Comcast Corp., the cable-television giant that inherited the Universal Studios theme-park chain, is pouring several hundred millions of dollars into refreshing Universal Orlando's original theme park.
With a slate of new attractions and retail venues opening during the next three years, Comcast is betting that it can make Universal Studios Florida as popular, and as profitable, as its younger sibling — the Harry Potter-powered Islands of Adventure. The first phase culminates Monday with the grand opening of Despicable Me: Minion Mayhem, a simulator ride and interactive show based on the 2010 animated-movie hit "Despicable Me."
Comcast isn't sinking money only into its Orlando theme parks. The Philadelphia-based company, which acquired majority control of NBCUniversal in 2011, is expanding its $2 billion parks portfolio around the world.
It just opened a highly anticipated "Transformers"-themed thrill ride at Universal Studios Hollywood. It is developing plans to copy Universal Orlando's $265 million Wizarding World of Harry Potter in Hollywood and at Universal Studios Japan. And it recently struck a deal to build an indoor theme park in Moscow.
Many analysts had initially predicted that Comcast, which was attracted to NBCUniversal because of its television and film properties, would look to shed the expensive-to-maintain theme parks. But the company appears to have come to view them as a reliable profit center that serves as a hedge against an erratic movie studio and a struggling broadcast network.
"Comcast got in at the right time, with Harry Potter," said Dennis Speigel, president of International Theme Park Services. "We think what happened was Comcast got on the spaceship, and the thing really took off, and they said, 'Hey, this thing's pretty good. And if we spend some money, and we do it right, we're going to make money.'¿"
Theme parks generated 8 percent of NBCUniversal's total revenue during the first quarter of 2012 — but 31 percent of its operating profit. The segment produced $157 million in operating income on just $412 million in sales — a 38 percent profit margin.
Only cable-TV networks were a bigger profit producer among NBCUniversal's four principal businesses.
Comcast, NBCUniversal and Universal Orlando all declined to make any executives available for interviews. But Comcast's leaders have acknowledged to investment analysts that the theme-park business has exceeded their expectations.
"The big surprise was how steady the cash flow appears to be from the theme parks," Comcast Chairman and Chief Executive Officer Brian Roberts said during a conference in June. "And if you have great intellectual property like Harry Potter, and you execute it as well as they did in Orlando, wonderful things happen."
Nothing illustrates Comcast's theme-park ambitions better than Universal Studios Florida.
Minion Mayhem is just one plank in the plan to refresh the 22-year-old theme park. In addition to the ride, Universal Studios this year has added an afternoon parade, starring animated characters from Nickelodeon and elsewhere, and an evening fountains-and-fireworks show that chronicles classic Universal Picture films.
It has made smaller touch-ups, as well, such as building a new, lavishly decorated retail location dubbed SpongeBob StorePants.
And more is on the way. Crews last month began demolishing a long-vacant soundstage in the heart of the park to make way for a new attraction that is expected to open next year. Although Universal won't say what it plans to build, fan speculation has ranged from a year-round, walk-through haunted house to a copy of Universal Studios Hollywood's new Transformers ride.
2014 should deliver the biggest jolt of all: Harry Potter himself. Universal Orlando is widely believed to be building a new Potter land in Universal Studios, on the site once occupied by Jaws, the classic movie-based ride that closed at the beginning of this year.
Characteristically tight-lipped, Universal Orlando officials refuse to discuss anything about their Potter plans other than to acknowledge that they are expanding the boy wizard's presence.
Universal Studios could use the help. Since Wizarding World opened two years ago in Islands of Adventure, attendance at that theme park has soared 66 percent, to 7.7 million visitors, according to estimates by the consulting firm AECOM and the Themed Entertainment Association. Attendance at Universal Studios, meanwhile, has climbed a more modest 9 percent, to 6 million.
"In many ways, Universal Studios Florida represents the essence of our guest experience and our brand," Universal Orlando spokesman Tom Schroder said. "Our investment in new guest experiences within Universal Studios is the next phase of an aggressive growth strategy we are applying across our entire destination."
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