The future of Universal Orlando Resort has never looked brighter: Universal has today revealed that it will be building a third theme park, called Epic Universe, and placing it on a second parcel of land (well, the third, if you count the 64-acre chunk that Endless Summer Resort sits on) that is situated some 15 minutes down the road from the rest of the resort.
The announcement was vague, not revealing any of the park’s lands, generally, or attractions, specifically, but it was nonetheless exciting – especially the part that Epic Universe will include an additional entertainment center, restaurants, shopping, and hotels (which actually can be seen in the concept art, at the very back of the park). Universal’s press release sums up this sentiment rather nicely:
Universal’s Epic Universe will offer an entirely new level of experiences that will forever redefine theme-park entertainment. Guests will venture beyond their wildest imagination, traveling into beloved stories and through vibrant lands on adventures where the journey is as astounding as the destination.
Wondering how you’ll be able to access the new park and all the new land that Universal is now folding into its Orlando empire? Universal has said that the expansion of Kirkman Road, which you can see in the below map, will be key to the connection between Universal Orlando’s main campus, the Endless Summer site, and Epic Universal:
Tom Williams, the chairman and chief executive officer of Universal Parks and Resorts, also suggested that it’ll be a 12-minute (more or less) ride between them all (and then went on to reiterate just how much Epic Universe is “taking it to a whole new level” and will “blow your mind”).
Although rather light on specifics – then again, why wouldn’t the press release be when the new gate won’t possibly be open for another several years? – there’s still much to go over in this exciting new development. In order to put everything in its proper context, we’ll need to first assess the history of this new slice of real estate, and then look ahead to the entire resort’s future – and what role the third park will play in it.
The third theme park, take one
When Universal first decided to strike out in Florida, building a theme park from the ground up for the very first time, it always knew that Universal Studios Florida would be just the tip of the theming-empire iceberg – assuming its first few years in the early 1990s would prove successful enough, the company would fill out the rest of the 423-acre property that its parent company at the time, MCA, already owned (which would eventually be expanded to 840 acres before ultimately dipping back down to its current level of approximately 725). A $2 billion expansion was quickly decided upon, and by 1997, construction was well underway on a second theme park, called Islands of Adventure; CityWalk, a dining/shopping/entertainment district; and what was thought to ultimately be five on-site hotels, which started with Portofino Bay Hotel (and which were projected to be completed by 2005).
All of that still wouldn’t be enough, however, if the company wanted to directly take on its neighbor and major competitor, Disney; its Walt Disney World Resort, after all, was soon to have four theme parks, three water parks, and a massive dining/shopping/entertainment complex of its own. More would be needed – more land, more attractions, more amenities, more infrastructure.
What was an aggressive young upstart to do? Easy – go on a shopping spree. First up, in October 1998, was Wet ‘n Wild, the 1977 water park that was, at the time of purchase, the most popular aquatic destination in the country (buying the land that Wet ‘n Wild sat on would take another 15 years and an additional $31 million). Just two months later came a massive land grab: a sizable stretch of 2,000 acres, located near the Orange County Convention Center, which was purchased from Lockheed Martin for $200 million. Universal filed plans with the city of Orlando that showed just what it intended to do with all of its new property: create a third (and, eventually, a fourth) theme park, a second CityWalk, several more hotels, an assortment of timeshare units, and a hefty sporting complex that would feature everything from tennis courts to golf courses. In this way, Universal Orlando Resort would now brandish nearly everything that Disney had just down the street, from water activities to national sports tournaments and almost everything in between.
There was just one problem with this grand expansionist plan: it didn’t work out. Once phase one of this expansion was complete, with Islands of Adventure, CityWalk, and Portofino Bay all opening up next to the original Universal Studios Florida, guests weren’t persuaded to turn their one-day excursions from Disney World into multi-day Universal stays – and with the expected money failing to come in, paying for all the further developments was suddenly put into question (something that was only exacerbated two years later, with the 9/11 attacks pulling the bottom out from Orlando’s tourism market).
Even worse, Universal’s ever-changing corporate owner changed yet again, with Vivendi swooping in to buy the company in June 2000 for a whopping $34 billion, with an additional $9 billion in debt being assumed by the would-be French media giant. Almost immediately, expenses were cut across the board at Universal Parks and Resorts: new attractions at the pre-existent parks were slowed or canceled; the proposed fourth and fifth on-site hotels were pulled; and the 2,000-acre plot of land was sold in December 2003 for a comparatively-paltry $70 million. (Complicating the expenses of the recently-acquired property was the clean-up operation that Universal was forced to engage in; Lockheed Martin had previously used the land to store the industrial waste from missile tests – its Missiles and Fire Control Plant is still stationed there to this day – and properly disposing of it ended up costing Universal nearly four times as much as it had originally envisioned, ballooning to some $40 million.)
The third theme park, round two
The anemic cash flow and budget-cutting predilections of its corporate overseers (even when Universal switched hands from Vivendi to General Electric in May 2004) made the 2000s a bleak period for Universal Orlando – a far cry from the grandiose designs of a sprawling mini-Disney World resort that was supposed to flourish in that decade. It was only with the twin arrivals of The Wizarding World of Harry Potter, in June 2010, and yet-again-brand-new owner Comcast, in January 2011, that a new dawn finally fell on Universal Parks and Resorts, generally, and its Florida destination, specifically.
Now flush with cash and seeing the potential that was to be had in the themed industry, Comcast turned on the money spigot and ordered a full-out assault on almost all fronts. Diagon Alley, Volcano Bay, and four additional on-site hotels were all erected in record-setting time, with an eye being cast once again to expansion – namely, in the same exact area where “Site B,” as online fans like to refer to the elusive secondary theme-park location, was originally sketched out some 20 years previously. In December 2015, 474 of those original 2,000 acres were re-purchased by the company for $130 million (after the original individual who had bought the land from Universal 12 years earlier, Georgia businessman Stan Thomas, foreclosed on the land just the month before); that was followed up by the acquisition of another 101 acres in October 2017 for $27.5 million, which sit just above and touching the previously-reclaimed territory; and, rounding out the re-acquisition process, Universal nabbed hundreds of additional acres from Stan Thomas on April 11, 2018, though no one is certain just how many or for how much (court records, however, do show that some $144.7 million of the debt that Thomas owed on the various properties was wiped out, perhaps providing us with a clue).
That’s, obviously, a lot more money for a whole lot less land ($157.5 million for the 575 acres we definitively know about, as compared to $200 million for 2,000 acres back in ’98), and, what’s more, all of this newly-re-assembled real estate is divided up into several different partitions instead of being contiguous, but it nonetheless manages to achieve what Universal’s designers had originally foreseen all those years ago: a third theme park, along with all of its accompanying parking lots and employee office space.
What else can you tell me about Epic Universe?
Beyond all the hyperbolic teases and riveting (but still generic-looking) concept art, Universal did manage to sneak a few extra morsels in for us rabid theme-park fans about Epic Universe – albeit more on the technical, behind-the-scenes side of things.
For instance, Orange County (where all of Universal Orlando Resort is situated) has added on-site permitting at the right-next-door convention center to help dramatically speed up the pace of construction. Universal, for its own part, has provided $160 million (or half of the overall cost) to connect Kirkman Road to the Orange County Convention Center, helping the flow of traffic for both its guests and the city of Orlando. Indeed, Epic Universe “represents the single-largest investment Comcast NBCUniversal has made in its theme-park business and Florida overall,” Brian Roberts, the chairman and CEO of Comcast, said. And the company will be adding on a whopping 14,000 more jobs in order to staff all of its various new additions in the area, bringing up its base pay to $15 an hour once everything’s up and running.
Universal went on to say that it’s saving a whole bevy of further announcements – such as what Epic Universe’s individual lands will be themed to or the new park’s opening date – for a good stretch of time down the road; although the company clearly wants its customers to be excited about what the future holds, it also doesn’t want to “disadvantage current visitation” (exactly what happened when it announced The Wizarding World of Harry Potter some three years before it opened at Islands of Adventure, gutting attendance).
And, finally, there was this even more intriguing hint: not all of the 750 acres that Epic Universe will sit on will be developed for the third theme park and its attached entertainment, dining, shopping, and hotels – a goodly portion of it will be reserved for even more additional phases of expansion.
What does the future’s future hold?
Looking ahead to after Epic Universe is up and operational is certainly getting ahead of ourselves, but, being the obsessive-compulsive theme-park nerds that we are, we can’t help it.
Now that we’ve gotten a pretty big hint of what the 2020s will look like at Universal Orlando Resort, what might we expect to see in the 2030s? It may actually be easier – and more instructive – to eliminate what we won’t see as opposed to what else may possibly arise: it’s a pretty safe bet to cross out those timeshare units and that sprawling sporting arena that were originally on the drawing board, as emulating the Disney Vacation Club and all of its premium properties at Walt Disney World is probably rather low on Universal’s to-do list now, and wooing the sports demographic may not yield as many returns as the company had initially thought back in the mid-‘90s (and, besides, Universal’s probably far more interested in concentrating just on its core business of themed attractions and experiences this time ‘round).
That’s not to say that this won’t eventually find itself back in Universal’s sights, after the new additions have managed to firmly attach themselves to the public’s popular consciousness. Should this second resort expansion find itself to be as successful as the first has now become, thanks to the likes of Harry Potter, The Simpsons, and Transformers, then the sky will well and truly be the limit, with hundreds of more acres to be assimilated and dozens of new initiatives – both resurrected and entirely new – to be implemented.
What are you anticipating the most about this new theme park? Discuss it all with 80,000+ other vacation planners and Universal fans in our OI Community Facebook group.