What's Next for Universal Orlando's Potential Expansion?
This week's news that Universal Orlando is in position to buy more than 400 acres of additional land
near its resort provides an invitation for fans to speculate about what Universal might do with that land.
The 474 acres of the Sand Lake Road complex are spread across several parcels, but the main parcel, located northeast of the Orange County Convention Center, is about 340 acres. For comparison, Universal Studios Florida occupies 107 acres. That's plenty of room for a major theme park, or even for two parks of modest size.
However, the main parcel of the new land lies nearly four miles away from Universal Orlando's main parking garage. So, ultimately, the story of what Universal does with this new land — if it goes ahead with the purchase — will not begin with the potential themes, rides, and attractions of a third Universal Orlando theme park. The story will begin, instead, with transportation. How will people move between the "old" Universal Orlando and the new?
This isn't a trivial detail to be addresses later in development. It is the core challenge that will determine whether this purchase succeeds or fails for Universal Orlando. If people can't move effortlessly between the various parks of the Universal Orlando Resort, that inconvenience lessens their appeal. An if staying on-site at Universal provides no more logistical advantage for guests than staying off-site at another hotel located in between the properties, Universal's plans to emulate Disney through the introduction of thousands of new hotel rooms will be weakened.
Of course, Universal knows all this. This is no longer the undercapitalized division of a company bouncing from one corporate owner to another, as it was back when Universal originally sold the property that it now looks to buy. Universal knows what it is doing now, and has the resources to do it. But as fans try to figure out what that is Universal will be doing next, it will be helpful to start with the question of transportation. By considering the logistics of how this new property will "fit" with Universal's existing land, fans can understand the physical context that will guide everything Universal does with this expansion.
Let's imagine what the vacation experience looks like at an expanded Universal Orlando Resort. How do you get there? Where do you stay? How do you get around? Almost all visitors arrive at Universal now by driving themselves or being driven there in a paid shuttle, bus, or taxi. Unless Florida decides to actually build that long-planned-and-debated train from the Orlando airport to International Drive, driving (in one form or another) will continue top provide the dominant means of arrival for future Universal Orlando visitors.
But what then? Now, you park your car at Universal and can forget about it until the end of your visit. As Paul Danner described earlier today, Universal's hotels lie within walking distance of the parks, and can be accessed by complimentary water taxis or (in the case of the Cabana Bay) buses. That won't be the case if Universal develops another parcel, four miles away. Either Universal will have to ask its guests to get back in their cars and drive to the other half of the resort, or Universal will need to develop some transportation system to link the two.
Universal Orlando's current property, shaded in the upper left, plus its potential main new property, shaded in the lower right
Universal's two properties actually would lie closer together than Disney's Magic Kingdom and Epcot. But Disney owns all the land between those two parks, which eliminates any non-Disney distractions that might lure away a family of tourists moving between them. That won't be true for Universal. Now do you understand one of the reasons why Universal might not have wanted the "world's tallest roller coaster" built between these parcels?
And let's not get started on how long it takes anyone to drive four miles anywhere near I-Drive, and that's without another Universal theme park in the mix.
All this gives Universal even more incentive to build and control the transportation between the two properties. Buses might seem the easy solution, but they remain prey for the I-Drive neighborhood's notoriously bad traffic. And, as Paul wrote, buses are boring. Yet thousands of visitors each day at Disney endure those buses because, well, they don't have a choice. Disney picked them up at the airport and bused them (for no additional charge) to their rooms at the Walt Disney World Resort. They don't have a car. If they want to get around, they are dependent upon Disney Transport. And, in many cases, that means a bus.
If Universal wants to keep people out of their cars when traveling between its two properties (and it should, for the reasons above), then Universal can best do this buy making it so that visitors don't have to bring a car to the Universal Orlando Resort. That means either matching Disney's free bus ride from the airport, or one-upping Disney (and the state of Florida) by paying for its own rail route between Universal and the airport.
Given that Universal has looked for tax money to build a pedestrian overpass on its property, it's hard to imagine Universal pouring its own money into a partnership with the state and federal governments to build a rail line across southern Orange County. But that's as easy to imagine as another Minions flick when compared with Universal building that rail line itself. So let's go with the bus plan for now.
With thousands of visitors arriving daily via buses from the airport, instead of driving rental cars, Universal could reduce the demand for parking spaces at the resort, while leaving those carless visitors as stranded on Universal property as Magic Express riders now are on Disney's. That provides Universal with a powerful one-two combination punch of extra space for expansion coupled with extra demand for services, including restaurants, entertainment, and retail.
So an expansion will include much more than another theme park (or two). Yes, we know that Universal wants more hotels. But with more (and more captive) guests, Universal will need to build more resort, spa, and CityWalk-style attractions, too — to feed, entertain, and sell to those visitors around the clock.
The more than Universal can build walkable new developments that do not require the use of cars, buses, or boats to move people between them, the less strain that development will put on its transportation system. So as you think about what Universal will do with its new property, consider that.
But, ultimately, Universal still needs a way to move people those four miles. Could Universal work with the City of Orlando and Orange County to build a rail line down Universal Boulevard? A dedicated rail line, especially if it were an elevated train or monorail, could move more people than a bus system that had to run on congested local streets. But such as system would be wildly expensive. Would Universal trade some of the smaller parcels in its purchase to local governments in exchange for right-of-way, bonds and construction help for a new rail system? Or would Universal opt for the cheaper option of widening Universal Boulevard with dedicated bus lanes, reserved for Universal's buses?
Universal brilliantly leveraged the Harry Potter franchise to encourage visitors to upgrade to Park-to-Park tickets, as that's the only way to ride the Potter-themed Hogwarts Express train that runs between its existing two parks. But with a third park four miles down the road, perhaps Universal won't want to encourage same-day park-to-park visits anymore, as that would just add to the demand for transport between the properties.
Does Universal end up with three ticket options, then: one park per day, park-to-park between Universal Studios Florida and Islands of Adventure but not the third park, and then maybe park-to-park-to-park for all three?
This finally brings us to start thinking about themes and IP for a third Universal Orlando park. What would be distinct enough from Universal's existing parks that fans would want to experience it apart from the other two parks, but closely enough related that fans who want to visit USF and IOA would still want to experience it, and not skip the third park? Again, transportation drives this consideration. (Apologies for the pun.)
Also consider that the park would need to be included within a well-developed complex of hotels, restaurants, and retail, with transportation depots connecting the new development with both the old and the airport. And with any on-site parking being less convenient for people than Universal's on-site transportation network? (Something that Universal Orlando currently does very well, by the way.)
For what it's worth, no one has leaked us any plans... yet. (You know how to find us, Universal insiders!) But I hope that this series of questions will help you to understand better the development process that will soon begin to happen if Universal does proceed with this purchase. By understanding the "why" of what Universal is about to do, we have a much better chance of correctly guessing the "what" of what eventually will happen.
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I really hope Universal buys this property. The bus system is the obvious choice and will still be quicker between parks then Disney World. It's amazing how similar the Uni Orlando resort is to the Disneyland resort. I have always thought that these expanding yet land locked resorts would do best by moving all parking off site somewhere in one central location and having 1 shuttle service circling the major theme park and resort locations.
Interesting challenges ahead. I personally think they'll have to bite the bullet and invest in some elevated train/monorail option.
Lord of the Rings and the Ministry of Magic? Granted, it wouldn't make a ton of sense to break up some of the theming, but placing popular attractions at a third location would at least drive traffic to those areas.
The traffic on Universal Blvd is not congested right now to encourage them to invest in a dedicated rail line. A bus system might be sufficient. Four miles is a short ride. I would also assume the new property will have its own parking lots like what Disney's theme parks have. So the transportation system will only transport onsite guests, which is a smaller number than simply moving tons of guests from one resort to another. Universal can encourage guests to drive from one park resort to another by allowing parking privileges to transfer. For other guests not staying onsite, they can charge a nominal fee or have the park to park passes include the transportation costs. I don't see any deal breakers. Dreams require a lot of investment and detailed planning.
Anon makes some good points. Essentially, transportation is just needed for on site guests since the others would be, for the most part, arriving by car or off site hotel shuttles, as they do now. That cuts down the numbers using a dedicated system. Some posters on OU, familiar with the local government maps,have pointed out that there were easements on much of the property along Universal Blvd. when they originally owned much of that land before selling it previously. If those easements still exist, it could provide a means to establish a dedicated bus lane or elevated train type system. So much speculation at this point though. I would think Universal has some ideas in mind, but they may be at a real blue sky state at this time.
I drive Universal Blvd from Destination Parkway to Hollywood Way several days a week and that bottleneck at Sand Lake Road and Universal Blvd is a nightmare in busy season. The intersection is already slow in off season and I cannot imagine what a mess it is going to be if they add another park on south Universal Blvd.
Honestly, just by looking the google maps image of the two properties above, it seems to me that universal would probably go with the rail/monorail line. Remember that universal also owns the (soon to be closed) Wet-n-Wild property. If they were to develop on that land another citywalk and other resorts, then universal would want to connect that with it's other properties as well. All of these properties are connected through Universal Boulevard which contains a lot of lights and congestion since it is one of the key ways to get into the current resort. By creating a rail/monorail system for Universal Boulevard they could avoid the traffic, which turns off visitors. Also if they were to connect the resorts with a rail/monorail line, then maybe universal could also build a massive garage complex on the new property. If they were to build that and a new theme park, guests could leave there car there and go to that park or take the monorail to the other parks/properties. Just a thought. I really enjoyed this article btw and keep up the great work!
Thank you for the article, Robert. My imagination is working in overdrive... Are we certain that a third gate (or even fourth) will be built on the main 340-acre parcel of land if they, in fact, purchase it? In order to keep all parks within walking distance of each other, here's my wish list:
I believe that Universal's best option would be to:
Thanks for another great article. One thing you forgot to mention is the existing land Universal owns at Universal Blvd and International Drive.
The new land going to be : Lord of the rings ' or NiNteNdo theme park
If Universal does transportation to and from the airport, a monorail-type thing would probably work as the use of buses would probably just make it look like they'd be saying to Disney "hey I can do that, to!" Yet something about that whole idea just rubs me the wrong way...but I don't know why.
It's pretty obvious that Universal will build a third theme park. The are dead serious about competing with the mighty Mouse across town. Even with two parks and a water park, most people do Disney for a week or more, and then squeeze in a couple days at Universal.
A win-win for the whole area would be an elevated train jointly funded by the city and Universal. Route would be a set of both local and express trains. The express route is dedicated to Universal and the local route is funded by the city of Orlando. Universal supports its private rail service, whereas the city provides the local service, local stations, and property via eminent domain as needed.
While transportation is critical, it would be interesting to see Universal sell off the Wet n Wild property to fund executing their option and then expanding their new property by buying the Lockheed Martin facility.
If they do develop that land and create a massive linked resort then they should also buy SeaWorld and add Aquatica and Discovery Cove to the mix. Talk about creating a worthy alternative to Disney, and Universal could add some relevant (and needed) IPs to SeaWorld. I mean, could there be a better place to build a new JAWS ride?!
Some how, some way the new theme park would need to include Nintendo , dream works , lord of the rings , and maybe like a monsters land or something .
How about a fleet of purple Knight busses with windows like the ones inside the Hogwarys Express to keep the illusion alive on the trip?
On Orlando United, they suggested making Wet and Wild a TTC with busses, monorails, etc. connecting the resorts.
With land of that size, maybe Universal is thinking of something completely unprecedented - Perhaps a completely immersive themed entertainment park that is not specifically connected to their other parks. Hotels, restaurants, settings and rides all based on a single immersive intellectual property. It would have to be something of the magnitude/longevity of, say, Middle Earth - but imagine a Westworld-like entertainment destination, where you spend a few days before you go to visit their other parks/hotel for the rest of your vacation.
Wouldn't it be ironic if Universal's own arguments against Skyplex were used to oppose this expansion. After all, a new Universal theme park and/or hotels would generate far more traffic than Skyplex ever will.
I don't think any park would tear down some of the largest parking garages in the world that are already built and paid for. I know the one garage can have whole another floor added if needed. My guess is that they stay and possibly cost more to park in as your car is covered and your are closer. I could see them taking some of the back stage parking, storage and office space for IOA and USF like Disneyland is doing with Star Wars land but not until many years later.
It seems a no-brainer that an elevated train system/monorail would be the way to go. Sure, the traffic around that area right now isn't the greatest, but with a third gate (surely, that's part of the plan), and probably a second CityWalk and at least a hotel or two coming as well....commuters and resort guests will only WISH traffic wasn't the greatest.
Nintendo and Lord of the Rings is plenty of IP to anchor a 3rd gate!
As Robert has pointed out in past articles, the theme park rights to LOTR are tied up in seemingly endless litigation. And Universal didn't even do the movies. Sorry, folks, that won't happen, at least until many of us are too old to do many rides anyway...
Ideas for a third park: Jurassic World "the park is now open" enough said. Connected via monorail of course.
How about making the new park a dark park, they have great success with Halloween horror nights so why not look at some of those ip's and see if they can add this to this area, ok it may have to be toned down a little to make it a little more of a family attraction but I am sure the creative minds could come up with something, not saying chase everyone around with chain saws etc, in the UK there is a dark roller coaster based on the Saw franchise so why not at universal.?
I would like to see : lord of the rings theme park / mega luxury themed hotel
My college thesis is going to be about how to fix I-Drive. I've been so fascinated in doing this since I was a kid. I-Drive is polarizing and is only going to get bigger. How would an underground system do in this part of Fl?
Could this be the next location for Wet n Wild? I feel that buses are the only option unless Universal (and Disney) really push the light rail from the airport.
I believe that Universal already has an effective parking/central hub on its current property, with two existing parking lots and a third currently being built next to Sapphire Falls/Volcano Bay. An elevated rail system seems like the most effective and efficient transportation choice between the two properties, keeping the current parking hub in place and allowing guests to easily travel between all the parks with ease. I just can't imagine that if a third park was built, that Universal would plan to make the primary mode of travel busses. Seems like a recipe for disaster from the start.
Wet and Wild is being replaced by the water park they're constructing now. Why would they build another Wet and Wild not far away?
Sorry, double post.
Don't really know how planning works in the states but how about a subway system for park to park
For a third park to work on this land, unless Universal is gearing it primarily toward locals I think it is necessary to create a mini-resort around it. Build the park, build a smaller CityWalk (with a different theme), build a new parking structure, and build a couple hotels to support it. As for transportation between different parts of the resort, busses could be used but that would be highly inefficient. A monorail or elevated train is a possibility, but I'm not sure how much development is in the area and this would be very expensive. My alternative...how about an aerial ropeway, such as a gondola? This would probably be cheaper than an elevated train, less disruptive for existing developments, and depending on the design could probably transport 3,000-4,000 people per hour in each direction.
I think a $2-3 billion investment is definitely in Universal's realm of possibilities. If I understand correctly, Comcast is already investing $500 million a year in the parks (above existing operating expenses). And the USH Evolution plan is a billion dollar project for a very landlocked location.
A transportation system is an expense. Universal won't make money from it. I doubt they are willing to spend millions developing something more expensive than a bus system since a monorail or elevated rail system or a trolley system will go on public land. It also makes no sense to serve merely the Universal Resort for a more comprehensive system will also bring customers from the outside resort areas. I imagine a Metro-like public system will result in a public response that will be even worse than shown from the Skyplex campaign. Many more neighborhoods are involved.
I can almost guarantee all this will do is cannibalize attendance at US and IOA... and perhaps even WDW. I don't think USO is ready for another theme park for another 10-15 years. Far too often (aside from the usual peak times) I show up at Universal and walk-on to almost every ride except Potter.
Jeff D, in my opinion, UO is already a 3-4 day destination, even without the water park. We spent three days there last year, and we still skipped some of the attractions. We did one day at IOA and two at Universal Florida, to have plenty of time for Diagon Alley.
Universal Orlando is seriously considering what Disneyland Resort in Anaheim was not able to commit to in the past, expanding their resort between two separate plots of land. The same issues that DLR had with Anaheim and the proposed Long Beach/DisneySea project are the same issues UO will have. And why would either resort even consider doing this? $$$! More theme parks, resort hotels, and restaurants means more for guests to see and do, which means more days for guests to spend at the resort, about a week's worth.
I think a better option for transportation would be south on Kirkman Rd and come up on the east side of the new property. Kirkman Rd has a fairly wide centre that extra lanes, either bus or, fingers crossed, monorail/light rapid transit could accommodate. It's also mostly light industry in that area, less distraction.
Orlando visitors are not going to visit for 2 weeks. That is why Disney stopped at 4 gates. Americans have little vacation time and limited funds. Will they fix the parks, add attractions, add a fifth gate to compete? Doubt it. While they will have a e-ticket Star Wars ride and hopefully something nice with avatar, don't see any thing close to them competing with the universal expansion. Of course there not fixing epcot. Theme parks are certainly needed in orlando as long there from a quality investor. I presume they will expand shows, fireworks, kids section. Should we start guessing the year universal leads the attendance of wdw? I think it will be dramatic. Likely 4th gate. I have already switched to 4 day universal and 2 day disney.
I agree with AJ Hummel: a cable car or aerial tramway could be a solution. With today technologies, each cabin can have a huge capacity and the length between two stations or supporting towers can be huge.
Totally agree, Sylvain. I realized after posting I should have worded that differently. I spent a week myself at UO during my last trip. Unfortunately, I'm probably not a near future big win for Uni. I will return to UO for another week with or without Volcano Bay. I probably won't add an extra day, just adjust my schedule to include Volcano Bay.
I think we are looking at Lord of the Rings, Nintendo, Hunger Games (they have announced that someone has the theme park rights, but no one has come forward with an announcement), Wizarding World's Dangerous Creatures and Where to Find them. Wouldn't it be interesting if Universal did the same kind of elevated train/attraction that currently moves guests between the different Harry Potter Lands...between Kings Cross Station and the new US based Ministry of Magic? I could also see the relocation of Minions to the new park in grander fashion than just the one ride...
Um ... "problem population areas?"
Partially wishful thinking, but given that there was a lot of talk about the themepark staff being heavily involved in the look & development of the 'citywalk' seen in Jurassic World, what are the odds that they would transplant a fully formed Jurassic World section down into the new development.
Hello. I'm new and signed up for an account to voice disgust with Universal. First of all, I understand theme parks are a business that needs to protect its interest and generate a profit. However, Univeral seams to have become crooked in the past few years.
It's no secret that Universal's been very vocal about opposition to I-Drive, but are there verified reports that they ever "used political tactics" and "sued reasonable entrepreneurs?" I looked for some, but was unsuccessful.
My last trip to Orlando was 2 days Disney and 1 in Universal. If they did build a Middle Earth/ Nintendo park I gotta say those days would definitely be reversed. Epcot is the only Disney World park I feel is truly worth visiting. I feel Disney's best work is found in CA and Tokyo.
Thanks James. Looks like I've learned a lesson about doing my own research before reposting information I hear.
If Universal were to acquire this land, it would be a total game changer. Up until now, Universal has usually been seen as the secondary or alternate destination for most theme park visitors to Orlando. If they were to add a second resort area with two more parks, they might possibly supplant Disney as the theme park resort of choice in Orlando.
Interesting thought is that Volcano Bay along with a third park would have made more sense on this property than Volcano Bay's current location. Where and expansion of Cabana Bay in the long term would have made more sense.
@Tim: Your timetable is much too fast and it doesn't allow guests to warm up to the resorts over time. How long did Disney build up its parks? It took decades.
A few years ago, Anon, I would have agreed with you, but watching the aggressive expansion and modification of the existing Universal Orlando parks over the past few years has changed my perspective.
Love those server crashes where you end up with a double post.
It's all good Sy82, welcome aboard. :)
Adding resorts and attractions at a rapid pace won't necessarily translate to adding two new complete parks in ten years. That's just too much risk. Comcast added $500 million to their budget for new attractions. This is peanuts compared to how much Disney is spending to upgrade their parks. Universal will have to tie up billions without any consideration of the economic conditions in the next few years. It is predicted that a recession is overdue in the next few years nevermind that we never really had a economic recovery as employment is stagnant. Orlando construction must be conservative.
I agree with most of your ideas Tim, except 1. I feel like 1 large Epcot size theme park along with hotels and shops would be better than 2 smaller parks. Universal has yet to show that it can build a successful Disneysea or Epcot sized park. That would be a true gamechanger imo.
Huh? What in the world does size have to do with it? I totally don't follow your logic, Daniel. Both USO and IOA have more rides and attractions than Epcot does, what more does Universal need to do?
T. Hillman writes: "If they were to add a second resort area with two more parks, they might possibly supplant Disney as the theme park resort of choice in Orlando."
First of all the new area will get 2 theme parks, a shopping/entertainment/restaurant hub and hotels.
Universal can usually build a new attraction at a fraction of the cost that Disney can. So generally, Universal will get more bang for their buck. They can put a Forbidden Journey E ticket attraction in for less than it costs Disney to do a Little Mermaid Under the Sea D ticket ride. That $500 million a year goes pretty far.
...I didn't think it was that difficult. 1 big park instead of 2 smaller parks. Epcot is 300 acres and you still need room for the hotels/shopping/entertaintment. And size has a lot to do with it. Their smaller parks may have more attractions, but there is an awe and grandiosity when walking through a Disneysea or Epcot. Universal has yet to build a park with that kind of draw imo.
Much of the footprint at TDS is wasted on water, Daniel, and while that does allow for some grand vistas, it really doesn't add any complexity to the park. Universal could easily accomplish something like TDS. (In hindsight, I guess that's what you're asking them to do. [open palm headslap] My bad.)
I would say that none of Disneyseas space is "wasted on water". Despite being necessary for the creation of believable themeing, the water way that encircles DS is used also for the transportation/attraction Disneysea Steamer line. And the large lagoon in Mediterranean Harbor is also used for multiple water shows throughout the year, including Fantasmic.
Size matters not - Yoda.
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