Mickey Blinkedby David Koenig, contributing writer
I recently returned from what for me was a very unusual week in Orlando—I preceded my four days at Walt Disney World with three days at Universal Studios Florida's resorts and parks. The difference floored me.
Of course, the Wizarding World of Harry Potter in 2010 was a game-changer, instantly driving up attendance and revenues, and turning Universal into a destination that tourists had to go to, in addition to—or even instead of—Disney.
The philosophy behind it—create fully exotic, identifiable, immersive environments, spending whatever was required to do the job and exceed visitor expectations—was so successful, it convinced Disney to momentarily abandon its penny-pinching ways and follow suit with a no-expenses-spared Cars Land (which has worked similar magic on Disney California Adventure) and for its Avatar and Star Wars lands.
Still, Disney will have a hard time topping Potter, because while Star Wars and Avatar contain great, unique environments, they lack the hundreds of intimate, instantly recognizable details of Potter's universe. I found myself completely engulfed in both Universal parks' Harry Potter areas, their eye-popping attractions, exactingly re-created shops and restaurants, and the clever train that connects the two parks.
The shops are small, meandering, out of the way, with narrow aisles and hidden rooms, waiting to be accidentally discovered. The wand shop sells wands, not Islands of Adventure T-shirts. Remember pre-1980s Main Street, anyone?
I walked right past Diagon Alley without realizing it. The entire land is hidden behind brick facades, with no signs. You have to know it's back there (or follow the constant stream of visitors). I'm fairly certain Disney's version would have had neon signs, miles of stanchions, and an army of cast members waving the crowds through with flashlights.
When I visited, the parks had opened a new headline attraction (Kong: Skull Island) weeks before, were soft-opening another (Hulk) the day we arrived, and were promoting two more (Fast and Furious, Jimmy Fallon) on eye-catching construction walls.
Universal employees were, for the most part, upbeat and engaged. After our Dr. Suess PeopleMover-type ride suffered a five-minute breakdown, an apologetic manager greeted us at unload with front-of-the-line passes and cold bottles of water.
In comparison, Walt Disney World felt tired. Over the last two-plus years, aside from Epcot changing out Soarin' and Frozen-ing over Maelstrom, the resort seemed frozen in time.
The most noticeable changes—Magic Kingdom's reformatted Plaza layout, complete with tacky artificial grass lawns, and Downtown Disney's conversion into Disney Springs—didn't upgrade entertainment; they focused on making bottlenecks more accessible. Like most of WDW's big expenditures over the last decade, from Magic Bands to the New Fantasyland to Fastpass+, the primary impetus was the traffic flow—accommodating more customers and moving them quickly in and out of additional buying opportunities.
Disney Springs, in particular, is themed entertainment malpractice. They added two parking structures, new shopping villages, pathways, bridges, and dozens more stores and restaurants, but excised all personality. Pleasure Island had charm, character, quirkiness; the new Town Center looks like the Irvine Spectrum, a conventional outdoor mall with zero Disney touches.
Disney Quest was the lowlight. It was unkempt and severely understaffed—even for the relatively small number of visitors there. The skeleton crew seemed dispirited. The Animation Academy offered a drawing class at 1:30 and then not another one until 6:30. Attractions were mothballed left and right.
Crowds were also down, albeit slightly, at the Magic Kingdom, although lines—especially at bag check—moved slowly. On Aladdin's Magic Carpet ride, the squirting camels were turned off and the ride's machinery creaked so painfully, it sounded like the arms were going to fall off. On Buzz Lightyear's Space Ranger Spin, I practically needed pliers to squeeze my trigger.
Even pleasant surprises brought suspicion. Every attraction we visited at Epcot had a wait time that turned out to be a third of what was posted on the signs out front. Was Disney pretending its rides were more popular than they really were? After waiting just 20 minutes for Frozen Ever After (the disfigured Maelstrom) instead of the advertised 70 minutes, I informed the attendants out front, who were busy chatting to each other. They shrugged, and resumed their chat.
The ride itself offered little new, besides the Frozen overlay. It's a shame because most of the technology behind ground-breaking Universal attractions like Spider-Man and Forbidden Journey was first offered to Disney. Disney passed.
All that said, Universal Orlando has a ways to go before it achieves Disney-level success. For one thing, Universal lacks the "whole family" rides that Disney's famous for. Almost everything at Universal's parks are either thrill rides or kiddie rides, with no crossover. Also, most of Universal's marquee attractions have a similar feel; Escape from Gringotts, Forbidden Journey, Kong, Shrek, Simpsons, Spider-Man, Minions, and Transformers all place you in a motion-simulating vehicle that interacts with a 3-D movie, usually violently. They're all great individually, but numbingly repetitive one right after the other. Ride types are also clustered instead of spread out; Islands of Adventure's two "shows," Poseidon's Fury and Sinbad, are right next to each other, as are its three flume/raft attractions. As well, Universal's live entertainment is lacking; Poseidon and Sinbad desperately need updating.
Disney also has structural advantages. It owns more than 25 times the land in Florida than Universal. It holds countless more beloved properties to design attractions around. And, of course, it has the Disney name.
But Universal has one overwhelming advantage: it actually considers the continuous creation of great attractions to be a top priority.
Can't Miss at Epcot
It's easy to miss at Epcot, but don't. The Captain EO theater is now playing a "Disney & Pixar Short Film Festival" featuring three cartoons in 3-D—For the Birds, La Luna, and Get a Horse!—all of which I'd seen before, but not in 3-D. The format added a little to the first two, but seeing Get a Horse! in 3-D in a large theater was like viewing a completely different movie. Many of the movie's gags are dependent on the 3-D effects and on being in a theater setting. I now know why it didn't win the Oscar for best animated short—obviously most Academy voters saw the short only on their flat small screens.
Plastic Surgery for the Big Cheese
Rumors abound that the parks' costumed Mickey Mouse and Minnie Mouse might be getting a new look. The new heads and faces, influenced by the look of the CGI children's show Mickey Mouse Clubhouse, debuted this summer at Shanghai Disneyland. The faces are longer (particularly in the eyes) and a deeper tan color. I have to wonder if they were trying to make the mice appear more "international." The site Thrillgeek.com has a side-by-side comparison of the new and old looks.
One source expects the new costumes to debut at Disneyland "very soon… The new heads are already at Disneyland and Entertainment cast members are familiarizing themselves with them," she said. "Entertainment management has been trying to keep when the change is going to occur a secret."