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3 essentials to understanding Universal Orlando


Before I started visiting Universal Orlando Resort again within the last few years, it had been a staggering two decades since my last trip. Needless to say, a lot had changed, not the least of which was the fact that there was suddenly all the obligatory elements of a full-fledged resort, such as a second theme park, the CityWalk dining/shopping/entertainment district, and on-site hotels.


What is truly staggering about Universal’s growing Floridian empire, however, is that nearly just as much has changed since February 2012 ‘til now. Indeed, ever since cable giant Comcast became the sole owner of NBCUniversal in 2011, the company has instituted a now-famous mandate to invest $500 million each and every year into its American parks, with most of it going to Universal Orlando (sorry, Universal Studios Hollywood!), resulting in a bevy of construction projects and attraction openings that is literally unprecedented in the 60-year-old industry.

Given all this, visiting the resort may be a tad on the overwhelming side for those who have, just like me, not been there for an incredibly long time (there is actually a great number of Disney-philes who visited Universal tudios Florida in its early years and wrote the whole thing off – but who are now starting to contemplate a return trip, thanks to the current growth spurt), or for those who have yet to go at all. This article is meant to not only walk both camps through the basics of Universal Orlando’s current status quo, but to also provide a quick overview of its near future, all in three easy bullet-pointed essentials.

You’ll be talking like a seasoned expert in no time at all.

1. Universal Studios Florida has been reborn
Back in 1990, what Universal hoped would be the greatest allure to visiting its then-singular theme park was to experience a functioning studio backlot, an extension from its Hollywood location (though, out on the West Coast, the enterprise started as a film production hub first and collection of theme park rides second). Attractions were housed in “soundstages,” large, drab buildings that betray very little, if any at all, of the adventures that were contained inside – and many of those experiences were largely predicated on divulging the nuts and bolts of filmmaking, such as learning how background conversations are recorded in crowd scenes.

Since then, however, there has been a sea change in our society – the far-off mystique of Hollywood has mostly been dissipated by the likes of DVD making-of featurettes, and the digital revolution of photography (and videography) has destroyed its nearly insurmountable bar of entry. And, on Universal’s side, there’s also been the not insignificant discovery that most studios didn’t want to produce their episodes of television or feature films out in Orlando, specifically amongst a throng of tourists eager to hop on the next ride with King Kong or Marty McFly. By the turn of the century, the Hollywood professionals had largely left, and the original mission statement of the park was rendered irrelevant.

But absences sometimes beget progress in the largest doses; today, Universal has chucked the filmmaking façade and has opted to go full-tilt for the traditional, Disneyland-esque approach to themed entertainment. The importance of such a decision cannot be understated – for the first time in USF’s 25-year lifespan, entire lands have been incorporated into the park, starting with The Simpsons’s Springfield, USA and hitting an impressive zenith with The Wizarding World of Harry Potter – Diagon Alley.


Even the standalone attractions, such as Despicable Me: Minion Mayhem or Transformers: The Ride – 3D, have been afforded an infinitely greater level of freedom, allowing their show buildings to be part of the themed experience (meaning that guests can see – and walk right into – Gru’s house instead of approaching yet another nondescript soundstage). And Universal’s first-ever daily parade, the Superstar Parade, has lent a certain energy and levity to the park.

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2. New experiences are popping up everywhere
What is arguably the single most exciting aspect of Comcast’s current blitzkrieg of construction is that nearly every last square inch of the resort – particularly in the theme parks – is being utilized to deliver new or otherwise updated experiences to guests.

As is par the course for Universal – who has always been keen on ripping out old attractions at a regular interval (the polar opposite, of course, to the approach that Disney has cultivated over the decades) – older rides have been replaced with newer ones: Despicable Me, for example, replaced Jimmy Neutron’s Nicktoon Blast, and the expansive area known as Diagon Alley was once Jaws’s Amity Harbor.



But then there’s been the push to reclaim the land that was once home to an attraction, typically in the early years of Universal Studios Florida, and which has since been largely relegated to fancy-looking facades (and, of course, the seasonal Halloween Horror Nights houses): Transformers’s current location had gone unused for 13 years (it was last a behind-the-scenes look at the production of both Hercules and Xena), and when the new experience at the Garden of Allah Villas building opens this summer, it’ll mark the first time an attraction has been there since 2001.

The most impressive aspect, however, is easily the push to erect new experiences on real estate that was previously unutilized: Kang and Kodos’s Twirl ‘n Hurl, the second of the Simpsons rides, was an empty parcel of land fronting the lagoon, while the theme-park-hopping Hogwarts Express cuts through backstage areas that are only (normally) accessible to employees.

While the vast brunt of this initiative has (rightly) been focused on USF, Islands of Adventure is also getting in on the action in the form of King Kong’s Skull Island, which is being carefully inserted in between the “islands” of Jurassic Park and Toon Lagoon, on a hitherto unused expansion pad that was originally earmarked for a future JP attraction. And let’s not forget about everywhere else: at CityWalk, two putt-putt courses have been installed, in addition to the Blue Man Group’s show being overhauled and a total of eight restaurants [thus far] being shut down and replaced with brand-new, far more gastronomically unique eateries.


And a fourth, large-scale hotel (Cabana Bay Beach Resort) has already been opened – almost single-handedly doubling the number of hotel rooms available at the resort – with a fifth (Sapphire Falls Resort) on the way in summer 2016.

Part of this inventive land reclamation program is creative mantra – the company wishes to double-down not only on the amount of activities available at its parks, but also on their level of immersiveness – but most of it, of course, is a product of necessity; Universal Orlando’s 900 acres, obviously, is only an infinitesimally small fraction of Walt Disney World’s 13,000.

3. Universal is truly becoming Disney World on a smaller scale
In the late ‘90s and early ‘00s, when Universal was first expanding its single-park USF to the multi-park Universal Orlando, the company actively aped Disney World’s example, adding three on-site hotels and CityWalk in an attempt to cover all the basics of what a theme park resort should offer.

Now, however, Universal is looking to finish fleshing out the overall experience. The two additional hotels (which are fully-themed and feature a bevy of amenities despite their “budget” status) are just the tip of the iceberg; the company is looking to double its room count yet again within the next few years, possibly opening as many as four or five additional venues (how? Some will be on pre-existent property, while others may be erected on newly-purchased, “off-site” land – read more here).A fully-themed, next-generation water park called Volcano Bay, replete with a 200-foot-tall erupting volcano, is currently being constructed right next-door to Cabana Bay.


And, as we start to leave this decade and get into next, a second CityWalk and a third theme park are on the drawing board.

At this rate, it’s almost literally impossible to say what the Universal Orlando Resort of 2020 will look like, let alone 2025 – making nearly every vacation there an entirely new experience.

Did we forget an essential point about the modern Universal? What has you the most excited for its future? Tell the world below.

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About Marc N. Kleinhenz

Marc N. Kleinhenz is the former editor of Orlando Informer.

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