Disney Needs to Be Afraid of King Kong

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universalorlando.comUniversal's Islands of Adventure latest attraction -- "Skull Island: Reign of Kong" -- opens summer 2016 at Universal Orlando.
Sooner or later, Disney (DIS) is going to have to address the 800-ton gorilla in the room.

Comcast's (CMCSA) Universal Orlando unveiled Wednesday the latest addition to its collection of theme park experiences. Skull Island: Reign of Kong -- set to open next summer at Universal's Islands of Adventure -- will take riders through a re-creation of King Kong's Skull Island.

"You'll navigate perilous jungles, explore ancient temple structures and encounter hostile natives -- and that's only the beginning," the official pitch claims. "Throughout the rest of your excursion, you'll brave foreboding caves crawling with prehistoric creatures, fend off unspeakable terrors -- and even come face-to-face with the colossal Kong himself."

The new attraction announcement isn't exactly a surprise. Guests to Islands of Adventure in recent months have been able to see the massive ride building going up, and online chatter has been talking up the construction as a Kong-themed experience for just as long. It's been hiding in plain sight, and it seems that the only one that doesn't see it now is Disney.

Mouse vs. Beast

Just a few miles away from Universal Orlando, Disney isn't exactly setting the world on fire the way that Universal has with Harry Potter additions to both of its Universal Orlando theme parks. Disney's attendance is at record levels, but a good chunk of that is the handiwork of Universal's booming popularity drawing more visitors to the area.

Universal Orlando's attendance isn't quite at Disney World's level, but it's closing the gap. Universal parent Comcast reported a 34 percent year-over-year surge in revenue for its theme parks in its latest quarter. That compares to a more modest 6 percent uptick for Disney's theme parks. These metrics include the performance of Comcast and Disney theme parks outside of Florida, but third-party reports find Universal Orlando's overall growth climbing a lot faster than Disney World's in recent years.

It's clear that Universal is hungrier. It's been adding more marquee attractions than Disney in recent years. It's also been quicker about it. Disney has two major announced attractions -- a "Frozen" ride at EPCOT and an "Avatar"-themed land at Animal Kingdom -- but neither will be ready for guests before the new Kong ride.

It probably doesn't help Disney's cause that two of its four Florida parks have fewer attractions than they had a couple of years ago. Outside of the New Fantasyland addition at the Magic Kingdom, Disney World's been coasting at a time when Universal is raising the bar.

Wake Up, Sleepy

Disney's slumber won't last. It's been closing too many attractions at Disney's Hollywood Studios to not be about to announce a major addition to what has become its least-visited Florida theme park. A makeover fueled by "Star Wars," Pixar, and some Marvel franchises (it can't use the four franchises licensed to Universal's Islands of Adventure in Florida) is a no-brainer, but it's not as if renaming the park to Superhero Studios would be enough.

This isn't the time to be patient. Disney seems content to wait until after the new "Star Wars" movie premieres in December before breaking in new themed attractions. As that happens, Comcast is rolling out a new Kong attraction months before the new Kong movie hits theaters in late 2016.

There's nothing that Disney can take for granted here, and that includes its once-firm grip of Central Florida tourists. Universal is building a water park and its fifth on-site resort hotel. It wants to be the place where tourists can come for a weekend or an entire week without having to leave the property, something that Disney has enjoyed for decades.

The battle for theme park supremacy is heating up.

Motley Fool contributor Rick Munarriz owns shares of Walt Disney. The Motley Fool recommends and owns shares of Walt Disney. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. Looking for a winner for your portfolio? Check out The Motley Fool's one great stock to buy for 2015 and beyond.
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