As great as things have been going in Central Florida for Disney (NYSE: DIS), its nearest rival continues to narrow the attendance gap. Turnstile clicks at Comcast's (NASDAQ: CMCSA) Universal Orlando have nearly doubled since 2009, and the theme park operator continues to build out its collection of hotels to keep up with demand as it tries to sway tourists away from Disney World.
Comcast is already set to open its sixth on-site resort when Aventura Hotel opens in August. On Thursday, Universal Orlando provided some more details on a pair of hotels that are just getting started. Surfside Inn and Suites will open in 2019, and the adjacent Dockside Inn and Suites will debut in 2020.
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With eight hotels up and running in two years, the country's second-largest theme park operator is going to have a lot riding on its resurgence. Let's go over some of the ways that Universal Orlando plans to increase demand to fill all of the new rooms, all based on news that broke this week alone.
1. Value is the reason for the season
Surfside and Dockside are opening just outside of the current Universal Orlando resort on land previously occupied by the Wet 'n Wild waterpark that Comcast closed down in 2016, months ahead of the on-site Volcano Bay opening. Distance to the three theme parks is an inconvenience, as the hotels aren't a short walk or leisurely boat ride away from them. However, that also creates the opportunity for Universal Orlando to get more aggressive on pricing.
The two new hotels will be substantially more affordable than the current resorts. Overnight rates will start at $73 a night, far less than the $116 starting point during off-season for the current on-site properties. Complimentary shuttles will bus guests to and from the parks.
Disney has carved out different pricing categories with its more than two-dozen on-site offerings, and Comcast is starting to get there. Surfside, Dockside, and to a lesser extent Aventura will cater to folks who typically stay at budget-priced properties outside of Universal Orlando. Keeping them close provides a steady trickle of park attendance.
2. Let's make a deal
Universal Orlando announced a strategic partnership with Groupon (NASDAQ: GRPN) on Thursday, a move that finds the daily-deals leader selling Universal Orlando tickets at a discount to the gate price. To be fair, buying your single-day tickets through Groupon will come at the same $20 discount that Comcast presently offers folks making advance online purchases. However, the partnership is coinciding with a limited-time offer featuring multi-day tickets for as little as $45 per day.
Groupon has helped smaller theme parks and local attractions drum up traffic at discounted price points in the past. Disney may never go this route, but it makes sense for Universal Orlando.
Groupon is a spigot. If Comcast ever finds that bookings or turnstile clicks are running light, it can target temporary markdowns for deal-seeking opportunists. We'll see how this partnership evolves, but it could be pretty significant during the slow season once the next three hotels are open come 2020.
3. New rides are coming
Universal Orlando continues gaining on Disney, but momentum has slowed since the buzz surrounding the 2014 opening of Diagon Alley at Universal Studios Florida died down. The new rides and attractions added in 2015, 2016, and 2017 have been greeted with mixed reviews, and this year's biggest addition also is falling short on buzz. Salvation may come later this year when Stranger Things becomes the latest haunted-house addition to its seasonal Halloween Horror Nights, but unless that evolves into a year-round attraction -- like Comcast has done with The Walking Dead at Universal Studios Hollywood -- drawing a crowd in 2018 will be a challenge.
Things will be different next year. Whether it's in response to Disney's Star Wars-themed expansion coming in 2019 or the 20th anniversary of Islands of Adventure, Comcast has a new Harry Potter-themed family-friendly roller coaster opening at Islands of Adventure and a new live-action experience will debut at Universal Studios Florida. Iconic rides have closed to make room for the new additions -- something that may weigh on 2018 attendance levels -- but Universal Orlando should be at full strength by the time all of the new rooms at Surfside and Dockside go online.
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