The theme park operator -- owned by Comcast (CMCSK) -- hosted "A Celebration of Harry Potter" this past weekend, inviting guests to interact with actors from the popular movie series. Attendees were also treated to an exhibit showcasing movie props and received training in wand dueling. There was even a "Sorting Hat" experience.
However, the highlight of the experience may have taken place on the eve of the three-day affair when Universal hosted a celebrity-backed webcast detailing the ambitious expansion of its Potter-themed attractions.
Two Parks Are Better Than One
It's been four years since Universal opened The Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal Orlando's Islands of Adventure theme park. Debuting at a time when J.K. Rowling's franchise was still near the peak of its frenzied fandom, some guests had to wait more than 10 hours to get into richly themed section of the park fashioned after the series' Hogsmeade Village.
It was a hit. Attendance at the park spiked a whopping 30 percent in 2010. That's an unheard of increase for the theme park industry, but the appeal of sipping Butterbeer, stepping into Ollivander's for a magic wand demonstration, and hopping on a thrill ride inside Hogwarts was too tempting for tourists to pass up.
Later this year, Universal will recreate London's Diagon Alley at the adjacent Universal Studios Florida theme park. An ride aboard the Hogwarts Express will connect the two areas. Beyond exploring the shops and watering holes that Rowling originally imagined, a thrill ride awaits inside Gringotts Bank, the cornerstone of the new land that's even topped by a fire-breathing dragon.
Disney Fights Back
The jump in attendance wasn't contagious through Central Florida when the Potter attraction first opened. Sure, Universal Studios Florida benefited with a 6 percent increase, but the turnstiles clicked more slowly at three of Disney's (DIS) four Florida theme parks. Disney's Magic Kingdom suffered a nearly 2 percent dip in attendance in 2010. But the House of Mouse will be ready this time.
Universal Orlando's push for a licensed franchise to breathe new life into its operations also inspired Disney to look outside of its deep bench of characters. It turned to James Cameron's "Avatar" franchise for a new area at Animal Kingdom that will open by 2017. Disney had spent billions on Pixar and Marvel and it would go on to shell out billions for Lucasfilm after the expansion was announced.
However, Universal's spare-no-expense push to bring guests into Potter's world was a game changer.
Disney had been neglecting its parks, often settling for ho-hum additions. The Wizarding World of Harry Potter changed that. It made Disney realize that it couldn't phone it in anymore. It invested heavily in the well-received "Cars" Land expansion in California, and it's just getting started in Florida with the New Fantasyland debut. There's no lack of chatter about what Disney's working on to improve Disney's Hollywood Studios in Florida which has become the media giant's least visited park in Florida after being overtaken by Animal Kingdom.
Disney is unlikely to concede that its aggressive spending is a direct response to what's happening at Universal Orlando. However, if 2014 plays out the way that 2010 did -- with Universal experiencing big gains in attendance at the expense of Disney's nearby attractions -- there will be little doubt that an arms race in attractions is just getting started.
Motley Fool contributor Rick Munarriz owns shares of Walt Disney. The Motley Fool recommends Walt Disney. The Motley Fool owns shares of Walt Disney. Try any of our newsletter services free for 30 days.