With the announcement on Thursday from Comcast that Universal’s Epic Universe is “paused”, many are saying the project is toast. Even more interesting, what happens to other parks and attractions that were either in development and under construction? Let’s break it down from what we know, what we’ve heard and our predictions.
First of all, it’s fair to mention that nothing in this article is official until Universal says it is. This has never been more true than now. What has always been true is the tourism industry always bounces back stronger than ever after any kind of downturn. According to all surveys and reports that have been done in the past three months, this is also true now even though we aren’t sure when all this will end.
Thus, we expect to see a sharp V-shaped recovery and some of that can be evidenced by theme parks in other countries (such as ones in Europe) who seem to have the virus more under control and tourists are already flocking to some of those parks in huge numbers. What makes it difficult, when do you spend money responsibly to ensure you continue to make your investors (Wall Street) happy as you ramp back up to previous earnings.
There are some projects that will obviously continue construction as planned, however at a somewhat slower pace. For example, the unannounced Jurassic World coaster in Islands of Adventure will continue to be built and most likely finished for it’s target date of early Spring 2021.
The odds of it opening during that time are extremely slim at this point. There’s no need to add extra staffing to a park that receives such little attendance as it is at this point. While you could say it would boost park numbers, the ends wouldn’t justify the means unless you were allowed to add significantly more people in your park. Which is not only a bad business move, it’s not even legal with local regulations capping attendance.
Over at Universal Studios Hollywood, the Secret Life of Pets: Off The Leash dark ride could start operating tomorrow. That is, if the state of California and Los Angeles agreed that theme parks were safe to operate. Instead, even once USH does open, the ride will sit behind barriers potentially for months. This will give them a better chance to properly advertise the new ride and give it a moment in the spotlight and get more bang for the buck once travel starts becoming normal again.
On the Lower Lot at Universal Studios Hollywood, the mini Super Nintendo Land featuring Mario Kart will still continue construction, but at a slower pace. Since it doesn’t seem like the Secret Life of Pets will open until at least 2021, this gives Mario and friends some breathing room to get that project opened sometime in 2022.
Likewise, Super Nintendo World at Universal Studios Japan is pretty much ready to go. Even though the park has reopened, it makes no sense to open the new land at this point. Just being able to manage the crowds and social distancing would be a nightmare under current conditions. Thus, it will most likely be sitting there until next year when the park and the new land can accommodate the crowds better and it makes financial sense to do so.
On hold is the Donkey Kong coaster for Super Nintendo World that was already going to be pushed back for a phase two anyway. Our understanding is the construction for this unique ride would have started in the fall. Since the entire land won’t even open, that will be put on the back burner for the foreseeable future.
Then you have Universal Studios Beijing. That project has been vertical for quite some time now. Previously (and I believe still currently) the resort was slated for an opening in May 2021. While construction is continuing, this will most likely be another case of the entire resort sitting there until it’s feasible to open it at full capacity or at least close. You will definitely see the opening date pushed back.
This leads us to Universal’s Epic Universe which was already pushed back to an opening date of 2024 earlier this year, previously it was 2023 with the original announcement. Unlike Universal Beijing, Epic Universe has not gone vertical and wouldn’t have even started to until 2021 at the soonest. The land needs a ton of work in order to prep for a theme park and quite a bit has been done. However, is it scrapped entirely as some have suggested? No.
While Universal’s Epic Universe was announced (a year ago from the publication date of this article), the specifics of the park were staying under wraps intentionally until we got within about a year and a half of the opening date. This is always Universal Orlando’s marketing strategy (which is a different story entirely).
Even the concept art above has changed slightly since the original announcements as some parts of the park have morphed or put on the back burner for phase two. Despite the changes prior to being put on pause, the lands are still the same (even though unannounced): Nintendo, Universal Monsters, How to Train Your Dragon, and Fantastic Beasts.
Could Universal Epic Universe completely scrap what they have already designed internally and come up with different ideas once things get back to normal? It’s possible. Changes in technology, budget cuts or even newer IPs that may be more relevant will all most likely be considered. It’s rare a project like this gets to put a pause on it and regroup.
Two of the lands that most likely will not budge: Nintendo and Fantastic Beasts. Keep in mind, the Nintendo land at Universal Studios Japan is very close to being ready to go. This means that the research and development for the Mario Kart and Yoshi attractions have already been done. All they would have to do is clone it for Universal Epic Universe, which is a huge cost savings.
While Fantastic Beasts hasn’t proven to be the huge box office phenomenon that Harry Potter was, the link to the original series is worth quite a bit. The odds of this IP getting booted from Epic Universe are extremely slim. However, the technology that was slated to be used for the attractions within the land is (was) groundbreaking. Those attractions could very well be scaled back due to budget reasons or reimagined entirely.
Will Universal’s Epic Universe still be built? Unless the pandemic drags out for years, the odds seem favorable. The land is already there and has started to be prepped for construction. They’ve already gotten approval from Orange County for several aspects of the project. At this point, three years worth of development has been done.
Most importantly, if history has taught us anything, theme parks rebound stronger than ever after a kick in the teeth. Beyond 2024, there will most likely be a huge demand for theme park capacity in Orlando that a new theme park like Epic Universe would be a great opportunity. However, with so much uncertainty regarding when this pandemic is over and what that recovery might look like, you need to keep Wall Street satisfied. Your thoughts?
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