Universal Orlando Getting Bigger, Better, Wetter, Wilder

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Wet´n Wild in Orlando, Florida
Stuart PearceUniversal Orlando has submitted plans to build a water park next to its theme parks. When it's open, it's rumored that the nearby Wet 'n Wild will be torn down and a hotel built there.
Universal Orlando is hoping to make a big splash at its Florida theme parks. The Comcast (CMCSK) subsidiary submitted plans earlier this month to build a water park just south of the fourth hotel that it recently opened at the resort.

The proposed park's iconic centerpiece will be a tall volcano with waterslides running down it and paths that lead to a lazy river, a rapids ride and other watery diversions. Theme park rumor site Screamscape.com unearthed trademarks last month for names including Volcano Bay and WonderSea Island, likely coming into play when the still-unannounced park opens in a year or two.

Universal has been busy in Central Florida. It opened the Cabana Bay Beach Resort last summer, just as it was breaking in the ambitious Wizarding World of Harry Potter expansion at Universal Studios Florida. Late last year it announced that a fifth resort hotel -- Sapphire Falls -- would be going up next year between the resort's third and fourth hotels.

Universal in Motion

Comcast's NBCUniversal already owns Wet 'n Wild, a water park a couple of blocks away from the heart of Universal Orlando. Screamscape.com speculates that Comcast may close Wet 'n Wild when the on-site water park opens, paving the way for a sixth resort hotel to be built on that site.

Themed Entertainment Association estimates that 15.2 million people visited Islands of Adventure and Universal Studios Florida in 2013, up sharply from the 10.2 million turnstile clicks generated in 2009. The major growth catalyst was the 2010 opening of Islands of Adventure's Wizarding World of Harry Potter, resulting in a 30 percent surge in attendance at that park that year.

Just a dozen miles away we find Disney (DIS) setting Disney World attendance records. The family entertainment giant doesn't post attendance figures, and Themed Entertainment Association is a few months away from publishing its industry estimates for 2014. However, the 2013 estimate is that combined attendance at Disney World's four theme parks clocked in at 50.1 million, up nicely from the 47.5 million guests the parks entertained in 2009.

Compare 15.2 million turnstile clicks at Universal Orlando's two parks to the 50.1 million guests entertained at Disney World in 2013, and one would think that Mickey Mouse has nothing to worry about, but let's not forget the 2009 attendance figures. Universal has gained 5 million guests in four years to Disney's 2.6 million, and that's with just half as many parks. It wouldn't be a surprise if Universal Orlando narrowed the gap again in 2014 with the wildly successful Harry Potter expansion.

It's not just the bar-raising attractions that Universal Orlando has been adding that should worry Disney. Between the 1,800-room Cabana Bay that opened last summer and the 1,000-room Sapphire Falls opening next year, we will see Universal Orlando's on-site hotel capacity go from 2,400 to 5,200 rooms.

Disney Needs to Get Serious

With Universal Orlando more than doubling its on-site rooms, upgrading its attractions and now ready to become a more all-inclusive destination with an in-house water park, Disney should be quivering underneath its mouse ears. It has been phoning it in when it comes to new park attractions, which the attendance figures show haven't been as magnetic as what Universal is up to these days.

Disney has reportedly spent more than $1 billion on its experience-enhancing MyMagic+ platform, but cutting-edge in-park technology isn't what will keep guests from straying to see what its neighbor is doing.

Help is on the way. A "Frozen" ride is coming to Epcot's Norway pavilion in 2016, and Animal Kingdom's "Avatar"-themed area will open in 2017. Disney is widely expected to announce "Star Wars"-themed attractions at Disney Hollywood Studios. However, even as Disney is refreshing its parks, we find Universal Orlando building up a still-unannounced attraction widely expected to be King Kong-themed.

Disney can no longer take pixie dust for granted, even as it gears up for yet another price hike. The competition is real -- and it's getting closer.

Motley Fool contributor Rick Munarriz owns shares of Walt Disney. He also operates a few theme park-related websites. The Motley Fool recommends and owns shares of Walt Disney. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. Bring the magic of dividends to your portfolio: Check out our free report on our favorite high-yielding dividend stocks.
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