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.
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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