Disney World Rival Is Shrinking at the Worst Time

Momentum in the Central Florida battle for theme park supremacy is shifting back in favor of the mouse that started it all, and Comcast's (NASDAQ: CMCSA) Universal Orlando isn't doing itself any favors by closing another long-standing attraction. Universal will be closing The Eighth Voyage of Sindbad -- a stunt show that has been around since Islands of Adventure's debut in 1999 -- on Sept. 15. There is no official word on what will replace the experience, but it's just the latest attraction to get shuttered over the past year.

Closing down a signature show just as the summer crowds start to wind down may make sense on paper, but the timing is problematic in light of the area's shifting landscape. After years of closing the attendance gap with the industry behemoth, we finally saw Disney (NYSE: DIS) widen its lead last year. With several tourist-grabbing upgrades and additions on the way at Disney World in the next couple of years, it's going to be hard for Comcast to catch up as it fades in Disney's rear-view mirror.

The audacity of capacity

Comcast's resort in Orlando has closed a pair of high-volume shows and an iconic dual roller coaster over the past year, and for now, there is little to show for it outside of the construction taking place for a Harry Potter-themed family coaster that should open next year where Dragon Challenge used to draw thrill seekers. The problem with the lull between the closures and their eventual replacements is how Comcast can make up for the void in capacity.

  • Dragon Challenge closed last September. The two unique coaster experiences had a combined theoretical capacity of roughly 3,000 riders an hour.
  • Terminator 2:3-D was shuttered a month later. The attraction combined a 3-D film, live-action sequences, and in-theater effects. The show ran continuously through the day in a 700-seat venue. Universal Orlando has only said that the space will eventually house another attraction based on a live-action Universal Studios film franchise.
  • The Eighth Voyage of Sindbad will close in a couple of weeks. The show runs a couple of times daily in a 1,700-seat theater.

Theme-park enthusiasts can argue on the merits of the nixed attractions, but this ultimately means there are a pair of coaster experiences and two shows that have disappeared over the past year. People who would be enjoying any of these attractions a year ago are now likely making lines longer everywhere else. Universal Orlando did open Fast & Furious: Supercharged earlier this year, but that's another ride that took the place of two former attractions. It also doesn't help that the new screen-based ride is drumming up largely negative reviews.

The baton is clearly being passed back to Disney. Disney World's four theme parks saw their combined attendance rise 4% last year according to industry tracker Themed Entertainment Association. Comcast's two parks rose at a 2% clip. Universal Orlando did open a new waterpark last year -- wooing some traditional theme-park visitors and alleviating capacity constraints -- but the end results aren't justifying the means. Comcast's theme parks division saw its revenue rise 3.6% in its latest quarter, its weakest top-line gain in years.

The timing of the closures is rough. Disney is raising the bar. Universal Orlando is closing the bar down. Your move, Comcast.

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