Theme park consultant calls new Universal park a game-changer

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Universal Orlando Resort earlier this month announced the creation of its fourth theme park, Universal's Epic Universe. Senior editor Jamie Biesiada spoke with Dennis Speigel, president and founder of International Theme Park Services, which provides consultation and management capabilities to theme parks, to talk about the possibilities Epic Universe holds for Universal and the industry at large.

Q: What do you think this new park means for Universal Orlando Resort?

Dennis Speigel
Dennis Speigel

A: This is a game-changer for the visitor ... because it will extend their stay. This is going to be a sizeable project, which requires two to three days to see and enjoy, so when people come to the community now, they're going to be looking at extending that stay a day or two.

Q: Would you categorize the resort's current offerings as two to three days' worth of entertainment?

A: People come down and actually receive more experience than they expected, and they say often that it would take them two days-plus to visit. What this really allows Universal to do is continue to ratchet up their game as it relates to the most important thing: keeping people on property so they can cross-promote and increase their revenues through guest spend on site.

Q: Will this take some visitors away from Disney and other local attractions if they're spending more time in Universal?

A: Certainly in the early period. ... I think the thing that's going to be interesting to watch is when they deliver the product, what the "Champagne effect" is -- or the glide factor, we call it -- which means how far out does that [initial impact] carry? How many years? When you introduce a new ride or attraction, you usually don't have to deal with much marketing the second year because the word-of-mouth is out there on the success of the ride, and the same thing will be true of the park. They'll get a glide out of it for a couple of years.

Q: This is a substantial product, and Universal hasn't released its opening date. If you had to guess on the time frame, when might it open?

A: Just looking at the scope of this project -- and I've built probably 30 parks around the world -- this is a minimum three-year project. It may be more.

Q: Universal hasn't said what the park's offerings will be, but did say it will be the most immersive the company has ever built. It sounds like it's moving in a similar direction as the immersive Harry Potter areas Universal has created at its other parks. Do you agree?

A: Yes, I think so. Our technologies that are coming to the industry now really allow us to do so many more things than we could do 10 years ago, five years ago. It literally is changing annually. I think you're going to see a highly technologically driven, experience park. We've all been speculating for a couple of years on what the product is going to be and, of course it's going to be Nintendo. Some of the intellectual properties they've picked up and been hanging onto, they're not going to leave them in the closet hanging on the shelf. It'll be interesting to see.

Q: Universal opened its Volcano Bay waterpark in 2017 and now has announced Epic Universe. They're making a big push in Orlando. Where is this in terms of significance for Universal and the theme park landscape overall?

A: I think this puts [Universal Orlando] in the top five parks [globally] for sure. I'm basing that on the scale and scope that I've seen and been watching the last couple of years. The next judgement call will be made after we hear what the exact theming and product offerings will be. It'd be hard to imagine a Universal park now without some ["Harry Potter" creator] J.K. Rowling property within it. Is it "Fantastic Beasts"? We'll see.

Q: In the universe of theme parks, would you place Disney at No. 1 and Universal at No. 2 in terms of clout industry-wise?

A: Disney is No. 1. They set the bar in our industry. They have the most gates. They have the most attendance. They have the most revenue. But it's no question: Universal, ever since their Harry Potter introduction and the purchase of the company by Comcast, has really just pushed their internal thresholds on what they could do. When they saw a 36% increase at their park when they introduced Harry Potter -- something I might say no one else has ever done, that kind of an uptick in attendance with revenues following -- they've been on a hard charge [since then]. They have the gunpowder. By that, I mean they have the intellectual properties, they have the movies, they have what they need to deliver to the people what they want.

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