Who will visit Epic Universe and how will they get there?

August 5, 2019, 10:52 PM · Universal Orlando officials left plenty of questions unanswered when they announced the new Universal's Epic Universe theme park in Orlando last week. We've already looked at the questions of what attractions will be in Epic Universe as well as when Epic Universe will open. Now, let's tackle two more: Who will visit Epic Universe? And how will they get there?

Frequent visitors to Theme Park Insider might remember my podcast last year with designer Dave Cobb, in which he talked about how it's a lot easier to justify building new parks in markets with rapidly growing middle classes, as opposed to the United States' more mature economy, where middle class stagnation over the past generation means that new attractions have to fight to claw customers from established destinations.

Since America isn't creating a bunch of new middle class families with money to spend to support Universal's new theme park, that means Universal Orlando will need to find other sources for market share. In my upcoming newspaper column this week, I suggest some of the potential winners and losers from Epic Universe. Universal would not make what it is calling its biggest-ever investment in Florida just to cannibalize its own business. Universal is expanding onto a South Campus and building Epic Universe because it wants more of its visitors to make the Universal Orlando Resort their "home base" for an Orlando vacation, rather than just being a side trip from Disney. But Universal needs another gate to get to that critical mass.

As much as Universal would like to take business from Walt Disney World, I would not dare bet against Disney given its recent track record across all businesses. I suspect that Universal will find more success getting some Disney fans to plan separate Universal vacations than it will convincing anyone to skip a Disney trip.

Universal might grab a few visitors from SeaWorld, but I think it's already taken most of what it can from that park. Ultimately, while I suspect that Universal will help fill Epic Universe by getting some current Orlando visitors to stay longer, the real growth potential lies in enticing more people — especially from out of the country — to visit the Orlando area. (Which, ultimately, helps Disney, too. See?)

International travel to the United States has been slowing, but a strong marketing effort from Universal, coupled with a new terminal at the Orlando International Airport, can help Orlando defy that trend. If Universal can create a unique experience with Epic Universe — a collection of immersive, single-IP lands with competitive on-site hotels and compelling amenities, it could bring a new audience of theme parks fans to Central Florida.

In fact, it will need to.

Universal Orlando campus map

But once all those visitors get to Orlando, how will they get to Epic Universe? Fans have been wondering how Universal would connect its campuses ever since news first leaked that Universal was buying property around the convention center. Walt Disney World's theme parks might stand farther from each other than Epic Universe and Islands of Adventure will, but Disney contains all its parks within a common property, linked by Disney's own roads, buses, and other transportation systems.

People traveling between the existing Universal Orlando theme parks and Epic Universe will be leaving Universal property, however. This creates an extra incentive for Universal to provide its own transportation systems, to keep its visitors within its "bubble." Universal is spending $160 million to help Orange County expand Kirkman Road to Universal Boulevard to help serve this new campus, and it is expected that the deal includes dedicated bus lanes for exclusive use by Universal. But the Epic Universe project site plan includes a surface parking lot with 5,000 spaces, so there's clearly an expectation that a lot of private vehicles will be driving to the park.

During the press conference, Universal Parks Chairman Tom Williams fielded a question about the oft-proposed high-speed rail line from the Orlando International Airport to Tampa. Williams repeated Universal's long-stated opinion that such a line should include a stop at the Orange County Convention Center — which also would serve Universal's new campus and International Drive — before continuing to Disney and then Tampa. Disney has long insisted that the line go directly from the airport to its property, skipping I-Drive. (Florida's previous governor rejected federal funding for the project, effectively killing it and making this question moot... for now.)

The new Orlando terminal includes a rail depot that could connect a future Tampa rail line with the Virgin Trains USA line now under construction to the Miami area, as well as possibly to Orlando's SunRail commuter line. If ever again both Florida and the federal government got administrations that supported major mass transit programs, perhaps the Orlando-to-Tampa line could become reality. But the question would remain whether Universal gets a station on that line or not. One way or another, if Epic Universe ever gets a nearby rail station, it will be many years before that's open to passengers.

Any other transportation options for Epic Universe remain conjecture at this point. So, for now, when Epic Universe opens (whenever that is) its visitors (whoever they are) will be arriving on site by bus or by car.

Replies (14)

August 5, 2019 at 11:07 PM

Oh I don’t know about them not stealing guests from Disney. They will be stealing my family from Disney when this opens! Way more excited about this than anything Disney has announced.

August 6, 2019 at 12:02 AM

Goal remains the same as always- not to simply carve a larger slice out of the existing pie but to make that pie larger. Was the goal in the late nineties when both Disney's Animal Kingdom and Universal's Islands of Adventure opened, and the proverbial pie did indeed grow- exponentially. Disney, Universal and everyone else in the industry are well aware that all the players stand to benefit from major new draws being introduced into the market. Consecutive years of record visitor numbers for both the Central Florida/Orlando area and the State of Florida prove the industry is correct in continuing in this shared goal for their mutual benefit.

August 6, 2019 at 1:14 AM

While i'm all for Virgin Trains having a stop at the convention center, like I said in the other topic, I highly doubt its going to do much to alleviate traffic around the tourist district in Orlando for the following reasons.

1. Are the people staying at WDW really going to take a bus to the rail station on WDW property, get off the bus, get on a train that goes to I-drive, then get on another bus at the convention center to go to UO? And they are going to buy 4 train tickets for that? No way, they are going to uber or rent a car.

2. Are the people staying at UO really going to take a bus to the rail station at the convention center, get on the train to WDW, then take another bus at WDW to wherever they are trying to go? Are they going to buy 4 rail tickets to do that? No way, they are going to uber or rent a car.

3. Orlando has tons of hotels all over the place that are not affiliated with Disney, UO, or next to the convention center. How are these people going to take Virgin Trains to and from their room? There are 3 ways they can get to the parks: uber, rent a car, or take the dreaded hotel shuttle that doesn't run often and drops you off at some random place on property and says take Disney/Universal transportation to actually get wherever you are trying to go.

Because of the way Orlando is developed rail sadly is just not a practical solution to fix the traffic woes. Just look at Disney Springs if you want to see BRT transit done right...that place had horrific traffic before and now rarely ever has any traffic at all. There needs to be a substantial investment in bus rapid transport lanes all over the tourist areas of Orlando with significantly more buses to address these problems. Unfortunately (though predictably) I4 opted for Lexus Lanes instead of BRT lanes.

August 6, 2019 at 6:45 AM

When Disney transformed their vacation in a stressful planning orgy I dropped the mouse. I always switched the park resort each year but they have lost me for now.
Transportation wise there has never been a problem to get to the parks otherwise they would be empty but a train would serve as another option. Between Universal's campuses there will be a dedicated bus lane so I expect fast travel.

I think Universal brought new theme park fans to Orlando with Harry Potter and I think Nintendo will do the same for them. Those 2 fan groups spend a lot of money to be in their favourit world and experience new and exciting things like rides, food and merchandise.
Unfortunately Disney made a ton of bad decisions with Star Wars alienating the hard core fans, from declaring most things non canon to the films and creating a theme park land that is not recognizable. It could have added new theme parks goers but Disneyland clearly showed it didn't move the needle.

August 6, 2019 at 8:50 AM

High speed rail to Tampa will never become a reality as long as the mucky mucks in that city insist that the train terminate at the city's downtown station and not at the airport.

Not terminating the line at the airport is a recipe for an economic disaster, and Virgin/Brightline management knows the reality of the situation. It was one of the reasons that Governor Scott killed the high speed rail project eight years ago.

August 6, 2019 at 11:57 AM

I will visit Universal's Epic Universe...

August 6, 2019 at 12:22 PM

It depends on Price of AP's & tickets to all their parks. Disney already lost me to Universal, I can buy an AP for less than a 3 day ticket to Disney. It's also less stressful and therefore more fun!
If they start approaching Disney prices then i'm on to new vacation destinations.

August 6, 2019 at 12:59 PM

I'm like a 5 year old on Christmas. I can't wait for Epic Universe, Tron, GOTG, Galaxy's Edge, new Jurassic coaster, Gwazi RMC and new coaster at Sea World. I am going on 30 years living here in Orlando and what the pipeline holds for all the Central Florida parks is beyond exciting and the most explosive ever. It's a great time to be a theme park fan!

August 6, 2019 at 1:20 PM

lol at OT's comment! I completely agree though that Universal will steel away from Disney cause they already have. We haven't been to Disney in 10 years and have no plans on ever going back. Its just not fun to plan 6 months out so Universal will get even more money from us when this park opens cause will now spend even more time at Universal.

If Disney decreases a lot with this new park it might make it bearable to go back since the line ups won't be extreme on everything but I doubt it. No matter what Universal does Disney will remain king and I think they will actually increase with this new park so probably no chance will ever go back!

August 6, 2019 at 1:53 PM

Just to add some balance to this thread...

My wife and I enjoy both Disney and Universal. But the fact that we have booked 3 nights at Universal next autumn (2020) and 14 nights at Disney tells you everything you need to know about how we judge the relative merits of the two offerings. A third theme park at Universal would be welcome and might tempt us to an additional day but we always find we tire of Universal quickly whereas Disney seems to maintain its appeal over far longer....

August 6, 2019 at 2:10 PM

I will get there by turning my "Epic Antennae" on to maximum and the strength of the resultant "Anticipation & Excitement Buzz" will lead me straight to it. Epic!

August 6, 2019 at 2:29 PM

I would have thought Orlando would have been perfect for Hop-On Hop-Off light rail. That would allow all the tourist areas in orlando proper to have a nice fast but frequent circular service (I drive, Universal Blvd, etc) as well as an extension to the airport that can run at a decent speed.

August 6, 2019 at 3:18 PM

As Disney is attempting to achieve a higher-end boutique clientele, I can see more and more families opting to stay at the Universal Hotels which are more affordable. If they can keep the value high and costs lower than Disney, they may--through market forces alone--inherit many families.

August 7, 2019 at 12:58 PM

@Will - My first thought is that Universal is actually trying to target a more upscale guest with this new park. By having to go in and out of a central hub, it indicates to me that they may be targeting more hard-core type fans that are willing to spend more money to further their obsession with their favorite franchises. Placing the main hotel just steps away from the hub (perhaps even closer than HRH is from USF) indicates that perhaps UC might be swinging for the fences. They can still cater to the value-conscious guests with their Endless Summer resorts, but everything about this project screams luxury and upscale to me. There's always been discussion that UC really wanted to build a Hogwart's Hotel behind WWoHP, and to make both lands part of a separately ticketed gate (they kind of achieved that by forcing guests to purchase park to park tickets to experience the Hogwart's Express). Epic Universe allows UC the ability to really up the ante with a park that's built entirely from the ground up with the upscale market in mind.

Disney has already discovered that's where the real money is, and I think Universal recognizes that too, and would not cater to the lowest common denominator simply because they were scared of WDW. As Robert noted, Universal doesn't want to cannibalize their existing parks, and it appears this project is not being done on the cheap, so the only way to make it work financially is to guarantee a steady influx of big spenders that want to be fully immersed with their favorite worlds. It's altogether possible that Universal may even create a ticketing system where guests pay for individual admissions to the lands (or an all-inclusive multi-day pass) allowing them to just pay for the worlds they want to explore.

There are definitely a lot of possibilities here, but everything I've seen leads me to believe they are going for free spending guests, not those that currently go to Universal because it's cheaper than WDW.

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