Tuesday, 28 January 2014

Cruising’s advantage over theme park magic

Cruising’s advantage over theme park magic

By Tom Stieghorst

I had the chance last week to spend some time at a Central Florida theme park, one of the cruise industry’s competitors for the vacation dollar.

Universal Studios Orlando offers a formidable array of attractions, including an evening entertainment complex, three luxury hotels with a budget-priced resort in the wings and a pair of theme parks chock full of roller coasters, rides and faithful backlot reproductions of New York, San Francisco and even Homer Simpson’s hometown, Springfield.

The latest project at Universal is a re-creation of London for an attraction devoted to literary wizard Harry Potter. Sometime this summer The Wizarding World of Harry Potter — Diagon Alley will open, bringing the Wyndham Theater and other landmarks of the city to more than 6 million Universal Studios visitors annually.

Cruise lines have one crucial edge in the competition. While theme parks must re-create the world in Central Florida, cruise ships can actually bring guests to all of the fascinating destinations that can only be represented at land-based parks.

It seems almost too obvious to mention, but “destination” sometimes gets lost in the cruise industry’s sales initiatives.

One of Wizarding World’s marvels will be a train, the Hogwarts Express, running between the new attraction in Universal Studios and the original Harry Potter theme area in the adjacent Islands of Adventure park.

Although Universal is withholding details, executives hint that the train will have video screens instead of windows to project images of London and the British countryside on the journey from Diagon Alley to the imaginary Hogsmeade village in Scotland. It will be exciting to see, and I’ll look forward to it as much as the next theme park fan. But on a cruise excursion one could see the real thing in all of its glory. That has to trump seeing the facsimile in Orlando, no matter how clever the reproduction.

The same applies to the themed re-creations of France, China and Morocco in Walt Disney World’s Epcot or the Bavarian beer hall at Busch Gardens in Tampa. How much better to drink some locally brewed beer in Hamburg, or see the quays of Shanghai from the deck of a cruise ship.

Orlando has its advantages, too. Plenty of people who struggle to afford going abroad can see a version of distant lands there. But cruises can take guests to the real thing, and that’s a selling point agents ought to play up.