By now, you’ve probably read some of the scuttlebutt surrounding Universal’s newest addition. In fact, if you’ve browsed our forums, it’s hard to miss the prevailing question surrounding Universal’s latest land: why have wait times been so low?
Sure, as a whole, The Wizarding World of Harry Potter adds a sizable chunk of capacity to the park, and the occupancy of Wizarding World’s shops and restaurants aren’t always taken into consideration when one only focuses on the park’s overall wait times. But then again, why has Universal cut back operating hours for the month of April and June, and where are the hoards of crowds that everyone – us included – projected?
According to a few sources, here’s what we know:
One-day ticket sales are up significantly year-over-year, with tremendous growth concentrated in April. Universal is also seeing tremendous growth during the weekday, starting with the first full week since Wizarding World’s initial debut on April 7. And perhaps most important of all: per capita guest spending is up, significantly.
Of course, that’s only half of the story. Cumulative attendance has been down by a decent amount for January, February and March thus far, and annual pass attendance has been abysmal in late March and early April – the bulk of the blackouts. We’re talking significant decreases year-over-year where annual pass holders are now accounting for a marginal percentage of daily attendance – a significant drop compared to last year’s healthy annual pass percentages. It’s also worth noting that the park is also missing weekend projections post-Potter, which can be mostly attributed to annual pass blackouts and rain.
So where does this leave us? Is Harry Potter is a success? Well, it depends on your perspective.
It’s no secret that Universal is deathly afraid of overcrowding, and that the biggest elephant in the room for the past five years has always been Potter and the potential for monstrous crowds. For a land that was originally envisioned for one of Universal’s larger parks, Hollywood had to shape up – fast, and in many regards, it has. But nothing replaces sheer expansion, and Universal hasn’t been able to make up the sheer difference in acreage between itself and its sister parks in Florida and Japan.
What do you do in that case? Scale back. Hard.
Eliminate the Premium Annual Pass (and thereby, the option for year-round parking), pile on the blackout dates and cut back on annual pass benefits. And when they do reintroduce an annual pass with parking, they’d need to price it astronomically high – higher than the much more elaborate Disneyland Resort down south when one factors in per-park pricing. And most important of all: no monthly payments. Universal would be foolish to replicate Disneyland Resort’s model knowing full well what over-crowding could do to a park of Universal’s size.
The bet? Tourists (and perhaps some locals) would begin to lean towards the one-day ticket option, with the bulk of annual pass holders minimalizing their visits to the weekdays thereby spreading out crowds. Allow tourists and one-day visitors to experience a moderately busy park, and force the majority of annual pass holders to plan their visits during non-peak days. If fans truly want to visit the park year-round with parking, they’ll have to purchase the exorbitant Platinum Pass.
The outcome (at least so far)? Tourists (and perhaps some locals) have been purchasing the one-day tickets in spades, but annual pass visits have decreased (in some cases, substantially, during late March and early April). As for the Platinum Pass, no one’s biting in substantial numbers.
Now here’s where it gets tricky. I can’t stress the percentage of increase Universal experienced in ticket sales for the month of April year-over-year. Without any doubt, people are biting – that’s a fact.
That being said, annual pass visits are also down post-Potter, and guests are not purchasing the Platinum Pass in droves. If Universal continues to enforce almost month-wide blackout dates for the majority of passes for June, July and August, they may not hit the astronomical numbers everyone has been predicting – which leads to another thought:
Why should they?
If Universal’s definition of success is a comfortable balance between one-day ticket holders and annual pass holders with a significant increase in spending per-guest, they’ve hit that mark in strides. If Universal is purely aiming for incredible, mind-boggling attendance figures that consistently astound everyone in the industry, they might indeed miss that mark.
My hunch is that if Universal truly sees annual pass attendance as a nagging issue, they’ll begin to lift annual-pass blackouts for the next few months. The jury is still out on whether or not that’ll be the case. If there’s truly one disappointment lingering about, it may be the lack of uptick on the Gold and Platinum annual passes. Universal may have overestimated what guests are willing to pay.
One thing’s for certain: cutting back passes was a deliberate – if not – incredibly conservative move by Universal to prevent overcrowding. While I may question Universal’s competence in some aspects of park management, I do not question their data pool. Universal is fully aware that there’s a large annual pass population, and that is precisely the reason why they pulled back as hard as they did.
Universal sees no simple solution. Make annual passes accessible and lower the amount of guest satisfaction in the park through abundant overcrowding (for the sake of numbers), or restrict attendance to one-day ticket holders and higher tier pass members at the expense of sheer attendance but higher per capita spending.
Optically, both options are problematic.
While the first option will undoubtedly excite observers from afar, it will also stress the park’s infrastructure – perhaps to its breaking point (for which the park will be undeniably criticized for woefully underpreparing). Should Universal limit passes and emphasize one-day sales, observers will be quick to question the land’s viability (citing lack of numbers and low wait times). It’s a lose/lose proposition.
For now, it appears that they’ve hedged their bets on the latter and I’ll leave it to you to decide whether or not that’s a successful move. April is currently riding on a promising trajectory attendance-wise that may beat 2015, and that may be enough for Universal to stick to their guns.