Fix this theme park: Universal Studios Hollywood
Last week, the Los Angeles Planning Commission approved Universal Studios Hollywood's proposed $1.6 billion studio and theme park expansion
(half a billion bucks more
than Disney California Adventure's rebuild). Named Evolution
, the project will include:
- 337,895 net new square feet [of] attractions at Universal Studios Hollywood theme park
- 39,000 net new square feet of retail and dining options at the theme park and CityWalk
- Two new hotels and the option to replace amphitheatre with a smaller venue
Looking at the plan's concept map, and overlaying it on a Google Map of the same area, more detail emerges. If the plan goes forward as now drawn up, we'll be getting:
- New parking and/or attraction facilities east of Universal Studios Blvd, on an existing surface lot and old recreation area north of Buddy Holly Drive
- An expansion of CityWalk and parking to the north and east of CityWalk's current eastern end
- A new 500-room hotel, built west of the existing Frankenstein parking structure, on the north side of Universal Hollywood Drive
- Addition hotel/attraction/retail development on the VIP surface parking lots south of the park entrance
- New attractions on the sites of Waterworld, the Gibson Ampitheatre, Special Effects Stage and Terminator 2:3D
- New attraction space on the current tram tour station site
- A new tram tour station, down the hill from the existing station
Consensus suggests that Waterworld (and possibly the Gibson) will become the new Wizarding World of Harry Potter. But what else does this park need to become not just a must-see on a Southern California vacation (which it is already), but a go-to place for frequent repeat visits, by visitors and locals alike, the way the Disneyland theme parks now are?
Unlike every other major theme park in America, Universal Studios Hollywood wasn't the product of designers working on a empty lot, building a design created on a blank sheet of paper. The theme park evolved around Universal's long-standing production lot in the hills above Los Angeles. Constrained between production facilities and unforgiving mountain geography, Universal Studios Hollywood lacks the hub-and-spoke or central lagoon design that define so many other theme parks. It meanders across a mountain top, with a second level below, accessible via a series of massive escalators.
Universal's most recent major overhaul of its property led to CityWalk, which finally gave the property the table-service dining, extensive retail and "places to just hang out" that the old studio-tour-and-show-theaters theme park lacked. But while CityWalk was revolutionary in the 1990s, by now, everyone's copied CityWalk. Rick Caruso's Grove and Americana at Brand duplicate the CityWalk experience, while being closer to many LA-area residents and offering much less expensive parking. This time around, Universal needs to improve the "hanging out" experience inside the park, with uniquely themed dining and retail experiences that outdoor malls such as the Grove can't match.
So for me, I hope that Evolution includes at least one table-service restaurant inside the park, something Universal Studios Hollywood now conspicuously lacks. But the park needs better variety in menus throughout the park, inspired by new, neighboring themed attractions. Ultimately, I think that unique dining does more to lure repeat visits from locals than anything else a park can offer. Sure, I like riding the rides and seeing the shows. But even the best attractions grow a little stale after several dozen times through. Great food, though, is always great food, and while I can go a day without theme park entertainment, it's real hard to go a day without eating.
USH's lack of unique food gives me fewer reasons to visit the park, even though I have an annual pass and live just 15 minutes away. The high parking prices and lack of an evening parking benefit on APs usually steers me toward Americana at Brand when I want to see a movie, since I can park there for no more than a couple bucks and the drive distance is a little shorter.
Put a Wizarding World of Harry Potter in USH, however, and the game changes. Give me a Three Broomsticks and Butterbeer, and now I have something unique to draw me to Universal. Create more themed lands with unique shopping and dining, such as a Madagascar area, or an expanded Simpsons land with a Moe's Tavern or a Frying Dutchman, and I'll have even more reasons to visit. Add a day-long free parking benefit for annual passholders, and Universal might win back some of the dinner-and-a-movie crowd that's flocking to places like Americana, as well.
Since Universal ditched plans to add housing to its Evolution plan, local opposition has evaporated. Unless there's an economic meltdown, this plan is going to happen, in some form or another. But with the details still to be filled in, what are you wishing for as Universal fixes this theme park?
USH wasn't the only park built up over time. Busch Gardens Tampa started as a brewery and evolved into a theme park.
Wait, you would rather have Moe's Tavern or Frying Dutchman instead of Krusty Burger and Lard Lad? Hint, Krusty Burger has a Spiderpig. If these expansion ride rumors are true, then it doesn't really increase my chance of visiting. We have a WWOHP (soon two), Despicable Me, Transformers, and a possible Simpsons restaurant coming. If Universal wanted Florida guests to come to California, they need to offer something different. Sure, a Butterbeer is good and Despicable Me is fun to ride, but that would be a turnoff to Florida guests. Hopefully when this expansion is announced good news will come.
Sadly, I have not been to Universal Hollywood since 1981, so I really can't comment. The only advice I can offer is for Universal to stick with the two franchises driving attendance at the Universal parks right now: Harry Potter and Transformers (I would add Spider-Man, but SoCal Uni is not allowed to do anything with the Disney/Marvel license). Despite the fact that neither Potter nor Transformers is a Universal property (royalties will continue to be an issue), the crowds have shown a strong interest in both. Expand them as much as possible and rake in the cash now, but plan for a huge park-wide overhaul in ten years when the current excitement for both franchises has completely expended itself.
Never been there so I'm not sure but when I saw the Transformers building, it looked awefull. I hope the Fl one looks better on the outside. Theming is a big part of place making (aka to hang out in) and judging on this building it could use lots of love.
Well I was reading on twitter John murdy tweeted back to someone that Shrek's venue isn't goin away next year, but big changes are coming.
For the longest time I have been wondering the possibility to cram in a Harry Potter themed land into this already packed USH. It's a good news to me that they are trying to expanding their land. And if Universal can think as smart as Robert on the future plan of its theme park I would be more than happy to become its re-visitor family.
With productions continuing to move away from Los Angeles, just turn the entire "backlot" and stages into a themepark. You could have one very large Harry Potter area.
I was a long time Valley resident until 5 years ago. I usually had the USH annual pass, since they always had those specials, making it really affordable. Now you would think I would be there all the time as a passholder, with a short drive too. But I braved the more than an hour traffic filled drive to Disneyland more than USH. Firstly, the valley is HOT for a large portion of the year, much hotter than Orange County. On those hot days, walking around USH was torture, with little shade or cool areas to recuperate. Secondly, parking prices were ridiculous, as you said. Thirdly, and most importantly, I felt no "magic" at USH. Very little immersive theming to make you feel you are somewhere else. When there isn't that magic, you are just going from ride to show to ride, and if you are a passholder, then those rides and shows get old. But being in an immersively themed place, you can walk around and feel like you are really somewhere. Disneyland gives that feeling, but USH doesn't. They need to give some special Hollywood magic, that Hollywood theme needs to really be immersive with the Disney eye to detail. They could do old Hollywood glamour with the surroundings, restaurants, and shops. It will draw all those tourists who are looking for the Hollywood experience. Plus the theming will make it a special place for residents. And please put some cool areas for relief from that heat. And you're right, food is important. We always ate at Citywalk, never in the park. Citywalk just had better choices.
Are you kidding? What about CityWalk, which offers great full-service dining options for theme park guests and is easily accessible for park patrons? In fact, for the majority of the year Universal is closed by 6:00 pm, so evening in park dining is not an option and don't try to argue that a restaurant would allow them to expand park hours as that would be utter nonsense.
There's a lot riding on Harry Potter but I am yet to be convinced that it has true lasting appeal. J K Rowling's latest book is an adult affair and has both received a critical mauling and failed to sell as many as expected, (still not sold badly though). The kids who grew up on Harry Potter are all themselves now grown up so we can assume their love affair with the boy wizard will wane. My question is, how many new kids are reading Harry Potter for the first time? Is there a constant renewal of interest in the new generation that will keep the physical attractions at Universal popular into the foreseeable future?
Universal needs a complete remodel of the upper lot. There is a mish mash mess of themes everywhere. You have UK, Paris, terminator/sci fi, studio buildings, simpsons, shrek, and heck theres even flintstones in there too. Theres just way too many themes thrown in the mix together, Id say the upper lot could accomodate 4 solidly themed lands, 5 at the most a la harry potter. Harry potters going to bring in the crowds and the cash, and universal needs to use that momentum to fix the rest of the upper lot.
Let me put an end to this nonsense about the lasting appeal of Harry Potter.
I think that there is a question of long-term viability of the HP franchise. I think it is unfair to compare it to Star Wars, as the two franchises are remarkably different. Star Wars may consist of 'only' six films compared to the eight of HP, but there have been television shows, specials, literally hundreds of books, and a dizzying array of toys and games. In other words, it is a franchise in the truest sense. There is constant new content that keeps the franchise relevant. HP, on the other hand, is by a single author and consists of a much smaller and tightly focused franchise. I don't think we will be seeing TV shows set in the wizarding world, nor do I think that other authors will be invited to add to the established canon of the seven books. Because of this, I think that HP is far more prone to stagnation than SW. There will always be fans, but how long it will remain economically viable as a franchise remains to be seen.
^Totally agree with Randall. Unless Rowling opens up and expands the HP universe through new books, movies, comics, games, whatever, it will continue to die a slow death until it is just another faded memory. Which makes it perfect for Universal as they generally tend to (not always, but most of the time) switch out their attractions and concepts about once every ten years.
I don't think Harry Potter will stagnate. Do you think people will stop reading those books? Of course not. Those books are canon. People will keep reading them for years in the same way "Lord of the Rings" is read. New generations will read them and new fans are gained. The truth is the detractors have moved on. They are tired of it.
I am planning a trip to the East Coast parks next year for the first time, I have been a frequent visitor to Florida and Disney Paris so am looking forward to seeing what the older siblings have to offer. I am a big fan of USF not so hot on IOA. I am keen to see USH due to the unique feature its a working studios. ALthough I cannot comment on how to fix this park directly I do have some wider suggestions that could add value. The comments on Harry Potter are correct, it was a very good business decision for universals to go with this franchise, the HP land in IOA rivals for thememing anything in Disney, and this is my point, Universal Studios I think needs to indentify its brand and indentity. Apart from HP land IOA just feels like a thrill ride park, much like six flags etc.... USF feels like a theme park, the streets are well themed with that magic feel of the movies, yes some of the rides need changing or a serious revamp but heres the dilemma, franchises dont always last, those that do have soul and passion that will withstand the test of time. I've never read a HP book and only seen a few movies, but from what I can see from the film and the land it captures everyones imagination and emerses everyoe into that land, in so many ways thats why epcot works, it has a very romantic cliche look of that country but thats what most of us want to see, the best of Italy, Germany or Morrocco. USH and USF dont need always just jump on the latest trend or franchise but embrace the movies in general with rides and attractions that encapsulates the genres of Movies, wether SCI/FI or Horror, animation etc.... No one will remeber transformers same way Terminator ride is on its last legs, however if you look at the successful themes in parks like runnaway mine train, or expedition evererest, space mountain they have a more general theme that are timeless, I would love to see a SCIFI ride using model technology that takes you through the history of SCI FI from the days of Forbidden Planet to how we see SCI FI now, Universal needs to become a timeless park, like the movie brand. Use franchises where you have to but like HP stick with strong bran and do it really well. EVeryone one loves disaster movies, Monster movies, you dont need to use a particular film to make that work, just put all that modern technology to use on an orginal idea. Again to labour the point Universal needs to stop thinking its in competition with Disney, its not Universal has its own unique appeal. If they embrace that people will come, im happy to spend my hard earned money on going to both Disney and Universal. IOA attedndance has increased because of HP. If i'm honest I go into the park just for that and Jurrasic Park, and spend the rest of the time in USF. So to conclude I would like to see Universal Studios stop chasing franchises and create amazing rides and attractions based on bold new ideas that make us feel like we are in the movies. Otherwise I can see a time when the cost of using franchise rights will mean that parks cant sustain themselves. Look at Busch and Seaworld, they both created a unique experience. Universals should do the same.
@ Eric G
David, Universal Fan Boys get very sensitive when you say anything negative about the Warner Bros franchise that saved Islands of Adventure. You just have to grip, grin, and move along.
"But I still don't buy that Potter has the lasting appeal of Star Wars or Lord of the Rings."
Let's see how HP stacks up against SW
"STAR WARS is better than HP."
@ Anon Mouse
Why does Harry Potter need to have the lasting appeal of Star Wars? Why are you setting the bar so high?
Just look at the number of people in line for SW and HP. SW looses big time and there is no way it would merit expansion based upon demand. HP will be around a very long time. And I am a SW fan, only saw HP 3/8 movies. Universal has a winner that will be around for generations.
I'm not setting a bar at any height.
I read that there are rumors for a reboot of "The Mummy" movies. The original is very old, barely watchable, and the newest one was successful, but the later sequels wasn't so much. There is still much interest in Egyptian themes. Maybe "The Mummy" attraction at Universal will continue to remain based on how popular it is.
In terms of Potter, whether or not it will have the lasting debate of Star Wars, I don't think that's really a huge issue when it comes to the theme park experience.
I've had an annual pass to Universal Studios Hollywood for a little over a year. The price and the one mile location from my home made it easy to justify the purchase. Transformers has expanded the park to a point where it's easy to recommend a visit to friends and family. However, on an uncrowded day you can ride the major attractions in 3-4 hours, which makes the $65+ per ticket cost hard to justify. Most of the attractions don't contain reasons to ride them over and over again (Except for Transformers and the Studio Tram Tour).
I like all your ideas Brad. Make it so. And when they move Mummy to its new spot, they should expand it and make it more like the Orlando version - except even better!
Holy fanboys, Batman....
Yes, I agree that the quality of the attractions and the immersive themed areas are the most important aspects of continued success. I'm one of those people that really had little interest in the Harry Potter books or the movies. I've probably watched 45 minutes of the movies before I lost interest. But, I'm very impressed with the Wizarding World of Harry Potter at IOA and the new leaked Potter plans for the rest of the Universal Resort. The Harry Potter Hogwart's attraction queue and ride are amazing. And the Hogsmeade Village completely immerses you in a world of adventure. When something is done right, and Universal did do this about as well as anyone could expect, it will stand the test of time. Just as POC and Haunted Mansion have remained classics, the Wizarding World will also assume that status over time. The Wizarding World is my favorite themed area in any theme park. And as I said previously, this comes from someone who was not a fan of Potter books or movies. Harry Pottter, though probably smaller at Universal Hollywood, should help that park.
The silhouette of USH looks like the united states
I'm sorry - they charge AP holders to park? I'm rather sure that is not the case here in Orlando.
Don't be so narrow. This is an absurd argument about Harry Potter. The Potter movies, rides and lands came from extremely popular and enduring BOOKS, which children will be reading/listening to for generations to come.
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