Why Mario Might Not Be So Super For Universal Studios

Few theme park lands are as badly needed as the new Super Nintendo World which opened at Universal Studios Hollywood this week. The tiny park tends to be overshadowed by its bigger brothers in Orlando as it sometimes has to wait years to get their biggest attractions. Not this time and there is good reason for that.

Years of disruption due to Covid brought dark clouds to Universal Studios Hollywood whilst its counterparts in Florida benefited from the state’s milder measures for dealing with the deadly disease.

As the graph below shows, according to the latest data from the Themed Entertainment Association (TEA), Universal Studios Hollywood has rebounded from the pandemic slower than NBCUniversal’s other North American parks.

In 2021, attendance at both of NBCUniversal’s outposts in Orlando was considerably higher than a decade earlier whereas visitor numbers were largely flat in Hollywood. More worryingly, in 2021, attendance at Universal Orlando and the neighboring Islands of Adventure park was less than 20% down on its peak in 2019 whereas it was double that in Hollywood despite the opening of a ride themed to the hit animated movie The Secret Life Of Pets. Although the ride won a TEA outstanding achievement award, it had limited impact as it opened in the midst of the pandemic.

The Secret Life of Pets: Off the Leash was the first major new attraction at Universal Studios Hollywood for three years which explains why its visitor numbers grew by a smaller amount over the decade to 2019 than at any other Universal park except for its outpost in Singapore. Hollywood is hoping Mario will give its attendance a bounce and it is taking no chances.

The land is currently exclusive in North America as it isn’t expected to debut in Orlando until Universal’s Epic Universe park opens there in 2025. A larger version of the land first opened at Universal Studios Japan in 2021 but that wasn’t as well-timed as its counterpart in Hollywood.

Its doors are swinging open just two months before the release of a new animated Mario movie so the perky plumber’s popularity is on a high. Whilst there is no shortage of interest in the new land there is however a question about its capacity.

The intricately-themed land is designed to give guests the impression they have stepped into Mario’s world so it has all the hallmarks of the video games. On entering the land (through a green pipe of course) visitors are met with bright yellow boxes which have question marks on them and appear to float. There are huge snapping piranha plants that look like venus fly traps, stylized green trees and a cafe inside an over-sized toadstool complete with a red cap and white dots. It lacks Universal Studios Japan’s slow-moving ride through some of the surreal landscapes from the games but both lands are home to an attraction which is a little more zippy.

It is themed to the Mario Kart racing games and features augmented reality headsets enabling riders to compete against each other on sweeping screens which show the scenery as they speed past. It is set in a stone stronghold with a soaring entrance shaped like the head of Mario’s reptilian nemesis Bowser and an entrance which passes through his gaping mouth.

It makes the neighboring attractions in Universal Studios Hollywood seem realistic in comparison even though they are themed to movies like The Mummy, Transformers and Jurassic Park. Universal has prevented real life from intruding into Super Nintendo World by surrounding it with high walls and painting a bright blue sky on them along with some of the psychedelically-colored structures found in the games.

This creates the impression that the land is boxed in which wouldn’t be a problem if it was spacious but at an estimated 65,000 square feet it feels cramped. It’s around ten times smaller than Disney’s Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge lands and it lacks their expansive plazas. Crucially, it stands in stark contrast to the Mario games which are famous for having environments that appear to be endless.

Nintendo’s partnership with Universal was first announced in 2015 and the land was designed long before the onset of the pandemic when crowds and queues weren’t a health worry for theme park-goers. Times have changed since then so Universal has had to introduce a virtual line system just for guests to get into the land. It limits the attendance but is in line with the prevailing trend in the theme park industry of giving fewer guests a better experience.

That makes sense at a park which is already saturated but isn’t perhaps a logical strategy for one which has been battered by a downturn. It has a noticeable effect on the bottom line because of the Byzantine business model behind theme parks.

Entrance tickets are often loss leaders as they don’t cover the colossal energy and staffing costs of theme parks. However, once guests are inside they are a captive audience so they have little choice but to buy the on-site food, beverage and merchandise which have the highest margins. Accordingly, the more guests who stream through the turnstiles, the higher the profit for the park operator.

This explains why NBCUniversal’s theme park division generated a record $2.7 billion of adjusted earnings on $7.5 billion of revenue in 2022. It remains to be seen how much Super Nintendo World at Universal Studios Hollywood will add to that this year. There’s little doubt that it is the right product but with the pandemic still fresh in visitors’ minds it may not be coming at the right time.

Source: https://www.forbes.com/sites/carolinereid/2023/02/19/why-mario-might-not-be-so-super-for-universal-studios/