LOS ANGELES — The Walt Disney Co. is the 800-pound gorilla (or mouse ) of the theme park industry, but with the most popular attraction in the world right now and a deal that will bring in several more animated characters with genuine international appeal, NBCUniversal is mounting the biggest challenge in years. And soon, like many other Hollywood showdowns, this one will move to China.
This past week, NBCUniversal, a unit of Comcast Corp., acquired DreamWorks Animation, the studio started by former Disney exec Jeffrey Katzenberg, for $3.8 billion. That gives Universal the rights to the “Shrek” franchise — the highest-grossing animated film series ever — as well as “Kung Fu Panda,” “Madagascar” and plenty more characters that are kid-tested, parent-approved and commercially proved.
Universal’s theme parks have always been little brothers to those of Disney, which invented them, but the gap is closing lately. Universal’s Wizarding World of Harry Potter, based on the “Harry Potter” franchise, is now one of the most popular theme park attractions ever. It recently opened at Universal Studios Hollywood — the home front — to huge numbers and is expected to bring upwards of 1 million visitors to Los Angeles. And Universal’s total theme park revenue is up 27 percent from last year to $3.3 billion.
Now Universal can add the likes of Shrek and Po, the “Kung Fu Panda” — and an A-list movie star in China — to a recently bolstered collection of characters with plenty of appeal to park rangers of all ages, especially in the fastest-growing area for theme parks, Asia. Last year, Universal announced a partnership with Nintendo to create Nintendo Land at Universal Studios Japan, a concept that likely won’t end at that one location. "Harry Potter" has a large and age-diverse readership in China, too.
And while Disney has been crushing it at the box office the past few years with its Marvel Cinematic Universe film — particularly in the Middle Kingdom — Universal actually has the rights to use the Marvel characters in theme parks in the central Florida area, which means the Avengers won’t be making it to the Magic Kingdom at Walt Disney World anytime soon. Disney is opening a “Star Wars” land both at Disneyland and Disney World, but “The Force Awakens,” the latest installment, didn’t resonate in China nearly as much as it did in the rest of the world.
Now Universal and Disney, which have battled each other on China’s movie screens, are taking that fight outside. Disney strikes first, with its Shanghai Disneyland Park set to open June 16. Universal Studios Beijing will follow in 2019. Both are in partnerships with state-owned enterprises. And both should be among the most visited parks in the world when they open.
Recent years have been kind to amusement parks in general as smaller competitors such as Cedar Fair and Six Flags have benefited from the rising tide that’s helped Universal’s parks fill their coffers. Six Flags reported a revenue jump of 37 percent this year — 24 percent when adjusted for the fact Easter fell in March — and its stock, as well as Cedar Fair’s, have been been steadily rising for the past three years.
Still, Universal is starting to pull away from the rest of Disney’s challengers. Disney’s 11 parks and resorts made about $16.2 billion in the fiscal year ended Oct. 3, 2015. Universal took in $3.3 billion from its five parks. Six Flags and Cedar Fair brought in $1.3 billion and $1.2 billion, respectively, and they have 32 parks between them. Of the 12 most visited parks in 2014, nine were Disney and three were Universal.
Six Flags might be trying to break that combo, starting construction in January on a $4.6 million park in the city of Haiyan that is also expected to open in 2019. But while Disney and Universal add iconic characters to create full-service fun zones ahead of their China rollouts, Six Flags has moved forward financially in recent years by cutting back on the glitz. For example, in 2010, Six Flags Magic Mountain changed the name of its “Terminator”-themed roller coaster to Apocalypse, the result of its decision not to renew several licensing agreements, although it still holds the rights to the DC Comics cast of characters in almost all of the U.S.
But in China, both “Star Wars” and “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice,” the latest DC film, were box office disappointments. “Furious 7,” the latest installment in the “Fast and Furious” car racing series, nearly doubled what the other two did combined. And where is the Fast & Furious: Supercharged attraction? Universal Studios.