Comcast 'doubling down' on theme park business

Allison Kapsner (left), 27, and Kelly Doering, 28, friends from Minneapolis, visited Universal's Islands of Adventure Harry Potter attraction in their Quidditch shirts.
Allison Kapsner (left), 27, and Kelly Doering, 28, friends from Minneapolis, visited Universal's Islands of Adventure Harry Potter attraction in their Quidditch shirts. (BOB FERNANDEZ / Staff)
Posted: March 10, 2014

ORLANDO - Comcast Corp., hungry for revenue and profit growth beyond its core telecommunications business, is investing hundreds of millions of dollars into theme parks in California and Florida and doing what few other U.S. companies have the financial muscle to do - challenge Walt Disney Co.'s tourism business.

Here in America's sunny theme park capital, it's ground zero.

Comcast acquired Universal Orlando Resorts as part of its deal for NBCUniversal in 2011, just as Universal was reaping huge attendance gains from the Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey ride.

Profits soared like Harry Potter on his broomstick and Comcast committed to the Transformers 3D and Despicable Me Minion Mayhem attractions.

This summer, Comcast will open a new Harry Potter ride and Potter-themed area at its second theme park, Univeral Studios Florida, which will share space with the original on the same 750-acre Universal complex.

To keep ticket-buying visitors for extra days, the cable-TV company is financing what it calls the largest hotel construction project in North America: the 1,800-room, 1960s-themed Cabana Bay Beach Resort - think of the biggest Wildwood hotel you know and imagine it stretching over multiple football fields.

Cabana Bay guests now can sleep, eat, and swim on the same complex as the theme parks. Comcast's 50-50 partner is Loews Corp.

Cabana Bay's first 600 rooms will open this month, and construction workers recently were testing the fire alarm in the hotel lobby, which has 18 check-in stations to handle the guest volume.

Once fully opened later this year, Cabana Bay will boost Universal's hotel room count in Orlando by 75 percent, to 4,200 rooms from 2,400 - with a potential goal, according to NBCUniversal head Steve Burke, of 10,000 to 15,000 hotel rooms over time.

Comcast chief executive Brian Roberts says he's "doubling down on theme parks." At an investor conference in January, he said, "We think there is a lot there in the theme park business for many years to come, and that we have the low market share and only one way to go."

'Get our share'

Comcast's theme parks and resorts unit, part of NBCUniversal, reported revenue of $2.2 billion and operating cash flow - a measure of the division's profitability - of $1 billion in 2013.

Mark Jaronski, vice president for communications at Visit Orlando, a group that promotes tourism in the area, said with Universal's construction projects and those of other theme parks, "We are experiencing one of the most significant expansion periods in our history."

Between the second Potter attraction and Cabana Bay, the Universal theme park complex is adding 3,500 jobs this year, bringing its Orlando-area employment to about 17,000.

Universal executives in Orlando don't say they are targeting Disney, the Orlando tourism giant with more than 20,000 hotel rooms and four theme parks. But they believe there is additional revenue - more room stays, more visitors, and more themed merchandise to sell them.

"We don't have to win," Thomas L. Williams, chairman and chief executive officer of Universal Parks & Resorts, said in a recent interview on the guarded Universal property. "We just have to get our share," he said, echoing Roberts' comments by adding, "we feel like we have a lot of room to grow."

Comcast has brought a financially disciplined economic model to Universal: Invest heavily in a theme-park attraction in the early years and count turnstile clicks in later years. Before Comcast, "Our mode of operation was that we had to save up for our capital projects," Williams said.

With Comcast, Universal's capital budget has soared about fivefold - to roughly $500 million a year for parks in the United States and overseas, Williams said. "It's been a world of difference since Comcast came along."

Universal Studios Hollywood in California, also owned by Comcast, announced in 2013 a 20-plus-year "Evolution Plan" for its theme park and studio property, which also includes a Harry Potter attraction.

Los Angeles community groups opposed the broad development project for years because of noise, light pollution and traffic, and concerns about wildlife. Alan Dymond, a retired lawyer who lives near the Universal Studios Hollywood, said in a phone interview the community came around after Universal made concessions under Comcast.

"The general consensus is that we've come a long way and they have listened to us," Dymond said. "How the deal is kept will be important going forward."

Doubling down

Situated on I-4 just west of the Christian-themed Holy Land Experience and east of Disney's Magic Kingdom, EPCOT, Animal Kingdom, and Hollywood Studios parks, Universal Orlando Resorts for years consigned itself to siphoning off Disney visitors for a day, said Scott Smith, assistant professor of the University of California School of Hotel, Restaurant and Tourism Management.

"The business model that Disney is based upon is that they want you for multiple days," Smith said. "It's a resort experience and a two- or three-day event."

But that seems to be changing. The Orlando Sentinel published a front-page story this month saying Disney raised its theme-park ticket prices this year - possibly to benefit from Universal visitor spillover.

As the market evolves, Universal seems to be emulating Disney by keeping visitors on its property for multiple days and reinforcing its brand as the destination for teens and young adults.

Central to Comcast's strategy with Universal is a big bet on the continuing popularity of Harry Potter, based on J.K. Rowling's seven-book series. Harry Potter books have 450 million in sales and have spawned eight movies, according to published reports.

"This is the movie that defined their youth and this is what they will transfer to their kids," Mark Woodbury, president of Universal Creative, the unit that designs the attractions, said of the Harry Potter property. "If you could define what would make a great theme park, Harry Potter would be in that definition."

Woodbury cites the immersive setting, magical places, characters, and escapism that Harry Potter brings to a theme park.

Attendance at Universal's Island of Adventure park jumped 29 percent to 7.7 million visitors in the first year of the Potter attraction, according to a 2011 report by the Themed Entertainment Association. Attendance increased 4 percent in 2012.

The Islands of Adventure is the 10th-largest theme park worldwide, based on visitors in 2012, and the sixth-largest in the United States, the association reported.

Today, Potter fans have to buy tickets to only one of Universal's two theme parks. Universal says it will open the Harry Potter and Escape from Gringotts ride with a new Potter-themed area in Univeral Studios Florida, its second theme park. So if visitors want the full Potter experience, they will have to buy tickets to two theme parks.

Allison Kapsner, 27, and her friend Kelly Doering, 28, both of Minneapolis and avid Potter fans, visited the park in Quidditch shirts - Quidditch is a game for wizards in the Potter books. Some colleges have Quidditch teams and organized competitions.

"It's so well done and it's what we thought," Kapsner said. She said they were considering returning after the second Harry Potter attraction opens.

But, she said, "We're so bummed it's not connected and you will have to buy two tickets." She estimated that would cost $200.



NBCUniversal's theme park unit 2013 revenue


The unit's 2013

operating cash flow


The unit's capital budget, a roughly fivefold increase under Comcast


NBCUniversal hotel rooms in Orlando when Cabana Bay is complete, with a potential goal of 10,000-15,000


The growth of Comcast's theme park revenue.

Most popular North American theme parks.

Graphics, A16.



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