3 Lessons Disney Parks Should Learn From Universal Studios' Expansion Plans

 Cinderella's Castle at Magic Kingdom/ Universal Parks and Resorts concept art- Frisco, Texas
Cinderella's Castle at Magic Kingdom/ Universal Parks and Resorts concept art- Frisco, Texas

Last week, Universal Parks and Resorts surprised a lot of people with a significant expansion announcement. The theme park company was already hard at work building the new Epic Universe park at Universal Orlando Resort, so nobody was expecting more to be on the way. But the thing that's perhaps even more exciting is that what was announced was not a traditional Universal theme park in either location or design.

Instead of an expansion to an existing Universal Park, we’re going to see the construction of a new resort located in Frisco, Texas. The park will be significantly smaller than what we’re used to seeing from Universal, but it will be specifically designed to appeal to families with young children. It sounds like a Legoland design with Universal characters and branding. A second location in Las Vegas, Nevada will be even smaller and geared to appeal specifically to horror fans.

This has to be seen as overwhelmingly good news for any fan of themed entertainment. While nothing that Universal is doing here is entirely new, this is the biggest themed entertainment company in the world to do this sort of expansion. Needless to say, our friends at Disney Parks could learn a few things from these new endeavors.

Universal Studios Texas project concept art
Universal Studios Texas project concept art

Expansion Outside Of California And Florida Is Good, And Necessary

For years, the focal points for themed entertainment in North America have been in Southern California and Central Florida. After Hollywood became home to the movie industry, it made sense for both Disney and Universal to build their parks in the same general vicinity as their studios; in Universal’s case, the park grew out of a studio tour. After Walt Disney decided to build his East Coast park in Florida, other companies, like Universal, flocked there to build off the now-existing tourism business.

But since then, all we’ve really seen is an expansion in these two locations. While it’s nice to have lots of similar entertainment in one place so people on vacation can visit multiple locations in one trip, there’s also something to be said for expanding outward. Las Vegas is a major tourist destination already, so having something, literally anything at all, that a fan of themed entertainment can go experience there is a great addition.

We know that people save up money to take big vacations, possibly of the “once-in-a-lifetime” variety, to places like Walt Disney World. That’s not going to change as long as the resort exists, but if there are more places people can go where they can get a similar experience where maybe the cost isn’t as high because the location is closer to them or it’s designed to be a smaller experience, there's a good chance that guests will spend more money over time visiting these other spots in between the big trips to the massive resorts.

Scare Zone at Hollywood Halloween Horror Nights at Universal Studios
Scare Zone at Hollywood Halloween Horror Nights at Universal Studios

Different Theme Parks Can Focus On Different Markets

In addition to being put in locations where major theme parks don’t currently exist, Universal’s two new locations are also meant for (potentially) very different guests. While nearly every theme park has at least a few attractions specifically designed for younger guests, the new Texas park will be entirely focused on those guests and their families. If this isn’t you, then this is a park you can very easily skip.

And that’s completely fine. Not every theme park needs to appeal to everybody, especially when you have multiple options to choose from. Disney World is there to be the catch-all that has something for everybody. You can also have the small park for families or the other park dedicated to young adults full of thrill rides and expensive dining locations.

In the same way that this new horror-themed location in Las Vegas seems to be designed to attract fans of Halloween Horror Nights year-round, Disney could have entire locations designed to attract fans of Marvel, Walt Disney Animation Studios or Star Wars. In fact, the company already has that, which leads to the next point.

Rey vs Kylo Ren at the Star Wars Galactic Starcruiser
Rey vs Kylo Ren at the Star Wars Galactic Starcruiser

Not Every New Location Needs To Be A Massive Theme Park

Disney Parks already knows that it’s possible to build a unique, themed entertainment space geared toward a specific sort of customer that also didn’t need to be a full-sized theme park. Last year, the company opened the Star Wars: Galactic Starcruiser, a two-night themed entertainment experience that acts as a hotel and theme park all in one. The problem was, it may have been built in the wrong place.

It’s clear now that following an initial period of excitement, Disney is having trouble filling the Galactic Starcruiser. I wonder how much of that is due to the fact that it’s part of Walt Disney World. Due to Starcruiser’s cost and duration, it’s essentially its own vacation, and families looking to take a trip to Orlando, or even just Disney World, for vacation may be looking to do more than just the Starcruiser, and so they choose to skip it entirely.

If Star Wars: Galactic Starcruiser was a standalone location, with the hotel building and a version of Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge attached to it, and it was located someplace away from current Disney Parks, it might appeal to more people who are looking to travel someplace other than Orlando. One could easily imagine multiple Starcruiser locations, as they’d be so much easier and cheaper to build. We could also see them done with other themes, like a Stark Tower hotel built with a version of Avengers Campus for serious Marvel fans.

If Universal Parks and Resorts built a permanent Halloween Horror Nights experience at Universal Orlando Resort, people would love it, to be sure, but it would be unlikely to actually see that many guests that the larger resort wasn’t going to get anyway. By putting it Vegas, Universal gets customers, and their money, that it likely would not see otherwise.

We know that Disney Parks is planning to do more with its existing parks. There have been plans announced for a major expansion of Disneyland Resort. At last year’s D23, we learned there will likely be an expansion of Magic Kingdom at Disney World as well. But all this is just building on what the company already has. It should be looking toward expanding in other places and in other ways, and at this point, there’s no indication that is on the horizon. Of course, we didn’t really expect Universal to do any of that either, so anything is possible.