Clash Of The Theme Parks
THE rivalry between the two parks operators, which dates to the late 1980s, when Disney scrambled to open its Hollywood Studios park here to beat Universal’s planned arrival, next moves to California.
Universal will soon open its “Transformers” ride; Disney will unveil a $450 million “Cars”-themed addition to its nearby California Adventure park on June 15.
(Disney bid for the Harry Potter rights but balked at the degree of creative control sought by the author J.K. Rowling; cost was also an issue.
Comcas gained control of the Universal parks last year when it paid $13.75 billion to General Electric for 51 percent of NBCUniversal. Comcast quickly doubled down on the business, spending $1 billion to buy a stake in Universal Orlando owned by the Blackstone Group. GE and Blackstone were both more interested in wringing cash from the parks than expanding them; selling them entirely was regularly on the table.
But Comcast is different. “We’re really feeling the love,” said Williams, Universal’s chief.
Comcast has increased spending on the parks – by how much it won’t say – and is betting on strong international growth.
Universal announced a deal in April to open a park in Moscow by the end of the decade. The company, which opened a park in Singapore two years ago, also has resorts in the works in South Korea and Dubai; it is pursuing a deal in China.
Stephen B. Burke, a Comcast executive vice president and chief executive of the NBCUniversal unit, spent over a decade at Disney, working for part of that time as a senior parks manager. Burke, who was recently in Orlando to discuss plans to promote Universal across the Comcast empire, told analysts in a recent conference call that he was “very bullish” on the theme park business.
“Comcast is pretty excited about spending money there because they see a lot of potential growth,” said Doug Mitchelson, a media analyst at Deutsche Bank.
Mitchelson estimates that Comcast will spend $150 million a year on improvements for at least the next five years.
Universal’s previous owners in many recent years kept spending at the basic maintenance level, estimated at about $50 million annually.
At the moment, Universal is particularly hopeful that “Transformers” will continue an upswing at Universal Studios Hollywood, which is still best known for its tram tour of the Universal Pictures back lot, a feature that first opened in 1964. The Hollywood property in 2010 opened a new “King Kong” attraction and attendance jumped 26 percent over the year before.
The 3-D “Transformers” ride, which ThemeParkInsider.com called “among the very top rides in the world” in a review, could move the needle again. The attraction, which replaced an antiquated one built around the 1991 film “Backdraft,” was designed in conjunction with Bay and takes riders on a (perceived) high-speed adventure through the streets of Chicago, where good alien robots are engaged in a ferocious battle with evil ones.
Riders wearing 3-D glasses sit in motion simulators, which pivot, undulate and vibrate while moving through a 60,000- square-foot building on a track, stopping in front of 14 screens that tower up to 60 feet in the air. Transformers imagery is projected on the screens at four times the resolution of standard high-definition media, making it seem that the robots are real as they pull you into grinding gears, drag you through a skyscraper and blast weapons at your head.
On a tour last month, the ride’s show producer, Chick Russell, pointed out how “tactile effects” – water, wind, heat, smoke – are designed to occur in tandem with 3-D action sequences.
“We’re the best, we think, at creating the world’s greatest theme park attractions,” Russell said as he hopped out of the ride vehicle.
Those sure sound like fighting words.