What will be the next big construction project at Universal Orlando's theme parks?
Published: September 4, 2013 at 1:30 PM
What's next to go under construction at the Universal Orlando resort?
While it's always helpful to keep an eye on permits and other public records to discover a theme park's plans, it's also helpful to consider the context of what's already there. Let's start with two assumptions:
1) Any land or attraction at the Universal Orlando Resort that's not up to the theming and finish standards established in The Wizarding World of Harry Potter will be upgraded or replaced to meet those standards.
2) Universal won't throw good money after bad.
Since Harry Potter opened in Islands of Adventure, Universal has upgraded The Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man to a 4K projection system, opened Despicable Me, built Transformers on the site of the empty old Xena soundstage and refurbished the area around the old International Film Festival food court into Springfield USA. Harry Potter has reinforced the lesson — for Universal and the entire theme park industry — that spending money on high-quality attractions and environment makes you more money in return. Since Potter's finally given Universal the adequate cash flow to walk that talk, it will.
So what's next? It's easiest for Universal to upgrade locations themed to franchises that it owns (or holds a long-term license to use) and that are likely to continue to appeal to visitors for a generation or more. The Simpsons fit that model. So did Spider-Man. Obviously, some of the properties in the Universal Orlando theme parks don't fit that model. Those lands and attractions will be replaced, rather than refurbished. However, Universal won't move on that construction until it's lined up an appropriate replacement franchise.
Ultimately, audience appeal is key. Universal closed Jaws, one of its iconic franchises — and one that it owned, not licensed — to clear space for Harry Potter in Universal Studios Florida. So nostalgia alone won't keep any existing lands or attractions safe. Universal must see an enduring appeal among its visitors and potential visitors.
With those thoughts in mind, where's Universal Orlando next most likely to take on new construction projects?
Likely to get improvements
Hollywood Rip, Ride, Rockit: Universal Studios Florida's rough and unreliable roller coaster already's gotten the first of its new trains. If the new trains help improve the coaster's ride and reliability, expect to see it stick around, with cosmetic changes to improve the queue. If the new trains don't help, however, this ride moves onto the "likely to be replaced" list.
Terminator 2: 3D: Yes, Universal closed this attraction in California to make way for Despicable Me. But Universal Studios Hollywood has much less space available for expansion than the Orlando parks, and Terminator star Arnold Schwarzenegger is a toxic product in California, thanks to his miserable turn as the state's governor. (He left office as the most unpopular governor in state history.) Universal's already filed permits for upgrades in this theater. Add a modern, 4K-3D projection system (pretty please?), and T2 could be good to go in Florida for another generation.
Wet n' Wild: Universal didn't just buy the land under this park to own an unthemed water park with limited tourist appeal. Expect to see substantial changes on this property in the years to come. One could argue that this property should be on the "likely to be replaced" list, but since we've heard no credible information that Universal will replace Wet n' Wild with something other than an improved water park, this goes on the improvement list for now, even though a new name for the property might be considered one of those improvements.
Jurassic Park: This is the one franchise in Islands of Adventure that Universal owns outright. Plus, Jurassic Park's dinosaurs offer enduring popularity, so it's the obvious choice for immediate expansion within IoA.
From here, we move down the priority list a bit.
Seuss Landing: Licensed from Random House, Seuss Landing was the best-themed land in Islands of Adventure before Potter, but its bright colors make it a hog for fresh paint. Expect to see more aggressive maintenance in this land in the years to come, if not an expansion into the remaining Lost Continent area, if Universal decides to promote additional Seuss-themed movies.
Revenge of the Mummy: Still a fan favorite, Mummy might benefit from some on-ride effects upgrades, but beyond that, Universal could get more return on its investment with upgrades elsewhere.
Men in Black: Licensed from Columbia, Men in Black remains a popular franchise and shooter rides are great for encouraging repeat visits. This and the next entry on the list could be candidates for the replacement list if Universal lands a hot property that fits best in their buildings. Otherwise, they're both solid attractions that deserve a little additional maintenance love now and then.
Universal Horror Make-up Show: This is the last remaining "how movies are made"-type attraction in Orlando (or will be, once Disaster! goes away — see below), and continues to win positive reviews from fans.
Likely to be replaced
Toon Lagoon: Enjoy this land now, because the only thing keeping it open is the fact that Universal hasn't secured the rights to a replacement yet. Universal licenses all the characters in this section, including Popeye from King Features Syndicate, Dudley Do-Right from Jay Ward Productions (now owned by DreamWorks Animation) and a bunch of other newspaper comic characters from various syndicates. The ongoing decline of the newspaper industry (and its comics) severely limits the appeal of much of the IP in this area. That makes this the land most likely to be completely replaced at Islands of Adventure. (*cough* Lord of the Rings *cough*)
Woody Woodpecker's Kidzone: Today's teen-agers might hide fond memories of watching Barney when they were kids. Today's 20-somethings enjoyed Fievel back in the day, as GenX-ers did ET. The baby boomers read Curious George, and a generation before that loved Woody Woodpecker shorts in the movie theaters. Notice anyone missing, though? How about today's children? It's too bad Universal didn't use Gru and the Minions to replace ET, then redevelop the surrounding area into Super Silly Fun Land. That would have been cool. Universal floated the idea of a Smurfs attraction replacement in this area, but that sequel's poor reception at the box office likely doomed that idea. As soon as Universal can settle on an alternate replacement plan, this land is toast.
Disaster!: The Christopher Walken overlay at least scrubbed the references to the old Charlton Heston Earthquake movie no one under age 50 remembers. But it's still not hitting with fans. If Universal wanted to build a new animatronic Kong attraction, this might be the most appropriate site.
Fear Factor Live: Licensed from Endemol, no one in America cares about this franchise anymore. NBC's cancelled it on TV and the only question in play here is… does Universal slot a new live show into this theater, or tear it down to build an entirely new attraction? If Universal chooses the new show option, that could come within the next year or two.
Twister: The Helen Hunt movie's worth watching if you come across it on TV on a lazy Saturday afternoon. But that's not enough appeal to justify a position in a theme park that has aspirations for becoming the one of the world's best.
Shrek: Universal's already dropped its license for all the other DreamWorks animation characters. Shrek's expected to follow them out the door when its license deal is up in a few years.
Lost Continent: The remains of what didn't get reskinned as Hogsmeade linger, but the IP is in the public domain, so there's no hurry to dump what can be an impressive Poseidon show (when it's properly maintained) as well as the fan-favorite Mythos Restaurant. The Sindbad show's proximity to the expanding Wizarding World of Harry Potter makes it an obvious target for assimilation, but the rest of the land likely will hang on until Universal decides to expand Seuss. Or until Universal Studios puts a Poseidon movie into production.
Beetlejuice: Like the bulk of Lost Continent, the Beetlejuice show could go either way — refurbished or replaced. Given that this is a license, though, that seems to tip it toward the long-term replacement list.
Likely to remain the hostage in a Universal/Disney IP turf war
Marvel Super Hero Island: We've written about this before, but the TL/DR is that Universal licenses the rights to these characters from Disney in perpetuity and Universal ain't selling them back without getting a fleet of truckloads of cash in exchange. Universal would love to expand this area to capitalize further on the wildly popular Avengers, but Universal's limited to what it's already built unless Disney gives its blessing for expansion, which it won't. That puts this land in eternal limbo. Universal recently upgraded the Spider-Man ride. Look for continued cosmetic and functional upgrades in this section whenever Universal feels like giving Disney's management another case of indigestion.
That's where things stand now at the Universal Orlando Resort. So let's talk to management: What would you like to see Universal do next to improve its Orlando properties?