Theme Park University reader Sean writes in this question: “Hey! Just thought I’d get your take on a rumor that’s being floated around. Last week I was listening to a pretty popular podcast (won’t mention the name) and it seems to insinuate that Universal’s new theme park could open by 2021. The logic these podcasters presented was since construction has already started and it’s 2018 and it took roughly three years to build Universal Studios Florida and Islands of Adventure from groundbreaking, that we could see this new park open specifically to compete with Walt Disney World’s 50th Anniversary. What are your thoughts?”
Thanks for the question Sean and boy is that a lot to unpack! First of all, let’s verify everything to make sure it lines up. Yes, Walt Disney World is celebrating its 50th anniversary in 2021. While we don’t know the exact dates of the celebration, it’s fair to assume it will kick-off in the Spring of that year and be in full swing by the Fall of 2021. More importantly, the podcaster is correct in that Universal Studios Florida started construction in 1986 and the park ended up opening in June of 1990. Also, Islands of Adventure did start construction in 1997 and opened in May 1999.
However, has construction started on Universal’s fourth park? Kinda sorta. As reported by Orlando Weekly back in June, there has been some movement on the property that Universal has been acquiring. A few new unofficial roads have been cleared and paved. However, those are not meant for public consumption. Those are for construction purposes so various dump trucks, backhoes, and bulldozers can access the property efficiently. Why do they need access? Well, the land needs to be graded and cleared. Does this mean we can possibly see steel rise on the new property as of next year? Not so fast.
The best way to describe this to you, Sean (and podcasters, I suppose) is through a metaphor: cake. You heard right. It’s safe to assume we have all seen our fair share of cakes in our lifetime. From homemade cakes that come from a box that you make yourself to full-blown wedding cakes that cost thousands of dollars and look too perfect to eat.
It’s fair to say that not all cakes are the same and thus, the time to cook and prepare cakes can vary drastically. In this particular cake… errr… case, let’s look at the baking equipment or cooking pan. With a cake, you’ve can cook with a metal or glass pan, plus even where you cook it can vary on how it turns out due to the altitude of your location and even the oven you’re using.
In our case, the “pan” of this particular park is to the east of International Drive on Destination Parkway just beyond the Orange County Convention Center. If you drive by these days, you’ll see a ton of dump trucks coming in and out of the construction site. Yes, they are definitely preparing for something, but this particular site needs a lot of work both within it and beyond.
The reason being is this particular plot of land is mostly untouched and needs many things. For starters, because of the Florida water table, you’ve got to move around various retention ponds so they wouldn’t block roads, buildings or various infrastructure including electric, sewage and water lines. Which means the entire property needs to have some major shuffling going on to make it work for a theme park.
What you’ve also got to realize here is there are some major differences in surrounding infrastructure to the property. The existing Universal property is just off of I-4 and already had easy access to Kirkman Road when it first opened for traffic coming in and out of the property. More exits were added and widened later as the property expanded. With this new park, it will need to have more arteries coming in and out of the property from the beginning. While yes, you can use Destination Parkway and Universal Boulevard, a theme park that opens these days will be far more popular than Universal Studios Florida when it opened in 1990. People know the brand and let’s face it, Universal and Orlando, in general, is a far bigger destination.
Now let’s move on the actual cake. I’m not going into too much detail about the layout of this park and what it entails at this point. What I will say is the layout and structure of the park will be completely different than what you’re used to seeing in not only Universal Parks but any theme park. Anywhere in the world. It is also worth mentioning that Universal is 100% without question building more than just another theme park on this particular piece of land.
Just like any new project, there are phases where it is expected to grow and move beyond what we see on opening day. Thus, the land clearance is at least in part, is to go ahead and be prepared for that bigger picture that Universal envisions for the property long term.
Finally, let’s talk about how theme parks create deadlines on big projects like this. Now this goes for pretty much all major theme parks around the globe, not just Universal. You create a five and a ten-year plan which is based on a multitude of things. You do research on the market and how it is expected to grow within the next several years. This could include how many flights come into the airport to more hotel rooms to convention space expanding to how much the city spends on marketing to drive tourists in (beyond your own budget).
Then you’ve got to look at your own budget. Sorry kids, not all attractions can be $100 million E-ticket extravaganzas. Thus you may only be able to spend $20 million on new attractions in a park one year and $100 million the next. In the case of a new theme park, you’ve got to set aside capital on a yearly basis for various phases of construction. Yes, that includes the land-clearing that is happening right now on Universal’s new property.
In summary Sean, here is what I’ll tell you. 1. Despite what certain podcasters, bloggers or journalists may have heard, the park has been in development for quite some time now. 2. The overall design, layout, IPs and scope have been locked down for over a year now. 3. A timetable for the new park opening was put in place years ago and is unlikely to budge. 4. The year the new park opens will absolutely not be in 2021, but it does indeed have a target date that has nothing to do with trying to compete with a particular Disney project.
Despite what you may read all over the internet, while Disney and Universal are indeed fierce competitors, it doesn’t mean that every major move they make is targeted at deflating the other. Sometimes you make a good business decision based on when it’s right for your particular business model. It really isn’t much more complicated than that.
That said, I sure did leave a lot of holes in this story for you to ponder. What is this totally unique theme park design all about? What else is going into this property besides a new theme park? What intellectual properties will be represented? And when is all of this expected to be open? We will get there, I promise. In the meanwhile, the process (and understanding it) is a big reason why Theme Park University exists. Meanwhile, is anyone else hungry for cake or is it just me?
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