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.Yesterday, I wrote about the
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.Tweet
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