Universal's Epic Universe changes the game for attraction design

August 2, 2019, 2:08 PM · Universal's Epic Universe represents a new vision for theme park design. When it opens (whenever that is), Universal Orlando's new theme park will complete a change in approach toward themed entertainment attractions that Universal Creative initiated when it opened The Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Islands of Adventure in 2010 and perfected with the debut of The Wizarding World of Harry Potter - Diagon Alley at Universal Studios Florida in 2014.

Universal executives disappointed many attentive theme park fans when they chose not to reveal an attraction line-up for Epic Universe when company and elected officials formally announced the park at the Orange County Convention Center yesterday. But the concept art that Universal released at the event provides enough clues to suggest that the new park will follow a template not yet seen at any major theme park in the United States.

Universal's Epic Universe
Concept art courtesy Universal. Click to embiggen.

You can see the high resolution version of Universal's Epic Universe concept art by clicking the image above. The main entrance to the park appears to be at the lower left, where you can see a reproduction of the entry arches familiar to visitors of other Universal Studios theme parks. The far side of the park appears to be dominated by a large hotel that evoke the Universal Studios-branded hotel announced for the upcoming Universal Studios Beijing.

In between, Epic Universe dispenses with theme parks' traditional hub-and-spoke and lake promenade design structures in favor of building the park around three sequential circles, with water elements filling the middle of each. The first "circle," at the park's main entry, is a bit... rough, but offers what likely will be shopping and dining accessed from covered promenades and open plazas.

But what struck me first about Epic Universe's design is that none of its lands connects with each other. You must return to the central circles to go from one land to another. Not only that, but several lands include walls around their perimeter, completely blocking views from outside the land.

Even traditional hub-and-spoke designs, such as Disneyland's, usually offer some outer rim that allows you to walk from land to land without having to return to the hub. Epic Universe does not. This isolates each land, casting each as a self-contained thematic world.

And the Epic Universe concept art further suggests that each of these lands will be themed to a single IP. The color palette and architectural style is consistent within each depicted land, suggesting a coherence in theme not typically found in lands that collect multiple IP.

Imagine it. For the first time in a major American theme park, we have a design where each land reflects a single, immersive IP. The TL;DR? Universal's Epic Universe is a park of nothing but Diagon Alleys. It is theme park design taken to 11.

Universal and rival Disney have been heading in this direction since the opening of the first Wizarding World, with Disney countering with its own single IP lands: Cars Land, Pandora: The World of Avatar, Toy Story Land, and now Star Wars: Galaxy's Edge. But each of those lands went into existing theme parks that were built around more loosely defined lands. As such, the single-IP lands stood out for their different approach.

By starting from scratch with a new park, Universal Creative finally can give us a theme park unburdened by design conventions of the past. Outside of the United States, Thinkwell delivered an implementation of this design approach with its Warner Bros. World Abu Dhabi, an indoor theme park devoted to Warner Bros.' animation franchises that organized its lands around individual IPs.

Warner Bros. World doesn't quite complete that vision, as Dynamite Gulch dilutes its Roadrunner theme with the inclusion of rides themed to Marvin the Martian and The Jetsons. (The "Area 51-and-a-half" explanation is a nice touch, though - see link above.) In addition, while Cartoon Junction offers a brilliant story to bring together several Looney Tunes franchises, it does not recreate an established location within the canon. Though, to be fair, we cannot be certain that Universal Creative won't also pull a Batuu and invent some new locations within its Epic Universe.

Universal's concept art includes two and possibly three obvious expansion pads, giving Universal Creative the flexibility to make additions that might fundamentally alter the design approach suggested by this first public version of its concept. And one of the reasons why Universe did not reveal an attraction line-up for the park yesterday might be that such a line-up is not yet available. We will dive deeper this weekend into the timing of Epic Universe's development, but I would not be surprised that design work for the park remains ongoing. With so much site preparation still to be done, this park isn't something that Universal is going to take vertical tomorrow in a mad dash to swift completion, like its eye-opening Transformers construction in Universal Studios Florida a few years back.

So, as is always the case when analyzing theme park concept art, things can change. But, for now, this concept art should give theme park fans hope that Universal Orlando's new theme park not only will be epic... it just might be revolutionary.

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Replies (16)

August 2, 2019 at 2:25 PM

So I wonder, will there only be one ticket option to visit all of the separately-gated lands in Epic Universe, or will there be options to visit individual lands at a reduced price? Or three for the price of two? BOGO?

JK on those last few suggestions, but the model does open up the possibility of separately-ticketed lands.

August 2, 2019 at 2:57 PM

I respectfully disagree with your analysis. The Nintendo land will likely be home to a wide variety of Nintendo characters that don't technically live in the same worlds when it comes to their "home" games. Likewise the Universal monsters land is a broad brush land that encapsulates characters from several different films. These lands will have more in common with Pixar Pier or Fantasyland than they will with Diagon Alley.

August 2, 2019 at 3:16 PM

Fantastic !!!! Can't wait ...

What is the contruction timeline for this.

August 2, 2019 at 3:22 PM

AngryDuck I see your point about the Nintendo World area of the park, but as for the Universal Monsters area- do we even know if this is going to be a part of the park or are we speculating? I'm asking from a place of genuine ignorance and not sarcasm. I wasn't sure if I missed an announcement or press release about this.

August 2, 2019 at 3:26 PM

So I welcome the development of a 3rd Universal park (I’m afraid I really don’t count Volcano Bay as a theme park - it’s a nice water park. Not the same thing). Universal has shown that they are determined to develop cutting-edge attractions that are genuinely exciting, ground-breaking, immersive, entertaining and thrilling and if by a miracle I get over there again after it opens (I’m kind of expecting my 2020 trip to be my last) i know I would thoroughly enjoy experiencing it.

And yet, I’m not sure about this design. This feels less like a theme park and more like a mall with lots of doors. Stepping into any of those doors is a kind of commitment whereas one of the things I really enjoy about theme parks is the sense of being able to ‘graze’ or ‘browse’ across attractions. I enjoy an immersive environment but Nintendo for example isn’t an IP that holds any interest for me so whilst I’d no doubt want to ride a thrilling and clever coaster attraction I am not sure I want to immerse myself in a universe that means nothing to me...

Time will tell whether this is the future of theme parks or just a brave experiment. Either way it will be worth seeing but I’d hate to think that all theme parks would have to follow this design. If it ain’t broke it doesn’t have to be fixed....

August 2, 2019 at 3:57 PM

Sounds very promising. I don`t want to quibble, but also sounds like a LOT of walking, even by theme park standards.

One of the things I love about hub-and-spoke designed parks is that it`s so easy to go from one land to the other.

August 2, 2019 at 4:02 PM

Personally, I like the look of this layout. One of the only things I don’t like about IOA is that you can’t get to Jurassic Park without walking thru at least two other lands. With this layout, if I want to go straight to classic monsters (fingers crossed that’s what’s really in the upper left...) I don’t have to walk thru Nintendo to do it. And I could go from there right to the DreamWorks dragon section without having to go thru Fantastic Beasts if I didn’t want to. I don’t consider this diminishing the theme park experience, I think it actually might enhance it.

August 2, 2019 at 4:32 PM

@fattyackin it hasn't been announced but has been strongly rumored around the internet for a bit. Either way I'm excited to see what comes of this whole project.

August 2, 2019 at 4:39 PM

It looks from the art there might be some non- IP based attractions in the hub which looks like it’ll have a Roman astrolabe theme.

IOA and Shanghai Disneyland opened with about a dozen rides I could see 2 or 3 rides in each of the five areas.

August 2, 2019 at 5:18 PM

Are Fantastic Beasts and How to Train Your Dragon really IPs you want to rely on to anchor a park of this scale and magnitude? History suggests that maybe it doesn't matter. Pandora at DAK, for instance, is a perfect example of using an IP that wasn't exactly full-steam ahead aboard the hype train when the land opened, yet Disney proved that when you put enough attention (and $) into theming and attractions, the results will be there. Now, what remains to be seen is whether Universal can pull off designing lands and attractions on-par with Pandora and Flight of Passage at scale across its new park. The technology is out there, and Universal seems to be pushing all its chips to the center of the table, so I believe the final outcome will be something absolutely unprecedented, regardless of the IPs involved.

August 2, 2019 at 6:16 PM

As I look at this more and more, it's starting to feel less like a theme park and more like an entertainment center. The way everything is laid out, you've got individual areas with tons and tons of detail, yet in the middle is lots of generic space with little to tie the areas together in any way. It's sort of like the Las Vegas strip...you've got different hotels, each with distinct themes, but little in common beyond being hotels. I'm sure each of the distinct worlds will be excellent, but as an overall park I've got a feeling this one may come up a bit short.

I also could see this being a disaster if tickets aren't all-inclusive. Sure, it might be nice to pay less and only visit the areas you care about, but it could lead to huge crowd imbalance issues with no easy way to relieve stresses on one section.

August 2, 2019 at 7:23 PM

There is no way this new park isn’t all inclusive inside the gates. I suspect there will be a separate shopping/restaurant/entertainment area that you pass through to get to the park gates much like what exists already at US and IoA, but there isn’t going to be a separate ticket for each of the areas.

A Fantastic Beasts area may well be the best of the Wizarding Worlds. Compare the theming of Hogsmeade to that of Diagon Alley. Diagon Alley is more immersive that Hogsmeade. A third Wizarding World area is only going to be improved.

But the real story of this new park will be the Nintendo area. All Nintendo characters already exist in the same world in the form of Super Smash Bros., so putting Link & Zelda along side Mario & Luigi won’t be a stretch. There is a video (link below) of a new ride system that looks like it’s can be used for a Mario Kart ride or a Donkey Kart mine cart ride, and it looks incredible. I guess we will see what the rides will look like when the Nintendo world opens in Japan in 2020.


August 4, 2019 at 6:56 PM

I have some thoughts about the new approach to theme park design after seeing Galaxy's Edge in person. The detail is extreme, maybe even too extreme. I think Disney was trying to copy Harry Potter in trying to make a single location (Batuu vs. Diagon Alley) and making it immersive (no Coke in Harry Potter, no Star Wars branded merchandise in GE).

I heard a young person say that GE looks like a poor place. I agree, they made it with a gritty realism that looks like an otherworldly ghetto. I understand that they wanted to make it realistic, but it's not Disney. I think it was Rolly Crump who said that the architecture in Disneyland 'hugs you', GE does not hug you, it makes you feel you are in a third world country. Even the land speeder is aged so it looks like junk instead of a working landspeeder. Other details like droids are also hung out like junk.

I think they could have dialed down the detail to maybe 80 percent. I feel like the detail in the Indiana Jones Temple of the Forbidden Eye is the right amount of detail. GE is hyper realistic, but Disney is fantasy, I feel no fantasy here, there should be a happy medium.

Also I feel like the decision to make it one location was a mistake. It could have been an amalgamation of planets. The new approach is one IP, cohesive theme, but I think GE could have been improved by mixing it up.

If you put Tatooine next to Hoth, yes it's not totally cohesive, but if you had a ride through Jabba's Palace next to an awesome Snowspeeder ride, people would forgive the lack of cohesiveness. The idea that Batuu has to make total sense as a real place is limiting, in my opinion. It may work in Diagon Alley, but Batuu is not as interesting as Diagon Alley, again in my opinion. But then again, maybe I should just wait til the Rise of the Resistance opens before making a premature judgement.

I think one of the reasons GE hasn't attracted the expected crowds is lack of feeling of traditional Star Wars (read original trilogy characters). On my visit, I also rode Hyperspace Mountain and Star Tours, each ended with some people cheering. They end with a feeling of exhilaration. When I rode Millennium Falcon in GE, you feel kind of overwhelmed because of the chaotic and unfamiliar situation and that you crashed so much. It was not a feeling of exhilaration. Even with a lack of immersive detail, Hyperspace Mountain and Star Tours both still feel more like Star Wars than the Millennium Falcon ride, even though you are 'on' the Millennium Falcon.

I think other reasons for the smaller crowds are passholder blockouts, and delay of the Rise of the Resistance attraction. I think if passholders were not blocked the park would have had their normal big crowds. But Disney blocked them out to leave room for day visitors who probably delayed their visit until RotR opens. Ironically, it was like the disappointing DCA opening, but for different reasons.

August 2, 2019 at 7:45 PM

It looks to me as if the three lakes are all inside the Universal entrance. I would imagine that to get through the entrance, you need a ticket.

I see the middle area as sort of an EPCOT-type area, with walk through exhibits (with stores), restaurants, and of course, some kind of night time parade or water-centric shows.

I do believe you'll need a ticket to enter the middle area with all the lakes/ponds, and therefore, each land will not be ticketed separately.

Furthermore, I expect an entirely separate CityWalk-type area that IS accessible to us Muggles.

August 5, 2019 at 9:38 AM

Oh.. wait.
I cannot see "no hub", because what I see is that the hub became oversized, and the lands are still periferal around that hub...
It's like "blow up Main Street in oversized version".
I cannot see a radical rupture with the classic master plan design, there.

But, due to size of the main mall structure with gardens-fountains, and the 'official' status demanding pavillions (without a specific theme) dropped in there, this reminds me in the first place of the many layouts of pre-WW2 World Fair events. (up to/ including the 1958 World Fair)

WE 1898
Classic structure :
The very large central mall-hub has no theme, but represents with pomp-&-circumstance the "host city/country" with formal park, much water pieces and landmark pavillions without any nessessary use. At the end of that park-mall, the "big structure" which usually was the main fair hall in which small participants could rent out space. This is filled in here with the hotel structure, but sits on exactly that position of world fair plans.
Around, the mall is giving access to participating countries/ industrial corporations who build their individual pavillions, always with one entrance only. In this case: the non interconnected lands around.
In other words, the old masterplan structure of the late 19th , early 20th century is back ?
(Having massive documentation into the history and development of leisure parks, this typology instantly popped up in my mind)


August 7, 2019 at 1:03 PM

"It looks to me as if the three lakes are all inside the Universal entrance. I would imagine that to get through the entrance, you need a ticket."

Perhaps that the security perimeter, and once inside, guests can explore the hub for free. However, in order to explore the individual lands, guests would need to present tickets. Everything has become an upcharge these days, and I can definitely see that philosophy in the general design of this conceptualization. Just like the Hogwart's Express, where UC essentially charges a premium for a single ride, Universal could get guests in the door, and then present them the choice to hang around the free retail hub, and then purchase tickets to explore the individual lands.

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