I-Drive Intrigue: Skyplex Approved; Universal Buying Land?

December 1, 2015, 6:13 PM · The Orange County (Florida) Commission voted unanimously this evening to approve a proposal to build the world's tallest roller coaster on Orlando's International Drive. Neighbor Universal Orlando had fought against the proposed Skyplex development, an opposition that become more interesting when news broke during the commission hearing that Universal has obtained an option to buy hundreds of acres of land near I-Drive.

The nearly $500 million Skyplex develop would include a 570-foot-tall "polercoaster," a roller coaster that wraps up, down, and around a centering tower. The county's planning and zoning board voted in October not to recommend the project, fueling a massive public relations campaign by both sides leading up to today's vote.

The Skyscraper at Skyplex
Concept art courtesy the developer

Universal's opposition to the project, which included direct mail campaigns and behind-the-scenes lobbying by Universal officials, seemed a bit puzzling given Universal's growing strength in the travel market, especially relative to what is essentially a single-gimmick project. The world's (______) coaster provides a marketing draw only until someone else builds a coaster that is taller, faster, steeper, or whatever else-er. Ultimately, long-term success in the themed attraction and amusement business goes to those who create uniquely desirable experiences, not temporary record-holders. If Skyplex manages to deliver that kind of experience, then it might become a long-term attraction for the Orlando region. If all it delivers is its record, however, it will be a draw only until someone else Las Vegas or Dubai builds a taller tower coaster.

So why would Universal care? While math models suggested that the coaster tower would be visible from a few points inside Islands of Adventure, its visible size would be trivial compared with other sights within the park. And there's no way that a single coaster is going to make any dent in Universal's annual attendance. (Let's pause to note SeaWorld executives cringing.)

But what if Universal's opposition was not based upon a conflict with its current operations, but some future plans? Universal lobbyist John McReynolds (the new chairman of industry organization IAAPA, FWIW), told the commission that Universal's opposition was not based in any fear of competition, but in a desire for reasonable community development standards along I-Drive. Universal is closing Wet n' Wild and plans to redevelop that property. And today's report of a Universal option on hundreds of acres along Universal Blvd. provides the resort with another option for development.

The Universal Blvd. property (which runs behind I-Drive), would lie in the shadow of the 570-foot Skyplex, creating a design challenge for Universal if it sought to create a environment free from outside visual intrusions within that property. (Such as, oh, say... a third theme park.) And if Universal's designers could hide the Skyplex tower, the precedent that its approval establishes would free any other developer to build a tower of similar or taller height in the neighborhood.

(Pausing again for a history lesson... And that potential for intrusive neighboring development is why Walt Disney didn't buy that land near the intersection of I-4 and Florida's Turnpike that ultimately became Universal Orlando, opting instead to amass tens of thousands of acres down the road instead.)

The Orlando Sentinel's Sandra Pedicini tweeted that the Orange County commissioners were told of Universal's land option before today's vote. The Sand Lake Road complex, located north of the Orange County Conventional Center and totally 474 acres, is more than enough for another park. (Universal Studios Florida is 107 acres, for comparison.) But its location away from the rest of the resort would create additional development challenges for Universal, as it would not have any easy transportation link between the properties.

Ironically, this is land that Universal used to own. In 2003, Universal's previous owner, Vivendi, sold 1,800 acres that it had acquired along Sand Lake Road from Lockheed Martin. Universal would be reacquiring part of that property if it exercised the option it now owns on the 400-plus acres.

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Replies (25)

December 1, 2015 at 6:27 PM · What a terrific idea for a story!
December 1, 2015 at 7:42 PM · TH: Yes, you scooped Robert on this....This is a key location fairly close to the Convention Center. It's going to be an interesting decade or so.
December 1, 2015 at 8:04 PM · Themed hotels around the park (like Phantasialand in Germany) could easily take care of consistent background theming and ugly sightlines. The area is close enough to expand Universal if the city works along with them for a fun connection opportunity.
December 1, 2015 at 9:17 PM · I'll believe the polercoaster when I see it. Looks exciting on paper, but what's the business model for this? If I did the math right, two million people a year would have to pay $25/ride for 10 years to pay this off. I realize there is also supposed to be shopping attached to it, but what's the draw if you don't like roller coasters?

I'm worried this is just going to be a bargaining chip against nearby developers -- buy the land from us or we'll build a 500 foot tower next to you.

December 1, 2015 at 9:22 PM · Jeff D, its $500 million for the whole mall, not just the coaster. So they are making money on things other than the coaster.
December 2, 2015 at 3:27 AM · Looks like Orlando will be getting TWO I-4 Eyesores now.
Count me in as one of the people not excited for this giant obstruction in the skyline.
December 2, 2015 at 4:46 AM · Wanting to aquire more land actually makes sense for why Universal would be against the Skyplex. It would be baffling if Universal Orlando, a mighty themed entertainment juggernaut that many claim to be better than the legendary WDW, would feel threatened by a one-trick pony that most people are probably gonna forget about in a few years' time. But wanting more land makes sense because one very unfair advantage that WDW has always had over UO is that they have tons more land and thus have more stuff to do. But if Universal gets more land that means they can build more stuff to rival WDW.
December 2, 2015 at 6:45 AM · Wow, what a cool development! With land of that acreage, there are a ton of possibilities of what Universal could do with it, not the least of which would be a theme park. Of course, it would probably be good to wait and see if the deal goes through.
December 2, 2015 at 7:11 AM · If they are under contract to buy, they will probably close soon and quickly.
December 2, 2015 at 7:31 AM · I think Disney and Universal see an easier time building resort rooms instead of theme parks so my money would be on another hotel complex vs a third theme park. If that were true, it's kind of annoying to transport your guests past a giant roller coaster going too and from Universal Studios and Islands of Adventure.

I think this is more about being able to keep your guest focused on your property by eliminating as many distractions as possible. Disney World isn't only bussing their guests from their hotels, to their parks, and even the airport to be "great guest service". Disney World is eliminating the ease a guest can leave and visit other parks.

December 2, 2015 at 7:40 AM · Could we be getting a 3rd gate in 2021 when wdw will be celebrating the 50th? Exciting times indeed.
December 2, 2015 at 10:04 AM · 570 feet isn't that tall compared with the world's biggest buildings and towers. It's slight more than half the size of the Eiffel Tower at 986 feet. Of course, it will be three times taller than SeaWorld's newer tallest roller coaster Mako at 200 feet.

I'm wondering how much more retail and theme park attractions can Orlando support? This is increasing ridiculous. I'm sure Disney will have no choice, but to consider a 5th park since Universal is on its heels. 474 acres can support at least 2 full sized theme parks, a water park, and several hotel complexes. It can make Universal Orlando into a third place destination (since they are separate) when it gets fully built out.

December 2, 2015 at 9:40 AM · Another Gate could work out for Universal in that spot.The distance from park to park would be about the same as Epcot is from Magic Kingdom and if the issue is that tower can you say dare I say Mount Doom with the lord of the rings Mordor tower would fix that issue!! or a Jurassic World Park after part 2 is released??? Ahhh One can only dream.
December 2, 2015 at 10:12 AM · I like the idea, the more choices you have when you stay in the area the longer people will stay and the more money it generates and the more employment it creates, I think let them all expand as after all it will mean Orlando theme parks will be the holiday of choice and more parks means less crowding as there will be a bigger selection to choose from. The only down side is that these parks only happen when people are paying so no doubt any future expansions or new parks will only mean the cost of visiting them will go up in price.
December 2, 2015 at 11:39 AM · Good question from Anon Mouse. In a world where economical growth is not what it used to be, how much more park business can Orlando get? And Dubai wants its share of the international market. Of course, Orlando does have a strong US visitors base, but international visitors are surely welcomed in Orlando area (think large, including Bush Gardens). Interesting to see what will happen. But I guess it's not impossible to see some failures. Not all existing/future parks are going to survive...
December 2, 2015 at 12:41 PM · Some points: The Universal opposition to Skyplex is probably just not the coaster, which may never get built, it's also the entertainment competition from the center....The Parkscope guys are saying that Universal said at last night's meeting they are close to finalizing the deal.....Height of distant buildings is often not evident when customer line of sight is considered.....The huge attendance increases that both Universal & Disney are experiencing strongly indicates that Orlando is not close to being a mature market. There's lots of room for more tourism increases. Those theme park execs that thought Orlando was a mature market ten years ago have been proven to be totally wrong....It will be interesting how Universal approaches the transportation issue here. Though the properties are close at only about a mile between them, there's lots of possible hurdles concerning moving significant numbers of people from one area to the other....
December 2, 2015 at 3:27 PM · I agree that the business model on this project makes absolutely no sense...for $500 million they could build a halfway decent Six Flags or Cedar Fair park that would have multiple attractions and appeal to families with kids, not just a few hundred adrenaline junkies a day. What in the world is the admission cost going to be, $50, $75, $100 per ride? Gonna be lots of empty cars running at those prices. I think the ride looks great but I am concerned the Orange County Commission fell for a Springfield Monorail. The above posters are totally correct...IF this project does go vertical, Orlando will now have 2 major eyesores.
December 2, 2015 at 6:46 PM · @72 orlando doesnt have a skyline.
December 3, 2015 at 12:03 AM · If they do indeed exercise the option to purchase this parcel of property, they might as well try to buy the rosen shingle creek resort which has it's own golf course then they would save themselves the hassle of building one themselves.

After all they had envisioned hotels and golf courses on this previously owned property already

December 3, 2015 at 4:53 AM · I think Mr. Pastor and make some very valid points.

Mr. Pastor mentions that building a third UO park might create a bit of a transportation issue. Like I said before, WDW's property size has given it an unfair advantage over UO, but it's smaller size has had some perks. Namely, parkhopping. That's never been much of an issue at UO because the parks have always been just a short walk away from each other, meaning that it never takes too much out of your visit. At WDW, things are a bit more complicated. The parks are so far apart from each other that you actually have to take a bus, boat, monorail or what have you whenever you decide to parkhop, which takes quite a bit of time that you could have been using to get back in line for Space Mountain. If UO does aquire more land which they use to open a third gate, that means it'll probably be a further distance from the other two parks and you'll have to probably take a bus or something just to get there.

And the anonymous poster mentioned that they could have used the money for Skyplex's coaster to build an actual park that'd be much more wholesome. There's nothing wrong with building a record-breaking adrenaline coaster, but it is a problem if that's your only big draw. There are many people out there who aren't healthy enough or refuse to go on adrenaline rides and would prefer something more mild. And even if the coaster does break a record or two, it's only a matter of time before someone else builds another coaster that surpasses that record. I've heard from a couple other sources that Skyplex will feature a couple other, more mild rides, but they still probably won't be enough to draw too many non-adrenaline junkies when they have options like WDW.

December 3, 2015 at 12:38 PM · Anonymous writes: "Like I said before, WDW's property size has given it an unfair advantage over UO ..."

I Respond: Well it gives Disney an advantage, but I don't see how it could be regarded as "unfair."

December 3, 2015 at 7:17 PM · Ah, if only Universal had ordered Marty McFly to take the DeLorean to pick up Lew Wasserman and travel back in time to hire Buzz Price away from Walt Disney, instead.

And, yes, TH, you may use that for the plot of your next book. ;^)

December 4, 2015 at 6:13 AM · Shut up! Like I am going to waste my time ... Wait a sec' ... That plot line might work!

And while everyone waits for that story, please visit Amazon and download your copy of '7097-050719'. Book One in the Theme Park Trilogy by T.H. Creative.


December 4, 2015 at 7:08 AM · Re-TH.

Eh...think I'll wait till the movie comes out...

December 4, 2015 at 7:28 AM · Re-Robert Niles.

And while Marty's at it, maybe he could travel back further into the past to prevent Universal from firing Walt. Then it would alter history so that Disney and Universal could be the exact same park (or parks)!

I am now slowly drifting into La La Land at the thought of Splash Mountain sharing the same park as Forbidden Journey...

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