Universal Orlando and the irony of 'more'

May 5, 2018, 10:33 AM · I love Universal Orlando.

This shouldn't be any secret to Theme Park Insider readers. I've loved Universal Orlando ever since I lived in the Orange Tree subdivision across the street from Universal Studios Florida when it opened in 1990. I loved Universal then because it was the first theme park I ever could walk to from my home.

And even though I now live a nation away, I still love walking around Universal Orlando Resort whenever I visit. While Universal offers an impressive line-up of attractions — including The Wizarding Worlds of Harry Potter (Diagon Alley and Hogsmeade) and The Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man — it's the atmosphere around the resort that makes this one of my favorites places to visit on Earth. But as Universal Orlando approaches another major expansion, it faces the possibility of losing one of the qualities that makes me love it so much.

Universal Orlando has done the best job of placemaking among any multi-park theme park resort in the world. You can walk to anywhere from anywhere at the resort, which is connected by a Garden Walk that extends from the Cabana Bay Beach Resort to the Portofino Bay. While Disneyland and Dubai Parks & Resorts also offer easily walkable site plans, neither manages its space with the aesthetic sense that Universal has employed in Orlando.

On the Garden Walk, you don't feel like you're walking through a giant outdoor mall, as you do at Disneyland or Dubai. (Or, to be fair, when you are walking between Universal Studios Florida and Islands of Adventure at Universal Orlando, too.) Trees and tropical foliage surround you, with the resort's waterway running along the path for much of its length. Walking the path reminds me of hiking the Bear Creek Trail I used to walk most days near my home on the west side of Denver, when I lived in Colorado. Universal has excelled in creating a natural experience within a designed environment.

Garden Walk
The Garden Walk next to the Royal Pacific hotel at Universal Orlando

Sure, you could take the bus from the Cabana Bay to the parks. But I have found that it's often quicker to take the Garden Walk, given that you're going to have to walk the length of CityWalk to the parks after riding the bus anyway, in addition to the typically longer wait for the security check at the parking and transportation hub. I've never seen a line longer than two families at the Garden Walk checks.

At the Walt Disney World, Tokyo Disney, and Disneyland Paris resorts, you don't have a choice but to use resort transportation to get around all their parks, hotels, and shopping areas. Disney World sprawls over more than 27,000 acres. Tokyo Disney puts many of its hotels on the far side of its parking lot, requiring you to use the paid monorail system or a car to access them. Disneyland Paris comes closest to Universal Orlando's model, but also sticks a large surface lot in between some hotels and the parks and leaves visitors no good choice beyond buses or the RER to get to the Val d'Europe shopping center and hotels on the far side of the development.

The design lesson? Surface parking kills walkability in a community. Go with a parking structure, ideally on the edge of the property — like Universal Orlando and Disneyland have done. Or at least stick the surface parking on the periphery, as done at Dubai Parks & Resorts.

Ironically, Universal Orlando is about to lose the walkability that has made it my favorite multi-park theme park space. With its Endless Summer Resorts opening starting next year on the old Wet n' Wild site across I-4, and 1,000 acres available for expansion farther down Universal Boulevard, it soon will no longer be possible to walk easily between any two points at the Universal Orlando Resort. Future visitors are going to have to rely on buses, or whatever other transportation system Universal devises with the cooperation of local officials.

Yes, the experience will remain the same as it is now for anyone staying at one of the six hotels and visiting the three parks on the core campus: the Portofino Bay, Hard Rock, Royal Pacific, Sapphire Falls, Aventura, and Cabana Bay hotels, and the Universal Studios Florida, Islands of Adventure and Volcano Bay parks. But at some point, those nine properties will comprise only a fraction of the complete Universal Orlando experience.

Volcano Bay
The Volcano Bay water theme park at Universal Orlando

If I wanted a completely walkable experience at Walt Disney World, for example, I could choose to stay at the Boardwalk, Yacht, Beach, Dolphin, or Swan hotels and limit my park visits to Epcot and Disney's Hollywood Studios. All, together, are as walkable as on the Universal Orlando property. But I would miss out on the Magic Kingdom and Animal Kingdom, as well as Disney Springs by limiting myself to the one area of the resort.

In an ideal design, preserving walkability forces developers to use space as efficiently as possible, which often leads to placing destinations closer to one another, minimizing travel times on alternate transportation methods, as well. The best walkable designs also avoid space-hogging roads in favor of transport modes that use less surface area, such as subways (most ideal), light rail, gondolas, monorails, or even dedicated busways. High-capacity transport that runs frequently also helps preserve walkable design, as you don't need big waiting areas for people wanting to get on the next train or bus.

Somehow, Universal is going to connect its three properties in Orlando: the current core campus, the Endless Summer Resort, and the Universal Blvd expansion site. But unless it creates some sort of Hogwarts Express-like transport vehicles with virtual windows to ignore the "outside" world between its sites, Universal Orlando will lose the placemaking that makes the core campus so pleasant.

The easiest thing for Universal to do would be to just run buses on existing streets and dump people into the transport hub on the core campus. But I can't see the current escalator, staircase, and elevator providing nearly enough capacity to keep people moving swiftly between the security circle and the bus stations on the ground below when Endless Summer opens, much less when the expansion is ready. Universal will need a much higher capacity transportation hub on its core campus at some point. Creating that will require thought and time from Universal's design team. And that raises the other irony of having more space to play with in Orlando.

Hogwarts castle
Hogwarts castle in The Wizarding World of Harry Potter - Hogsmeade in Islands of Adventure

If Universal didn't have that extra 1,000 acres for expansion, there's no doubt in my mind that the resort would have announced its plans and started construction on Super Nintendo World by now. KidZone would be gone, and the new Nintendo land would be rising on that site. Maybe Shrek and the Monsters Cafe would be gone, too, awaiting new DreamWorks Animation attractions — as would the underused theater space next to Marvel Super Hero Island.

But with a huge expansion plot challenging Universal's corporate imagination, the resort's management has to make some decisions about what projects to pursue to fill that site. It's a lot easier to get things done when you have fewer options to consider, isn't it?

Time is a zero-sum game. With its impending expansion, Universal Orlando has been facing a dilemma well known to any start-up company. You can either take time from your current development to work on the new projects, or you can take time from your current development work to staff up people who can handle the extra work for you.

Either way, your current pace of development is going to slow as you invest your time in accelerating your development pace in the future. So it amazes me that Universal Orlando has been able to open as many new projects as it has over the past few years, even as it works on securing the rights and creating a plan for its 1,000 acres on Universal Blvd.

Like I said, I love Universal Orlando. I will continue to love its core campus, even as Universal works to expand beyond it. And I would have loved to see Super Nintendo World and more Dreamworks Animation attractions come to that core campus, and sooner rather that later.

But given how well Universal developed its core property, I am curious to see what it can do with that big new chunk of land to the south. And given Universal's skill in placemaking, I am hopeful that it can find a creative solution — better than buses — to link its Orlando properties. And I also am hopeful that the company will develop a walkable site plan for within its 1,000 acres on Universal Blvd.

Great theme park design isn't just about making compelling rides and shows. It is urban planning at its finest — creating a space that accommodates tens of thousands of people while making each one of those people feel welcomed, and special, and not simply a pawn in a crowd that big. Universal's done that job exceptionally well with its Orlando property.

But now it's time to level up. I can't wait to see what happens.

Replies (23)

May 5, 2018 at 11:33 AM ·

I envision my future vacation to travel to 1 Universal resort for 3 days and then move over to the other resort. I hope they are really different (for instance VillageWalk instead of CityWalk). I hope the feel will be wildly different and giving me the feeling I have 2 vacations in 1.

May 5, 2018 at 3:30 PM ·

You would think the vacation resorts would have figured out the transportation issues, but NO!!! Disney is the worst offender with the awful bus system and resorts all scattered about and not walking distance to the parks.

Universal should consider a simple system to connect the 2 parks, the new hotels, and the 500 acre future park resorts.

May 5, 2018 at 3:48 PM ·

I am still holding out hope for a fleet of purple Knight Buses that go to the Ministry of Magic. Bonus points for 3D windows similar to those inside the Hogwarts Express.

May 5, 2018 at 5:00 PM ·

I love the Garden Walk. I also love the water taxis. It's just sooo relaxing. I especially love taking the Water Taxi and getting a delicious gelato at the Portofino. The best flavor is hands down spumoni, but I don't think they make it anymore. I had my wedding reception at the Portofino, so it always brings back memories.

I hope that the rumors pan out and that Universal is working on some kind of rail system to connect the main campus with the new area. The cynic in me says they'll just have buses or something...but we can always dream and hope that they'll have some fancy transportation system and are somehow able to get the city of Orlando to twist some arms and bend backwards to make it happen.

On a similar note, I heard they were tearing up part of Battery Park to make tiered seating for the new Nighttime Spectacular. On one hand, I appreciate it...but I'm seriously going to miss that little quiet space.

May 5, 2018 at 6:01 PM ·

Another great article, Robert!

I also love the walkability to the parks. There are times when my family is walking together on the garden path and we feel like the resort is all ours. The layout and feel of the parks is truly one of a kind amongst theme parks.

If we're heading to the Ministry of Magic, a Floo Network would be great. I'd settle for a theme Knight Bus, or some other non-themed expedient transport.

As long as they don't do those hideous gondolas that WDW is building right now.

May 5, 2018 at 6:13 PM ·

I used to warn people (family and friends who were taking advantage of me working at WDW), that traveling between parks same-day wastes a huge amount of time. And it is designed to be that way so you plan a longer trip. Even at Disneyland, if you are having lunch at the Hungry Bear and you think it would be fun to jump over to California Adventure for a bit on a busy day, you just blew at least an hour if not more. And it's exhausting - especially if your dragging around a 6 year old who you are trying to wean out of a stroller.

May 5, 2018 at 6:23 PM ·

I've only stayed at a Universal Resort once (Hard Rock) and we enjoyed the short walk to the parks for the views and loved the closeness. But expansion is a double-edged sword so it means that they may lose that. A shame but the way Universal is smart about it means they may be able to make it all work.

May 5, 2018 at 7:32 PM ·

Well, the last time I was in Orlando, in 2015, I stayed in a off-site hotel that is just in front of the former Wet'n'Wild. And my family and me walked to the Universal parks everyday, I don't think the distance from there is about the same from Cabana bay or even shorther. It may not be an walkway as interesting as Garden Walk, but I don't think people will mind about this.

May 6, 2018 at 1:48 AM ·

I will miss that aspect of Universal Orlando as well. Growth is great but I agree they could be focusing more on making their current parks even more evolved and still compete with Disney. Look at how well the Disneyland resort has crammed so much into a small space. If I'm not mistaken those two parks have the same ammount of attractions as all four in Dinsey World. I stayed at Cabana Bay on my last trip to UO and LOVED that walk compared to the buses.

May 6, 2018 at 1:54 AM ·

Ironically it's the very size of Disney World that I like! I don't mind travelling between my resort and the parks. I don't try to cram too much into a day, (rarely park hop although we always have the facility), and find the transport is as much a part of the experience as the parks themselves. Having never stayed at the Beach Club or other hotels in that area I can't comment on whether being able to stroll into two parks is a game changer or not. I hope to stay on site at Universal next year but I can't help feeling that knowing I can walk everywhere actually diminishes my feelings - it makes it all feel small.

May 6, 2018 at 2:14 AM ·

Taxpayers in the city of Orlando should all go enjoy the pedestrian bridge from Cabana Bay to the park, because they foot the $5 million bill to build it.

May 6, 2018 at 5:33 AM ·

With the latest acquisition of land this demonstrates a huge statement of intent by Comcast. This is taking on Disney toe-to-toe, not with Universal v Disney for the odd night, weekend or short trip but for the 7-14 nighters. Done right, this will have significant impact on WDW as individual Disney parks will be to supplement a 7-14 day Universal vacation, not the other way round as it has been for nearly 30 years. I am salivating at the prospect of what Universal Creative ultimately do including the transportaion to the two separate resort areas. Gone are the skirmishes regarding Disney attractions v Universal attractions and individual battles regarding Disney parks v Universal parks, Comcast has now declared all-out war. And there will be casualties. The garden-walk, whilst picturesque and serene, becomes a minor sacrifice in the overall strategy.

May 6, 2018 at 4:17 AM ·

Like you said, the garden walk will still be there for those choosing to stay at the hotels that are on it, which are all priced at a Disney moderate with an unlimited Express pass. Who knows what this new property will be or what the transportation options will be offered at this point. Of course, absent teleporters, it will be a challenge. I will agree that I love the garden walk. I have timed the fact that you can get from the pool at the Royal Pacific to the Forbidden Journey in less than 20 minutes.

May 6, 2018 at 7:02 AM ·

I love Universal. Did WDW 4 years straight, this summer will be 4th straight Uni only trip, SOOOOO much more fun. As long as their AP $'s don't approach that of Disney and it stays affordable I will do as others stated, half trip in old area and the other half in the new area.

May 6, 2018 at 10:13 AM ·

I think of it this way:

You can still say at any of the current on-site hotels and easily get to any of the current parks and Citywalk via garden walk.

At WDW, it is a hardly possible to get anywhere walking. And it is a nightmare to use their multitude of incomplete transportation systems.

Sure, there is going to be a gap between whatever is at current and the new land. That will require a single "connector" to get form site A to site B. That could be in the form of a partial stay at each site, or transporting over to each site as needed during your stay.

Whatever happens, I'm excited to see what Universal Creative is brewing up behind the scenes. Islands of Adventure, one of the greatest theme parks in the world, opened in 1999. Universal has 20 years of experience operating that park to use in designing a new one. Add to that the advancements in ride systems and technology, and we are most certainly in for a treat.

May 6, 2018 at 11:28 AM ·

So many valid points about WDW requiring transportation between parks. And, soon Universal Orlando Resort will require the same! Will the Universal Orlando Resort copy WDW’s monorail? Bus system? Minnie Vans? Maybe they’ll copy the upcoming gondolas.

So many valid points about Universal Creative’s recent list of screen based attractions with AMAZING queues: Kong, Fallon, F&F. While I keep reading they didn’t deliver a high caliber ride experience, ON THIS SITE, it should be known Universal Creative suggested three AMAZING attractions. Yes, the budgets were three plus times higher, but to deliver AMAZING it costs big money. None-the-less, Universal corporate dramatically cut the budgets.

That said, in regards to WDW’s recent additions Seven Dwarf’s Mine Train, Frozen and Pandora. It should be asked, do they offer detailed queues and a high caliber ride experience?

And, will Tron, Guardians, Ratatouille, Mary Poppins, Toy Story Land, Star Wars: Galaxy Edge and the rumored Monstropolis at DHS offer such queues and a high caliber ride experience?

Will WDW’s rumored FIFTH BOUTIQUE PARK offer such queues and high caliber rides?

All fair questions. All offer facts to answer the questions being asked!

May 6, 2018 at 11:30 AM ·

I like the idea of considering the core campus and the expansion plot as two separate, but related and nearby resorts. I think that approach can preserve the intimacy that makes the current Universal Orlando especially compelling, while allowing the company to expand and offer a longer vacation experience to Orlando visitors.

Let's compare it to the way that Disney often bundles Walt Disney World and Disney Cruise Line vacations. Yes, they are two different things. But they are both "Disney."

May 6, 2018 at 2:43 PM ·

If you listen to feedback that Walt Disney Co. shares on their cruises, cruisers think of the ship as a floating theme park and expect as much.

Is that realistic? No, but Disney Criuise Line is doing everything it can to deliver that experience. Their continual awards speak to it!

The question being asked is when will Comcast NBC/Universal copy Disney Cruise Line?

They’ve done it in animation. Results: GREAT success with Illumination lead to the Dreamworks Animation acquisition. It wasn’t planned until Chris M. DECLINED to increase Illumination‘s output.

They tried with fairytale feature films. Results: Box Office disappointments.

They’ve tried with family fare: Results: Mostly Box Office disappointments considering they are the home of Amblin Entertainment.

They’re slowly shifting their theme parks from thrill to family to better compete against Disney. Results: GREAT success because Disney didn’t respond. Disney has now responded and in a weird move Universal Creative has seen budgets CUT! Internal sources have shared, funds were diverted to land acquisition.

Confidential UC research has shown the third park MUST BLOW DISNEY OUT OF THE WATER if they want to move past being an ADD ON. Outside of die hard Harry Potter fans the UO Resort is not a primary destination. Conversations are being held regarding possibly converting IA into a Harry Potter theme park. Where would the space and $$$ come from. Think about it... A new twist to the internal conversations, the Simpsons will soon be owned by Disney. And, that license does not mention perpetual!

Time will tell...

May 7, 2018 at 11:22 AM ·

One of the reasons I find myself happier during my Universal visits more than Disney is this exact reason. My dad doesn't even care for theme parks but has already booked a room for Cabana Bay. Volcano Bay is literally only a 5 minute walk, it was amazing. Disney World is exhausting if you're not staying on property, as my family is all adults and we like to eat and drink plenty. Universal reminds me of Disneyland Resort in being able to pack a punch within limited space, but did so at a gorgeous level. I love those strolls on the Garden Walk as well.

May 7, 2018 at 12:11 PM ·

Universal Orlando Hyperloop.

Done.

May 7, 2018 at 2:08 PM ·

I know how you feel, Robert. Once we started staying on property at UO, that walk became one of first, and last, memories of the stay. Remember those white squares floating just at the surface of the water near the shore? The sound of the bamboo rattling/knocking in the wind always prompted me to warn my daughter to look out for any escaped animatronic velociraptors off the path. Remembering the security camera footage of the bear swimming in the Hard Rock Hotel pool makes that sound reasonable. Watching the CityWalk lights disappear around the corner on your last night was always bittersweet, like that last glimpse of Cinderella Castle or Spaceship Earth. Just one of the things, but a big one, that make a UO trip special.

May 8, 2018 at 8:44 AM ·

I don't know Robert. I've walked from both the Major Blvd. hotels and ones on the other side of the former Wet and Wild property, and I don't think it really changes that much. As it stands now, it's still a pretty lengthy walk from all the "on-site" hotels to the parks (10-15 minutes), aside from HRH. We stayed at Royal Pacific last fall and will be staying at Portofino Bay next month, and those walks to and from the hotels/park gates are longer than what guests will typically walk inside the parks (assuming most guests make 2 park loops in a single day). Certainly the new hotels will be further away, but it's not unwalkable (about 20-30 minutes depending upon how fast you walk). Depending upon bus frequency (or whatever they plan on using to transport guests), walking is likely to still be faster, just as it is now with walking versus the boats. The only exception in my eyes is for Volcano Bay, because I typically don't like walking long distances in water shoes or flip flops, and would most likely default to the buses when spending a day at the water park (or spend a night at Cabana Bay where the hotel and park are right next to each other).

May 8, 2018 at 3:23 PM ·

I'm hoping the some of this new land will be used for park maintenance sheds, office and employee parking, opening up some space for existing parks expansion. Keeping the intimacy factor for a while.

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