Tracking the evolution of Universal Studios' theme park designs

October 12, 2019, 4:46 PM · The latest concept art for Universal Studios Beijing provides another example of how Universal's approach to theme park design has evolved over the past three decades.

Universal actively designed its first theme park with Universal Studios Florida, which opened in 1990. If that fact stops you, remember that although the park now known as Universal Studios Hollywood welcomed guests in 1964 as the Universal Studios Tour, that location evolved around the tour experience over the next 30 years, adding attractions in a piecemeal fashion until the opening of the Lower Lot in 1991. In fact, the Hollywood park didn't start consistently using the "Universal Studios Hollywood" name instead of Universal Studios Tour until after its Florida sibling opened and Universal management decided that the two properties should use parallel names.

Although it was designed as a theme park, Universal Studios Florida also included studio production facilities so that the "Studios" in the name wouldn't just be branding. But the majority of the park was designed as a walkable version of the Hollywood tour, with signature experiences from that tour expanded as stand-alone attractions: Kongfrontation, Earthquake, Jaws. Behind-the-scenes productions such as Alfred Hitchcock and Murder She Wrote completed the experience. The only actual tour in Florida was a short-lived walk though the production facilities, which soon became a showcase for Nickelodeon after that network rented the space.

Throughout the park, the unifying theme was "Hollywood," from recreations of famous Southern California landmarks to New York, San Francisco, and New England streets designed to look like reproductions on a Hollywood backlot rather than the locations themselves.

But by the time Universal opened Islands of Adventure in 1999, the company's designers had switched direction. The studio theme was gone. Nothing was intended to be a Hollywood backlot recreation. Instead, Universal removed the middleman, if you will, designing a collection of themed lands just intended to be those locations.

In a first for a major theme park, three of the lands were themed to single IP franchises: Jurassic Park, Marvel Super Hero Island, and Seuss Landing. Years later, a fourth would join in The Wizarding World of Harry Potter. Universal had created a new iteration of the template for theme park design, which previously had been organized around much looser themes for parks' lands, if parks bothered with themed lands at all.

Two years later, with Universal Studios Japan in Osaka, Universal returned to template it had used first in Orlando at Universal Studios Florida. This time, however, the "Studios" was just branding, as the park was designed primarily as a tourist destination rather than as a tourism/production hybrid. But the park retained a design look of a production facility, with show buildings crafted to look like soundstages.

Ten years after that, with Universal Studios Singapore, the company stepped back toward the Islands of Adventure design. Yes, this was still branded as a "Studios" park, but Singapore offered four single-IP lands that straight out of the IOA template, with its Madagascar, Shrek, Jurassic Park, and Mummy lands. Nothing in the park was designed to be a movie production studio.

Your experiences in this park were designed to be within the worlds of each franchise... and not within the production experience of those franchises. The "studios" theme park was dead.

And this brings us to Universal's latest theme park designs, for Universal Studios Beijing and Universal's Epic Universe — the fourth gate at the Universal Orlando Resort. The differences between the original art and this week's new concept art for the Beijing park, which opens in 2021, illustrate not just the effect of a massive increase in budget, but also the evolution of Universal's design philosophy toward theme park lands.

Here is the original concept art, from 2014:

Universal Studios Beijing 2014 concept art
All concept art courtesy Universal. Click to enlarge.

And here is the new version of the design:

Universal Studios Beijing 2019 concept art

The previous design offered a jumbled collection of the company's attractions, as is typical in early-stage concept art. There's little clear delineation between IPs and lands here. One attraction bleeds into another, and the scale seems inconsistent as you look around the central lagoon.

The new design offers much clearer definition of its lands, where we can see that each land is organized around a single IP. Shrek, Mummy, and Diagon Alley are gone now, and Jurassic Park has become Jurassic World.

Among the park's seven themed lands, The Wizarding World of Harry Potter will be a reproduction of the land that Universal has built in three other parks. Perhaps that wooded space to the right of Hogsmeade might someday welcome the Hagrid's coaster from Orlando, but I wouldn't be surprised if the land opened with the identical attraction line-up found in Hollywood and Osaka. Minion Land looks to be a plussed version of Minion Park from Universal Studios Japan. Hollywood Boulevard is a standard from the other Universal Studios theme parks, with the addition of a plussed version of the Lights! Camera! Action! from Singapore's New York land. WaterWorld is to be expanded into a land with the addition or dining and more entertainment, but the concept art just looks much like the existing mini-land from Singapore. And Transformers: Metrobase looks a lot like a retheme of Orlando's Marvel Super Hero Island, with the same Hulk coaster, spinner ride, and Transformers taking the Spider-Man slot.

That leaves just two truly original lands in the Beijing park: Kung Fu Panda Land of Awesomeness and Jurassic World Isla Nublar. Jurassic World is the literal centerpiece of this park, with its iconic Innovation Center serving as the visual weenie across the lagoon for visitors walking down the Hollywood Boulevard entryway. This Jurassic World land will have a new dark ride as its anchor, which likely will become the most anticipated new attraction in all of Universal Studios Beijing.

But the even this new concept art does not stretch Universal's design principles as much as the smaller Epic Universe, for which we saw the first concept art this summer:

Epic Universe 2019 concept art

As we've discussed before, Epic Universe changes the game for theme park design by isolating each of its single-IP lands. (Debate here if Nintendo is a single IP or collection of IPs. My answer? It can be both, just like Marvel.) You can't walk from one land directly into another in Epic Universe as you can in Beijing, Singapore, IOA or other Universal parks. You have to return to "neutral territory" of the central hub first.

It's a hub-and-spoke design without a rim. That's enticed speculation that Universal might change its business model for this park, breaking admission for each land into separate charges. (See the comments in the link above.) With opening several years away — we are guessing 2023, for what that's worth — Universal is refusing to confirm details about this park, including the IPs included. So there's zero chance we'll be hearing anything about admission prices and policies for some time.

Of course, designs can change, as they did in Beijing. But the progression from Universal Studios Florida to IOA to Universal Bejiing and now to our first glimpse of Epic Universe shows us Universal has transitioned from a theme park company that offered attractions that were subservient to a central theme of experiencing the process of movie-making to a new model that positions its parks as collections of separately themed experiences focused on enticing fans to make more direct connections with those individual franchises.

Replies (4)

October 12, 2019 at 9:00 PM

And considering how Shanghai Disneyland broke the norm of the other Disneylands/Magic Kingdom, it seems like Universal isn't the only theme park company to try new things and evolve.

Good time to be a theme park fan!

October 12, 2019 at 9:28 PM

Theme Park design has constantly evolved since the days of the classic amusement park that featured a midway lined with non-story-based rides and attractions, to the now classic Disney Hub and Spoke, and then to the circle arrangement developed by Randall Duell. When Universal Beijing opens the guests will judge if Universal Creative has improved on the principles that guide the armature design; however, the larger question is if it’s better to group rides, shows and attractions that share a similar story theme, or to build a land area dedicated to a single-story theme?

Disney has built dedicated story armatures which include Mickey’s Toontown, Toy Story Land and recently Star Wars Galaxy’s Edge, and the guests judge if these lands are worth supporting. Disney has also built dedicated lands such as Tomorrowland and Fantasyland that group similar but not connected stories. Universal parks have evolved to the Beijing design, but for the design to be successful long term two things are required.

First, the guest has to recognize and support the story theme for the land, and this lack of support is quickly self-evident. Second, the park owner and operator must continue to support the franchise brands upon which the armatures are based. The risk assumed by Universal is that the franchise brands chosen will be meaningful to the guests when the resort opens, and that Comcast Universal will continue to nurture and refresh the brands to ensure the resort will resonate decades after opening. It’s an interesting bet that’s been made.

October 13, 2019 at 2:05 PM

I like the single-IP lands that parks have done lately, but the downside is that they limit the possibilities for expansion in those areas in a way that overarching areas like Fantasyland haven't. I mean, it seems like people have been longing for something new to come to Seuss Landing for almost a decade now.

October 14, 2019 at 9:43 PM

What I like about Epic Universe is that the design represents both needs, with the lands around the edge devoted to enclosed experiences while the central hub has plenty of room for "potpourri" attractions. It's very smart that way.

Honestly, you can see Universal's design evolution as you walk through Universal Orlando. They still have some "premium amusement park" moments, such as the rock music roller coaster, but their ambition and advancement over the last couple of decades are on full display. Props to them for achieving quite a lot in a relatively short period of time, and through a dizzying variety of corporate regimes and intentions through the decades.

Globally, I suspect that Tokyo Disney Resort is "the best" integrated theme park complex on the planet. You could-today, before EU-make an argument that Universal Orlando is "the best" in North America, though.

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