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.
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.
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.
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.Tweet
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