Disney vs. Universal Showdown in O-Town: The Theme Park “Arms Race”

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Universal Orlando | Volcano Bay

It’s a great time to be a theme park enthusiast. Both Disney and Universal are building some elaborate new attractions in Orlando in an intense competition for tourist dollars. While executives at both companies are most likely laying awake at night wondering what this summer might bring, the rivalry is sure to bring about some much needed updates to both parks.

Pandora vs. Volcano Bay

Both Pandora (in Walt Disney World) and Volcano Bay (a water park in Universal Orlando) are set to open within days of each other, but offer drastically different experiences.

Pandora is scheduled to open on May 27 and is based on the mega-hit 2010 film Avatar. It’s an expansion of Disney’s Animal Kingdom park. The parcel of land being used to build Pandora was originally to be used for Beastly Kingdom, which was scrapped and replaced with Camp Minnie-Mickey. When it opens, it will feature two new attractions — the Na’vi River Journey and Flight of Passage — in addition to a new restaurant and, of course, gift shops.

While excitement seems to be mounting for Pandora, some have wondered if the Avatar franchise will resonate with movie buffs as much as Universal’s Harry Potter, and if it will have legs once the initial buzz dies down. Other Disney enthusiasts have questioned the addition of non-Disney IP to the parks, and whether or not it will be a good fit. (Hello, Star Tours, anyone?)

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Disney has been very proactive to combat these doubts with a series of videos released last about why Pandora fits with Animal Kingdom.

Across town at Universal, Volcano Bay will be ready to blow on May 25th. It’s an entirely new water park featuring 18 brand new attractions, including water slides and the Krakatau Aqua Coaster.

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Escalation…

To (somewhat) combat Volcano Bay, Disney opened a new rafting ride called Miss Adventure Falls earlier this year.

Volcano Bay promises to have a new technology called TapuTapu, which sounds eerily similar to Disney’s FastPass+ and Magic Bands.

Disney is testing a new FastPass-like technology in its water parks.

Universal hits Disney with a marketing campaign that implies that teens have outgrown Disney.

And it goes on and on…

Will Either Project Be 100% Complete on Opening Day?

Some industry watchers are speculating that neither Pandora or Volcano Bay will be 100% complete on opening day. However, with Disney pushing for annual passholder and cast member previews, it’s pretty likely that Pandora will be mostly done by May 27th. Mostly.

More Disney Expansion…

While it’s doubtful that a fifth gate at Walt Disney World is in the immediate future, it might happen someday. Might. And I imagine execs will look at the feasibility after completing Pandora, Star Wars Land and the Cars expansion in Disney’s Hollywood Studios, as well as the long-rumored overhaul of Epcot. A fifth theme park might be a trump card Disney plays if the competition from Universal becomes too fierce.

Competition is GOOD, Because…

We’ve seen unprecedented expansion in both Orlando parks over the past few years. That means there’s almost always something new to look forward to every summer, and it looks like that trend should continue for the foreseeable future.

You want to see Epcot’s Future World get some much overdue TLC? Don’t “thank the Phoenicians,” thank Comcast for pushing Disney to up their game.

Competition sometimes means lower prices. Disney really, really wants your travel dollars and are having some great deals right now. However, as the cost of building, expanding and maintaining these parks continues to climb, so will prices.

Meanwhile, at SeaWorld…

A sudden infusion of cash? This could prove to be very interesting…


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I've loved Disney as long as I can remember. As a former newspaper editor, web developer, and Disney comics freelancer, I'm able to combine that experience into writing about Disney online. I'm also the co-host of a Disney fan podcast called 'Pirates & Princesses.' Opinions mine.

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