For nearly twenty years following its 1971 grand opening, Walt Disney World remained an unchallenged titan in the Orlando theme park industry. But Universal Orlando Resort has slowly chipped away at Disney’s market share over the past few decades. Theme park mega-fans closely watch the battle for the top tourism spot in Central Florida, and Disney remains a force to be reckoned with. Look no further than the Themed Entertainment Association’s (TEA) annual reports for theme park attendance for proof.
Magic Kingdom consistently ranks as the highest-attended theme park in the world, according to TEA’s Global Attractions Attendance Report. TEA’s most recent findings, released in June, also show just how far Universal Orlando has come in attracting visitors to Central Florida. Islands of Adventure, one of NBCUniversal’s two parks in Orlando, was the only North American park to meet and exceed pre-pandemic attendance in 2022. That is a feat a single domestic Disney park could not achieve.
Walt Disney World and Disneyland Resort typically show robust attendance estimates annually, with Universal Orlando Resort on Disney’s heels. In recent years following the COVID-19 pandemic, both Disney and Universal showed considerable gains in attendance. However, TEA’s most recent findings tell an interesting story of the rate at which these theme park destinations are recovering and what that could mean moving forward.
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Themed Entertainment Association Releases Its 2022 Report
TEA releases an annual report revealing estimated attendance at theme parks for that year. In looking at top destinations, the industry continues to be in a phase of bouncing back after three years of stifled travel.
Domestic travel garnered a significant boost in attendance as pandemic-era restrictions began to subside. The report states, “The major theme park hub of Orlando was able to achieve huge gains in attendance mostly due to the strength of the domestic market.” However, the report shows also that while many travel restrictions were lifted by 2022, “international travel to the US was down 30%,” resulting in most major theme parks experiencing lagging attendance for the year compared to what the industry saw in 2019.
The report goes on to state, “International travel in the fourth quarter of 2022 resumed to mostly normal levels.” It remains to be seen if international travel can bolster enough business to bring 2023’s attendance figures to pre-pandemic levels – you will need to wait for TEA’s 2023 Global Attractions Attendance Report to know for sure.
Walt Disney World’s 2022 Attendance Shows Room For Growth
Walt Disney World’s four theme parks consistently rank among the highest-attended theme parks in North America and worldwide. Last year was no exception, as Magic Kingdom squarely sat in the top spot with approximately 17,1331,000 visitors. Despite drawing in more visitors than any other park worldwide, Magic Kingdom still saw a 19% dip from its attendance in 2019 which was approximately 20,963,000 visitors. In fact, none of Walt Disney World’s parks returned to pre-pandemic attendance levels in 2022. Note that part of this decline was self-inflicted as Disney added a park reservation system to improve the guest experience. Over the same period, revenue is up.
Families have plenty of reasons to consider a trip to Walt Disney World in 2023, which may help to bring attendance to pre-pandemic levels. Magic Kingdom opened TRON Lightcycle/Run this year, a motorbike-style roller coaster. TRON follows a string of new openings, including Guardians of the Galaxy: Cosmic Rewind in EPCOT, an expanded France Pavilion at EPCOT, and Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge in Disney’s Hollywood Studios.
Universal Orlando Resort A Bright Spot In Bouncing Back To Pre-Pandemic Numbers
Of the top 20 theme parks in North America based on 2019 attendance, Islands of Adventure at Universal Orlando Resort stands alone as the only park that met and exceeded its pre-pandemic 2019 attendance in 2022. Specifically, Islands of Adventure welcomed approximately 11,025,000 visitors in 2022, compared to 10,375,000 visitors in 2019. Neighboring Universal Studios Florida also fared well in 2022, with approximately 10,750,000 visitors crossing through its gates in 2022 compared to 10,922,000 in 2019.
Universal Orlando Resort is gearing up for an aggressive expansion in the coming years. Its third theme park, Epic Universe, is slated to open in the summer of 2025. Time will tell if a third park also boosts attendance at the other two Universal theme parks, further strengthening its positioning as a top performer in the ongoing Disney vs Universal battle.
California Theme Park Attendance Swings Upward Following Delayed Reopening In 2021
Disneyland Resort and Universal Studios Hollywood had to make up for lost ground in 2022. Both remained closed for a portion of 2021, making last year the first full calendar year in operation since 2019. Disney fans were undoubtedly eager to revisit Disneyland Park, as attendance grew by a staggering 97% from 8,573,000 in 2021 to 16,881,000 in 2022. Disneyland Resort reopened at the end of April 2021, and throughout much of that year, the park operated at a limited capacity and only allowed California residents to visit Disneyland to accommodate physical distancing. While Disneyland shows marked signs of improvement from 2021, it still has room to grow before it reaches pre-pandemic attendance amounts: Disneyland Park and Disney California Adventure Park’s 2022 attendance dropped 9% from 2019.
Just north of Disneyland, Universal Studios Hollywood’s attendance in 2022 increased from the previous year, with 8,400,000 and 5,505,000 visitors admitted, respectively. Like Disney, Universal Studios Hollywood reopened from its pandemic-era closure in the spring of 2021. While the park has yet to reach its pre-pandemic 2019 attendance levels of 9,147,000 visitors, 2023 may be the year Universal Studios Hollywood eclipses those figures. Universal opened a brand-new land called Super Nintendo World this past February to much fanfare.
Will This Trend Of Universal Orlando Resort’s Strong Attendance Continue?
Fans will have to wait for TEA’s 2023 report to understand how the Walt Disney Company and NBCUniversal bounce back concerning their theme park attendance. Reigning champs like Magic Kingdom and Disneyland Park will likely remain in the top spots. Still, Universal’s strong showing for 2022 poses a series of questions for theme park fanatics: Will Epic Universe’s opening draw even bigger crowds to Universal Orlando Resort? Has Dinsey World’s rising costs pushed even its most loyal fans to a breaking point? Which resort is opening more thrilling new rides and attractions? Which resort is more financially accessible to the average American family?
Ask any Disney fan, and they will tell you that a vacation to the House of Mouse looks and costs different than it used to. Perhaps this is the opportune moment Universal has been waiting for since it entered the theme park industry in 1990. Rather, this may be a moment Universal began many years ago and is coming to fruition. It will be up to Disney to decide how it responds and if its visitors are ready and willing to answer the call.