Will Covid-19 Affect the Design of Universal's New Theme Park?

April 23, 2020, 5:33 PM · Yesterday, I wrote about the operational challenges facing theme parks as they look for ways to conform to potential new rules and conventions for protecting the health of their guests and employees once they reopen. Demands for social distancing and new hygiene standards might force Disneyland, Universal Studios and other theme parks to make a wide range of changes, including the expansion of virtual queues, new loading procedures for attractions and even new floor plans for restaurants and shops.

As parks consider what changes they might have to make to reopen, one question they cannot yet answer is how long they will need to keep these changes in place. The fastest that a major new vaccine has been discovered, tested and approved in the United States was four years for the mumps vaccine. We never did get a vaccine for the previous two coronaviruses to kill people, SARS and MERS, though the relatively swift dissipation of those epidemics eliminated the immediate need. Scientists have made developing a Covid-19 vaccine the top research priority in the world right now, but no one can reasonably estimate when we might have a vaccine available to help get us to the herd-immunity level that would allow us to abandon other countermeasures for this disease.

So we might be keep practicing some form of social distancing for a while now.

For existing parks, it's just a matter of doing whatever needs to be done, as quickly and inexpensively as possible, to get the parks open again. If this drags on into 2021, then maybe parks can budget for more long-lasting changes, depending upon the money they might have available to pay for that. But for new parks and attractions, this challenge forces what could become a much more substantial redesign. Why bother proceeding with a plan designed for the old ways, if the old ways are not coming back anytime soon?

Case in point: Universal's Epic Universe, the new Universal Orlando theme park now under construction across the street from the Orange County Convention Center. Universal has said that the park remains on schedule for a 2023 opening and Universal Creative designers are working on the park even as the resort is closed, while construction crews continue with site prep. But the 2023 that Universal envisioned when it announced Epic Universe last year will not be anything like the 2023 that will greet the new park, especially if we do not have a vaccine with widespread deployment by then.

So how much does Universal need to change its Epic Universe plans? That is literally the multi-million dollar question for Universal Creative right now.

Epic Universe has been conceived to be the ultimate in modern theme park design, with four separate and immersive single-IP lands, connected by a central neighborhood of shops and restaurants surrounding elaborate water features. Initial concept art shows a variety of high-end design, making this park a serious challenger for the title of the world's best.

But that effort to establish Universal as a — if not the — creative leader in theme park design will be for naught if the park is forced to open with jury-rigged queues and loading areas. Yet Universal also does not want to mark its fancy new park as a relic of the early 2020s, should we be able to move beyond the social distancing of this moment. Designing a theme park always demands balance — between capacity and intimacy, immersion and budget, and the needs of casual and dedicated fans. This crisis provides another challenge, to balance the needs of an especially demanding moment with a desire to craft something enduring.

Again, I urge readers not to fall into a trap of seeing this simply as a question of complying with whatever a particular state government might require. Obviously, designers must consider and comply with all local regulations. But great designers cannot stop there. The theme parks of 2023 and beyond must help the people who lived through Covid-19 and its quarantines to feel comfortable in a social space. Otherwise, people will take their money to destinations that deliver that sense of comfort.

This pandemic might change people's sense of what is comfortable. It certainly is changing their ability to pay for that comfort, which also must factor into Universal's designs for Epic Universe. Universal undoubtedly walked into this project with price points in mind and expectations for the level of guest spending that this park could elicit. But those expectations rested upon observations about a marketplace that had not been devastated by a pandemic.

Universal might need to change its expectations about what Epic Universe can deliver, at least initially. But that need does not require Universal to "design-down" its new crown jewel. Again, we face the question of balance — of balancing the need to be successful when launching in the aftermath of a global economic downturn (that we might still be experiencing three years from now) versus the longer-term financial potential of a top-quality theme park.

The good news is that Universal is not punting these question, leaving them for another day. It did not furlough everyone at Universal Creative and instead chose to invest in keeping its designers on the payroll and at work addressing the immediate and long-term needs of the Universal Orlando Resort. In three years, if all stays on schedule, we shall see their answers and the results of their work.

Replies (13)

April 23, 2020 at 6:09 PM

And in an environment where thousands of Universal, Sea World and Disney cast members are awash in painful uncertainty, let's engage in another exercise of conjecture.

Yeah ... That's healthy.

April 23, 2020 at 6:42 PM

Well, it's the answers to these questions that will determine whether all those theme park employees will be getting their jobs back, so yeah, I think that's worth thinking about.

April 23, 2020 at 7:17 PM

Every blogger is offering up their "insight". Every blogger is spinning out what "they" are saying. I live with furloughed CMs. NOT former CMs. They juggle the emotions that come with the BS twenty-five cent claims that "there will be no parades" or "they will reduce capacity". All without explaining who "they" are. There are lives and families involved. If a jackass Disney hater like OT chimes in and claims Robert Iger has stolen a billion bucks and moved to Brazil people will believe it and share that content.

And right now, the worst part of this crisis is uncertainty ... Also regarded as "fear itself."

April 23, 2020 at 7:46 PM

I think by the time epic universe will be ready one of two things will have happened:

1. The threat of Corona will have dissipated, by improvements in treatment and/or vaccines that it’s no longer the threat to the health system it was

2. As social animals we’ll have gotten so sick of the restrictions we’ll have simply accepted the risk.

I believe the first is the better, and more likely of the two.

April 23, 2020 at 9:35 PM

We are a full three years away from park opening (at least). While it will take some time for mass rollout of a vaccine, I highly doubt that this will still be a problem by then. If the time comes and this hasn't been solved, then we'll have bigger problems that extend way beyond theme park operations/design.

April 23, 2020 at 10:39 PM

I have to agree, trying to plan this park for a situation that (hopefully) is long over in three or four years is pretty short-sighted. Now maybe Universal preps a bit in case of another bad situation but they shouldn't be acting like this is going to be a major concern in 2024.

April 23, 2020 at 11:27 PM

Some very big assumptions are certainly being made here based on a very limited data set. While a majority of the population feels it's right to be careful right now, I also feel that a majority won't have significant reservations about returning to something very similar to the previous normal once the virus is not a serious threat. Seeing how many are perfectly willing to be out and about right now further reinforces this, and if over the next few months it starts to look unlikely we'll be able to sufficiently guard against the virus in the near term, most will probably start treating it like the flu and go about lives as normal. It has become increasingly clear that very little is actually known, which makes it increasingly clear that any sort of long term planning at the moment is seriously risky.

As for Epic Universe, if any change to it is likely to come out of the COVID-19 situation, it would be that due to lack of disposable income the market can no longer support the park, resulting in a postponement and/or cancellation.

April 24, 2020 at 9:49 AM

I think the bigger question is how scaled back will this park be from original plans, given huge financial losses.

April 24, 2020 at 10:49 AM

@TH - I'm sorry to hear the CM furloughs hit so close to home, but I don't understand your disdain at theme park websites and blogs speculating at what the business climate and guest experience might look like when we emerge from this crisis. In fact, you've looked ahead in previous comments at what the theme park experience might be like, so it seems a bit hypocritical to seem so dismissive of this thought exercise.

In the end, this is a theme park website, and with virtually every park in the world shuttered right now, the opportunities for content and discussion are pretty limited. What others choose to do with comments posted in forums is completely out of Robert's control, but I don't see why others linking or highlighting statements from "anonymous" posters here have any more credibility than a ridiculous post on a Disney or Universal fan forum.

When it comes to the future of theme parks, I don't think you'll see any major changes in their design. There may be some tweaks to Epic Universe, but I think from a conceptual standpoint, Universal was already planning to alter the fundamental design of a theme park with EU anyway, so what may be perceived as significant modifications in reaction to the virus are really just ways UC were planning to change the way guests navigate around a theme park.

Making changes to the design of a developing theme park based on the properties and spread of the coronavirus would be silly since future viruses may spread and infect humans in a completely different way than the current contagion. Theme parks by their nature gather people in large groups just like stadiums, theaters, amphitheaters, malls, etc..., so unless developers believe that any human gathering will result in our extinction, theme parks will not change their fundamental designs. However, where we're likely to see the most significant changes will be in operations, which will more or less piggyback on what societal changes and behaviors that will need to be done to quickly identify, track, and slow the spread of future viruses. This may include random testing, constant sanitizing (though I feel that doing so makes us more susceptible to bacteria), and health campaigns to educate guests about hygiene and PPE.

April 24, 2020 at 11:04 AM

@WS raises a great point. We have all seen how parks have these fantastic early concepts only to hit the reality of budgets and other issues. You can build three parks out of nothing but the fantastic early versions of Disney/Universal attractions we never got because of such turns. Given how shaky things are with both companies and it'll be a long time before they get back to early 2020 levels, I sadly expect the real Universe to be less Epic than planned.

April 24, 2020 at 11:56 PM

Actually. With the different lands they you can access on an independent basis, it seems like universal lucked into a covid modification already. It has many more entries and exits, than virtually any other park. Also. If someone only wants to visit one or 2 of the lands, they will pass by less people than almost any other park with this many visitors.

April 25, 2020 at 2:09 AM

I'm not sure I agree with a number of you that this project will suffer budget cuts due to COVID. We're still 3 years out from opening, and it's very possible the rebound has started or is well underway by the time this opens and Universal will be anticipating big demand. Comcast is probably one of only 2 park owners in the world who can afford to invest now with an eye towards the future.

While the park is being built, labor costs will be depressed- in particular in the construction industry which, while not the most directly impacted industry by social distancing, will slow down immensely with the overall economy. Similarly, the ride developers/fabricator companies will all be begging for Universal's work as the rest of the industry completely dries up for a while.

There's a lot we don't know about Universal's financial approach to Epic Universe and while it's possible there will be cuts, we just don't know, so I'm remaining optimistic for now. I'm sure that 3 or 4 years from know we'll be on here pointing out missing missing pieces from the concept art and sharing insider stories of attractions that never came to be. That's always the case for every new theme park, so we may never get a good sense of what COVID specifically did or didn't impact.

April 27, 2020 at 9:49 AM

Bigger parks, like Efteling, with attractions, shops and restaurants more spread in the middle of trees, lakes and nature.
Virtual queues.
Restaurants with outside tables.
To keep the same number of attractions, restaurants and shops Epic Universe should double it size.

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