In 2018, Universal’s Fast & Furious — Supercharged opens and Disney’s Hollywood Studios will reveal its Toy Story-themed land. SeaWorld Orlando, in need of an attendance game-changer, is opening a new raft ride.
But more attention from industry observers is focused on the Star Wars lands opening in 2019 at Disneyland and Walt Disney World or talk of Universal developing a Nintendo-themed world.
“People are going to delay their trip to Orlando because they want to see Star Wars,” said Scott Smith, an Orlando native who is an assistant professor at University of South Carolina’s hospitality school and still studies the industry.
He expects the parks to offer price incentives or sneak peeks for the much-awaited future expansions as ways to keep attendance from dipping in 2018.
“With great changes come great price increases,” Smith said, looking ahead to 2019.
It makes sense for the amusement parks to advertise 2018 as a good time to come before the big crowds and big-ticket prices arrive, he said.
Calling 2018 a slow year says a lot about Orlando’s high standards, said Robert Niles, a journalist who has covered the theme-park industry for 20 years.
“An off-year for Orlando is an amazing year for everybody else,” said Niles, who has written for publications, such as the L.A. Times, the Orange County Register in California and his popular blog, Theme Park Insider. “This looks like a smaller year simply because the bigger years have become so big.”
Theme parks’ biggest competitive push in recent years was the opening of the Wizarding World of Harry Potter in 2010, said Duncan Dickson, a former Disney executive who now teaches at the University of Central Florida’s Rosen College of Hospitality Management.
“Ever since Harry Potter, it woke everybody up. The game is changing, and we have to keep up,” Dickson said. “You want your guests to keep coming back — you’ve got to create a reason.”
With the success of Harry Potter, Universal challenged Disney World, which did not want to give up its market share to a competitor, he said.
“It’s leading to a theme-park arms race in the Orlando market,” Dickson said.
Now the large amusement parks typically expand every year, whether it’s a new multimillion-dollar roller coaster or something more low-scale, like a parade, Smith said.
“You certainly don’t ever want to be accused of resting on your laurels,” Smith said. “You have to put something in your advertising that’s new and improved.”
This year’s new rides at Disney and Universal are pulled from “powerful franchises” and could be well-received, Niles said.
Fast & Furious — Supercharged will take visitors on a chase in a party bus through San Francisco with characters from the movie franchise. It is in the same vein as Universal’s Skull Island: Reign of Kong ride, which has 3-D, high-definition images on 360-degree screens, Niles said.
“What we do best is place the guest right in the middle of the story and action,” said Thierry Coup, senior vice president of Universal Creative.
The Fast & Furious movie franchise has been overlooked and is especially popular among diverse audiences, Niles said.
“There’s a huge audience out there that absolutely adores Fast & Furious,” Niles said. “This is for them.”
Disney’s Toy Story Land, which features two attractions, including the family roller coaster Slinky Dog Dash, stands out because it’s one of the rare franchises that appeals to multiple generations, he said.
The first film came out in 1995, and many of those who grew up watching it are having children now. “Toy Story 3” was released in 2010.
The expansion will help a relatively empty Hollywood Studios — which shut down the Great Movie Ride in 2017 and is currently under construction for Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge — steer some families from the more crowded Magic Kingdom, Niles said.
SeaWorld Orlando will debut a new raft ride, Infinity Falls, that features moments of intense rapids and a record-breaking 42-foot drop.
“I’m really excited for Infinity Falls,” said Paul Noland, president of the Orlando-based International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions. “That will have the potential to take raft rides to a whole another level.”The ride opens during a pivotal time after 2017 brought declining attendance, dropping revenues and SeaWorld cut 350 positions in October.
“I can honestly say 2018 is going to be a make-or-break year for SeaWorld,” Smith said. “We’re rapidly approaching the point they may have to make radical changes.”
But Smith and Niles said they were doubtful a raft ride would be enough to generate a significant attendance boom.
“It’ll be a nice addition to the park,” Niles said. “I don’t know if it moves the needle boosting their attendance.”
“No one thing” will immediately fix the attendance struggles, said SeaWorld vice president Brian Morrow, adding that Infinity Falls is a part of a multiyear investment in new attractions at Orlando and the company’s other theme parks to rebound.