Disney World and Universal Gear Up for a theme-park war

The battle lines have been drawn in Central Florida. Comcast's (NASDAQ: CMCSA) Universal Orlando announced earlier this week that it's opening the Volcano Bay water park on May 25, just in time for Memorial Day weekend and the subsequent summertime crowds.

Disney(NYSE: DIS) hasn't unveiled an official opening date for Pandora: The World of Avatar, the immersive Avatar-themed expansion at Disney's Animal Kingdom. It's still loosely clinging to a summertime debut. However, the recent rollout of a new discounted multi-day ticket for Florida residents blacks out availability at Animal Kingdom -- and only Animal Kingdom -- from May 27 until when the passes expire on June 9. Does that mean Pandora will open on May 27, also in time for the holiday weekend crowds?

It's going to be an interesting Memorial Day weekend, and things will get even more action-packed as the seasonally potent summer crowds start to arrive a couple of weeks later. Two of the biggest new theme-park attractions to open in the area since Universal Orlando's 2014 opening of Harry Potter's Diagon Alley expansion and Disney World's 2012 New Fantasyland debut are about to open possibly just two days apart. Throw in the Jimmy Fallon attraction opening at Universal Studios Florida a month earlier, and you have Comcast and Disney making major investments to win over visitors this year.

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New theme park rides 2015
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New theme park rides 2015

Holiday World & Splashin' Safari
Santa Claus, Indiana

The first "winged" roller coaster in the country is set to debut at Indiana's Holiday World & Splashin' Safari theme park in April. Riders are suspended on both sides of the track, and the coaster reaches speeds of 60 mph in only 3.5 seconds.

(Photo via Holiday World & Splashin' Safari)

Elitch Gardens Theme & Water Park
Denver, Colorado

A clover-shaped raft carries four riders through a twisting tornado funnel and down a 57-foot drop into an enormous bowl.

(Photo via Elitch Gardens)

Cedar Point
Sandusky, Ohio

The park's new floorless roller coaster hits speeds up to 60 mph and includes a 137-foot drop.

(Photo: Cedar Point)

Fury 325
Charlotte, North Carolina

The tallest and fastest giga coaster in the world debuted this spring -- it's also the longest steel roller coaster in North America. The first drop (shown here) is 325 feet -- taller than the Statue of Liberty -- and the ride reaches speeds of 95 mph.

(Photo courtesy of Carowinds)

Mt. Olympus Theme Park & Water Park
Wisconsin Dells, Wisconsin

The Wisconsin theme park's new 140-foot vertical swing is expected to open before Memorial Day. Riders get a view of the entire theme park from the top.

(Photo by Mt. Olympus Theme Park & Water Park)

Voyage to the Iron Reef
Knott's Berry Farm
Buena Park, California

In this new 3D interactive adventure, guests sit in submarine-like vehicles and shoot ray guns at attacking animated underwater creatures like puffer fish and a iron-armored octopus.

(Photo by Knott's Berry Farm)

Morey's Pier & Beachfront Water Parks
Wildwood, New Jersey

Opening Memorial Day weekend, this new attraction features a giant smoke-breathing gorilla that hangs from a lighthouse on the Wildwood boardwalk. After zipping around the animal in a vintage war plane, guests can munch on frozen bananas and recharge their phones at the retail space under the ride.

(Photo by Larson International Inc.)

Orlando Eye
I-Drive 360
Orlando, Florida

Orlando's newest attraction isn't in a theme park. The new I-Drive 360 entertainment district is home to the Orlando Eye, a massive 400-foot Ferris wheel reminiscent of the one in London.

(Photo: Orlando Eye)

Quassy Amusement & Waterpark
Middlebury, Connecticut

This giant pendulum swings riders back and forth while rotating their seats at the same time. The ride goes higher and higher until it flips a whole 360-degrees.

(Photo by Quassy Amusement & Waterpark)

Twisted Colossus
Six Flags Magic Mountain
Valencia, California

This new hybrid steel-wooden coaster has a steep 128-foot drop, a "Top Gun" tie-in and a Zero G Roll. There are two trains on the ride at the same time -- adding an extra thrill when they pass each other on turns.

(Photo by Undercover Tourist)

Wet'n'Wild Las Vegas
Las Vegas, Nevada

Water sliding goes high tech in this new ride, which is integrated with a video game. Sliders use the raft's game controller handles to try hit colorful targets inside the tube.

(Photo: Wet'n'Wild Las Vegas)

Batman: The Ride
Six Flags Fiesta Texas
San Antonio, Texas

This high-tech Gotham-themed coaster ties in special effects and an innovative seat flip as riders crest the vertical drops.

(Photo via Six Flags Fiesta Texas)

Dive Bomber
Six Flags White Water
Marietta, Georgia

Riders stand on top of a trap door in a clear capsule. When the door opens, guests slide more than 100 feet in a zero-gravity fall at 90 degrees.

(Photo: Six Flags White Water)

Bourbon Street Fireball
Six Flags America
Upper Marlboro, Maryland

Near Washington D.C., this new roller coaster shoots riders around a 70-foot-tall full loop -- backwards.

(Photo: Six Flags America)

Justice League: Battle for Metropolis
Six Flags St. Louis
Eureka, Missouri

The park's new 3D interactive ride positions guests as members of the Justice League Reserve Team to save the city of Metropolis from well-known villains.

(Photo: Six Flags St. Louis)

Wicked Cyclone
Six Flags New England
Agawam, Massachusetts

This new wood hybrid roller coaster includes two zero-G rolls and a 109-foot hill while reaching speeds of 55 mph.

(Photo: Six Flags New England)

ZDT's Amusement Park
Seguin, Texas

This ride -- the first wooden shuttle coaster to be built in more than 100 years -- will run two trains at the same time when it opens this summer. Riders go over drops and loops only to fall backwards and do the whole track in reverse.

(Photo: ZDT's Amusement Park)

Rip Roarin' Rampage
Alabama Splash Adventures
Bessemer, Alabama

The revamped wooden roller coaster opens this summer with a series of turns and drops at max speeds of 56 mph.

(Photo via Alabama Splash Adventures)

Brain Drain
Frontier City
Oklahoma City, Oklahoma

This seven-story roller coaster is opening in OKC this summer, placing riders face to face as they loop 360-degrees and freeze upside-down 72-feet in the air.

(Photo: Frontier City)


It's not a dormant volcano

Comcast is playing up Volcano Bay, calling it the resort's third theme park. Comcast is so confident about the new water park that it even closed the nearby Wet 'n Wild water park it operated just outside Universal Orlando last month.

Volcano Bay will be roughly half the size of either of Disney World's two water parks, but loading it with high-end watery diversions and pioneering wearable tech to reserve wait times on flagship attractions will make it a popular park once the weather heats up. It can market the convenience of virtual queues, something Disney World doesn't seem in a hurry to embrace at its Typhoon Lagoon and Blizzard Beach water parks.

It's probably not a surprise that the country's four busiest water parks are all in Orlando, according to industry tracker Themed Entertainment Association. Typhoon Lagoon and Blizzard Beach topped the attendance list with 2.3 million and 2.1 million guests, respectively, in 2015. The now shuttered Wet 'n Wild park clocked in fourth with 1.3 million visitors in 2015.

Comcast's hope here has to be that it can attract at least as many guests as the Wet 'n Wild park that it closed down, and that they will pay more to visit Volcano Bay. With Universal Orlando continuing to add to its on-site hotel room count, the potential built-in audience keeps climbing. Introducing Volcano Bay will just give them one more reason to never leave the resort.

Disney is no shrinking violet. It may also be gearing up to open the Rivers of Light lakefront nighttime attraction -- after fumbling its debut last year -- around the same time Pandora opens for business. The show would give Disney's Animal Kingdom a one-two punch that should translate into a big spike in attendance.

If a trip to Central Florida isn't on your itinerary this summer, that may change as more details of the major Disney World and Universal Orlando additions are revealed.

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