Disney World and Universal Gear Up for a Theme-Park War

By Rick Munarriz Markets Fool.com

Image source: Universal Orlando.

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The battle lines have been drawn in Central Florida.Comcast's (NASDAQ: CMCSA) Universal Orlando announced earlier this week that it's opening the Volcano Bay water park on May 25, just in time for Memorial Day weekend and the subsequent summertime crowds.

Disney (NYSE: DIS) hasn't unveiled an official opening date for Pandora: The World of Avatar, the immersiveAvatar-themed expansion at Disney's Animal Kingdom. It's still loosely clinging to a summertime debut. However, the recent rollout of a new discounted multi-day ticket for Florida residents blacks out availability at Animal Kingdom -- and only Animal Kingdom -- from May 27 until when the passes expire on June 9. Does that mean Pandora will open on May 27, also in time for the holiday weekend crowds?

It's going to be an interesting Memorial Day weekend, and things will get even more action-packed as the seasonally potent summer crowds start to arrive a couple of weeks later. Two of the biggest new theme-park attractions to open in the area since Universal Orlando's 2014 opening of Harry Potter's Diagon Alley expansion and Disney World's 2012 New Fantasyland debut are about to open possibly just two days apart. Throw in the Jimmy Fallon attraction opening at Universal Studios Florida a month earlier, and you have Comcast and Disney making major investments to win over visitors this year.

It's not a dormant volcano

Comcast is playing up Volcano Bay, calling it the resort's third theme park. Comcast is so confident about the new water park that it even closed the nearby Wet 'n Wild water park it operated just outside Universal Orlando last month.

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Volcano Bay will be roughly half the size of either of Disney World's two water parks, but loading it with high-end watery diversions andpioneering wearable tech to reserve wait times on flagship attractionswill make it a popular park once the weather heats up. It can market the convenience of virtual queues, something Disney World doesn't seem in a hurry to embrace at its Typhoon Lagoon and Blizzard Beach water parks.

It's probably not a surprise that the country's four busiest water parks are all in Orlando, according to industry tracker Themed Entertainment Association. Typhoon Lagoon and Blizzard Beach topped the attendance list with 2.3 million and 2.1 million guests, respectively, in 2015. The now shuttered Wet 'n Wild park clocked in fourth with 1.3 million visitors in 2015.

Comcast's hope here has to be that it can attract at least as many guests as the Wet 'n Wild park that it closed down, and that they will pay more to visit Volcano Bay. With Universal Orlando continuing to add to its on-site hotel room count, the potential built-in audience keeps climbing. Introducing Volcano Bay will just give them one more reason to never leave the resort.

Disney is no shrinking violet. It may also be gearing up to open the Rivers of Light lakefront nighttime attraction -- after fumbling its debut last year -- around the same time Pandora opens for business. The show would give Disney's Animal Kingdom a one-two punch that should translate into a big spike in attendance.

If a trip to Central Florida isn't on your itinerary this summer, that may change as more details of the major Disney World and Universal Orlando additions are revealed.

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Rick Munarriz owns shares of Walt Disney. The Motley Fool owns shares of and recommends Walt Disney. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.