Why Build a Water Park at a Theme Park Resort?

February 18, 2015, 10:16 PM · Universal Orlando Resort has begun work on a new water park, codenamed "Project 533," to go on a 33-acre site south of the Cabana Bay Beach Resort. Last August, Universal trademarked the name "Wondersea Island" for a water park development, and the plans for the new park include "slides and pools plus various recreational facilities. A tall 'volcano' with slides will be constructed in the southern portion of the site," according to documents filed last Friday with the South Florida Water Management District.

New Universal Orlando water park location

Universal owns the Wet 'n Wild water park located across Interstate 4 from the main resort property. But the new park would be located adjacent to the Cabana Bay and upcoming Sapphire Falls resort, in a much more convenient location for on-site Universal Orlando hotel visitors.

Why build a water park on what might be the last major remaining undeveloped parcel on the main Universal Orlando property? Universal's competitors — Walt Disney World and SeaWorld Orlando — operate on-site water parks that drew more visitors than Universal's Wet 'n Wild in 2013, the latest year for which data is available from the TEA/AECOM attendance report.

And yet... those water park aren't attracting anywhere near as many visitors as their theme park siblings. Here are the attendance numbers for the five most popular water parks in the United States, from the TEA/AECOM report:

  1. Typhoon Lagoon: 2.14 million
  2. Blizzard Beach: 1.97 million
  3. Aquatica: 1.55 million
  4. Wet 'n Wild: 1.26 million
  5. Schlitterbahn: 1.03 million

Compare that with the lowest theme park attendance at the top four water parks' resorts:

The top water parks in America each draw between 18-30% the annual attendance of their resort's weakest theme park. The most popular water park in America, Typhoon Lagoon, wouldn't place among the top 20 theme parks in the country for annual attendance, trailing number-20 Busch Gardens Williamsburg by more than 500,000 visitors a year, according to TEA/AECOM. (If you're looking for a reason why we do not devote much attention to covering water parks here on Theme Park Insider, well, there ya go.)

Typhoon Lagoon
Walt Disney World's Typhoon Lagoon

So why do so many theme parks build water parks? Why not build more theme parks, instead?

In a word: cost.

Perhaps no park in America has developed better water park attractions than Holiday World and Splashin' Safari in Santa Claus, Indiana, which in recent years has debuted two of the longest water coasters in the world. At the same time, the park also has installed world-class roller coasters, including a new Bolliger & Mabillard launched wing coaster, Thunderbird, which will debut this spring. That puts President/CEO Matt Eckert in a perfect position to judge the relative cost of developing high-quality water park and theme park attractions.

"When you look at cost to build, cost of maintenance, and throughput, a major ride for Splashin' Safari will cost less than a major ride for Holiday World," Eckert said.

Holiday World and Splashin' Safari
Holiday World and Splashin' Safari

So why not double down on water parks, and skip those expensive theme park attractions?

Because, let's face it — people are far more likely to book airplane flights and pile the kids into the car for a long roadtrip to ride a record-setting roller coaster or visit a beloved character such as Harry Potter than they are to visit even the best water park. But a water park next to a theme park can help entice a family to extend its visit an extra day more cost-effectively than building enough additional theme park attractions to do the same thing. (And, in the case of regional theme parks, water parks can help convince more locals to go ahead and buy that annual pass than the theme park alone would.)

Which brings us back to Universal Orlando. With new additions such as Transformers, Diagon Alley and the upcoming (though still-unannounced) King Kong ride, Universal Orlando offers a solid two-day experience for visitors, and enough to tempt many fans to consider staying a third day (or longer). How can Universal convince more of its visitors to extend their stays, for the most cost-effective way possible?

Wet n' Wild is drawing more than a million visitors a year, but insiders suggest that many of them are locals, who've been coming to the park since before it was owned by Universal. Located across the Interstate from the main property, Wet n' Wild isn't up to Universal's theming standards and isn't convenient enough to tempt on-site visitors the way that a new, more conveniently located, Universal Creative-designed, world-class water park would. A 33-acre plot, on-site but separated from the resort's two theme parks, is too small to develop as a third theme park gate. But it's a good size for a water park, which Universal Creative can develop for far less expense than it would need to build a half-day's worth (or more) of theme park attractions elsewhere on property.

So what of Wet n' Wild? We've heard that Universal has been letting go some of its water park managers in recent months, and Universal is spitballing plans for redeveloping the site. Wondersea Island (assuming that will be the name for the new park) allows Universal Orlando to retain a water park attraction while potentially swapping Wet n' Wild's local visitors for freer-spending out-of-town hotel guests who would extend their stays to enjoy the new, better water park.

Don't get too carried away as details about Universal Orlando's new water park emerge over the next year. In a best-case scenario, the new water park will draw more visitors than Wet n' Wild, but it won't come close to drawing even a third of the visits that one of Universal Orlando's theme parks will. It won't drive attendance to the resort the way that Transformers has, or Kong will. (Nothing, by the way, drives traffic like Harry Potter, so let's not even bring that into the conversation.) But a well-designed, conveniently located water park might help Universal Orlando Resort entice more of the people who come to visit its theme parks to stay — and spend — just a little bit longer.

And that is why theme parks build water parks.

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Replies (31)

February 18, 2015 at 10:54 PM · Good write-up. Seeing the map of the Universal property, I'm fine with a water park. I've enjoyed a few hot Summer days at Typhoon Lagoon and Blizzard Beach (I prefer Typhoon Lagoon), and would love to see what Universal Creative can do with water.

Normally I wouldn't be too happy with this development, but with the location of this plot of land being removed from the two main parks, it would not work as a third gate. However, it is extremely convenient for on-site hotel guests to access, kind of like a backyard water park.

Additionally, yet another hotel would not really work in that spot, either. Universal is a nice, cozy, well-thought out warm blanket, a lot like DLR. WDW on the other hand, feels like a haphazard hodgepodge of stuff strewn about with no thought to efficiency or planning.

Also, 33 acres is quite small. It could perhaps be a stand-alone Lord of the Rings park, but it's quite a trek for guests to go just for that. And how would they price their admission for a park so small, being clearly a step behind the other two?

I still long for a third gate at Universal, if for no other reason than to see how it affects Disney. But this is not a parcel of land that can be used for that purpose, and with everything taken into account, a water park may in fact be the best option. As mentioned, it could make the difference between a family staying 2 full days, or 3 full days. One more night at a Loew's hotel. One more dinner at CityWalk.

Smart move.

February 19, 2015 at 1:32 AM · Love the WDW water parks. Sure the attendance is far behind theme parks, but they close for much of the winter. The water parks are part of the package deal at a theme park resort, they are not meant to be the attendance leader.
February 19, 2015 at 3:11 AM · Sounds great, my family and I will certainly check it out. How soon until Universal tunnels under I-4 to continue it's expansion?
February 19, 2015 at 4:24 AM · I really dig when TPI gets deep into the financial side of things. One thing to consider when thinking about water park attendance/profitability is down time. WDW and UNI theme parks operate year round, whereas their respective water parks are closed at least a good five months out of the year. I'm not suggesting that down time accounts for the attendance gap, but it DOES help make them a more attractive earning proposition. Year-round resorts can have parks that they staff and operate only at the most profitable time of the year while still retaining year-round status.
Speaking of a legit third gate at Universal... how big is the plot of land that Wet 'n Wild is sitting on? Put a deck on top of their existing parking lot and maybe that would be enough acreage for a full park?
Also, wouldn't 33 acres be enough for a pretty significant indoor theme park? Or are Americans completely over that concept?
February 19, 2015 at 4:58 AM · This also gives them highway frontage on I-4. The waterslides could be extremely visible to drivers. Don't underestimate the potential of that, especially with little kids. Water parks just LOOK fun. As an Orlando resident, every time we drive past that CoCo Key hotel, my kids excitedly ask to go. A water park visible from the highway may draw more locals than we think.
February 19, 2015 at 5:11 AM · Preliminary plans, not the water plan ones, indicate that a good number of the slides will be within the volcano itself, which could allow for use during cold & inclement weather also. This will be a fairly large park since nearly the entire acreage will be used for the park. Rumor has it that some of the rides will be heavily themed and a few steps above anything existing at the other Orlando area parks, so it will be more of a water theme park. Preliminary plans show 16 attractions, some of them with multiple slides. There will be no parking area. Transportation will be buses from the Universal garage or walking from the nearby hotels. Once Sapphire Falls is finished there will be 3700 hotel rooms within a 5 to 15 minute walking distance of the water park (also by shuttle from those parks). An additional 1600 rooms at Portofino & Hardrock will be accessible by shuttle. So this will, as stated, be primarily to keep guests on property to stay longer. Locals will still be able to go by parking at the main garage, but they'll probably be primarily AP holders. Whereas, Wet & Wild attracts a lot of guests they'd probably rather not have, it'll probably be closed & the land used for a large hotel resort. It's going to be a big plus for Universal's onsite guests who tend to spend more money than guests who attend local water parks like Wet & Wild.
February 19, 2015 at 5:19 AM · This proposed water park you mentioned would be 33 acres, does anyone have any statistics on the size of wet n wild or better yet any or all of the other water parks mentioned?
February 19, 2015 at 7:15 AM · What an excellent idea! I have been to Universal many times in the dead of summer, and a day at a water park that I would take anyway at one of the Orlando options would be right next to my hotel instead of down the road. Also, the great thing about water parks is that many attractions can be enjoyed without having to wait in any kind of line, leading to great filler time throughout the day if slide lines get long. I think this will be an absolute slam dunk for Universal, especially if this goal is to increase guest stay.
February 19, 2015 at 7:19 AM · How many acres is Typhoon Lagoon?
February 19, 2015 at 8:28 AM · Univeral Studios Florida is behind 3 million in attendance compared with Disney's Hollywood Studios. I can only imagine the difference will expand when Star Wars is added.

I do think it is brilliant for Universal to add a new water park. Competition can only help. The reason to stay at Universal has increased, but it seems like from Disney's example that Disney isn't doing enough to bleed off its theme park attendance. Most people are enjoying the four parks and the resort pool, which have some great amenities with some enticing slides, that they do not feel like making a separate trip to the water parks. Perhaps Universal needs an accumulation of attractions before customers will no longer need a side trip to Disney or SeaWorld.

Universal still needs a third gate. I recommend they enter into some licensing deals with the top 3 movie studios. Disney is ranked 4 and Universal is ranked 5th top studios. Universal is just not releasing enough franchises to create theme park attractions, while Disney has released many franchises despite its 4th ranking.

February 19, 2015 at 8:57 AM · Keep in mind that those attendance figures are for 2013, i.e. before Diagon Alley.
February 19, 2015 at 9:48 AM · Well...rats! There goes my back way home down Wallace Road instead of fighting Sand Lake Road traffic.

Seriously though, as a local, having to park in the parking garage, pay $17 for the privilege and then schlep over to the new water park makes it a lot less likely that I will go there. I prefer to be able to park right at the park and not pay for it so I will just have to continue going to Typhoon Lagoon and Blizzard Beach.

February 19, 2015 at 10:32 AM · "Universal still needs a third gate. I recommend they enter into some licensing deals with the top 3 movie studios. Disney is ranked 4 and Universal is ranked 5th top studios. Universal is just not releasing enough franchises to create theme park attractions, while Disney has released many franchises despite its 4th ranking."

They already have tapped other studios...What do you think the Harry Potter (a WB property), or Transformers (Paramount) were? Also, there are ebs and flows in which studios are on top from year to year based on what is released in a given year. In 2013, WB was #1, Disney was #2, and Universal was #3 (Fox was 4th and Sony 5th). Also, the fracturing of studios into divisions makes it difficult to parse the studios from each other, particularly if their smaller divisions produce a huge hit (like Universal-distributed Fifty Shades of Grey) or have Oscar contenders (like Universal's Les Miserable in 2012).

Universal has plenty of their own franchises to build on, especially in the coming year with Jurassic World, Furious 7, Ted 2, and Minions. Now it's pretty clear that Disney is going to rule to 2015 box office with three HUGE tentpole films (Star Wars, Avengers: Age of Ultron, and Tomorrowland, assuming it doesn't bomb with its bad release spot 2 weeks after Avengers) and other upward trending releases like Antman, Cinderella, and The Good Dinosaur. Disney is also positioning itself to have a strong run (bringing Spiderman into the Marvel fold) in years to come, but Universal has a good foothold, and could tap other studios for material where needed.

Also, don't forget television synergy, which Universal is really starting to push with its NBC and Comcast relationships (the last 2 episodes of The Apprentice were essentially hour-long commercials for Universal Orlando), just as Disney has done with ESPN and ABC.

February 19, 2015 at 10:46 AM · "What do you think the Harry Potter (a WB property), or Transformers (Paramount) were?"


"Universal has plenty of their own franchises to build on"

No more exceptions? Their own franchises don't suggest ideas for the third gate. They seem to add-on to their existing theme parks as they are already in development with only Ted2 not yet arrived (unbelievable that you think the R-rated Ted2 should be a theme park attraction). They will definitely need more material for a third gate and you demonstrated it by not citing any property that can fill the bill.

As for studio rankings. Disney #4 and Universal #5 for years 2010 and 2011. Disney and Universal both done better recently.

February 19, 2015 at 11:08 AM · Here are the acreages that I could find for some of the other Orlando water parks:

Typhoon Lagoon: 56 acres
Aquatica: 59 acres
Wet n' Wild: 30 acres

The new park wouldn't take the entire 33-acre site (some will be retained for drainage, access, etc.), so we're looking at something about the same size as Wet n' Wild.

February 19, 2015 at 11:17 AM · Okay... That's still a decent size to have fun into the afternoon hours and ten head to a theme park by 4 o clock or so... I'm game!!! Let's do this thing. I stayed at Cabanna Bay this past January and fell in love with it. I think this addition will just make the resort much more well rounded overall.
February 19, 2015 at 2:21 PM · Yes but from what I gather, those acreage estimates you have for Typhoon Lagoon and Aquatica include their parking lots. Remove those from the equation and the actual attraction areas in both parks are also in the thirty acre range.

Universal will build a third gate in the next ten years. It is only a matter of where. Do they attempt to find a way to connect the main resort to the Wet'n'Wild area or do they buy up the property around Major Blvd by the main entrance.

As far as IPs, that's a minor problem. There is already lots of talk percolating that Universal is trying to acquire theme park rights to Lord of the Rings or Star Trek or both. Those two IPs could easily headline the third gate.

February 19, 2015 at 11:54 AM · "hey will definitely need more material for a third gate and you demonstrated it by not citing any property that can fill the bill."

I think they already have their 3rd gate, and it's WWoHP. With the rumored addition of Ministry of Magic, it would be logical for Universal to partition the Harry Potter areas into their own park (many people think it's a separate theme park anyway), and I wouldn't be surprised if that's eventually the direction they take. As it stands right now, the two HP lands can be operated outside of USF park hours as they demonstrated during last year's HHN.

"unbelievable that you think the R-rated Ted2 should be a theme park attraction"

I didn't say that, I was merely pointing out the "franchise" films Universal has slated to arrive in 2015. R-rated movies and theme park attractions are not exclusive categories, though I would agree turning Ted into an attraction would be tricky (probably would be best suited to an effects or comedy show).


How are two of the most popular franchises in the Universal parks exceptions? Those two represent the two most recent additions to USF, and you call them exceptions? Can they buy more, sure, but why dilute what they already have when it's working so well for them. They're adding the Kong attraction to IOA, and are rumored to build MoM in USF, which I believe will be the eventual tipping point in turning WWoHP into its own gate.

As Robert noted, the new waterpark represents some of the last available space in the Universal parcel north of I-4, so they're done expanding their footprint for the time being unless Wet and Wild and the newly purchased adjacent parcel are combined into a third gate south of I-4, which would probably be at least 5-8 years out at this point even at current Universal development speed (probably 20 years at Disney speed).

February 19, 2015 at 12:09 PM · Robert: But Typhoon Lagoon, Blizzard Beach, Wet & Wild & Aquatica include their parking lots & associated areas. The New Universal park will not have nearly half their area consumed by parking lots so it will be at least twice as large as the Wet & Wild park, and at least the size of Typhoon Lagoon's actual park area. The drainage & access areas are fairly small in acreage. Yes, there is info out there besides that recent drainage plan.
February 19, 2015 at 12:17 PM · "How are two of the most popular franchises in the Universal parks exceptions?"

They are exceptions to the rule that Universal should be about its own properties.

The exceptions should be the rule because Universal doesn't have enough franchises to turn into theme park attractions and this should be the third park. Their Spider-Man attraction was based on a franchise that they licensed too. It seems like licensed franchises is mostly what Universal is about.

Goodness. You're awfully pendantic. You seem alarmed that I suggest their top properties of Harry Potter are exceptions to the rule. They are essentially the rule.

"I think they already have their 3rd gate, and it's WWoHP"

Licensed and proud. Yet you say their have enough Universal properties for their 3rd gate and all. So....

"I didn't say that"

Oh, whatever.

Russell, Please stop.

This still stands.

"Universal still needs a third gate. I recommend they enter into some licensing deals with the top 3 movie studios."

February 19, 2015 at 12:45 PM · Unless you are five years old, a day at Universal Orlando is already more fun than a day at Disney World. Adding a themed water park is a great move that will chip away at Disney's least desired demographic: park patrons who still prefer short lines at exciting attractions over shopping and dining and facebook photo opportunities.

Universal should not shy away from themed attractions just because they happen to be based on R-rated movies. Terminator was R-rated A new Terminator attraction could be incredible. Hitchcock movies don't appeal to five year olds, but they have music and images and themes that could make for great new attractions. Universal should continue to pound away at the more mature demographic that Disney is abandoning. This is Disney's Achilles' heel. In seeking to maximize short term profits, Disney is apparently willing to sacrifice long-term market share.

February 19, 2015 at 12:56 PM · "You seem alarmed that I suggest their top properties of Harry Potter are exceptions to the rule. They are essentially the rule."

You seem alarmed that I'm suggesting you're trying to say the same thing 2 different ways. You're statement right there is an oxymoron. You noted that the two franchises that were purchased were exceptions to the rule, now you're saying they are the rule. So which is it?

"Universal still needs a third gate. I recommend they enter into some licensing deals with the top 3 movie studios."

I still stick with the fact that they already have their third gate, it's just about expanding the concept and segregating the areas into a unified park experience.

Universal has done a good job blending their own properties with strategic purchases to grow their brand in a competitive market. An expansion the scope of a 3rd gate would only come from expanding one of their existing brands or purchased franchises, or through one huge strategic purchase (LOTR for instance), and either needs to be cobbled from the existing built-up property in the backstage areas, on the Wet N' Wild + adjacent parcel property, or some other unknown parcel. Why don't we wait to see what Universal Orlando's 2014 attendance numbers were before proclaiming that they need to build a 3rd gate?

February 19, 2015 at 1:23 PM · "So which is it?"

I don't even think you read anything I wrote.

"I still stick with the fact that they already have their third gate"

No comment.

February 19, 2015 at 2:34 PM · I can't wait! I love water parks and his new one should be just as big as Disneys two. Here's a great comparison article showing the relative size of Universals land compared to competing water parks.


February 19, 2015 at 6:06 PM · I love waterparks. They are both relaxing and thrilling. I got the season pass for aquatica san diego last summer and went nearly every week. Something therapeutic about having a margarita and then sitting in a lazy river for an hour. Good times.
February 19, 2015 at 9:23 PM · Speaking of lazy rivers. The preliminary plans for this park show two lazy rivers, at least one that is in the volcano itself.
February 19, 2015 at 10:08 PM · This sounds like a good decision for many points. 1. A properly themed water park and not just a generic park like wet and wild is now. 2. Moving closer to existing resorts and creating more up sale options. (parking could be shared among the parking structure and the hotels.) 3. A way to sell some prime I-Drive land to help offset the cost of building the water park. This also consolidates the property giving a defined resort area like Sea World and Disney. I personally have not been to any of the water parks in the area but I would consider going if I was staying in the Cabana Bay or the future Sapphire hotels.
February 20, 2015 at 12:16 AM · Its a shame universal doesn't own the land between kirkman, the turnpike and I4. That would be an ideal local for a 3rd gate. I dont think anyone, including universal, ever thought their parks would be as successfull as they've become.

But there's also a large plot of empty land near the southern terminus of Universal blvd, next to the lockheed facility, that could easily accomodate a large theme park and hotel. And considering disney world parks are much further apart, it's not a bad option.

February 20, 2015 at 8:52 AM · Universal will most likely rip off Disney on the water park side. Disney started with River Country at their campground. They built Typhoon Lagoon and when it opened to capacity crowds-shifted guests to River Country until they didn't need it. They still do the same with Blizzard Beach. Universal will open this new water park and when it reaches capacity they will transport guests to WetnWild. After probably 2 years they won't need WetnWild anymore and will be able to close it and make better use of that real estate.
This will help them extend stays for their hotel guests, but I wonder if it will generate more top line revenue? They are already in full discount mode after a bungled Diagon Alley opening. It seems like it is more important to keep the hotels and parks full at a discount then to attract new, unique visitors.
I hope that for their sake their top management can make good decisions and execute great strategies.
It's painful to see this latest bottled water fiasco and wonder about the leadership there.

That would have never occurred at their competitor down the road.

February 20, 2015 at 9:39 AM · The Diagon opening was hugely successful. It increased attendance by 19% plus during the quarter and guest spending increased significantly. Cabana Bay is at 100% most weekends. During the summer months USO's daily attendance was higher than DHS & Animal Kingdom. Park hopping is through the roof due to Hogwart's Express. Theme park's always run discounts. It's part of the marketing strategy.
February 25, 2015 at 9:15 AM · What about a watery version of Harry Potter? Color the water golden and call it the butter beer pool, or have the lake from Hogwarts like in USJ.

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