New park expected to elevate Universal to the next level

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Concept art of Universal's Epic Universe.
Concept art of Universal's Epic Universe.

With the exception of Universal Orlando Resort's Volcano Bay waterpark, which opened in 2017, Universal's Epic Universe will mark the first major park opening in the U.S. in nearly 20 years.

The last was Disney's California Adventure in Anaheim, Calif., which opened in 2001.

Epic Universe, which was announced earlier this month, will be the first theme park to open since the industry firmly shifted to offering more immersive, enveloping products that make guests feel like they've walked onto a movie location. That shift has left many industry experts excited about what the park might hold.

"This just solidifies that Universal is moving up into the top tier of this industry with Disney," said Robert Niles, editor of ThemeParkInsider.com. "It used to be that Universal was clearly in tier two with SeaWorld and Busch Gardens [which have the same parent company]. They've left SeaWorld and Busch Gardens in the dust, and now they're clearly moving up to the top level with Disney, which is what [Universal parent company] Comcast NBCUniversal management has wanted all along."

Universal has been tight-lipped about what immersive features might be planned for Epic Universe, but it will be joined by an entertainment complex, hotels, shops and restaurants on a 750-acre parcel of land. It will be located south of Universal's existing campus in Orlando, which is home to Universal Studios Florida, Islands of Adventure, Volcano Bay, seven hotels and the entertainment and dining area CityWalk.

The new southern campus, which nearly doubles Universal's acreage in Central Florida, is the single largest theme park business investment Comcast has made.

Level of immersion

While no details have been disclosed, Universal Parks and Resorts chairman and CEO Tom Williams said in a statement that Epic Universe will "become the most immersive and innovative theme park we have ever created."

Universal's "Harry Potter"-themed areas have been lauded for their level of immersion for years, and experts expect more of the same, if not better, at Epic Universe.

Niles said he expects the whole park to be reminiscent of the Wizarding World of Harry Potter -- Diagon Alley at Universal Studios Florida.

"It's going to be that same type of immersive experience," he said. "That's really the direction the industry is going in. But this is going to be the first major theme park in the United States that has been built since the industry started going in that direction, so they can do this from scratch. They don't have to have one or two immersive lands in a park with looser-themed lands because it's 40 years old. They're starting from scratch, and they can do nothing but these separate, immersive lands, like they did with Diagon Alley."

Bob Chambers, founder and co-CEO of the Producers Group, which offers consulting and design services to theme parks and produces attractions around the world, agreed with Niles that immersion like that seen in Universal's Harry Potter lands and Disney's Star Wars: Galaxy's Edge has become the standard.

"I think all the new projects that we're going to have moving forward are going to only go above and beyond that," he said.

While no official announcements have come from Universal, speculation is rampant about what kind of attractions Epic Universe will hold. Niles said it will almost certainly hold Super Nintendo World, the Nintendo-themed land Universal is building in Japan.

Universal has said it will bring Nintendo to Florida, and with no sign of another existing land being replaced, Epic Universe is its likely home.

Wealth of intellectual property

Universal also holds the rights to a number of DreamWorks Animation franchises. The "How to Train Your Dragon" franchise has been discussed as a potential element of Epic Universe, Niles said. And it would only make sense to include more Harry Potter.

"They seem to like having a Harry Potter land in every one of their parks, which makes sense because it's wildly popular," he said. "So you've got this huge 'Fantastic Beasts' prequel franchise that they could draw from.

"It's not like they're lacking for intellectual property to put in here," Niles said. "In fact, there are several expansion pads in the concept art that they released, so it's clear that this is not just a park that's going to be filled with stuff at opening but that they have the potential to expand over the years, as well."

Niles said he believes the new park moves Universal Orlando Resort into the category of a primary destination for many visitors, as opposed to an add-on to a Walt Disney World vacation.

Claudia Nunn, project director at the Producers Group, said she believes the new park propels Orlando as a whole neatly into repeat-destination territory.

"I worked for Disney at one time," she said. "And we used to hear, 'Oh, kids get tired of Disney Parks. What do I do?' So then they go to Universal, so there's this leap. But I have seen over the past decade or more that as Disney acquires different intellectual properties and Universal is expanding, people aren't making a choice of 'I'll do this' or 'I'll do that.' They may in that year, but they're coming back."

Unusually split campus

Chambers called the location of Epic Universe, a few miles south of Universal's existing campus, "highly unusual," saying, "I can't think of any other park complex where they have the real world in between them."

Hilary Osiecki, marketing manager at the Producers Group, said the distance could offer Universal some unique opportunities. She pointed to Universal's Hogwarts Express attraction. It links the theme parks on the north campus, taking visitors through backstage property but distracting them with an experience on the train, whose windows are video screens.

"With the theming taken to the level that it is, they could very easily turn that into an experience, getting to the second land," Osiecki said.

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