Sep. 5, 2013 at 10:02 AM ET
While visitors to the newly opened Springfield area at Universal Studios Florida may find themselves humming the theme song from “The Simpsons,” park operators are whistling all the way to the bank.
Having invested billions in new attractions and innovative technology over the last few years, the industry’s major players are reaping the rewards of increased visitation, higher guest spending and cash reserves that promise more developments to come.
As Jebediah Springfield, the illustrious founder of the original Springfield, might have said, the nation’s biggest theme parks are getting, well, “embiggened.”
“There’s been a huge boom in capital investment,” said Hank Fishkind, president of Fishkind & Associates, a Florida financial consulting firm. “Not only did we have Harry Potter (in 2010) but Disney rebuilt Fantasyland, Legoland came in and SeaWorld opened Antarctica.”
While most park operators don’t reveal construction costs, Fishkind estimates the price tag on the recent projects around Orlando tops $2 billion. Add in the estimated $1.1 billion for the expansion of Disney’s California Adventure, including the opening of Cars Land, and it’s obvious that park operators are eager to see a healthy return on their hefty investments.
And park fans are cooperating. According to the Themed Entertainment Association, Disney parks drew almost 126.5 million visitors last year, up 4.7 percent from the year before, while Universal’s attracted 34.5 million, an increase of 7.9 percent.
(Universal Parks & Resorts is owned by Comcast, parent company to NBC News.)
This year is shaping up to be another barn-burner. In early August, Disney executives told analysts that attendance at its U.S. parks was up 3 percent during the April-June period while per capita spending jumped 7 percent. During the same period, revenue at Universal parks was up 1.1 percent.
Although ticket prices have helped boost the parks’ bottom lines, much of the growth can be attributed to a trend that kicked into high gear with the opening of The Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal Orlando Resort in 2010.
“What Harry Potter showed the industry was that you could take a storyline and do more than just a single ride or attraction,” said John Gerner, managing director of Leisure Business Advisors LLC. “You could do an entire themed area with shops, restaurants and street scenes.”
Which, of course, provides more opportunities to sell food, drinks and wizard-inspired merchandise.
“Butter beer is not about a sugary, frothy drink that gives you a mustache; it’s about doing something that Harry Potter did,” said Gerner.
Fast-forward three years later and it’s hardly surprising that Universal looked at The Simpsons Ride, which opened in Orlando in 2008, and decided to expand the concept by building the Springfield area around it.
Now visitors can augment their simulator tour of Krustyland with Krusty burgers ($10.99 – $12.99), big Lard Lad donuts ($4.99) and adult beverages including Flaming Moe’s and glasses of that “wonderful Duff” ($7.25 – $9.25).
Another recent development aimed at boosting ancillary revenue is Disney’s MyMagic+ concept. Recently tested at Walt Disney World, the electronic wristbands not only serve as admission tickets, room keys and credit cards, they allow guests to book rides and restaurant tables in advance.
MyMagic+, which builds on the company’s FastPass concept, is billed as a time-saver but during the initial testing, it also boosted average spending among users, parks Chairman Thomas Staggs told Bloomberg News, “because they had fun with the technology.”
“Instead of standing in line for two hours, they’ll spend an hour and a half in the shops," said Fishkind.
Regardless of the specific approach, it’s clear that both Disney and Universal have figured out that themed environments and better technology hold the key to continued growth and greater profits. Both companies have stocked their libraries of intellectual property with popular franchises and are investing heavily in new attractions.
Universal has announced plans for both a Wizarding World area at Universal Studios Hollywood and a second London-themed area in Orlando that will be linked to the original by a working Hogwarts Express.
Disney has licensing rights to several entertainment franchises, including “Avatar” and owns the “Star Wars” brand outright after paying $4 billion for Lucasfilm last year.
The company is remaining mum on their plans but industry scuttlebutt is that the initial rollout will be at Disney Hollywood Studios at Walt Disney World, which is currently home to one of the company’s Star Tours: The Adventure Continues attractions.
“It will probably be a much larger land surrounding Star Tours,” said Robert Niles, editor of ThemeParkInsider.com. “It’ll include other attractions, shows, restaurants and merchandising, of course.”
Given the recent trends in the industry, it would only be natural that those amenities include a bar modeled after the Mos Eisley Cantina on Tatooine where families could enjoy a tasty round of Hoth chocolates.
Alas, galactic credits probably won’t be accepted — but your Visa will.
Rob Lovitt is a longtime travel writer who still believes the journey is as important as the destination. Follow him on Twitter.