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Universal Orlando construction update: It's a great time to be in the theme park design and construction business

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Published: August 26, 2013 at 2:42 PM

If you're looking for work in a sluggish economy, there's a business that can't hire and put people to work quickly enough:

Theme park construction.

Universal Orlando has asked many of its big contractors to plan to stay on-site for at least a year following the completion of their current projects for the resort. Universal's clearly planning to continue major construction work on its properties after the completion of the current Cabana Bay and Harry Potter Diagon Alley projects.

Aerial construction photo of Universal Studios Florida
There's lots of construction work under way in the Orlando theme parks, and more to come soon.

But what for? Here's what we know will happen: Universal will be taking on major construction work in Jurassic Park and at the Wet n' Wild water park property. I've not yet seen blueprints for either of those projects, so I'm not willing to report specifics of what will be happening on those sites. But I do know from sources on the ground in Orlando that Universal's focus will shift in those directions once Cabana Bay and Harry Potter are completed.

Honestly? Any area or attraction that was built before The Wizarding World of Harry Potter opened in June 2010, and that hasn't been substantially refurbished since, is a potential target for redevelopment over the next five to 10 years, either for a major Spider-Man or Springfield-like refurbishment, if not complete replacement. Banking so much cash from Harry Potter has convinced the NBCUniversal overlords to turn on the money hose for Universal's theme parks, and anything not up to "A"-grade quality (i.e. Disney-level finish standards) will be upgraded.

That's not just in Orlando. Remember, Universal Studios Hollywood has started its billion-dollar-plus "Evolution Plan" makeover of that property, with a new Central Plaza under construction, and Curious George and the Gibson Amphitheater closing over Labor Day to make room for Harry Potter. Throw in Despicable Me, a new hotel, at least two new attractions and a refurbished Studio Tour, and construction crews will remain busy on the mountain in Universal City for years to come.

Don't think the construction binge is simply a Universal development, either. Remember that Walt Disney World has Cars Land, Avatar and a Star Wars land all in various stages of development. Disney's Imagineers are slammed with work on Shanghai Disneyland, too.

I'm hearing that people at Disney would love to get going on expansion projects in Disneyland and California Adventure, building on the resort's momentum after the hit debut of Cars Land, but that the reawakening of Walt Disney World (following the reassignment of former Disneyland President George Kalogridis to oversee WDW) and the Shanghai work means that Disneyland doesn't have the parks division's development focus all to itself this time.

Another industry insider recently told me that theme park design firms simply can't staff fast enough for all the work in the business now, and with Imagineering and Universal Creative hiring so many top candidates, independent firms are having to get far more aggressive in recruiting than they have been in the past.

In short, if you're experienced in stagecraft, film production, architecture design, or construction management and want to get into the theme park business, now is the best time in a generation to do that. Join TEA. Get down to Orlando for the IAAPA Attractions Expo in November. And when you get your gig, don't forget who encouraged you. We love leaks at Theme Park Insider! ;^)

Even fans who don't care about the business of making theme park attractions can get excited about the industry's direction. More construction means more and better attractions in the years to come, in Orlando, in Southern California, and in Asia, not to mention at all the regional parks around the world that are hiring independent design firms to help them compete with Universal's and Disney's new developments.

It's not just a great time to be a theme park designer. It's a great time to be a theme park fan.

Update: Cedar Fair announces a three-year, $50 million capital improvement project for Carowinds, which will include new attractions.

Which new project are you most looking forward to visiting?

Readers' Opinions

From 205.188.117.19 on August 26, 2013 at 4:47 PM
Exciting stuff, and we'll be there next year for the Potter expansion and the full opening of the New Fantasyland.
From Cory R on August 26, 2013 at 7:16 PM
I am most excited for Pandora at Animal Kingdom. I think it won't matter whether or not you like the movie, and really you either love it or hate it, the land will just be amazing. Judging by Cars Land and New Fantasyland, Disney Imagineering really knows how to create a completely immersive themed land. Cars Land's level of detail is extraordinary, and I expect Avatar to be no different. The richness and uniqueness of Pandora in the film will translate very well into a theme park land. WDI has spent a long time already researching and planning the project, with more time to come. I know a lot of people complain how slow WDI is compared to Universal Creative lately, but slow and steady wins the race sometimes.

And working with James Cameron is a huge bonus, even though I'm sure he frustrates the Imagineers sometimes. I really want to be in the room during a blue sky meeting with Cameron and Joe Rhode. Cameron has a near obsessive need to get every detail right, no matter how long it takes. Its why Avatar took 10 years to make. Its why the sequels are coming out now many years later than anticipated (who really thought Avatar 2 would be ready by 2015 though?) He took so long to make Avatar because he didn't want to release it til it was right. And Pandora at DAK won't make its debut til Cameron and the Imagineers get it right. But it will be worth the wait.

From 98.227.60.180 on August 26, 2013 at 7:16 PM
I would like to write down a few wishes I have for Orlando and hope they come true. This is just from my heart, but I would be so happy if this happened. I would love to see:

* Universal re-do Jurassic Park completely...and add a Jeep ride like in the original movie; add that Amber Rollercoaster that was rumored forever ago; add a Mr. DNA Dark Ride like we saw in the movie too...and add a really great fine dining restaurant themed to look like the restaurant that was in the original movie (the spare no expense restaurant with the beautiful dinosaur stained glass). Really make it feel like you are in Jurassic Park...and simultaneously fix all the sight lines so that you cannot see other areas of the park from Jurassic Park and vice versa. I want Jurassic Park to be so epic and awesome that it forces Disney to completely gut and re-do its Dinoland USA (because it will look so bad in comparison).

* I'd like to see Universal get rid of the rest of the Lost Continent stuff and just make that whole area all Harry Potter stuff. That's where things like the Shrieking Shack could go...which I envision as a kind of Harry Potter Haunted Mansion. I think they could also build another ride that's like the Deathly Hallows story...where they go after the horcruxes and travel to different places. That could be a combination dark ride and coaster type ride.

* Maybe Malfoy Manor and the graveyard from Goblet of Fire could be built along with the shrieking shack...so that between Hogsmeade and London there could be this spooky area that would take up all of where Lost Continent was. And then this spooky area could become the official Orlando headquarters for Halloween every year. But I think a really epic spooky area would be fun all year round. It would be Disney's Haunted Mansion but on steroids.

* Get rid of everything that looks cheap, like the cement that's painted. And fix it so that you can't see one area's theme from another area...so it feels like you are completely immersed wherever you are.

That's the one criticism I have always had with Universal...in the past, they built everything on the cheap and just threw a lot of junk together and didn't care how it looked side by side. Disney did this too with DCA in the beginning. Paradise Pier is still one of the ugliest amusement parks I have ever seen. It's worse than DinolandUSA and I thought that place was horrible.

* Pay the money and buy the rights to DC comics characters like Superman and Batman and Wonder Woman and all of them. Pull the trigger and re-do Super Hero Island at IOA to DC characters, with the Spiderman ride becoming a Batman ride. Make the whole thing Gotham City and spare no expense with it.

I think if they did the above (and more!) they could get at least one of the Universal parks to have higher attendance than Animal Kingdom and DHS. And if they really went to town with the spare no expense motto...they could even maybe eclipse EPCOT. If they did that, then Disney would be forced to pump huge sums into its own parks...and it would be the greatest thing ever, this competition.

This is like my Christmas wish list as a kid. I'm just so excited that Universal is seriously building beautiful things and not going cheap anymore.

From Phil B. on August 26, 2013 at 7:35 PM
Well said Cory, I agree with you 100%

Also, has Carsland East actually been confirmed to be happening beyond the shadow of a doubt by any reputable inside source thus far that can be cited?

From Anon Mouse on August 26, 2013 at 7:40 PM
Avatar will have 3 sequels filmed consecutively like Lord of the Rings. The sequels will be released every year after the first sequel. It will be interesting. I am certainly hope the New Avatarland is opened in time for the first sequel. Otherwise, it will be a missed marketing opportunity.
From O T on August 26, 2013 at 8:40 PM
I would love to hear what and when Disney is going to start making some new E ticket rides. They are repairing the asphalt at the studio's fake streets so development won't start there anytime soon. And building the new theatre at AK is going at a snail pace and I don't think they start building the genital haired smurfs land until they can transplant the Lion King show otherwise there would be even less to do in the park. Then it will take Disney 3 to 4 years to complete the stuff in AK and DHS. Still nothing mayor is announced for the ageing Epcot. So maybe in 6 or 7 years all parks will have something worthwhile to visit it. Hell, maybe they have repaired the tree and the Yeti while they are at it. Until then I'm at Universal resort Orlando.
From 137.191.228.131 on August 27, 2013 at 4:44 AM
I thought Cars Land was all but shelved, Avatarland's announcement was nearly two years ago and still there's no real progress, the latest rumours suggest Star Wars Land been value engineered to death. New Fantasyland is absolutely gorgeous (if you can ignore the construction in the middle) but the Little Mermaid is B team stuff - horrible narrative and awful sight lines throughout. I see no sign that Disney have woken up to the competition down the road and I find it extremely frustrating and don't see them changing given their miserly approach to CAPEX and general park upkeep.
From Dominick D on August 27, 2013 at 5:05 AM
Exciting times ahead!

Phil B, according to several other insiders Carsland was scrapped and it originally was going to be a D Ticket dark ride instead of RSR

From TH Creative on August 27, 2013 at 6:46 AM
Nice photo. ;o)
From 173.170.103.20 on August 27, 2013 at 7:38 AM
Regarding Cedar Fair's announcement to invest $50 million in Carowinds, their Charlotte, N.C.-based amusement park: This really isn't very impressive. The news report said this money will be spent over several years and include infrastructure improvements. This means that it's not all going into new rides. Until they spill the beans and give any specifics, it's hard to know exactly what's on their drawing board. But the likelihood that the park gets at least one killer coaster or other ride from this money, I think, is pretty small. I'm sure they'll be getting something new. But worth getting excited about? Meh.

- Brian

From TROY DAVIDSON on August 27, 2013 at 8:15 AM
I am most excited at what Universal is doing. Disney is always telling everyone something is coming and it never does! Once Men in Black has run it's course I think Universal Orlando should turn the Men in Black building into a creepy old mansion. Maybe put in a Resident Evil dark ride. This could be the Uni version of the Haunted Mansion. (based on the games not the movies) I really want to see what Universal can do to make their own Haunted Mansion. Toon Lagoon needs a total make over. The water rides are not utilized in the winter and having two in one area is wasted space. Mount Crumpit as well!
From Paul Moreau on August 27, 2013 at 9:38 AM
This is my first post on the website, but I've been following this website for a while and I've enjoyed pretty much everything that has been posted on it so far.

Resident Evil ride similar to that of Disney's Haunted Mansion? I like that idea and can see how it would work. It would have to be absolutely terrifying. The building itself is very Resident Evil-like as it would resemble the Umbrella corp and that they would be doing some scary experiments in there. Something goes awry in there and we have to go in to obtain a specific vial containing a deadly virus strain and get the heck out of there without getting bitten. Hee.

I also like the idea of the Shrieking Shack being built as a haunted ride though. I think both ideas would work even if they both exist. One would have to exist at the Islands of Adventure and the other being at Universal Studios.

I do wonder how the Hogwarts Express would work though considering the fact that they are involving two separate parks. I don't believe this is even an option at the Disney parks, you can use the Epcot, Bus, etc but they are all only accessible from outside of the parks while the Hogwarts Express is accessible from the inside of both parks. Would just anyone be able to get on it or would you need a park-hopper ticket to get onto it? Or will they just lump both of the parks together and charge one admission?

Just a few thoughts.

From O T on August 27, 2013 at 10:11 AM
@ Paul A ticket booth to upgrade 1 day tickets to a hopper pass is included at the train stations. If Uni is going that way is still not officially announced but I'm sure they'll want to cash in on it. I'm also wondering how the ride is going to be. According to Uni it's going to be a full blown e ticket ride so I can't wait to ride it.
Also never thought the ride vehicles would look as good as this. I thought you would enter the platform with a false fa├žade of the train standing there and when you would enter you would sit in something different but they are going all the way. Very excited.
From 98.227.60.180 on August 27, 2013 at 11:45 AM
Robert -- can you do an article updating us on Cars Land at DHS and if it really is canceled? There's so much confusion right now.

For instance, Kevin Yee just put out a column today where he says that Cars Land is postponed not canceled...and he said something about there being too much water in the area for Cars Land so they can't do it. They were going to do just a dark ride but now they are going to save that for the future and spend all the money on Star Wars.

Other sites are saying that Cars Land is still happening, but it won't have Radiator Springs Racers because of EPCOT Test Track.

I think an article from Robert addressing all the Cars Land info would be golden right now. Please write it Robert!

From Robert Niles on August 27, 2013 at 12:08 PM
From what I've heard, Kevin's info is closest to correct. (And by the way, nice headline there, Kevin!)

Disney's found that they'll have to do more modifications than they'd first thought to make Cars Land fit into the DHS site. And, as I wrote above, with such a crunch to staff up to support all the projects going on now, Cars Land blueprints are getting shuffled aside as Avatar and Star Wars design heats up.

Is the project dead? Not even close to it. But a lot of projects are pushing for time, money and attention right now. Who gets that first is a *huge* question at the moment.

From Cory R on August 27, 2013 at 1:41 PM
The news about Cars Land East makes sense. WDI had the Avatar and Star Wars areas at D23, so clearly those are the two projects they're focusing on. And as long as they are done right, they will be enough. It will be nice to see Disneyland Resort be unique with Cars Land, and WDW be unique with New Fantasyland, Avatarland, and Star Wars Land. Plus it makes more sense to really push Avatar and Star Wars, since there will be 3 sequels for each coming out in the second half of the decade. Those films will be dominating pop culture from 2015-2020 and beyond, while it will have been seven years since the most recent Cars movie by 2018 (and seven years since the most recent HP film too btw).

I hope we do see Cars Land at DHS someday though. I heard they scrapped the plan for a full Cars Land. There would just be one ride, Radiator Springs Racers, or a new E-Ticket dark ride, which would take over the LMA/Backlot Tour area. The Streets of America area would become Monstropolis, which would include the long-rumored Monster Inc. door coaster. Hopefully this still happens, maybe even sooner than Cars Land. I do think Radiator Springs Racers could work at DHS, even with Test Track at Epcot. No one seemed to have a problem with Universal building Transformers at the Studios when IOA had Spiderman, and Transformers and Spiderman are much more similar than Radiator Springs Racers and Test Track are. The Seven Dwarves Mine Train coaster doesn't seem all that different from BTM.

From N B on August 27, 2013 at 2:03 PM
Another great article, Robert... The upcoming billion dollar battles of the two major theme parks will be interesting to watch. Universal obviously has the edge right now, as attendance is way up from a few years ago, but Disney doesn't have to do much to get people to visit.

If you think about it, the Disney parks are at capacity quite a bit. What is the incentive to build these new lavishly themed lands? I realize that park capacity can be raised when you open more space, but will the additional visitors pay for the new additions like Potter did for USF?

As I look at the numbers, I realized USF has a lot bigger buffer than Disney when it comes to how many more people they could squeeze into that parks on a given day, so the expansion works.

It would be like having the most popular nightclub in town that is packed to capacity every night, then adding something to bring in more visitors... at least that's the way I see the Disney expansion.


From TH Creative on August 28, 2013 at 3:47 AM
After Potter 2 opens in 2014 ... What else does Universal have planned for its parks? I've heard only rumors about further expansion but certainly nothing solid.
From Rob Pastor on August 28, 2013 at 6:41 AM
Permit applied for construction trailer in Jurassic Park for an 18 month period for the same company that did some of the original JP work. That's not necessarily a Universal declaration of JP expansion but it sure indicates construction will probably be occurring there. If I was a betting man, I would say there will be a new attraction(s) etc. in JP for 2015. OU has been speculating on that for the last 6 months. Once again, no solid declaration from Universal, but that's not generally their style. They haven't been releasing info until after construction starts on their recent projects.
From Cory R on August 28, 2013 at 6:59 AM
I agree that a new E-Ticket ride for Jurassic Park should and will be Universal's next project after WWoHP 2. Another ride has long been rumored for the island, and with Jurassic Park IV finally hitting theatres in 2014, the time has never been more perfect. I have a friend who is very high up the ladder at Universal Orlando who told me the next project is going to be huge (of course, that is all she could say). And the construction area going up behind JP is certainly promising.

My only hope is that they do the new ride with Animatronics, not screens. All of Universal's new rides the last few years have been either entirely or mostly screen based. The last really good Animatronic Universal created was Imhotep for Revenge of the Mummy, and that was 9 years ago. It was an amazing figure then, but its starting to age a bit. That is why I still prefer Disney's product to Universal's. Seeing something on a screen like in Transformers or Harry Potter, is for me too similar to the actual movie itself. I really like when the movie is brought to life. I am a sucker for great AA's. The Cars Animatronics in Radiator Springs Racers are amazing. The Ursala figure for the Little Mermaid ride is very impressive. I look forward to seeing the Dwarfs for the Mine Train. Of course, Disco Yeti really needs to be fixed, because that was the greatest AA of all time. Your promised us Joe Rhode! Anyway, I really hope Universal creates some amazing new dinosaur Animatronics for the new ride. The size of the River Adventure AAs always impresses me, and now if they can combine that with much more advanced Animatronic technology, they can create something to rival Disney on the robotics front.

From N B on August 28, 2013 at 12:37 PM
I don't mind screens at all, as long as it is coupled with something like KUKA or the Transformers type ride system and real props.
From Ted Heumann on August 28, 2013 at 4:53 PM
Universal is spending so much money because I was able to take a peek at NBC/Universal's financials while they were operating as an LLC while Comcast and GE owned them jointly.
NBC/Universal divisions and profit margins

film division - 0.6%
broadcast (NBC, Telemundo, etc) - 2%
Cable (SyFy, UHD, USA, etc) - 40%
Theme Parks - 44%

Looking at the above, what would you invest in?

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