On June 15, Universal Orlando Resort debuted the Hydro-Action Ski Show, a temporary draw for summertime crowds at Islands of Adventure. The brief watercraft demonstration, staged several times daily in the park's central lagoon, is a disappointingly disjointed demo of standard jet ski and wakeboard tricks, saddled with witless play-by-play commentary. Despite a few nifty hydrofoil flips, the new offering compares poorly to Universal's old Dynamite Nights boat show. It's a refreshing diversion if you're already in the park — splash zones are waterside in the Marvel and Jurassic Park areas — but nothing tourists will go out of their way for.
That decree — "nothing that tourists will go out of their way for" — is emblematic of the resort's struggles as it prepares for dramatic growth. Despite increased per-capita spending, attendance has fallen to the point that IOA now trails SeaWorld Orlando. The recently opened Blue Man Group should give Universal a much-needed excitement injection. (As an employee remarked to me, "It's going to be fun to work here again.") And even though the long-anticipated Wizarding World of Harry Potter announcement was swiftly bumped from the headlines by the Orlando Magic's Billy Donovan debacle, nailing down the famously finicky J.K. Rowling is a major coup.
The IOA Potter project's publicized $250-plus million price tag sounds substantial, but SEC filings reveal that budget includes 20 years' worth of licensing royalties, as well as the cost of Universal Studios' 2008 Simpsons ride. That doesn't leave many knuts to build a cutting-edge e-ticket ride like the flying-car Kuka Robocoaster, expected to replace the Eighth Voyage of Sinbad stunt show. So Harry's island will largely be a redress of existing Lost Continent attractions. (Industry insider Jim Hill says sayonara to most of the skeletons in Dueling Dragons' queue.) At least with Oscar-winning designer Stuart Craig on board, everything should look just like the movies — even if Hogwarts turns out to be mostly a gorgeous gift shop.
Majority owner General Electric finally seems committed to the parks for the long haul, but it can't afford to waste years waiting on new attractions. So here's my completely unsolicited advice on how Universal can jump-start the potential they've spent this decade dissipating.
Accelerate the advertising
Even without a new gate-buster ride to promote, Disney has turned cheap trinkets into ticket sales with their "Year of a Million Dreams" promotion. When was the last time Universal had a buzz-worthy national marketing campaign?
Offer a free ride
Disney's Magical Express traps tourists on Mouse property, so fight back with a free and easy way for them to get up I-4. Pick 'em up, drop 'em off and sell and print their tickets on the way.
Piggyback the box office
Walt Disney World is Jack Sparrow— saturated this summer; Spidey and Shrek's PR pushes seemed second-rate. And it'll be a shame if Harry and Homer aren't posing for pictures while their movies are making money.
Tourists grumble that Universal's Express Plus pass costs cash, as opposed to Disney's free Fastpass. If only they understood that Universal's "skip the line" program is a much bigger time-saver that doesn't destroy the experience for regular guests the way Fastpass has.
Plunder the peacock
What good is having NBC in the corporate family if you don't exploit it? Meet-and-greets with Hiro and Sylar and Dunder-Mifflin "training seminars" would be a great start.
Discovery Cove—style intimate experiences are the future. Universal already has the best VIP tours in town — but what if you could be a Jaws skipper, a stunt actor or a Blue Man for a day?
Signs of marginal maintenance abound at the once beautiful Islands, and a brand-new Hogwarts school of magic will make the rest of the park look like crap. Please make IOA shine like it's 1999.
Don't diminish dining
Keeping guests in-park for multiple meals is key, and Universal has first-class restaurants like Mythos. But they often shut down long before the parks do, and some — like the Green Eggs and Ham Cafe — are completely dormant. Econ 101: Any cost savings are outweighed by the sense of decay projected by closed cafés.[email protected]