studios Orlando
Image: Flickr, Chad Sparkes (license)

Sometimes, the best thing you can do as a business is just stay in your lane.

Universal has known their niche for decades: cinema-themed adventure tourism with appeal to older children, teens, and adult superfans. While they absolutely can play the immersive atmosphere game, their approach is a little different from Disney, something that can make their parks feel a little un-cohesive at times but stunningly real at others.

The concepts for Epic Universe take me back to the opening of Islands of Adventure back in ’99. It was the first time we saw Universal venture beyond a straight studio park, and the results were stunning—a beautiful blend of remarkable worlds, with a strong focus on genres and niches Disney had missed the opportunity on (The Lost Continent for fantasy, Marvel Super Hero Island for comics, Jurassic Park for survival-thrillers). The arrival of the Wizarding World of Harry Potter decades later added new layers but followed the same principles.

Taking risks is good at times, but Disney has put their foot in it before trying to venture too far beyond what they do well, especially when competition with Universal drove their decisions (think Dinoland U.S.A.). Epic Universe sounds like a smart play across the board, sticking to ideas well within Universal’s wheelhouse.

2. Aiming high and stirring fan excitement

How to Train Your Dragon Land Concept Art for Epic Universe
Image: Universal

I am a longtime Disney fan, but I will be the first to say that Epic Universe sounds pretty stinkin’ cool.

While it’s good Universal is staying within the realm of what they do well, it doesn’t mean they aren’t taking any risks—it just seems they are taking the right ones. Lately, one frustration Disney fans have voiced is that the Walt Disney Company seems to have become extremely risk-averse when it comes to their theme parks. At the 2022 D23 Expo, very little concrete vision was cast for the parks—indeed, what they shared felt a bit like Disney was tossing concept noodles against a wall to see what stuck, floating nebulous ideas for park expansions that lacked cohesiveness and passion. In another example, Disney took the wrong type of risk by putting their best ideas for Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge exclusively into Star Wars: Galactic Starcruiser, an experience guests described as incredible but that almost no one could access because of the insane price (ultimately leading to its failure).

While Universal is playing it safe with aspects of Epic Universe by rehashing some ideas they’ve done well (Harry Potter, a dueling roller coaster, and monsters, for example), some other concepts for the land are more fresh and intriguing. We can’t say for sure how things will play out, but Universal seems to be aiming high, and we’re excited to see what they reveal as more details about the park surface.

3. Keeping it simple

Sign for Universal Express Pass with a women partially off camera getting her pass scanned
Image: Universal

One of the biggest areas where Disney has missed the mark with guests has been making vacations to their parks overly complicated. Guests have to navigate an eye-crossing bog of digital reservations, virtual queues, and heavy-handed marketing for the still-painfully clumsy Genie+ system just to have a normal Disney day. While some of Disney’s ideas aren’t terrible (virtual queues, for example, solved some significant problems), others have been met with justifiable scorn.

Universal’s Express Pass system works well because it’s simple. It’s substantially more expensive than Genie+, but that isn’t such a bad thing—this helps limit how many people will purchase it so Express Pass users don’t badly skew queue times, and the system is also pretty simple to use. No complicated math, no feeling like your vacation is being micromanaged by the mouse. It just works.

I use My Disney Experience heavily on my trips, but even I have run afoul of technology fatigue trying to navigate all the ways Disney now requires fans to use it. Universal does offer an app for fans--one that can feel over-simplistic at times compared to Disney’s--but the primary difference is Universal’s app is an accessory guests can use to enhance their trip—not a requirement. Disney has repeatedly tried to force guests onto My Disney Experience to get even the most basic tasks done within the parks, and it’s not made a positive impression on guests, especially those who prefer to put their phones away for a family vacation.

4. Staying out of controversy

Mickey and Minnie with Disneyland Castle
Image: Disney

This is a big one—some level of controversy usually isn’t unheard of for Disney, but in many areas this past few years, Disney absolutely has put their foot in it.

It doesn’t matter which side of the spectrum you’re on—Disney has lacked finesse in handling controversial issues the last few years. Clumsy handling of hot-button issues doomed to divide fans paired with flagging guest experience impressions in their parks has led to one problem after another for what was once the world’s most solid entertainment company.

It’s not that Universal never does anything controversial—it’s just that they’ve managed to maintain a better reputation in the public eye by being a bit more careful. They aren’t fumbling into one Kobayashi Maru level no-win situation after another. They’re not stoking the fires of controversy when they’re already in hot water with fans. They’re sticking to what they do well—providing a destination where guests can come to have great vacations in a fantastical setting—and staying clear of the rest.

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