27 April 2010 by Orlando Sentinel
Orlando's theme park ecosystem is changing.
Like organisms that once fed off of one another in a relationship that was more symbiotic than competitive, Walt Disney World, Universal Orlando and SeaWorld Orlando are now hunting on a recession-altered landscape with less food to go around.
It used to be that marketing by any of the Big Three was good for all of them. Moms and dads lured in by a promotion to one resort were practically guaranteed to take the family to at least one of the other two during their stay.
Last year, though, in a theme-park match of survival of the fittest, that dynamic changed and Disney further cemented its place as the Big One and stopped feeding scraps to the others.
A report on estimated theme-park attendance released this week shows that Disney grew its market share in Orlando with flat to 1 percent gains at its four parks in 2009 while the crowds plummeted 10 percent at Universal Studios and 11 percent at sister park Islands of Adventure while SeaWorld fell 7 percent.
The recession helped along Disney's plan to keep more vacationers on its property and ensure they spend all of their money there rather than give cuts to Spider-Man and Shamu.
The Disney marketing machine drummed heavy discounts such as buy four hotel nights get three free, Magic Your Way ticket packages and the clincher — a shuttle system for guests and their luggage to and from the airport that means fewer people rent cars and easily come and go from the resort.
The appeal of all of those deals soared as the economy faltered. And the good-for-one-good-for-all mantra was bibbidi-bobbitied into boo for everyone but Disney.
The deep discounts kept Disney from losing attendance at the expense of Universal and SeaWorld. And it's clear from the numbers that the dips were brandwide and not just pinned to the resorts' big draws, because the same trend played out among the water parks as well. Disney water parks were flat while SeaWorld's Aquatica was down 7 percent and Universal's Wet n' Wild was down 5 percent.
But will Disney manage to keep its edge — and for how long?