As theme parks across the country open their gates for the busy family travel summer season, theme park behemoth Disney is hoping to woo guests with more live shows, while Universal is coming on strong with big-name brands like the Simpsons and Transformers.

Robert Niles, founder of Theme Park Insider, a consumer guide to theme parks, said, "Universal is trying to out-Disney Disney," referring to a Simpsons-themed area that will debut at Universal Orlando this summer. "Instead of just riding the movies, they're trying to branch out and create a complete themed environment, which is something that Disney really had to itself."

The Simpsons-themed area, modeled after the cartoon family's hometown, Springfield, will include re-creations of Moe's Tavern (complete with Duff Beer), Krusty Burger and Luigi's Pizza, among other dining venues from the show.

According to Niles, the Springfield addition is an expansion on a theme established by the launch of the Wizarding World of Harry Potter three years ago.

"What is really interesting about this, when you think about new developments in theme parks, is that this new Simpsons experience is really driven by food and beverage," said Niles, noting that the Harry Potter-themed eats and drinks ended up being a major component of that project's success, notably the re-created butterbeer, of which more than a million mugs were sold within the first year.

"That shows how a food item can really kind of round out the immersive experience in the new land," Niles said.

Anchored by the Simpsons Ride, which opened in 2008, the Simpsons area will be the first time the fictional town of Springfield has been re-created.

Universal Studios in Florida also recently opened Transformers: The Ride, and SeaWorld debuted Antarctica: Empire of the Penguin. Theme park insiders agree that this summer the race is on in Florida with these attention-grabbing attractions, which are all making a run at Disney, whose Magic Kingdom in Florida continues to attract the greatest share of international visitors among theme parks.

Disney hasn't rested on its laurels, either, having opened a completely revamped Fantasyland at Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom in December.

Disney goes live

In California, Disney introduced a live show at Disneyland's Fantasyland Theatre, a venue that hasn't hosted live shows since 2006.

"Mickey and the Magical Map" is a 22-minute musical that will have five daily shows every day through summer, featuring Mickey Mouse, a sorcerer named Yen Sid (read it backwards) and six songs, including compositions from "The Jungle Book," "Pocahontas" and "The Princess and the Frog."

"It's wonderful to bring the live experience back to the park," Michael Jung, theatrical development executive at Walt Disney Imagineering Creative Entertainment, told a group of reporters after the show's May 24 preview at Disneyland. He added that the show had been under development for almost two years.

Getting more up close and personal with guests appears to be a larger, longer-term strategy for Disney.

In January, the company announced that it would be rolling out new electronic MagicBand bracelets that will enable guests to enter the parks, purchase food and merchandise, unlock their hotel rooms and access certain rides with a wave of their wrists.

Disney would have the option, eventually, of interacting more personally with guests, based on preference information obtainable from the bracelets.

The bracelets are part of a new MyMagic+ program, which will ultimately enable guests to personalize their park experience by reserving times on rides and booking restaurants and shows through a website and a mobile app called My Disney Experience.

"It has a lot of power to change the theme park from being a one-size-fits-all experience into a platform," Niles said.

More to come

Already, Universal Orlando has announced a Wizarding World expansion slated to open in summer 2014, and Disney has teased plans for an "Avatar"-themed attraction at the Animal Kingdom park in Florida.

The major challenge with all the theme park growth are the growing crowds and pricing, the latter of which is fast approaching the $100 mark for single gate entry at the Disney and Universal parks.

Nevertheless, attendance keeps growing, perhaps to the detriment of the park experience. Noted West, "The park infrastructures, attractions and employees have become shell shocked in the past several years by crowds that never seem to end."

JDS Travel News JDS Viewpoints JDS Africa/MI