The force may be with Disney, but Universal's empire is putting up a good fight in the theme park wars.
Comcast Corp.-owned Universal Parks & Resorts on Thursday fired the latest salvo in a decades-long battle to give entertainment giant Disney a run for its money, announcing a major expansion in Orlando that includes hotels, restaurants, shops and a new theme park called Universal's Epic Universe.
"Our new park represents the single largest investment Comcast NBC Universal has made in its theme park business and in Florida overall," Comcast CEO Brian Roberts said in a statement. "It reflects the tremendous excitement we have for the future of our theme park business and for our entire company's future in Florida."
The news from Universal comes just weeks before larger rival Disney opens a giant new Star Wars-themed land at its Florida property.
"This is a major competitive program with Disney, there's no question about it," says Dennis Speigel, president of consulting firm International Theme Park Services. "They're coming on strong."
The addition of Epic Universe will bring Universal Orlando Resort's total to three major theme parks and one water park. It already includes Universal Studios Florida, Islands of Adventure and Volcano Bay. The new park will be located on a larger 750-acre plot a few miles from the existing resort, according to a news release; Universal will provide transportation to link all the properties.
By comparison, Walt Disney World Resort in nearby Lake Buena Vista has four theme parks and two water parks. Details are still scarce about the latest Universal development; officials have not said when it will open, how large the park itself will be, or what types of rides and intellectual property it will feature.
Industry watchers expect the new park to include a Nintendo-themed area, rides inspired by DreamWorks films such as "How to Train Your Dragon" and more from the Harry Potter world that has proven wildly popular for Universal parks.
The official line, so far, is vague. A news release says Epic Universe will "take guests on a journey where beloved stories expand into vibrant lands" with no mention of specific stories or lands.
Universal started hinting at the announcement this week with a tweet that teased that "something epic is coming," but the news has been anticipated for much longer. During an earnings call last year, NBC Universal CEO Stephen Burke confirmed that the company was "looking at" adding another park to turn the Orlando resort "from a two-to-three-day destination to potentially a week-long destination."
The company has been scaling up its on-site hotel offerings in partnership with Loews Hotels, having opened its seventh property in June. By the end of next year, Universal Orlando Resort will have 9,000 hotel rooms - a play to keep visitors from venturing into competitors' territory.
"That's the whole key," says Duncan Dickson, a University of Central Florida professor who specializes in theme parks. "Whether you're Disney or whether you're Universal, you want people to stay on your property and never leave."
Spread over about 40 square miles - with 30,000 rooms across 36 hotels - Walt Disney World Resort has the size advantage by far. And the resort is still expanding, even if it's not adding new parks. The highly anticipated 14-acre Star Wars: Galaxy's Edge expansion opens Aug. 29 at Disney's Hollywood Studios, and an immersive Star Wars-themed hotel is in the works. A Toy Story Land opened at the same park last year, and new high-profile rides are slated for Epcot and Magic Kingdom in the next few years.
Disney's four Central Florida parks are among the world's top 10 in terms of attendance, according to an annual report put out by the Themed Entertainment Association. Combined, their attendance topped 58 million last year, according to the estimate, compared with about 20 million for Universal's two main parks, which rank at 11 and 14 in the world.
Still, some tourists are coming to Orlando for Universal exclusively, says Josh Young, founder of Theme Park University, which covers themed entertainment.
"I think it's a misconception that when people come to town, everyone has to do Disney, and Universal gets their table scraps," he says.
Although they may come now for three or four days, an extra park would likely stretch that time out - and force tourists with limited vacation time to choose sides where they might have split time in the past.
"With more theme parks and more hotels on the way, that just means that it's an even longer vacation," he says. "Those families that are splitting up between Universal and Disney are maybe not going to do that anymore. They might just do Universal and do Disney next year."
While both companies also have theme parks in California and overseas, Orlando is the main global hub for theme park activity. In addition to Disney and Universal, SeaWorld also looms large there. That destination drew a record 75 million visitors last year.
But while operators have been investing heavily in expanding their existing properties, the area hasn't seen a new park since Islands of Adventure opened 20 years ago.
Young says it's pretty rare for a new theme park to open in the United States, because the venture can be risky and requires so much capital upfront. Disney, for example, hasn't opened a new park since Animal Kingdom in 1998.
But Dickson, who worked for Walt Disney World for about 20 years, said the company has plenty of land if it wants to open a fifth park at some point, and rumors about potential themes have circulated for years.
"It just means that the folks running Disney have to keep their eye on the prize," he says. "They have to understand what got them there and continue to give the guests what they want."
In the meantime, theme park fans are finding more options than ever as Disney and Universal compete for tourist dollars.
"These two competitors are in the boxing ring, the gloves have come off, and now it's bare fists and they're pounding each other," says Speigel, the consultant. "In the end, the guest is the winner."