The initial reviews have been overwhelmingly positive for the new thrill ride at Comcast's (NASDAQ: CMCSA) Universal Orlando. Hagrid's Magical Creatures Motorbike Adventure is a hit, and that's something that can't be said about the previous couple of additions introduced by Disney's (NYSE: DIS) largest theme park rival in Florida.
Unfortunately, it's also fair to say that the first few days of operation have been anything but smooth. There have been stretches of time since Thursday's grand opening when the family-friendly roller coaster has been out of commission. Mechanical and weather issues have marred operations on each of the ride's first three days, including a hiccup that delayed the ride's opening on Friday for a couple of hours.
With Florida's storm season about to pick up -- rainfall through each of these next four months is more than double the state's precipitation during the rest of the year -- opening a ride with substantial outdoor elements is enough of a challenge even if it's running fine on the mechanical front. The push to get a major new attraction open in time for peak summertime crowds and ahead of Disney World's Star Wars: Galaxy's Edge might mean that Hagrid's Magical Creatures Motorbike Adventure opened to the public before it could have worked out all of the kinks. Raising the bar can be a bumpy process at first, something that rival Disney knows all too well.
Image source: Comcast's Universal Orlando.
The curse of popularity
High-tech rides can prove challenging during the first few days of operation, and the new coaster offers several launches, a segment where the coaster rolls backwards, and even a part where the track itself performs a short free fall. Throw in a one-of-a-kind ride vehicle where guests board faux motorbikes or adjacent sidecars, and it's clear that Comcast isn't phoning it in here.
Universal Orlando has had initial operating snags at some of its more recent debuts. Harry Potter and the Escape from Gringotts -- the resort's last critically praised ride to open -- also had its share of downtime in that indoor coaster's first few days of operations in 2014. And Skull Island: Reign of Kong had problems staying open when it was introduced three summers ago.
Disney is also no stranger to the lulls when it offers up one-of-a-kind experiences. Disney World's Test Track at Epcot blew through its initially proposed opening date, and even when it did finally open, there were software and mechanical bugs that made the driving track simulation notoriously unreliable. The ride remains open more than two decades later with its reliability still far from ideal.
It was an even more problematic situation at Disney's original theme park in California for another ride that opened around the time that Test Track made its debut. Disneyland premiered Rocket Rods as a more thrilling replacement to its scenic PeopleMover overview of Tomorrowland in 1998. It was closed completely two years later after pronounced mechanical hang-ups.
Right now it's highly unlikely that Comcast goes the Rocket Rods route here. The new Potter-themed coaster isn't going anywhere. Universal Orlando will modify its vehicles or even the ride itself before throwing in the towel. However, it will be important to monitor the attraction's uptime beyond the first few days. Comcast's Universal Orlando has been heavily promoting the new attraction in anticipation of having the entire summer to itself before Disney steals the spotlight with its late-August opening of Star Wars: Galaxy's Edge. There's a lot riding on the high-stakes theme park scene in central Florida. Disney and Comcast can both win, but when they take bar-raising gambles on new rides before those rides are ready for active guest consumption, there's a lot to lose here.
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