It’s the summer of 2014, the summer the theme park aficionados have been waiting for.
This morning, Universal Studios Florida will formally open their new Harry Potter experience for all its guests. Based on the advanced press coverage, there’s little doubt that Diagon Alley will be a home run for Universal Studios Florida. That’s good news as that park’s attendance last year was barely over the 7,000,000 number, with Islands of Adventure being about a million more than that. This addition should help the park see some some solid increases.
There’s been no shortage of comparisons among bloggers about how Diagon Alley will more than trump whatever was created by the new Fantasyland at the Magic Kingdom. Since the first parts of Storybook Circus emerged, Disney has spent nearly two years uncovering all of the elements of the Fantasyland expansion. That has netted them nearly an additional two million guests increase in attendance, and now puts Magic Kingdom as the most visited theme park in the world with an estimated 18,588,000 having passed through their gates–some eleven million more than came through the Universal Studios park. Yes, Diagon Alley will do very well, but the Disney parks in Florida are still king.
More interesting this last week is what’s going on at Disney’s Hollywood Studios. Their attendance was just over 10 million last year–not nearly what Magic Kingdom does, but significantly higher than Universal’s parks. Still, attendance during the summer is generally slow. Typically they bring out some little promotion. This year it began as Rock Your Summer Side. Disney mentioned it on their own blog on June 20th: “Mickey and the gang will be dressed for fun in the sun, ready to rock their summer side, too! Nearby you’ll even find a giant postcard set up to mark the occasion. It’ll be a great spot to snap a selfie and share the fun with all your friends and family.” I never saw any costuming changes for Mickey and the gang, nor did I notice a postcard. In the wake of Star Wars Weekends, it looked like a quiet–if not dead–summer for the park.
Then low and behold, six days later Disney announced on a dime that Frozen Summer Fun LIVE! would be coming to Disney’s Hollywood Studios. Where some four comments had attended Disney’s Rock Your Summer Side blog entry, there were now over 130 comments for the new Frozen event. Suddenly there were promotional materials all over the resort. There were even billboards all around Orlando, and banners up and down the parking lot of the Studios. This event has truly come out of nowhere. Finally Disney marketing was able to keep something under wraps until they wanted to promote it, as there were no real leaks about this earlier.
I was there on the first day and was blown away by how many people had shown up. I headed over to Studio 1 where at Wandering Oaken’s Trading Post & Frozen Funland, guests could pay an additional $10 a piece to go ice skating. The lines were no different than when they were lined up here for Darth Maul only a few weeks ago. Only they were paying this time to get in, and the length of time to get in was completely uncertain, as Disney didn’t have any real experience moving people through an ice skating experience.
Where Disney really didn’t have their game face on in having sufficient merchandise when the movie Frozen came out, they are now ready. Merchandise is everywhere and guests were buying it up by the bagful. Similarly, there are plenty of delicious Frozen treats to eat, as well as a VIP package that includes dessert parties and RSVP seatings. From a per cap point-of-view, this was every bit a winner as any wand you would buy at Olivanders.
Definitely the hype of the entire event was on the scale of Star Wars Weekends–only this wasn’t a weekend event. This is going on every day through the first of September. As I stepped through the park, I realized that this was no lame event. Disney had quietly created a one-two punch. Where most figured the completion of Fantasyland Forest and the premiere of the Seven Dwarfs Mine Train would be Disney’s answer to competing with Universal this summer, suddenly–and only a few days before Universal premiered Diagon Alley–Frozen suddenly shows up out of nowhere.
I took my place near the audio tent by the stage and awaited the arrival of Anna and Elsa. Looking around, it realized that Disney’s brass had shown up for this event. Everyone from the head of Walt Disney World, George Kalogridis, and on down were in attendance. You could see the thrill (or was it surprise) on their faces seeing the size of the crowd that were in attendance.
And they made no token visit. I found them returning to the first showing of the For the First Time in Forever: A Frozen Sing-Along Celebration. While created on a Judy Garland/Mickey Rooney “Let’s Put on a Show” time frame, they created a fun event that frankly rivals the Beauty and the Beast show down the street in terms of pure enjoyment.
As I heard the voices singing along to the song, I realized that Disney had successfully targeted an audience that Universal wasn’t going to get through their turnstiles. The children sitting there in the audience probably haven’t seen Harry Potter in the movie theater–they’re simply too young to have attended. But here they are in mass numbers knowing every word to the songs of Frozen.
Don’t mistake me–this isn’t going to shorten the crowds at Universal one bit. And maybe this isn’t quite a one-two punch. Perhaps it’s more like a snowball being thrown at Universal. But Disney has a huge hit on their hands that’s going to heat up the attendance at Disney’s Hollywood Studios. And what is most amazing–the cost of doing this event is a bare fraction of what it cost to put together Diagon Alley. Disney may not only gain in attendance, it may gain a new annual event, similar to Star Wars Weekends or the Food & Wine Festival at Epcot.
Guests now have real choices as to where they would like to go this summer. Clearly, the theme park wars are very much alive.