Universal's Second Theme Park
Universal Studios Florida was already competing with Disney's well-established Magic Kingdom and Epcot theme parks with it opened in June, 1990. It was also competing directly with Disney's own moviemaking-themed park, Disney/MGM Studios (now Disney's Hollywood Studios), which opened in 1989. With one theme park, Universal played second fiddle to Disney's juggernaut for almost a decade.
Things began to change when Universal opened Islands of Adventure (IOA) in 1999. Adding a second park, and making Universal a legitimate two-day destination, provided Universal with enough critical mass to begin serious competition with Disney for tourists' time and money.
IOA opened to good reviews and sizable crowds, and did steady business for the first few years. Ongoing competition with Disney, however, and a lack of money to invest in new rides eventually caught up with IOA. Attendance dropped from a high of 6.3 million visitors in 2004 to a low of 4.6 million in 2009, less than half of Animal Kingdom, Disney's least-visited park in Orlando that year.
The Harry Potter Gamble
In the middle of this slide, Universal's management made one bold bet: securing the rights in 2007 to build a Harry Potter-themed area within IOA. Harry, it was thought, was possibly the only fictional character extant capable of trumping Mickey Mouse, and Universal went all-out, under J. K. Rowling's watchful and exacting eye, to create a setting and attractions designed to be the envy of the industry.
The Wizarding World of Harry Potter, as the new land was called, opened in 2010 and was an immediate hit. Its headliner attraction, Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey, broke new ground in its ride system and immersive storytelling. Families clamored to get in the attraction, and attendance grew 22% in 2010 and another 28% in 2011. Harry Potter single-handedly upended the power structure in Florida's theme parks. Emboldened by its success, IOA has planned an unprecedented number of new attractions and Potter-themed extensions.
Now Universal's Islands of Adventure is a state-of-the-art park vying with Disney parks that are decades older. And although Disney has expanded the Magic Kingdom's Fantasyland area with new rides and restaurants, that effort is primarily to increase the Magic Kingdom's capacity; none of Disney's latest attractions are the kind of cutting-edge, super-headliner attractions that IOA has built and in the works.
That being said, IOA's focus is on thrill rides, so its competition with Disney is mainly for tweens, teens and young adults. Most Magic Kingdom attractions are designed to be enjoyed by guests of any age. IOA's roller coasters are serious with a capital S, making Space Mountain and Big Thunder Mountain look about as frightening as Dumbo. In fact, seven of the nine top attractions at IOA are thrill rides; of these, three will not only scare the bejeepers out of you but will also drench you with water.
For families, there are three interactive playgrounds as well as six rides that young children will enjoy. Of the thrill rides, only the two in Toon Lagoon are marginally appropriate for little kids, and even on these rides your child needs to be fairly stalwart.
Disney and Universal officially downplay their fierce competition, pointing out that any new theme park or attraction makes Central Florida a more marketable destination. Behind closed doors, however, the two companies share a Pepsi-versus-Coke rivalry that keeps both working hard to gain a competitive edge. The good news is that all this translates into better and better attractions for you to enjoy.